Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 10, 2014

What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet?

I’m not a nutritionist, and I don’t play one on TV. I am a deeply committed whole foods activist. As in, the best diet for humans is one including lots of seasonal fruits and veggies and the remainder of the diet should consist of components recognizable as actual food from actual food sources. If allergies aren’t a concern, please DO eat nuts, dairy, fungi, flesh, grain-like seeds, root veggies, pickled and fermented foods and whole grains, all in moderation. Some of those food categories are ‘allowed’ on the Paleo diet, and some aren’t.

Paleo is sweeping the interweb. The emphasis in that diet on fresh produce, pastured meat and wild-caught sea food is all good. Getting away from processed foods may, and often does, clear up a cornucopia of symptoms characteristic of the fallout from 21st century ‘convenience’ foods: poor digestion, skin problems, irregularity, weight gain, insomnia, mood swings, low immune response, over-production of insulin.

At first glance, the Paleo diet looks a lot like the first stages of the candida elimination diet. Indeed, for one or two months at a stretch, either of these assays at clearing the system and resetting the metabolic clock makes very good sense to me. On the other hand, I’m old enough to have lived through quite a few cycles of ‘miracle’ diets and single-ingredient ‘magic bullets.’ Remember soy? In everything? Or oat bran even in your potato chips? Have you perhaps noticed the way quinoa and kale are the new EVOO and salmon? Remember when eggs and butter were going to kill us all before we turned forty? Oh, you still think that? Well, you’ll have to wait for those to get their own blog post.

The problem with Paleo has to do with down the road. Not this month, or even the month after. But in a while, like six months from now–and further out. This diet requires quite a bit of planning and home preparation to hit all its targets for nutrients and calories. Stop paying attention, and you’ll become a first worlder with a self-inflicted deficiency disease. Seriously.

The premise that humanity hasn’t had time to evolve to eat carb rich food isn’t true. How do I know our systems can manage a more carbohydrate focused diet in health? Dogs.

Dogs have evolved since people began farming ~10,000 years ago. Their enzyme load is distinctively different from that of their wild first cousins, grey wolves. The enzymes common to domesticated dogs allow them to digest the many times more carbohydrate heavy diet consumed with their human companions. If dogs have evolved to digest carbs, is it a stretch to imagine we have as well?

I’m not talking about bleached-out, balloon bread. We didn’t evolve to eat sugar cereal with spray-on vitamins. Humans don’t flourish if their diet consists of mostly denatured, fried white foods. I grant you those simple truths.

But soaked, simmered beans have been a part of our diets for about as long as agriculture has been a livelihood. Starchy root vegetables are key staples all over  the world, and often in places where diets are otherwise Paleo to the core. Taro root in Pacific Rim cultures, potatoes in ancient South American traditions, yams in Africa. Grains and nutrient dense ‘seeds’ are also a hallmark of the earliest farming undertakings: North American corn, South American amaranth and quinoa, African sorghum, Mesopotamian barley, Asian millet and rice.

Next is the Paleo dicta eliminating fermented foods. Functionally, people are scavengers. This is the nature of the omnivorous diet. It allows animals without multiple stomachs, i.e. herbivores, or without apex predator skills, i.e. carnivores, to take a place in the food chain. The most widely and anciently domesticated animals share this trait with their human hosts, e.g. dogs, chickens and pigs.

Scavengers evolve to eat a deal of food which isn’t fresh. If you don’t own a dog, go on a walk with a dog owner, you’ll see just what I mean. Or visit a farm and watch the chickens work-over the compost heap. Food past its prime is no barrier to omnivorous fitness-for-consumption. Without active intestinal fauna, omnivores cannot be said to be in peak health.

Our cave dwelling ancestors did not have mason jars. Using minor research skills and access to the information super-highway, you might easily discover ‘pickling processes which do not depend on glass jars with screw-top lids. Or just go ask any authentic granny from Greece, or Mexico, or West Africa, or Cambodia, or Finland about how her family puts up pickles. Please do not try to represent that kim chi didn’t exist before the screw-top, or miso, or giardiniera. They’re all pickled/fermented foods. And the balance they add to our intestinal tracts is fortuitous.

Yogurt and cheese are soured milk, and they both have a rack of phytonutrients which help moderate digestion and sleep cycles alike. Fruit juices first ferment and then become vinegar. That vinegar is wholesome and a good tonic for blood functions and digestive functions alike.

The salt added to processed foods in the modern diet and used in modern pickling methods makes a mockery of early pickling. Our ancestors used whey (or cultured rice bran in Asia) to stabilize and preserve foods. These fermentations increase calcium bio-availability. They also preserve vitamin C, a necessity for the ancients lest they suffer from recurring scurvy every long, ice age winter.

Clean yourself out with the Paleo diet. Heck, go hog wild and hit up the candida elimination diet for thirty days. It makes Paleo look like an orgy of no-holds-barred self-indulgence. Once you’ve done your ninety on the Paleo, add legumes to your diet. I won’t say ‘add them back.’ Unless you converted from old school vegetarianism to Paleo (not too likely in my extremely humble opinion), you weren’t eating many beans excepting in your Taco Bell drive through and your tubs of boughten hummus.

If you find after a week or so of regular legume consumption your sleep patterns, energy levels and digestive dispatch are all humming along, go ahead and add back the sinister ‘starchy root vegetables’: beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, yucca and more. And please, get thee to an Asian grocers to pick up some kim chi. Make your own yogurt, and use it in moderation (like meat in the Mediterranean diet, so is dairy in the well-balanced post-Paleo diet: a condiment to add flavor and sparkle to a meal).

Should you yearn for grains after six to nine successful Paleo-ish months, soak them 19-24 hours at room temperature in water spiked with whey(readily found as that cloudy, watery stuff on top of non-Greek yogurt).  This soaking turns phytic acid (nutrient blocking, digestively disastrous) into phytase, the very enzyme you need in processing these now-controversial foods through your gut. Go slowly with adding grains back into your regular consumption cycle. Hold off on the gluten bearing grains until you’re comfortable with rice, millet, sorghum and buckwheat.

Need it be said, as you add back legumes and ferments and dairies and root veg and even–gasp–grains in moderation, you can cut back on those Brobdingnagian volumes of flesh you’ve been eating. Our Paleolithic forebears were never Hunter-Gatherers. They were Gatherer-Scavengers.

Paleo feels like the new Ornish: effective at distancing one’s body from old destructive dining practices, but not a diet to turn into a full-on lifestyle. Trust me, food fads come and go. We can learn from them, but only if we don’t fall for the rhetoric inherent in the sale of even the best grades of snake oil.

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