Did you know that more than one-third of U.S. adults — almost 80 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — are obese? The number is shocking. But does the solution to weight loss and better health lie in eating like our Paleolithic ancestors who eschewed grains, dairy products and the other foods of the modern agricultural era in favor of protein, vegetables and healthy fats such as coconut oil?
While advocates of the Paleo diet answer “Yes,” David Heber, the founding director of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Human Nutrition disagrees. He points out that the Paleo diet is developed based on a very faulty hypothesis that people today should eat the way cavemen ate during the Paleolithic era. This means eating leaves, shoots, roots, seeds, eggs, animals, birds and fish, but not grains, legumes, dairy or processed foods. However, the latest dietary guidelines from the U.S. Agriculture Department encourage Americans to consume whole grains and dairy products on a daily basis and to avoid foods high in fat.
Arguing in favor of a Paleo diet pioneer is Melvin Konner, an expert on behavioral biology. He argues that there is a mismatch between the lifestyle to which our genes are adapted and current habits, which helps to explain new epidemics of our modern life, including obesity and suboptimal health. Health killers, like Twinkies and sodas, have been around too short a time for evolution to deal with them.
However, why do paleo advocates think the ills of modern society stem from a mismatch between our genetics and today’s typical diets? The cavemen, some argue, didn’t suffer from diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The issue with the theory is that we do not know what our Paleolithic ancestors ate for sure. As many anthropologists point out that determining what people eat is simply intellectually challenging in nutrition science. It is extraordinarily difficult to get an accurate idea of what people ate 100 years ago, let alone 10,000 to a million or more years ago.
In reality, scientists are nowhere near being able to match genes to specific kinds of diets. The reason cavemen didn’t have chronic diseases like diabetes is more likely because they didn’t live long enough, rather than because they didn’t eat carbohydrates.
However, we cannot omit the benefits of the Paleo diet, because science backs it up. A study published in Lipids in Health and Disease found a Paleo diet is more effective in reversing the first step toward diabetes in patients with extra belly fat or other risk factors for diabetes than a standard diet. In addition, the paleo group lost more weight even when the researchers tried to keep their weight stable by adding extra calories.
Some nutritionists claim that by eliminating certain food groups such as dairy, a paleo diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies. This criticism is not accurate. Paleo foods such as salmon, sardines, kale, broccoli and figs are rich in calcium, and you can get the same fiber and nutrients from vegetables, healthy oils, seafood, eggs, meat and fruits as you get from beans, grains and soy.
The battle between the Paleo diet advocates and opponents still goes on. The choice is in our hands. If you ever consider swapping to the Paleo diet, here are several tips for you to start while at Wellesley:
You need to be extra careful when you are stepping into a dining hall and ready to eat. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup need to go, which means you are surrendering soft drinks, fruit juices and candy. Grains including breads and pastas may not fall on your plate again. You need to avoid most dairy. The Paleo diet is also against processed foods. You need to let go of food that has many additives that are not good for your health in the first place. Sounds stressful? Continue to read and you will find that in term of food that you could eat, the Paleo diet is not painful at all.
Meat lovers, the Paleo diet has you covered. Beef, chicken, turkey and pork served in dining halls are highly recommended. Fish like salmon which we rarely see at Lulu is also in the Paleo diet guideline. One thing that is never scarce in dining halls and could be on your plate is eggs. Most vegetables like broccoli, kale, carrots, etc, and fruits are also the main source of food for our Paleolithic ancestors, which means we need them. Even though vegetable oil is not on the “to-eat” list, healthy fats and oils including olive oil are recommended.
There is always a price or painful transition to eating healthy, whether it is missing your favorite Minute Maid lemonade or craving cookies. If you believe that the Paleo diet is your way to achieve better health or most of the time just to make you feel better, a food swap is not so hard in dining halls. Even though there are some continuous arguments about the benefits or disadvantages of this diet theory, this is, no doubt, a good place to start taking baby steps to take some unhealthy food options out of daily go-to meals.