Friday, August 23, 2013

The Paleo Diet (How To Eat Like a Caveman)

Caveman on a paleo diet
He’s starting off writing about the Paleo Diet?  Oooohhh....look at Mr. Trendy, jumping on the bandwagon for the Next Big Thing!  How original.
But, seriously...I’d like to take a minute to explain why this had to be done first – before I wrote a single word about any other topic.  To put it very simply:  because this is how Retrolithic was born.

Introduction
About 4 years ago I started trying to improve my nutrition and overall health in an effort to stave off the daily insulin injections the rest of my family endures.  After a few months of research, that effort led me to Bill Philips’ fantastic book Body for Life.  It was somewhat of an epiphany for me, as it was really the first time I had seriously considered the importance of lean protein and vegetables in my diet.  It also emphasized moderate proportions of “healthy” carbs (potatoes, whole grains, fruit, etc.), but still not nearly what I was indoctrinated with on the FDA’s Food Pyramid (over half of your diet? really??).  And thus, my love affair with meat and vegetables began...
Soon thereafter I ran across an article talking about “eating like a caveman.”  What?  Why would I want to do that?  We’re more advanced and know more about nutrition than some neanderthals, right?  But the article talked about how we humans never really evolved to eat grain and about how beans and potatoes are toxic in their natural state.  Everything it was telling me totally made sense and suddenly it all clicked.  Maybe there was something to this Paleolithic Diet after all.

So what is the Paleo Diet?

Like any other truly viable diet, the Paleo is more of a lifestyle change and not meant to be a temporary solution to lose a few pounds.  It is based on the premise that humans have been around for over 2 million years and, for most of that time, existed as hunters and gatherers.  Only recently (about 10,000 years ago) did we start introducing things like grains, potatoes and dairy products heavily into our diets.  In evolutionary terms, that’s not nearly enough time to adapt to them as staple foods.
So the main idea is very simple:  eat the way a hunter/gatherer would.  You should eat foods you would find in nature that are edible without a bunch of processing and refinement.  These things include:
Perfect paleo dish
  • Game meat (or other lean meats)
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables/leafy greens
  • Root vegetables (beets, carrots, radishes, etc)
  • Fruits & berries
  • Nuts/seeds (peanuts are not nuts, BTW)
Okay, that all makes sense; everything on the list is high in vitamins and essential nutrients.  So then let’s take a look at what’s on the no-fly list:
  • Grains
  • Beans and other legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Dairy products
  • Sugar
  • Salt
Now, before you get all like “ZOMG!!! No bred n cheez?!?!”, let’s take a more in-depth look at why these things are strictly verboten.

Toxins = bad

Bottle-o-grains
It’s pretty well documented that sugar and salt are not good for you so I’m not going into those here, but I want to touch on the other stuff because it may seem counter-intuitive at first.  Specifically, the idea that you shouldn’t eat grains or dairy products doesn’t resonate well with a lot of people.  Let me explain...
Grains, beans and potatoes (GBP) were generally not consumed by hunter/gatherer societies largely due to the fact that they are toxic in their raw states.  Cooking reduces, but doesn’t necessarily eliminate the toxins so it is best to avoid them altogether.  Aside from being toxic (as if that wasn’t enough), GBP are generally high in calories, low in nutrients and cause your blood sugar to spike (which is bad) because of their high glycemic index.  Nice little trifecta there, eh?
Okay, so no grains, beans or potatoes because they’re toxic and suck at nutrition.  So what about milk?  You can drink milk raw – it can’t be that bad, right?
Hungry tiger
Have you ever tried to milk a tiger?
Not necessarily.  Dairy products are a totally different animal....er, animal byproduct, rather.  Milk, cheese and yogurt were not introduced into the human diet until the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago.  I’m guessing this is mostly due to the fact that until cows were domesticated, any wild animal you tried to milk would kick the crap out of you.  Seriously, though, think about these points for a minute...
Humans are:  1) the only mammal that drinks milk after being weaned from nursing, and 2) the only mammal that drinks the milk of other mammals by choice.
Take these thoughts one step further and it’s logical to deduce that we are not really designed to consume milk and dairy products.  Now, I know what you’re thinking – “but, Nate, females produce milk naturally to nurse their babies.”  Yes, but the truth of the matter may surprise you (it certainly surprised me):  most mammals (including humans) become lactose-intolerant after being weaned from their mothers!  If you don’t have problems with milk products as you get older, you’re in the minority.  It’s estimated that 75% of the world’s adult population is lactose-intolerant with as high as 98% intolerance for some Asian and Native American populations.

