Should you eat like a caveman?

“We are Stone Agers living in the Space Age,” writes Loren Cordain in his book “The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat.” “Nature determined what our bodies needed thousands of years before civilization developed, before people started farming and raising domesticated livestock,” writes Cordain, a professor emeritus at Colorado State University.The paleo diet consists of meat from grass-fed animals, fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and olive oil, along with plant-based oils such as walnut, flaxseed, avocado and coconut. The diet forbids grains, cereals, legumes (such as beans and peanuts), potatoes, salt, dairy products, processed foods and refined sugars. “The idea is to try and mimic the food groups that our ancestors ate before the advent of agriculture,” Cordain says.Why should we eat like our ancestors did during the Paleolithic period, which ended about 12,000 years ago? Because our genes have changed very little in the 300 or so generations since then, Cordain told me, and they’re adapted to a world where food was hunted, fished or gathered from the natural environment. Our bodies didn’t evolve to run on the refined foods found on grocery shelves today, he says.

But nor did we evolve to be healthy, says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of “The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.” What drives evolutionary adaptations isn’t health, it’s factors that affect reproductive fitness, Lieberman says. “Natural selection really only cares about one thing, and that’s reproductive success.” Evolution favors traits that allow a species to produce lots of offspring.

If the people who lived before agriculture were healthier than us, they rarely lived long enough to reap these benefits, says Kenneth Sayers, an anthropologist at the Language Research Center of Georgia State University. It was unusual for hunter-gatherers to live much beyond reproductive age, he says, and “it’s hard to be healthy when you’re dead.”

The paleo diet is built on nostalgia and erroneous notions of how evolution works, says Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and author of “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live.”

She says “there’s always been this thread of people wanting to live what they perceive is a more natural lifestyle from the past, whether it’s pre-Industrial Revolution or pre-agriculture or even the 1950s.”

The idea that the Paleolithic era represents some magical time in our evolutionary history has no basis in fact, she says. Evolution is a dynamic process that doesn’t build to some perfect harmony or endpoint, but instead produces a mishmash of trade-offs and compromises. As an example of this, she points to bipedalism, which made humans more mobile but also makes us prone to back pain and difficulties giving birth. “It’s not like bipedal humans should have said, ‘Wait, wait! Stay in the trees!’ ” she says.

Another problem with the paleo diet is that it makes unscientific assumptions about what our ancestors ate, Lieberman says. “There was no one single paleo diet; there were many,” he says. Our Stone Age relatives lived in a diverse range of habitats, from tropical regions of Africa to rain forests, boreal forests and tundra regions, he says, and their diets varied according to what was available in these habitats. “There is no one time and place and habitat to which we’re adapted,” Lieberman says.

Hominids (humans and our immediate ancestors from the genuses Ardipithecus, Australopithecus and Homo) are omnivores capable of living in a wide range of habitats, eating a wide variety of foods, says Sayers, who recently co-authored an article in the Quarterly Review of Biology examining the ecology and diets of human ancestors.

Few health professionals would quibble with paleo diet recommendations that involve increased physical activity or the avoidance of highly processed foods, Sayers says. But to set recommendations about what a modern diet should consist of based on an estimation of what paleolithic humans ate overlooks the wide variety of foods that these ancestors consumed. “We are ‘generalists’ in the strongest sense of the word,” he says.

Some of the advice offered by the paleo diets makes sense, Lieberman says, even if the stories to explain it don’t. Few would dispute, for instance, that modern diets often contain too much sugar and empty calories. But other pieces of paleo diet advice contradict what we know about human evolution, he says. For instance, paleo diets forbid dairy products, but numerous people around the globe have inherited a genetic mutation that enables them to metabolize milk as adults. This trait evolved independently at least seven times, Lieberman says, so it’s simply wrong to say that humans haven’t evolved to eat dairy foods.

Nor is it correct to assert that our paleolithic ancestors’ diets were devoid of grain. “We know that hunter-gatherers in the Middle East were eating grains,” Lieberman says, because archaeologists have found remains of wild barley they were gathering, along with the mortars and pestles they used to grind this grain into flour. Not every population ate grains, Lieberman says, but those who had them available certainly did. “Whether they were healthy was beside the point,” he says.

