Eat Like a Caveman – Really?
With the observance of Father’s Day this month it seemed like a natural time to review the Paleolithic (Paleo) or Caveman Diet. The Paleo Diet is touted as the pathway to a healthy life void of disease. Other claims include weight loss, improved cholesterol (LDL & triglycerides) and reduced risk of chronic diseases (made from the results of some very small, unduplicated studies).
Since we possess cavemen genes we need to eat like cavemen – that’s the general premise of the Paleo Diet. Purists of the diet stress that if it wasn’t eaten by our ancestors, the hunters & gathers, 10,000 years ago it shouldn’t be eaten now. Food choices are limited to lean meat, fish, poultry, shellfish, non-starchy vegetables, fruit and nuts. The diet excludes all grains (even whole grains), refined sugar, table salt and dairy foods because they weren’t around in the Paleolithic era. Some Paleo followers have liberalized the plan to include potatoes & dairy. Based on sample menus, the macronutrient content of the diet is roughly 40% protein, 40% fat and 20% carbohydrate (exceeding or just meeting the 2010 Dietary Guidelines in all categories); but unlike other high protein plans there’s no carb counting. And unless the primary focus is weight loss there’s little emphasis on calories.
Other things to consider if contemplating becoming a Paleo-phile are cost & ecology. Many worry that the recommended foods on the Paleo Diet may put too much of a strain on the budget. The meat & seafood counters and the produce section are commonly considered some of the pricier foods in the store and the added expense of organic (more authentic to the Paleolithic era) may cause more concern. Some helpful news – the results of a recent USDA study (May, 2012) found that healthy foods really aren’t more expensive, it’s more about how the price is measured. Vegetables & fruit (along with grains & dairy foods) are less expensive than protein foods & foods high in added sugar, saturated fat, & sodium when measured by the average portion size or edible weight. Of course, you also won’t be spending money on bread, chips, cookies, pizza, mocha lattes, etc.
If you are thinking the Paleo Diet is perfect for you, environmentalists want you to consider the negative impact a high meat diet can have on the planet. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization and other major environmental groups estimate it requires 5 – 10 times the resources to raise a pound of meat versus a pound of wheat. Environmentalists are also concerned about the negative impact on water quality and increased greenhouse gases resulting from meat production. The population 10,000 years ago may have been low enough to sustain free range meat to support the hunters & gathers without causing damage to the earth but with today’s increasing population & shrinking supply of natural resources it may not be the most efficient use of our resources.
Before making any diet changes here’s a quick review of the positives and negatives associated with the Paleo Diet. Remember it’s always important to talk with your medical provider before making drastic dietary changes and don’t forget that registered dietitians are the nutrition experts!
- Comprised of whole, all natural (as much as possible), unprocessed foods – the dietary plan consists of unprocessed meats, fish, poultry, shell fish, non-starchy vegetables, fruit & nuts
- Contains no refined sugars – with obesity researchers calculating America’s sugar consumption per capita at 100 pounds per year most agree we could all benefit from cutting the empty (no nutritional value) calories from refined sugars. With sugar being blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to the rise in ADHD (more research needed on all topics) the current public health recommendation is to limit sugars to 10% or less of daily calories.
- High in fiber – because the plan focuses on such a high level of vegetables and fruits, advocates of the Paleo diet say it’s easy to meet the daily recommendation for dietary fiber even with the exclusion of high-fiber beans, legumes & whole grains. The posted dietary analysis on a sample Paleo menu listed dietary fiber at more than 40 grams for the day, more than enough to cover the daily recommendation of 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories (22 – 34 grams is the average recommended daily amount for adults).
- High in potassium – once again because the plan focuses on a high level of vegetables & fruits Paleo diet followers can get more than twice the daily recommended level (4,700 mg). This is significant since national surveys tell us that most Americans seldom take in the recommended amount of potassium – a mineral that plays an important role in blood pressure control, bone health and reducing the risk of kidney stones.
- Low in sodium – the Paleo diet eliminates processed foods & table salt, chief sources of sodium in the American diet. It also focuses on fresh produce which contains almost no sodium. Since most Americans consume 2-3 times the recommended level of sodium, a daily intake fewer than 1,000 mg (a typical Paleo day) would make Paleo diet- followers more than compliant to every government & health agencies’ recommendation. This drastic reduction in sodium could be particularly significant for those suffering from high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes.
- Excludes dairy, grains (even whole grains) and beans & legumes – excluding whole food groups can exclude needed nutrients, limiting dietary variety may make it difficult to follow & sustain long-term
- Higher in protein based on the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines – the recommendation is that 10 – 35% of our daily calorie content come from protein and the average daily protein content of a Paleo plan is slightly higher than the highest recommendation (38% versus 35%)
- Higher in fat based on the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines – if followers stick to lean, unprocessed protein sources the percent daily calories from fat can be as little as 4% higher than the highest recommended level (39% versus 35%), but if fatty proteins are regularly consumed that percentage can climb to more than 10% over the highest recommended level (and more than 29% over the lowest recommended level). This may increase the risk of heart disease.
- Lower in carbohydrates based on the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (45% – 65% of daily calorie content) – a sample menu on a popular site contained about half of the percent daily calories from carbohydrates based on dietary recommendations
- Very low in calcium and vitamin D – the plan omits dairy, beans & fortified grains so dark green leafy vegetables & bone-containing canned fish will be the Paleo dieters best calcium sources; but an average meal plan can be deficient by a third to a half of the daily recommendation.
- As with calcium, most of the foods commonly fortified with the recommended levels of vitamin D are not part of the Paleo Diet menu. Many Paleo Diet plans suggest taking a supplement if you aren’t able to soak up the recommended 15 micrograms of vitamin D the way the cavemen did (spending time in the sun).