Registered nutritional therapist, Andrea Carroll Langan, provides us with the low down on the paleo diet in its ever evolving form.
The ‘paleo lifestyle,’ the ‘caveman diet,’ ‘hunter gatherer principals’… Whichever buzz phrase you encounter, there’s no mistaking that Palaeolithic-style nutrition is a hot health topic. Lauded by people with varying lifestyles, from those in remission from illness to professional athletes alike, the modern paleo diet picks up on dietary principles from the past. So how did an approach stemming from Stone Age discoveries become such a dietary trend?
A pivotal article from Eaton and Konner in 1985 ultimately launched the paleo movement into current mainstream thinking surrounding dietary health (1)
Eaton and Konner applied the natural selection theories of evolution to the modern day diet and suggested that our genes, shaped in response to challenges during Palaeolithic times, determine our nutritional requirements. For us to achieve optimal health therefore, they conclude that we should revert to following those early hunter gatherer diet and movement practises that are more in line with our genetic makeup (1)(2).
Evolutionary researcher and nutritionist, Loren Cordain, wholly embraced this approach and marketed the paleo diet plan, creating a complementary food list and meal plan options that sparked a dietary revolution (3).
In essence, the paleo diet plan embraces the principles of a higher protein and lower carbohydrate intake. It promotes high fibre but not via the consumption of whole grains and heralds a higher intake of monounsaturated fats and Omegas 3 and 6. Potassium is an integral part of the plan, while sodium is mainly side-lined. Followers should also balance dietary acid and alkaline and increase their intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant phytochemicals.
As always science prevails and the legitimacy of the plan is much debated. The minimal extent to which Eaton and Konner accord credence to the potential for genetic adaptability has been widely challenged. Jeffrey Bland, a forerunner in emerging epigenetics exploration, reviews how our genes might not be as fixed as originally proposed. He details the importance of gene expression and the human body’s ability to metabolically adapt to the consequences of agricultural influences and their resulting dietary changes (4).
Practical dietary advice, however, need not be prescriptive. There are now numerous options on the paleo spectrum, including elements of the on-going dairy debate. While in some circles, the only true way may be to eat predominantly vegetables and fruit, with meat and seafood in moderate amounts and nuts and seeds included at the top of the food pyramid, other perspectives do allow for a more moderate approach.
It is now widely acknowledged that trillions of varied microorganisms inhabit the human gut and this vast diversity is deemed responsible for rapid adaptations. Even with our large genetic similarities, this suggests that there is no uniformity in how people respond to a particular diet, thus making a single, perfect dietary template an unlikely scenario. With this in mind, can there be a happy medium beyond the contested evolutionary theory of the primitive paleo plan?
The dietary impact of the western world, with its ties to chronic illness, is a common recurring theme and investigative research has highlighted the plight of indigenous people attracted to a modern western diet. As such, when aiming for peak overall wellbeing it seems prudent to recognise some shortcomings of the western lifestyle.
It’s pretty fair to say that refined sugar and processed, fat-laden products that contribute to collective suboptimal health, are not ancestral foods. Commercially prepared, nutrient poor options, providing little other than empty calories are not recommended by nutrition experts, regardless of dietary persuasion. Therefore, with the whole paleo objective being to eat clean by incorporating whole plant foods and lean proteins, there’s clearly plenty of scope for it providing valuable guidance.
With the original researchers open to honing their approach in line with newer information, how can you enhance your chances of health success whilst following a paleolithic diet model? The overall paleo message is to eat clean, yet there’s mixed information on whether it’s the authentic path for modern day man. The key may be to consider what’s realistic and achievable for you as an individual. If you enjoy a paleo-based lifestyle and it’s sustainable for the long-term, why not embrace it and always challenge yourself to ensure it’s the best it can be.
While there’s a wealth of excellent information available on paleo definitions and interpretations, why not take a look at my top considerations and reminders for those seeking to enhance health the paleo way.
Embrace plant-based benefits
The colour of your plate is a great indicator of how much dietary variation you're getting. Concentrating on colour can increase your chances of including a wide range of those vitamins and minerals vital for maintaining optimal health. It's sometimes easy to get stuck in a food rut. With plant-based power highly regarded and vegetables a crucial component of the diet, be inspired by seasonal ingredients.
Some paleo-based research incorporates dietary findings from current day hunter gatherers. The Hazda Tribe in Tanzania, for example, has an expansive food selection, with records indicating they consume some 880 different foods. Why not strive to enhance your plant-based variety and embrace braver food choices?
