For the past several decades, we’ve been told that grains – specifically whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat and oats – are vital components of a healthy, balanced diet. Likewise, we’ve been told dairy is essential for adequate calcium intake, and is good for both our bone and dental health. However, looking back centuries before Canada’s Food Guide, what did cavemen eat? One thing is for sure, their diets looked nothing like the Standard American Diet (SAD) we see today.
Cue the Paleo diet: a modern approach to eating that is designed to resemble that of our primitive ancestors in the Paleolithic era. It looks like this – generous portions of fresh vegetables, plentiful amounts of high quality fats, nuts and seeds, small servings of seasonal fruits, and a moderate amount of high quality animal proteins such as meat, poultry, eggs, organ meats, and wild seafood. A big focus of the paleo diet is the quality of the food – choose local, seasonal, organic produce when possible, and locally raised, grass-fed and free range animal products. Another main aspect of the diet is to include ample amounts of healthy fats at every meal, including high quality saturated fats. Getting the majority of our fats from whole foods such as fatty cuts of meat, avocadoes, and nuts and seeds is ideal, but dietary fat can also include grass-fed lard, unrefined coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and a variety of nut and seed oils. Foods that are strictly eliminated from the paleo diet include grains (wheat, rice, corn, etc.), pseudo-grains (quinoa, buckwheat, etc.), beans, legumes (including peanuts), soy, dairy, all processed foods, refined and hydrogenated oils (including vegetable oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, etc.), and all refined sugars and sweeteners.
The benefits of a paleo diet are quite remarkable. By removing these systemic irritants from the diet, we very quickly and effectively reduce inflammation in the body. This is beneficial to anybody interested in disease prevention and anti-aging, but reducing inflammation can also improve symptoms of many chronic health conditions. These inflammatory conditions include (but are not limited to) joint conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and arthralgia (joint pain); chronic digestive disorders such as Crohn’s, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); autoimmune diseases including Celiac disease and psoriasis; benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate), and various types of cancers. By removing inflammation, we can effectively reduce pain and restore proper function of the effected system or area of dis-ease.
A paleo diet can also help regulate blood glucose levels, which is essential for diabetics, but also anybody concerned about insulin resistance, hypoglycemia, energy levels, mood, and reduction of body fat.
In addition to reducing inflammation and managing blood glucose, a paleo diet greatly reduces the amount of phytic acid we consume. Phytic acid binds to nutrients (particularly minerals) and makes them unavailable for absorption. This means that you may not be absorbing the iron from your lentils, and their phytic acid may be stealing the Vitamin C from your broccoli, too!
Despite it’s reputation for being high in calcium, dairy is highly acidic and can leech minerals from the bones, contributing to osteoporosis. Due to the pasteurization and processing of dairy products, we lose the live enzymes and beneficial bacteria that would otherwise help us digest it, making dairy products a common allergen. Dairy also promotes inflammation and excessive mucous production.
Although the paleo diet is far from what we’ve been taught, it can be very effective in a number of different applications. Rethinking and remodeling the dietary guidelines provided to us by Canada’s Food Guide is a very important step to optimizing our overall health, as there is no one-size-fits-all diet. Each individual’s ideal diet will differ based on a number of variables including genetics, activity level, values and belief systems, and existing health conditions. If you suffer from chronic inflammation, digestive disorders, autoimmune diseases, or other chronic conditions, the Paleo diet might be a lifestyle to consider. Regardless of your biochemistry, everyone can benefit from eliminating processed foods, refined sugars, and hydrogenated oils.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.
Originally published: February 2018 in “50+ Living” in the Comox Valley Record for Edible Island Whole Foods Market