Millions of dieters have decided to turn back the clock on their food choices -- to about 40,000 BC. Most followers of paleo diets, also known as cave man diets, refuse to eat any food that cannot be identified as its plant or animal diet, due to their conviction that human genes determine which foods are good for us and the human gene pool hasn't changed significantly since the Ice Age.
But are the basic ideas behind paleo diets grounded in good scientific evidence?
Paleo Diets Really Do Work
Hundreds of thousands or even millions of paleo diet devotees have experienced real success with their diet plans that eschew modern food. They have lost weight. They have overcome allergies and indigestion and depression and brain fog. They have found new ways to enjoy simple food.
And it's hard to stick to the no-starch, no-sweets, no-dairy prescriptions that come with most paleo-inspired diet plans.
Paleo Diets Don't Really Focus on Paleolithic Foods
Some paleo dieters express a fondness for meat, especially bacon. But as far as we know, Oscar Meyer wasn't peddling cellophane-wrapped packages of the tasty meat treat in cave people times.
Some paleo dieters express a fondness for vegetables, noting that archaeologist have found that early humans living on Ice Age savannas ate as many as 300 different species of plants on an occasional basis. But not a single one of those plants is available in the supermarket.
The simple fact is, we can't eat like our paleolithic ancestors. As few as 2,000 people inhabited the entire earth at various points in the last 300,000 years. There are not enough readily available grubs and cattail tubers to go around. Mastodons are extinct. We have to eat modern foods.
Sticking to the Paleo Diet Is a Challenge
And even advocates of paleo dieting don't really try to stick to their plan. Dr. Loren Cordain advises that up to 15% of meals, about one meal every other day, can be modern foods. Maybe ancient time travelers brought cave men Cheetos and Happy Meals, so they developed just enough genes for us to be able to eat those foods every other day in the modern era.
Or maybe the issue is that all that meat and salad gets a little old, and people crave variety. But it's possible to follow sensible, paleo-inspired diet principles and eat healthy, well-rounded, inexpensive, easy-to-prepare tasty health meals.
Not-Quite-Paleo Diet Principles That Can Help You Stay On Track
The key to success on paleo diets seems to be finding ways to increase the variety in your diet without eating too much of the wrong foods. Just to say it's OK to whatever you like once every other day probably isn't the best approach. I like jelly donuts. If I haven't eaten any in a year (and, actually, I haven't in a lot longer than a year), I have trouble restraining myself when a dozen are put in front of me. There has to be a better way to eat healthy without going to extremes. And here it is:
It's true that our ancestors didn't leave us genes for dealing with dairy, wheat, beans and peas, and sugar. But it's also true that paleo-prohibited foods can be prepared in ways that make them less toxic, and eating less makes eating safer. Here are some quick not-quite-paleo diet principles.
- It isn't the gluten in wheat that's the problem. Only about 10% of the world's population is really sensitive to it. It's the 58 genes that wheat may (or may not) activate that cause inflammation. Some people are more sensitive, some are less. But if you eat rye, especially sourdough rye, you can deactivate up to 71 genes that involved in the same process. Wheat can be tolerated in small amounts if alternated with rye, for most people.
- The casein protein in milk irritates the lining of the gut. It interferes with digestion. The lactose sugar in milk can feed bacteria that cause gas if, like over 75% of the world's population, you don't have genes to program the production of lactase enzymes to digest it. However, friendly bacteria can do the work for you. If you get a bad reaction, you may not get a bad reaction to yogurt, if it contains live cultures (not all brands of yogurt do), and if you don't eat too much.
- Beans, peas, and legumes usually contain lectins, chemicals that cause stomach upset and, in the case of fava beans, can even break down red blood cells. Beans don't want you to eat them, so they fight back. However, soaking beans overnight and draining off the soaking water before cooking makes them less toxic, and some varieties, such as Apaloosa beans, are hardly toxic at all. Just eat sparingly.
- All rice is not created equal. Brown rice contains lectins, just like beans. Brown rice contains haemagluttinin (which can cause red blood cells to clump into clots), oryzacystatin (which interferes with the digestive process), and phytate (which interferes with the absorption of iron, calcium, copper, and zinc). But cooking brown rice gets rid of haemagluttinin and oryzacystatin, and white rice doesn't contain any of the offending chemicals. Korean rice and sushi rice contain starch that doesn't break down into sugar quickly, and serving them cold gives them a glycemic index roughly the same as vegetables. It's white rice, not brown, that is paleo-compatible.
- Potatoes contain a kind of starch that breaks down into sugar quickly when they are eaten hot, and slowly when they are eaten cold. Boiling potatoes (not baking, not microwaving, not steaming, not frying) gelatinizes the starch into a safer form. Green potato peels, however, are always toxic.
You can add small amounts of wheat, rye, dairy, beans and peas, rice, and potatoes into your diet for the carbs you need--with an emphasis on small. It's never a good idea to eat more than 2 servings of any carb food at any meal, and it's not a good idea to eat more than 3 servings a day. Your body just wasn't made for it. But if you keep your consumption limited, you can add variety to your diet without sacrificing weight loss or health goals. Start slow, and make sure you don't get an adverse reaction.