Mix up animal-based food sources
The paleo plan embraces the consumption of red meat alongside a high consumption of vegetables - a particularly beneficial profile that isn’t always adjusted for in meat related studies. While it’s hard to discount collective evidence that indicates the negative impact of long-term consumption of red meat on health (5), in an individualised programme, there are benefits to enjoying a regular steak. On a generalised basis, I favour and encourage a balanced dietary approach, which extends to meat proteins. Why chance overexposure to red meat when there are so many options on the paleo spectrum…
Different types and cuts of meat provide distinct selections of nutrients and some are more nutrient dense than others. Experimenting with the options rather than picking the old faithful will also provide value for money. Don’t forget our ancestors would have been extremely efficient, eating fish for example from nose to tail.
A slow cooker is something I often recommend as most of us have busy lives and it can help make many meals taste amazing. Tougher meats become tender and you can heap in the vegetables too. If you’re new to paleo, focus on the delicious things you can add to your diet rather than those you need to dispel.
When embarking on paleo eating, try to keep things simple to avoid being overwhelmed. Pick a few simple recipes and rotate them while you’re getting organised then expand your options.
Aim for as high quality foods as your budget can stretch to. The options available include organic fruit, vegetables and nuts, grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and free-range eggs. Organic foods have been shown to have a higher nutrient content and less chemical contamination than non-organic products (6)(7).
If meat is a central part of meals, there are movements that work to support better animal husbandry practices and lessen the environmental impact. The Environmental Working Group has excellent information on which fruit and vegetables are best to eat and what you can avoid when contemplating the levels of pesticides.
Something I was introduced to recently is the Global Calculator (8). It’s an open source model of the world’s energy, land and food systems which you can alter yourself to assess the implications. Have a play. It absolutely satisfies my inner geek and is definitely something to ponder in the grand scheme of health.
Look after your gut – a fundamental for health
Earlier I mentioned the large diversity of microorganisms in the gut and how this might well rapidly adapt to dietary changes. To support the lining of your gut and digestive processes, get liberal with therapeutic herbs and spices, which also support your body’s natural detoxification processes. Read up on the healing properties of paleo recommendations like bone broth for collagen production. When choosing natural foods, such as a wide array of colourful vegetables, you’re topping up levels of those all-important antioxidants, which help to protect your cells from damage.
Breakfast is best
Many of us allow breakfast to fall by the wayside when it comes to maintaining hectic lifestyles and sticking to ever more stressful schedules. Whether due to a lack of time or perhaps inclination, it’s not uncommon for many people to start the day on an empty stomach. When we all know that breakfast is best, why not start making more of a meal of it?
Eating breakfast gives your body’s metabolism an important boost. Your digestive system receives the kick start it needs to function effectively. Without fuel first thing in the morning, the body assumes it needs to conserve its current energy reserves. This makes the metabolism more sluggish as it seeks to save energy. Rather than expend those unwanted calories, your body might be reluctant to relinquish them.
Remember optimal health needn’t negate the occasional tempting treat. While many traditional breakfast choices, for example, may be heavy on whole grains, there are a number of good quality, paleo-pertinent alternatives that still help to satisfyingly hit the hunger spot. From paleo pancakes to muffins, companies, such as Sukrin, provide nutritious gluten-free flours and low-carb, protein-rich bread and cake mixes that deliver on the paleo diet principles without deprivation.
Andrea Carroll Langan, MSc, BSc is a functional nutritional therapist and NLP practitioner. Through Andrea’s practice ‘Health Embrace,’ tailored nutritional and lifestyle programmes are offered to coach and encourage people towards achieving optimal health, condition and performance.
Andrea currently consults in her Norwich clinics, on Skype and at other locations upon request. Clients range from elite-level sports people to international corporations and the general public, including those with chronic health conditions.
Andrea is also co-founder of the newly formed Mindful Nourishment which provides interactive workshops nationwide on a variety of hot nutrition and health topics.
1. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med. 1985;312:283–9.
2. Konner M, Eaton SB. Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25:594–602.
3. Cordain L. The paleo diet: lose weight and get healthy by eating the food you were designed to eat. new york:wiley. - [Internet]. New York: New York Wiley; 2002 [cited 2015 Mar 10]. Available from: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=Cordain,+Loren+(2002).+The+Paleo+Diet:+Lose+Weight+and+Get+Healthy+by+Eating+the+Food+You+Were+Designed+to+Eat.+New+York:Wiley.&oq=Cordain,+Loren+(2002).+The+Paleo+Diet:+Lose+Weight+and+Get+Healthy+by+Eating+the
4. Bland J. Epigenetics: Death of the Paleolithic Human? Integr Med. 2006;4(5):10–2.
5. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, et al. Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Arch Intern Med [Internet]. American Medical Association; 2012 Apr 9 [cited 2014 Oct 30];172(7):555–63. Available from: http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1134845
6. Environmental Working Group [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 19]. Available from: http://www.ewg.org/
7. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr [Internet]. 2014;1–18. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103
8. The Global Calculator [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 19]. Available from: http://tool.globalcalculator.org/globcalc.html?levers=2244444e11111111c2c2c1n31hfjdcef221hp233f211111fn2211111111/dashboard/en