Cordain points to studies — such as one from 2009, that found that a paleo diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors among 13 diabetic patients — as evidence that his paleo diet can improve health. But whether the diet is superior to other ways of eating remains a point of debate.

Jessica Larson, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the USDA, cautions, “At this time, there is not enough research on the paleo diet and its potential impact on health over time.”

Separating fact from fiction

The Paleo diet has been touted as a healthy way to prevent chronic disease, increase energy and lose weight. Experts agree nixing refined carbs and processed foods and eating whole foods is always a good idea and can help you lose weight, but there are other areas where the diet may fall short. Whether you’re a Paleo beginner or long-term devotee, let’s separate fact from fiction on some commonly held Paleo diet beliefs.

1. The Paleo diet is how the cavemen ate.
Paleo includes whole foods that our ancestors were eating, but because our food supply is so different it’s definitely not the same.

“Most of the meat that’s available in the grocery store and restaurants is grain-fed and inflammatory whereas our Paleo ancestors ate wild game which is anti-inflammatory,” said Dr. Sarah Gottfried, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Hormone Cure.”

Today’s meat is also filled with hormones.

“Hormones dictate what your body does with food so if you’re screwing up your hormones with conventional meat, it can cause a lot of problems,” she said.

Verify that your meat is 100 percent grass-fed and organic, since many are “grain-finished,” meaning the cows are fed grain 90 days before they’re slaughtered.

2. A little more healthy fat is okay for cholesterol
According to U.S. News and World Report, a typical Paleo plan includes 39 percent of daily calories from fat, more than the 35 percent the USDA recommends. Although too much saturated fat is linked to high cholesterol, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people on Paleo significantly reduced their LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to emphasize healthy fats in your diet. Lean cuts of meat, as well as fish, coconut oil and nuts are all good choices, said Jim White, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.

3. You don’t need dairy for calcium.
The Paleo diet skips on dairy products, which may cut out important calcium from your diet. You can get enough calcium and vitamin D from other food sources but it’s much harder, White said. You can eat a lot of almonds but the calories can add up quickly. Green leafy vegetables are great sources too but most people in the general population are not eating enough, he said.

By eliminating dairy as a whole, Paleo diet eaters are going to have a lot more osteoporosis and vitamin D deficiencies later in life, he said.

4. You’ll get all the nutrition you need by eating Paleo.
Paleo experts believe that a diet that includes only whole foods that our ancestors ate helps to control weight and prevent disease.

Yet cutting legumes, beans and nuts can deplete you of necessary fiber, protein, iron and B vitamins. Plus, if you’re cutting out all grains you could be missing out on many vital nutrients that can prevent heart disease and cancer, White said.

5. Cutting carbs will help you lose weight.
When women nix carbs, it can lead to weight gain or stall weight loss, and exacerbate hormone problems, Gottfried said.

For starters, it can worsen hypothyroidism, which disrupts the body’s normal chemical reactions. It can raise cortisol and in women who have adrenal dysregulation, they may not have enough energy. This is either because of the cortisol or because they may need a certain amount of carbohydrates for their adrenal glands to function well, Gottfried said.

For healthy women on Paleo, it’s common for their weight loss to plateau and for some, they may even stop menstruating, Gottfried said.

Make sure to get enough fibre with two to three servings of vegetables at every meal and speak with your doctor to make sure Paleo is right for you and your health.

6. Paleo gives you plenty of energy.
The protein on Paleo will keep you feeling satisfied, but without a lot of carbs, you can feel tired. B vitamins, which are found in whole grains, are important for releasing energy from food.  Since many of the B vitamins help to regulate metabolism, without enough your body can’t break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and give you the energy you need, White said.

“Your brain requires 90 percent carbohydrates—they fuel the brain,” White said. Without enough B vitamins in your diet, you could have low energy, memory problems and even depression.

Going low carb can also be problematic for serious athletes like CrossFit enthusiasts, for example. Carbohydrates are important for storing and releasing the energy needed for high-intensity workouts.

“Without proper energy from a balanced diet, injury can occur from being fatigued,” White said.

