How A Paleo/Primal Eating Plan Improves Your Health; And Why None Of It Matters
I’ve been stockpiling tons of articles, studies, etc in my Google Reader and never getting a chance to write about them. So I was glancing through them today and got to thinking about how it all ties together. I mean, it’s great to know that some isolated compound in broccoli fights cancer, but how do we incorporate all of the various findings into a coherent eating plan that doesn’t consist of “eat what you’re eating now and add some broccoli”?
What Is Paleo/Primal?
I think most of us know the answer to that, but for the newcomers, I want to give a brief overview of the Paleo/Primal philosophy, or at least my particular interpretation of it. The basic rule of thumb that I use to guide my eating is, as I wrote about in my Nutrition 101 post, “Eat Real Food”. That means unprocessed fresh foods…meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers, eaten raw, cooked, or fermented.
My own philosophy is basically a melding of Dr. Loren Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet” and Weston A. Price’s research. While “The Paleo Diet” shuns all dairy and grains, Dr. Weston A. Price did tons of research on traditional cultures who were not ridden with the diseases of civilization and found markedly diverse diets. Some included fresh raw milk. Some included grains, though grains were prepared far differently than modern processing techniques. And grains were definitely not the base of most healthy diets, especially prior to about 10,000 years ago.
Basically, we can take a lot of cues from our Paleolithic ancestors and mix in a bit of the food knowledge of pre-Industrial cultures and come up with a diet that protects against all kinds of diseases. Though actually, now that I write that, I have to wonder if “protects against disease” is truly the right way to describe a dietary pattern. Perhaps “doesn’t cause disease” is a more apt description since disease is not a normal human trait. From there, we could say that the Western dietary pattern causes disease, while diets based on real foods don’t.
So now let’s look at some common Paleo/Primal foods and how they can protect against disease.
Eggs Are Good For You
Eggs have been getting some good press in the past few years after spending a few decades being demonized for being high in cholesterol. But there are still far too many people throwing away the best part of the egg, the yolk. Now, look at this: Eggs may reduce blood pressure
Researchers in Canada are reporting evidence that eggs — often frowned upon for their high cholesterol content — may reduce another heart disease risk factor — high blood pressure.
Fish And Grass-Fed Meats
A Primal eating plan includes lots of fatty fish, grass-fed meats, pastured poultry and eggs. These are the foods that sustained humans throughout history. And these foods, especially fish, all contain good ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. This omega-6/omega-3 ratio is one of the most important parts of your diet, yet it’s not really something you need to be worried about if you’re eating real foods. More on that in a second…first, Omega fatty acid balance can alter immunity and gene expression
…found that many key signaling genes that promote inflammation were markedly reduced compared to a normal diet, including a signaling gene for a protein called PI3K, a critical early step in autoimmune and allergic inflammation responses.
So why do you not need to worry about it? Because the key is the ratio, not the absolute intake. It’s been suggested that a 2:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio is optimal. But if you’re not eating too many omega-6 fats, from sources like vegetable oils and grains, you won’t need to take mega-doses of omega-3s to balance it out. If you’re interested, there are literally dozens of modern day disorders that omega-3s (in the form of fish oil supplements in most studies) fight against. Here’s a good start.
Another recent study showed that eating fish may prevent memory loss and stroke in old age:
The study found that people who ate broiled or baked tuna and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (called DHA and EPA) three times or more per week had a nearly 26 percent lower risk of having the silent brain lesions that can cause dementia and stroke compared to people who did not eat fish regularly. Eating just one serving of this type of fish per week led to a 13 percent lower risk. The study also found people who regularly ate these types of fish had fewer changes in the white matter in their brains.
Fewer Carbs Means Fewer Health Problems
Diets built around real foods like meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and tubers tend to be significantly lower in carbs than what the average person is eating. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, it’s just how things tend to work out when dealing with carb sources that are quite bulky compared to sugar and grains. Between the protein and fat (and their hormonal effects on appetite) and the bulk of the carbohydrates, low-carb diets are exceptionally satiating.
One thing that’s been proven time and again is that a low-carb diet helps ward off Type II Diabetes, which is good news because diabetes and Alzheimer’s go hand-in-hand:
Diabetics have a significantly greater risk of dementia, both Alzheimer’s disease — the most common form of dementia — and other dementia, reveals important new data from an ongoing study of twins. The risk of dementia is especially strong if the onset of diabetes occurs in middle age, according to the study.
