Should we eat as our paleo ancestors did?

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (cough …) for the past couple of years, you will no doubt have heard, or know, of the paleo way of eating. If not, here’s a brief run down.

In my opinion, any food movement that encourages eating less processed food (refined carbohydrates, sugar sweetened carbonated beverages and high glycaemic foods), while simultaneously promoting fresh fruit and vegetable intake is a positive step towards keeping healthy and preventing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The paleolithic diet draws on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed during the early stages of human evolution. This was pre industrialisation and before the agricultural revolution. A typical diet included lean meats from wild animals, seafood, eggs, local plants and berries, nuts and seeds. It excluded all grain foods, pseudo grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat), all legumes, beans etc. and dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Modern adaptations of the paleo diet taken from a journal article by Dr Loren Cordain promote a macronutrient distribution as follows:

  • Protein: 19-35% of Energy
  • Carbohydrates: 22-40% of Energy
  • Fat: 30-50% of Energy

Current Australian recommendations based on Nutrient Reference Values are as follows:

  • Protein: 15-20% of Energy
  • Carbohydrates: 45-65% of Energy
  • Fats: 20-35% for total fat, and 8-10% for saturated fats of Energy

The paleo diet is therefore a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, similar to the Atkins diet. The premise behind this way of eating is that by reducing the carbohydrate (sugar) intake in your diet, your body will move to alternative pathways such as ketosis (fat metabolism) to produce glucose that our brain and bodies need to function. However by-products of these pathways produce compounds (ketones) that can build up and become toxic. In addition, there is a gap in research looking at the long-term effects of high protein intakes (over 30% of total Energy). Being trained in science and evidence-based practice, in the absence of evidence, I would proceed with caution.

Grains and legumes

My first question would be, if grains aren’t coming to the party, where will the fibre come from? Assuming there is sufficient vegetable and fruit intake (5 serves and 2 serves a day respectively) in the paleo way of eating, this should ensure Adequate Intake (AI) of dietary fibre, which is 25mg/day for females and 30g/day for males. However, grains contain much more than humble roughage. To find out more about why grains are an important part of a balanced diet read one of my earlier posts here.

My next question would be where is the carbohydrate coming from to contribute 22-40% of energy in the paleo way of eating? Current recommendations are for 2 serves of fruit per day. Eating a banana (21.8g carbs) and a medium sized green apple (14.6g carbs) would provide only 12% of daily energy needs from carbohydrates. Adding one cooked potato is another 2% (total now 14%), and 1/2 cup of carrots (1 veg serve) offers an additional 1% (Calorieking.com.au). You can see where I am going … Recent data from the Australian Health Survey found that only 6.8% of Australian adults actually reach the recommended 5 serves of vegetables per day. While it’s a credit to the paleo movement to encourage higher vegetable intake, it’s very optimistic to expect a large number of people to reach or even exceed the current Australian recommendations. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat paleo, just that you will have to love fruit and vegetables, in my experience other foods (chocolate … donuts … chips) make up a large part of a typical diet.

I don’t know about you, but I love grains, and I think the more variety that you can include in your diet, the better. Products with the entire grain intact (whole grains) are certainly more nutritious. For more information regarding the benefits of incorporating whole grains in your diet hop on over to the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council.

Dairy and calcium

Excluding dairy also means excluding important sources of calcium from the diet. These would presumably need to be replaced by vegetables. Although there are alternative sources of calcium (salmon, almonds, vegetables such as celery, broccoli and spinach), the absorption of calcium is not as high as it is from cow’s milk. As little as 10% of calcium is actually absorbed form spinach due to the presence of oxalic acid.

To put this into perspective, 1 cup of spinach contains 30mg of calcium (1 cup of milk contains on average 300mg of calcium). The Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for calcium in Australia is 840mg for males and females aged 19-70 years.

At 10% absorption rate you would need to consume 280 cups of spinach per day!

This bag is roughly how much spinach you would need to eat to get your daily Calcium intake if eating paleo.
This bag is roughly how much spinach you would need to eat to get your daily Calcium intake if eating paleo.

One of the most-effective non-dairy sources of calcium is almonds. In order to get a third of your recommended daily intake of calcium (the same as a cup of milk) from almonds, you would consume 94% of your fat intake for the day according to Australian recommendations.

These are just examples, but it’s important to note that calcium is certainly an at risk nutrient if you choose to adhere to a paleo way of eating.

Fats

Fats in the paleo way of eating come from saturated fat in meat and coconut, but also in ghee that is used to make paleo baked goods. Ghee is basically clarified butter, made by boiling butter, then removing the milk solids (including lactose) so that only the fat remains. It is 100% fat, approxiamtely 65% saturated fat, and contains equivalent calories to lard (~882g/100g).  There is much literature linking diets high in saturated fat with elevated cholesterol HDL levels and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and increased risk of metabolic disease. Click here, or here, or here if you want some bed time reading supporting this. This link also outlines the 1000’s of scientific papers that have formed the basis of the most recent 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines.

$$$$

No I’m not offering money sorry :(. You will need plenty of money if  you want to live the paleo way. As with any specialised diet, there are specialised products. Coconut in every form – powder, milk, flakes and even coconut sugar, cacao powder, ghee – is costly. But if you are dedicated and have the money, then this won’t be an issue for you. Also having to buy organic, grass-fed, wild, pasture-raised animal meat will cost more. I don’t have a problem with this type of meat, but for the vast majority of Australians this just isn’t financially viable, particularly if you are feeding a family.

Another thing to consider, alcohol was not around during cave man times. Do those strictly adhering to a paleo way of eating also not drink alcohol?

Verdict

As with any restricted eating plan or diet, if you are excluding entire food groups (dairy and grains) then you could be in danger of calcium deficiency leaving you at risk of poor bone, teeth and nerve health. While I think it’s positive to promote fruit and vegetable intake, it is important to consider the detrimental health ramifications of consuming more than 10% of your total energy in the form of saturated fats. Furthermore, if you choose to spend your money on paleo specific products, don’t let the healthful claims mislead you. A paleo brownie is still a treat, even if it is organic, gluten free, lactose free, sugar free!

Thanks for stopping by, Madeleine (THG).

This article was first posted by Madeleine on That Healthy Girl. https://thathealthygirlau.wordpress.com

 

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is my personal professional opinion. I have no affiliation with or receive any benefits from companies or organisations mentioned in this post.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Maddie says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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