7. Only whole foods are allowed.
Sure, you’re not eating potato chips, but vegetables are can also be processed, like packaged the packaged, frozen kind. White rice is another processed pick that some say is allowed on a Paleo diet but that White notes isn’t the best choice.

“It’s stripped of a lot of its nutrients and it’s refined,” White said.

8. Paleo prevents disease.
Although eating whole foods including plenty of fruits and vegetables has been shown to prevent chronic disease, the jury is still out on whether or not a Paleo diet alone can do so, White said.

9. You can eat dessert and still lose weight.
Sure almond flour has more nutrients that all-purpose white flour. And coconut oil might be better than butter because it has antioxidant properties and it may improve HDL cholesterol and prevent heart disease Yet eating Paleo-approved desserts won’t do anything for your waistline.

“Maybe you’ve upgraded the food ingredients a little, but [dessert] is not what our ancestors were eating,” Gottfried said.

So Paleo-approved or not, these treats still have calories, fat, and sugar that can pack on the pounds.

10. Paleo is not a diet.
For some people who follow Paleo, it’s not another fad diet or quick attempt to lose weight. They believe it’s how our bodies are meant to eat and should be a way of life.

However, it may be unmanageable in the long term.

“Most people on these meal plans have a hard time staying on them for a lifetime because it’s hard to stay on something that’s as restrictive as this,” White said.

“Restrictive behaviour becomes a mental game— forcing yourself to eat a certain way, labelling foods as good or bad, and feeling guilty if you fall off the ‘plan,’ ” he said.

A better approach? Be flexible. Avoid refined carbohydrates and processed foods, but consider adding quinoa, brown rice and sweet potatoes, for example, White said.

“A slow and steady diet that allows you to lose about 10 percent body weight in six months is healthier,” White said.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women’s issues. She’s also a mom of two.

Is the Autoimmune Paleo Diet Legit?

Is the Autoimmune Paleo Diet Legit?

Motivated patients say it makes them feel better.(Photo: Getty Images)

Most people think of the [and] as the meat lover’s way to [and]. But some people with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, are turning to a refined paleo version to improve life-disrupting symptoms such as pain and fatigue. While medical experts not affiliated with the plan offer mixed feedback, patients willing to make the effort say the [and] diet improves their quality of life.

Cutting Food Groups

Many people who follow the autoimmune protocol, which encompasses lifestyle as well as dietary changes, learned of it through the work of Sarah Ballantyne, who has an extensive background in medical research and whose most recent book is “The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body.” She makes the connection between autoimmune disease and diet on [and] website.

Related: [and]

The standard paleo diet starts with a strict elimination phase. That means “no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no refined sugars, no modern vegetable oils, no processed food chemicals.” According to the plan,[and] should be “banned for life,” and at least initially, dairy of any kind should be avoided. For people with [and], there’s more. They “should completely avoid” foods including eggs (especially whites), nuts, seeds (including cocoa, coffee and seed-based spices), nightshades, alcohol and artificial sweeteners. Because people with [and] are at risk for vitamin, mineral and omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies, there’s an added diet emphasis on nutrient-dense foods.

Embracing Meat

Meat – with a focus on incorporating more organ meat and offal – is a paleo mainstay. The plan also encourages shellfish; a large variety of vegetables; some fruit; fats including fatty fish and coconut oil;[and]; and glycine-rich foods like bone broth.

Hillary Jenkins, 29, a personal assistant in El Cerrito, California, often starts the day with breakfast sausage patties, which she makes by mixing ground meat with ground kidney and heart. “I go to a local butcher that gets 100 percent grass-fed cows and sheep,” she says.

Related: [and]

Not long ago, she would have bypassed the butcher. But at 27, she developed [and], an autoimmune skin condition. Until then she’d always had clear skin, but the condition, which started with a small patch of red spots, quickly spread across her body. A dermatologist prescribed lotions, and eventually, a short course of oral steroids. But as soon as Jenkins stopped taking them, the spots reappeared.

Jenkins wanted other options. Last June, she learned about the autoimmune paleo diet and read up on its potential benefits. “I just went full-on autoimmune protocol right away,” she says.

