by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
Since I reported in my last article that I was a vegetarian some people may wonder why I would write about the other side of the diet spectrum, the currently popular Paleolithic Diet, which contains a significant amount of animal protein. I would respond by saying that every individual has specific dietary needs and not everyone biochemically or mentally feels at their optimal health being a vegetarian. I think everyone just needs to be aware of the choices and to do what feels best for their body physically, as well as what feels right for them philosophically. I would encourage individuals to be mindful of the impact their choices have on the environment and the earth too. In this article I am providing a little more insight into the Paleolithic Diet and hopefully that might help in exploring what type of eating plan works best for you or your family.
The Paleolithic Diet is a modern version of the diet that was followed by our ancestors many thousands of years ago. The diet was different wherever humans lived, depending on what animals also lived in the area for hunting and the availability of plants and seafood. The Paleolithic Diet was practiced prior to modern day agriculture and the domestication of animals. The diet consists of grass-fed animals such as beef and chicken, seafood, eggs, wild plants including vegetables (lots of root vegetables except potatoes), fruit, nuts (no peanuts), and seeds. The diet contained an ample supply of omega-3 fats mainly from the seafood, nuts, seeds, and the grass-fed animals since we had no surplus of corn and soybeans to feed our wild animals. Cereal grains are not a part of the diet and these include wheat, corn, millet, rice, barley, oats, sorghum, and rye. These grains were not available back then and they all need to be cooked in order to be consumed. The proponents of this diet believe that what humans ate back then is better suited genetically and biologically to our nutritional needs. Our human makeup is not coping well with the many changes in our present diet according to those who advocate for this diet and our bodies are not adapting well to the modern way of eating, specifically all the high calorie, highly processed foods. The root of many chronic health problems we face now, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cognitive disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s, are related to the diet most people follow in this country.
The changes in the modern diet include an increase of refined carbohydrates and cereal grains, a decrease in animal protein, a decrease in omega-3 fats, and an overabundance of sugary and salty foods such as candy, pretzels, chips, soda, etc. The modern American diet is comprised of approximately 50-60 percent carbohydrates, 15 percent protein, and 25 to 30 percent fat calories. The Paleolithic Diet, however, is comprised of approximately 25 to 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrates, and 30 to 35 percent fat calories. The introduction of processed foods in the late 1800s definitely had an impact on the quality of our diet, and as our food supply became more industrialized the variety of crops and foods grown declined. But that is making a turnaround now, especially in Vermont, fortunately!
Humans are meant to eat a diversity of foods for optimal health but our diet today offers not only a wide variety of foods and ingredients but excess calories (sugar, unhealthy fats, corn products, etc.) far different from the hunters and gatherers regimen. We do not have to go far to get food, so very few calories are burned to “hunt or gather” our food. It is available on every corner depending on where you live, so long as you have the economic means to gather it.
So should we all eat the Paleolithic Diet? There are benefits to “eating Paleo” but our modern Paleolithic diet cannot duplicate the one followed by our ancestors. We are aware that there are benefits to a minimally processed diet and no matter what diet we choose we should strive to follow that. There are many good eating plans available (vegetarian, Mediterranean, Asian, etc.) and some may or may not contain meat and/or animal protein. It is best to consume animal protein from grass-fed animals (ideally with as little pesticides from their food as possible) with little or no use of drugs or hormones, safe wild seafood (not all fish is safe, as we know), and eggs, along with plentiful amounts of vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruit—the basic Paleolithic Diet modified based on the dietary sources we have now that meet the guidelines. Choose an eating plan that you can follow that is optimum for your health and don’t forget to include an exercise component since that was an essential part of the Paleolithic lifestyle. We will all enjoy a longer healthier life if we follow some or all of the Paleolithic dietary guidelines!