One of the diets gaining continuing momentum today is the Paleo Diet: a diet structured around eating the foods that our hunter-gatherer or Paleolithic ancestors ate. The Paleo Diet claims that by removing food like grains, dairy, legumes, processed sugar, and vegetable oil (and any other food that was not a typical element of our Paleolithic ancestors’ diet), we can protect ourselves from countless health problems that plague the modern man, including the leading cause of death, heart disease. The Paleo Diet is not presented as just a diet, but as a lifestyle choice. For example, changes in your activity level and sleep are highly encouraged in addition to dietary changes. This trio of Paleolithic diet, exercise, and lifestyle can turn you into a ninja, to put it bluntly.
What is wrong with the foods listed above? The only thing “wrong” them is that our bodies simply have not had a chance to adapt to them, and hence they wreak havoc on our health. Humans have been around, in their “current form” as homo sapiens, for approximately 200,000 years. The life expectancy of our Paleolithic ancestors was shorter than that of the modern man because of the danger they faced and the lack of medical help available when an accident did happen, like their dinner biting back. However, when the remains of our ancestors have been studied, practically NO evidence has been found of cavities, heart disease, osteoporosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and practically all other chronic diseases that plague the modern man (you).
For 190,000 years, we were a tall, lean, healthy species. Then, a mere 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution happened. The Agricultural Revolution brought about many great things, without which we would not have been able to advance as a species the way we have. However, the dietary changes that resulted from the revolution have not had time to “settle,” so to speak, with our genetics. We went 95% of our lifespan as homo sapiens without consuming grains, dairy, legumes, or processed sugars, but for the last 5% of it, these elements have become core to our existence. A lot of things happen biologically when we eat these “new foods,” all of which are bad. In fact, not only are we not capable of digesting these foods, but some of them (grains and legumes) actually contain anti-nutrients, which prevent absorption of the few nutrients these foods do contain!
After the Agricultural Revolution, we got shorter, lost bone density, started developing cavities, and became susceptible to countless diseases that did not exist prior to our dietary 360. Therefore, the basis of the Paleo Diet is to remove these foods from our bodies and try to heal what has been broken. Considering all of this bad news, the Paleo Diet seems to be a step in the right direction. By removing grains, dairy, legumes, and processed sugars from our diets, we are controlling insulin sensitivity, repairing our intestinal lining, avoiding vitamin and mineral deficiencies, preventing many types of cancer, obesity, and many other diseases including heart disease.
The Paleo Diet “fixes” all of these problems because 1) it naturally balances your diet with the proper amount of all the good stuff, like Omega 3 vs. Omega 6 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals, and 2) it removes the foods that are enormous contributors to all of the problems just mentioned. The science behind all of this is extremely thorough and well documented, but can be found in a compact form in books like The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain, and The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf.
As mentioned before, fully regaining the health and vitality that our ancestors possessed requires not just a step back in time with regard to our diet, but also our activity level and lifestyle patterns. The activity level of our ancestors averaged out to 11 miles of walking a day, however their lives were full of varied activities and often full days of rest. The combination of different activities and various levels of intensity that our ancestors experienced, accompanied by days of rest, allowed them to stay strong, fit, and for the most part avoid self-inflicted injury (all too common in the workout world today). The result of this type of activity is increased bone density, muscle mass, normal hormone levels (which is key in insulin sensitivity and staying skinny), and increased sexual function. Sounds pretty good, right? The simplest way for us to replicate the activity level of our ancestors is by having a rotation of cross-training, interval training, and rest days in our workout regimen.
What does sleep have to do with all of this Paleo junk, you ask? Before the dawn of alarm clocks and shift workers, we were early to bed and early to rise. We followed to sun to sleep, and awoke when it reappeared. Good sleep was common, as opposed to being an unattainable goal as it is for many today. Some of the bestways to get good sleep are to sleep when it’s dark out (or at least fake it and create complete darkness), and wake up naturally without an alarm.
This may seem impossible for many, but here’s why it’s crucial to your health: just one night without adequate sleep makes you as insulin-resistant as a Type 2 diabetic (Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution). That’s bad. If you’re more superficial, how about this: increased insulin resistance leads to increased cortisol levels, which decreases collagen and causes WRINKLES! Even putting the insulin resistance aside, lack of sleep causes stress, which increases cortisol, which starts that whole cycle over. Long story short, good sleep is key to regaining your health (and a good mood, too), and is an important part of the Paleo trio, as I like to call it.
All in all, it seems that choosing to live the way our primal ancestors did (or as close as we can get) will do wonders for our health. The Paleo Diet came on the dietary scene in 2002, and as opposed to flaring up and dying as fad diets do, the Paleo Diet has continually gained followers and momentum. The only reason behind this is that it works. It has saved lives, and these stories are documented. You can find them in books, but a simply Google search of “the paleo diet success stories” will provide you with many testimonials.
Here’s the best part about this Paleo Diet thing: there is no enterprise behind it. You don’t have to buy special mail-order food that costs a fortune. You don’t have to pay hundred of dollars to go to a far-away island and purify yourself in a strangely cult-like fashion. Nobody makes money from your decision to eat Paleo. The person benefiting is YOU. Although there is no local “Paleo Club” location for you to go to, many websites have been built to provide support and a community for people choosing to eat Paleo. The bottom line is, choosing to eat the Paleo Diet just may be the smartest dietary choice for, well, everyone. We are genetically designed to eat paleo, after all!