The Paleo Diet: Designed by Nature, Built By Science | The Paleo Diet®
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The Paleo Diet: Designed by Nature, Built By Science

By Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer
December 18, 2019
Photo: shutterstock.com Photo: shutterstock.com

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you will likely have heard of The Paleo Diet®, Paleolithic nutrition, or the hunter-gatherer diet to describe a way of eating that mimics the diet of our ancestral past.

The basic argument for following this way of eating is that, for the majority of humanity’s time on this earth, this is how we ate, and it subsequently shaped our genetics. This is particularly the case in terms of how we, as humans, respond to the foods we eat, to the prevention of disease, and the vitality of our species.

While there has been a massive change in the food supply—starting with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, then, the advent of dairy farming 5,000 years ago, and the more recent industrial revolution—our genetic makeup has not kept pace with these accelerated changes in our food supply. While humans do adapt, as in the case of some recent genetic mutations such as the adult lactase persistence(ALP) gene, these changes take place extremely slowly, resulting in an incongruence between our physiology and the foods eaten on a typical modern diet in the Western world.

While this argument holds considerable weight, there are those—particularly in the field of epigenetics (the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence)—that argue humans can genetically adapt relatively quickly to the addition of new foods into our food supply. While adaptation could occur in a number of ways, the most likely adaptation would be an improvement in the tolerance to dietary anti-nutrients such as gluten, a dietary lectin, orglyco-protein that is resistant to the proteolytic enzymes in our gut that can cause short-term inflammation or, more concerning, auto-immune responses if it finds its way into the blood stream.

The foods that constitute a modern Paleo Diet contain few of these problematic dietary lectins and other anti-nutrients. And, while some individuals may adapt to tolerate these anti-nutrients, there is no benefit to their consumption. Consequently,reducing or eliminating their consumption makes physiological sense.

A far less likely adaptation, however, would be the ability to tolerate a decrease in the consumption of essential vitamins and minerals. The more nutrient-dense a food is, the less we need to eat to get our daily nutrient requirements. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of unnecessary caloric over-consumption. So,the assessment of nutrient density of a diet is a very useful way to assess the viability of a particular dietary plan.

Individuals and organizations looking to criticize The Paleo Diet typically state that eliminating certain food types (grains, legumes, starchy tubers, and dairy) would lead to nutrient deficiencies. This is an ignorant position to take given that it is so easy to assess the nutrient density of any diet. In the early 1990's, when we first recommended the Paleo Diet to help auto-immune patients by eliminating high lectin-containing foods, we asked this same question. We wanted to be sure that doing so did not lead to any nutrient deficiencies. Not only did we discover that this did not occur, we also learned that following the Paleo Diet improved the nutrient content of the most deficient vitamins and minerals in a typical Western diet.

We have created a table of the nutrient density for the twelve most common mineral and vitamin insufficiency in the U.S. diet. This table can be used to analyze any diet for its nutrient density; and we have compared The Paleo Diet to both an American Heart Association recommended diet and the Mediterranean diet. The Paleo Diet was significantly more nutrient dense than the other two diets. So, when anyone attempts to criticize The Paleo Diet for creating nutrient deficiencies, you can be assured that they are wrong.

A high glycemic load is another problem with many foods commonly consumed in the United States and other western countries. This abnormally elevates blood sugar levels. The increased consumption of these types of foods has led to a problematic physiological state termed metabolic syndrome in which insulin sensitivity worsens, leading to chronically elevated insulin levels. Poor dietary habits have now caused this syndrome in as much as a third of U.S. adults. The syndrome consists of a multitude of conditions that, together, increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes. They include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. The low glycemic load and high fiber intake of the foods consumed on The Paleo Diet prevent and even reverse this increasingly problematic health issue.

Critics of The Paleo Diet also like to claim there is little research supporting these recommendations. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Cordain referenced over 900 sources in writing his book, The Paleo Answer, with only a handful not coming from peer-reviewed journal articles. These references combine research that supports the benefits of consuming foods included on The Paleo Diet, as well as the negative consequences of foods not on The Paleo Diet. And as the research continues to grow in volume, we share significant papers at the website. Further, as the popularity of the diet has grown, more and more experimental studies have now been conducted to examine the effects of adopting a Paleolithic way of eating. We stay up to date with these studies and keep a list that you can access to follow this research.

If you want to learn more, the articles and information at our website provide a resource for you to discover why following The Paleo Diet will help you to control your blood sugar levels, avoid the conditions comprising metabolic syndrome, provide foods that are very nutrient-dense, help to avoid caloric over-consumption, and decrease the anti-nutrient load that can lead to inflammation and potential auto-immune conditions. We can confidently state that no other way of eating can do this better than The Paleo Diet.

The Paleo Diet Team is here to help you on your journey to a healthier lifestyle; we invite you to interact with us via our website or social media platforms to help answer any questions you may have. In the meantime, here’s a good place to start.

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