Nightshades and Carbs

When [and], manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, sees patients with autoimmune conditions, she starts them on a standard (non-paleo) elimination diet. “When you look at foods that have the most likeliness of having some sort of inflammatory reaction, you’re looking at things like wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, processed food [and] sugar,” she says.

Nightshade vegetables, which include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and sweet and hot peppers, are taboo on the paleo autoimmune plan. Kirkpatrick says these, and some spices like paprika, contain alkaloids, which aggravate inflammation. Cutting nightshades may help “calm” inflammation for susceptible patients.

Cutting legumes and starches can help patients by reducing excessive blood sugar fluctuations. “Bad bacteria in your gut thrives and eats off of sugar,” Kirkpatrick says. Overgrowth of bacteria, especially yeast, can stimulate inflammation in susceptible people.

Tackling ‘Leaky Gut’

Kirkpatrick explains the principle of treating [and] – believed to be a factor in autoimmune disorders – through diet. While you won’t find the term in medical textbooks, she says, “the syndrome is being looked at as a cause to many chronic health conditions, and involves our intestinal permeability and ability to keep toxic and harmful bacteria from going outside our gut.”

Ideally, she says, “When you digest something, everything should be digested 100 percent. You should be able to absorb nutrients, but this may not happen when the permeability in your gut allows leakage,” she explains. So instead of absorbing all the protein, vitamins and minerals, “you can actually have some of those things leak into the bloodstream and out of the gut, leading to inflammation and malabsorption.” Of course, it’s not that simple. “It’s a whole, complex definition of things that could be going on in the digestive system,” she says, and it may be based on autoimmune factors, genetic components and diet.

Social Eating

Angeles Rios, 36, a Pilates, yoga and meditation coach in San Francisco, has ankylosing spondylitis, a[and] centered on the spine. She started on the Paleo autoimmune protocol last spring.

Early on, “making time for daily cooking and grocery shopping was the hardest part,” she says. Cooking in batches helps, and preparing dishes from scratch [and] of eating organic foods and grass-fed meats. And she shares.

“Cooking with friends, especially if they know how to cook without something from a box, keeps the process social and interesting to me,” says Rios, who coordinates a variety of events featuring paleo-friendly food, from potlucks to support groups.

Jenkins agrees that supportive friends are important, as is being willing to cook for yourself. “I don’t trust restaurants,” she says. She’s wary of cross-contamination and of servers who don’t always know which ingredients dishes contain, like prohibited seed-based spices.

Mixed Reactions

“I’d like to see the science behind this,” says Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “A lot of it doesn’t make much biological sense. But eating the foods on the OK list should be healthy, so the diet is unlikely to be harmful – other than being a pain to follow.”

Judith Volpe, a New York City physician, says “an anti-inflammatory diet that eliminates gluten and dairy is certainly good.” But, she adds, “I’m not so big on diets that are heavy in fat. My problem with the paleo diet, in spite of what they say about good fats … most people’s cholesterol shoots up 30 to 50 points when they’re on that diet.”

Working With Doctors – and Vice Versa

Jessica Flanigan is a clinical nutritionist who specializes in the autoimmune paleo diet. Her identical twin sister has Hashimoto’s disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland, along withceliac disease. Flanigan and her sister both follow the diet. As clients go through diet phases, Flanigan monitors their symptoms, and working with their doctors, she tracks results of medical tests to detect inflammation. Of clients’ doctors, she says, about “25 percent are open and agreeable” to the diet, while the rest are resistant.

Kirkpatrick says among her own patients, eliminating some of the paleo-restricted foods can have “remarkable” results for some: They no longer have gas, bloating or arthritic joint pain, for example. “So there is power here that science needs to catch up with to figure out,” she says. “What do we know from a scientific perspective about these foods and overall health?”

The most important thing, Kirkpatrick says, whether people are trying the paleo method or some other type of elimination diet to calm their inflammation, is to work with their physician or dietitian.