So what does this mean?

Ahhh...and that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it?  The idea that humans are not equipped to eat grains, potatoes and dairy products is completely contrary to what society (at least American society) tells us every single minute of every single day.
Start your day off right with a nice big bowl of cow’s milk, processed grain and refined sugar!
Would you like the gargantuan fried potatoes with your breaded meat-like sandwich?  How about a half-gallon of watered-down high-fructose corn syrup?

FDA food pyramid
Who remembers the FDA’s food pyramid?  I sure do!  It was the basis of everything I learned about nutrition as a kid.  It taught me that I should eat fruits, veggies and meat in moderation, but shove as much grain down my gullet as I pleased!
To put it in perspective, though, the big push for grains (especially corn) makes total sense for food production, storage and transportation.  They’re easy to harvest, keep well and provide lots of calories.  Before the discovery of refrigeration, it was much, much more efficient to store and distribute grain to the populace than meat or vegetables, which would go bad quickly.  So, yeah, agriculture was and is a huge boon to society!  There is just no way you could sustain 7 billion people as hunter/gatherers.  But there are ramifications to the lifestyle we now live.

The diseases of civilization

Diabetes.  Cancer.  Heart disease.  Hypertension.  Depression.  These so-called “diseases of civilization” have seen dramatic increases over the last 50 years and become more prevalent every single day.  There are two main factors at play here:
  1. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle
  2. A diet high in calories and low in nutrients
We’re definitely living longer than our prehistoric cousins due to things like sanitation, available medical care and not getting eaten by predators, but our later years are fatter and sicker than ever before.  It’s no wonder, though.  Take a walk through your local supermarket and see how much good, natural paleo food fills the aisles compared to grains and other garbage loaded with refined sugar and preservatives.  Is it starting to click yet?
There are only a handful of non-westernized hunter/gatherer tribes left in the world, but they are some of the healthiest, fittest people around.  They lead active lives and eat a more traditional diet of meats, vegetables and other paleo foods.  Diabetes and cancer are absolute rarities.  Heart disease?  Nope.  Hypertension?  Nada.
Now I’m not saying we should go back to living as tribes in the wild (since they do have higher rates of one key metric – accidental and traumatic deaths), but maybe we can learn something from them.  If we’re going to reverse the trends of lifestyle-based diseases, we need to get back to leading more active, healthy lives.

How do I get started?

Going full-on paleo is not easy in this day and age.  I’ve been trying to cut out grain, sugar and dairy for the last couple of years, but there are still a few things that I can’t give up (primarily beer and pizza).  You may want to start by cutting out or replacing things slowly.  If you try to do everything at once, it may be too much of a change, but if you make gradual modifications to your lifestyle, they will be much easier to handle.  Or maybe you’re the type that just likes to power through and deal with it.  Good on ya!  Either way, here are a few tips to get you going:
  • scramble some eggs, ham and veggies for an easy paleo breakfast
  • try replacing regular milk with almond milk (I love that stuff now)
  • always keep nuts on hand for snacking
  • learn to love salad
  • make large batches of things you can freeze and then microwave for easy meals
  • don’t forget to cheat every once in a while
I also like to think of my trips to the supermarket as a hunter/gatherer experience where the seasonal fruits/veggies and sale items are the prey or bounty for the day (I would not suggest stalking your prey, however...people look at you funny).
Cranky caveman
Now THAT is a cranky caveman!
The first couple of weeks on the diet may be a little rough as your body gets adjusted to the increased nutrient and decreased toxin intake.  During this period, you may experience what is affectionately known in the paleo community as “caveman crankiness”.  Don’t worry, it will pass.  It’s kind of like switching to a better, more efficient fuel:  you need to get the old, crappy stuff out of your system first.
As you venture further down the paleo path, you’ll find that your cravings for things like bread and sugar steadily subside and your body will start reacting negatively to that bad fuel.  I, for one, can’t eat sugary treats anymore without my stomach complaining, but it’s a small price to pay for a better, healthier life.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a veteran caveman or a newbie neanderthal, I hope I’ve been able to give you a little insight to this new 2-million-year-old diet.  I’m not a doctor and I’m not qualified to tell you whether the Paleo Diet is right for you, but I whole-heartedly believe in the principles behind it and have found success both in weight loss and general improved wellness.  If nothing else, hopefully I’ve intrigued you enough to do some digging on your own.  You only get one body so you better learn how to take care of it!
If you have a personal success story or some tips or favorite recipes with the Paleo Diet, we’d love to hear about it.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Take care!
- Nate