Obesity brings with it insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, and often a symptom known as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which is an excellent marker for all kinds of metabolic issues and diseases. To bring it full circle, obese low-carb dieters burn more liver fat than people simply on a low-calorie diet.
The low-carbohydrate dieters, however, got only 20 percent of their glucose from glycogen. Instead of dipping into their reserve of glycogen, these subjects burned liver fat for energy.
Reducing Sugar Intake
As you know, I’m not a fan of much in the way of sugar intake. Too many sweets, including artificial sweeteners, are definitely not a good idea. That said, I do think some honey is alright here and there.
Here’s the key to a Real Foods way of eating. You are avoiding processed foods, which means, your overall sugar intake, and your fructose intake will be lower. No high-fructose corn syrup sweetened sodas or cakes. No sugary cookies. Fructose in particular may be problematic for losing weight.
Fructose, glucose and sucrose, which is a mixture of fructose and glucose, are all forms of sugar but are metabolized differently. “All three can be made into triglycerides, a form of body fat; however, once you start the process of fat synthesis from fructose, it’s hard to slow it down,” she said.
It Protects Your Brain
Would you believe that sugar and processed carbs can actually destroy your ability to regulate how much you eat? Appetite regulating cells are actually destroyed by too much sugar in the blood.
Dr Andrews found that appetite-suppressing cells are attacked by free radicals after eating and said the degeneration is more significant following meals rich in carbohydrates and sugars. “The more carbs and sugars you eat, the more your appetite-control cells are damaged, and potentially you consume more,” Dr Andrews said. Dr Andrews said the attack on appetite suppressing cells creates a cellular imbalance between our need to eat and the message to the brain to stop eating.
Odds And Ends Vitamins And Minerals
Finally, here are a few other articles I’ve come across that all support giving up the processed foods in favor of a Primal way of life.
Broccoli Compound Targets Key Enzyme In Late-stage Cancer:
An anti-cancer compound found in broccoli and cabbage works by lowering the activity of an enzyme associated with rapidly advancing breast cancer,
The study found that people who had higher vitamin B12 levels were six times less likely to experience brain shrinkage compared with those who had lower levels of the vitamin in their blood. None of the people in the study had vitamin B12 deficiency.
And where is B12 found? “Vitamin B12, a nutrient found in meat, fish and milk…” Interesting that the foods the body is meant to consume are also the same ones that keep us healthy. Who would’ve thought that it would work out as such?
The End Result…
So what’s the real takeaway from all of this? Frankly it’s that if you’re eating real foods, the foods that form the basis of the Paleolithic/WAPF/Primal dietary patterns, you don’t have much need to worry yourself over individual vitamins or really even sit down and count out your grams of carbs, fat, and protein. These things just tend to work themselves out.
I find that when I stick to real food, I tend to normalize at 20-25% carbs, about 20% protein, and the rest fat. I know about what I need to fuel my workouts and might steer towards more fruit and sweet potatoes depending on what I’ve been doing. But I don’t count anything. I don’t worry about RDAs of vitamin B, C, D, E, and K (or any of the others that I didn’t name). I eat when I’m hungry and what I’m hungry for, until I’m full. Then I stop.
It always makes me laugh when science discovers the newest “superfood”. I get asked questions like “Do you eat blueberries for their antioxidants?” Well, I do eat blueberries, but not really specifically for the antioxidants. I eat them because they taste quite amazing coated in coconut milk. That they carry with them a load of nutrition is a benefit.
Frankly where modern nutritional “wisdom” went off the rails is when it turned to focusing on nutrients instead of foods. The prehistoric you didn’t know or care about zinc, vitamin A, or iron. All s/he knew was, “When I eat this, I feel good. When I eat that, I feel bad.” While I find it interesting to know that specific foods have specific qualities, I kind of figure that if I’m eating a diet that keeps my blood sugar and insulin levels in check, I’m 98% of the way there. When I walk through the market, I don’t think “Oh, I should get some asparagus for this benefit and some cabbage for that benefit.”
In the end, we all just need to go back to the basics. Eat Real Food! Do that and you can forget worrying about the cardiovascular protection of omega-3s or how many egg yolks you should eat to lower your blood pressure.
There you go…a bit of science and a bit of logic, all in one day. Thoughts?