When Persistence Pays Off

Flanigan says her sister, who has been on the diet for three years, is “totally symptom free.” Jenkins says while it’s not an easy diet, it’s worth the effort. “Whenever I felt a temptation, I would think, ‘OK, is this one or 10 bites of pleasure going to outweigh how I feel if I have a re-inflammation?” she recalls. “And the answer was always, ‘No, I would rather have clear skin than the doughnut or whatever the thing is.’”

For Rios, gradually tweaking her eating habits worked: “I no longer take a biologic drug,” she says. “I have developed a new community to support my new habits and have changed my view of using food for just serving my taste buds to a powerful medicine that can change my mind and body.”

Star Foods for 2015

Kale, quinoa and kombucha ruled the trendy healthful-food scene in 2014. But what will take centre-stage in 2015? Will mighty kale take a back seat? Will farro take over from quinoa? And what is macha?

We asked nutrition experts about healthful-eating trends they expect in the new year. The short answer: We’ll see antioxidizing vegetables and protein-rich grains everywhere we turn.

One of the new foods in the limelight is cauliflower, broccoli’s (usually) pale cousin. “I think cauliflower will steal some of the spotlight from kale,” says Alison Sacks, a Washington-based registered dietitian whose focus is helping clients prevent and heal chronic conditions. “It is nutritious and extremely versatile.”

In 2015, expect to see cauliflower grated to make a flour substitute in pizza crust, mashed (instead of mashed potatoes) and roasted.

“It’s the new, healthy white food,” says Sacks, referring to the trend of avoiding white foods — meaning refined carbs such as white-flour pasta and bread — because of their high sugar and gluten levels and low fibre content.

Brussels sprouts — with high levels of fibre, iron and vitamins K and C — are also looking good for 2015, says Sarah Waybright, a dietitian and chef/cooking instructor.

“With Brussels sprouts, the preparation is key. My mum used to steam them, and that turns them into a mushy mess,” Waybright says. “Try roasting them instead.”

She also suggests using some olive oil or other fat — maybe a flavoursome, anchovy-based sauce — to give them a crispier surface. Fat doesn’t just create better texture and flavour, she says, it also helps the body better absorb plant-based vitamins and other nutrients. Furthermore, it helps create a feeling of fullness that is hard to come by with veggies only.

So instead of thinking “low-fat” for 2015, she says, think “high-veggie” with some added fat.

Both Sacks and Waybright say quinoa probably will continue its impressive run in the new year, but people inspired by their discovery of quinoa will also experiment with other grains.

“People will continue to try to get more of their protein from grains,” says Sacks. “Especially, gluten-free grains that are high in fibre and easier to digest will continue to be popular.”

In this category, you will find rice and millet. There’s also amaranth, which, like buckwheat, fits the profile of a whole grain in many ways, but is actually a seed rather than a grain. A major food crop for the ancient Aztecs, amaranth is a protein powerhouse, containing all essential amino acids. And it has been shown to lower cholesterol.

Amaranth can be used in baking, by itself as a cereal or as a substitute for polenta or quinoa.

Not all the grains that seem poised to enter the food scene in 2015 are gluten-free, says Sacks. Those that are not include kamut and farro, an ancient Roman grain that’s high in fibre, protein and iron.

Kathleen Wood, a regional healthful-eating coordinator for Whole Foods, adds kelp — a seaweed — to the list of up-and-coming vegetables. High in folate, magnesium, iron and calcium, kelp can be used in smoothies, salads, stir-fries and sautes.

Another green food item that’s on the rise, says Wood, is macha. This powdered green tea can be drunk or used to flavour foods from ice cream to sushi. It has antioxidant properties, and some studies indicate that regular macha consumption makes the body more energy-efficient.

Wood also predicts an increase in savoury versus sweet foods. She says we will see more seafood snacks and savoury yoghurts (think carrot instead of strawberry).

Sacks agrees, adding that probiotics will continue to become more popular. “I see a focus on less sugar and more fermentation,” she says.

Meanwhile, there are still plenty of meat lovers out there. For them, Wood says quality and origin are becoming increasingly important. “People are looking for grass-fed beef, and they are paying more and more attention to sourcing.”

Other nutrition experts agree. “How and what you eat can strengthen community bonds,” says Waybright.

Adds Sacks, “It can be an investment in your health and in the health of the planet.”

Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer.