Paleo is short for a nutrient dense, low allergic, anti-inflammatory and real food diet. Using the word ‘lifestyle’ means we include elements like sunlight, movement, pleasure, sleep and social support as key factors influencing health. For the majority of our genetic and biological history we lived on a wide variety of foods and when the environment allowed, lived a life span similar to today but free from chronic illness. The hunter-gatherer period lasted 66,000 years and during this time our brain development skyrocketed largely due the protein sources we began accessing. Although we continue to evolve, with a range of individual variation, the evidence supports us to look to our ancestors so we can live a long and happy life.
Diseases of civilization are the epidemic of our time. Now over 80 autoimmune disorders are recognized with more added each year. Cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease and LDL particle count is now known to be the best risk assessment tool we have but medical practice is slow to catch up. Diabetes and dementia are growing at alarming rates and most concerning of all it is predicted that the majority of children today will live shorter lives than their parents.
For twelve years I’ve studied and worked in health both in clinical practice and in transformative education. Like many who work in this field I have a story of recovering from debilitating illness using an ancestral or ‘paleo’ approach. A vegetarian diet combined with a high intensity lifestyle training as a dancer throughout puberty led to a complete crash in my early 20’s. I was weak and contracted multiple parasites first from a farm and then from travel to Asia. Using chlorine to purify my water as I climbed the Himalayas was the move that wiped out my gut bacteria and immunity.
Recovering my health was not a simple or short journey. My aim as a clinician and educator is to make it much easier for others by offering the latest in medical research and nutritional science. Even if we rule out the evolutionary perspective of the paleo movement, its focus on nutrient density and bioavailability is difficult to argue with. Clinically I’ve witnessed results I couldn’t have imagined when people commit to the recommendations even for a short period of time. The amazing part is that this lifestyle is so engaging and enjoyable that it’s not difficult to stick with for a lifetime.
So here goes. Let’s discuss some of the most heavily researched proteins. Gliadin is the peptide in gluten and like all grains it is very difficult to break down. The unique problem with gliadin is that it is known to increase gut permeability which is the root of many autoimmune disease. Grains are very low on the nutrient density scale and unless they are soaked or fermented the phytic acid content decreases the bioavailability of these nutrients. Grains and legumes are seeds and therefore built to pass through mammals undigested in order to sprout elsewhere. Prior to agriculture these were not used widely and any traditional culture who consumed them learned to pre-digest them through a long process. Industrial agriculture has shown us that grains are not the long-term solution to a growing population because of the cost to top soil health. Harvard scientist Matt Lalonde explains that for humans develop the ability to break down grains and legumes into food would take an evolutionary leap equivalent to growing wings.
Dairy on the other hand is another story from an evolutionary perspective. As infants humans produce lactase and therefore it is a simple genetic step to continue producing. In fact 33% of the world’s population have evolved to tolerate dairy and this happened for good reason. Milk became more available as people started to farm and grains became our staple diet. Research shows that places that had diets high in grains experienced deficiencies of protein, vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and iron. Infectious disease was also higher. Under this pressure, milk became a way to mitigate some of these deficiencies. Evolution happens with time and pressure and this step didn’t require much time but the pressure was strong. People were not thriving with the onset of agriculture. For example they were 5-6 inches shorter than their hunter-gatherer predecessors.
Soy is a unique legume and by looking at it we can understand a lot about inflammation in the body and the increase in allergies. One benefit of soy is that it is a phytoestrogen however the downside is that it is highly allergenic. This means that it doesn’t just cause sensitivities where inflammation increases but can also cause full-blown allergic reactions. When the immune system is in high alert most of the time the body is not able to function optimally or even normally. This is where we are seeing more people reacting to a wider range of foods or developing autoimmune problems.
Individuals wanting to recover health can begin by removing the foods that are known to cause problems in many people and then slowly reintroduce them. There are also tests that can point you in the right direction. Eating a diet full of real foods including some animal protein, fish and a wide variety of vegetables with some fruits is an excellent starting point. This style of eating is very satiating and remarkably easy once you get started. Understanding that the standard North American diet is made up of over 50% of foods that have no nutrient value but are high in calories and anti-nutrients or toxins is motivation enough to cut these foods down and then out of your family’s life. Flours, sugars and industrial seed oils are leading to rising numbers of people who suffer from disease due to inflammation, malnutrition and depression.
The focus on local, organic and wild or pasture-raised food is powerful. It is the quickest way to stabilize your metabolism, mood, energy and weight. For ongoing inspiration please stay connected as I’ll be offering bi-weekly articles to strengthen our resilience, interconnectedness and ability to co-create solutions. Questions and comments are welcome.