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Paleolithic musings

Have you noticed the deluge of Paleo books flooding the market today? Do you know what Paleo nutrition is? Did our hunter/gatherer ancestors do more hunting than gathering? Were they hyper-carnivores? Did a large percent of their daily energy needs come from meat? Should we eat like that today?

Yes? No?

Maybe?

Holy mastodon, what are modern humans to do? It’s confusing.

Channel your inner-caveman, grab a drumstick, and let’s unleash the past. On second thought, grab a bowl of baked beans or some goat yogurt, because I’m going to propose we’ve overestimated Paleolithic meat consumption and that, long term, the Paleo diet isn’t the best choice.

But first, a disclaimer and a friendship flag. I’m no evolutionary biologist. I can’t tell you the historical time-lines of different populations, or even who the populations were. Neanderthals, sapiens, upper-lower-middle Paleolithic, pre-Neolithic?

Or who was where? Northern Europe, west Asia, the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Bronx?

In order to propose a specific behavior (archeologically speaking), you need to know what you’re talking about. You also need to have a sound understanding of historical perspective and some scientific evidence. Like cave drawings of ancient BBQs, stone-age meat cleavers, or a well-preserved Neanderthal clutching a mastodon femur. I don’t have any of the above. No artifacts, no fossils, very little knowledge of the time period.

I’m also of the notion that one-sized diet doesn’t fit all. Now or 200,000 years ago, so each to their own.

But, if we’re honest, our fragmented knowledge of the Paleolithic era doesn’t clearly indicate who ate what when. There’s a wide range of possibilities with a zillion variables. If we sift through the research, there’s evidence of fossilized plant particles and starch grains embedded in Neanderthal dental plaque, meaning they ate a variety of plants, including legumes and tubers. Ancient encampments are often littered with animal remains (bones), which gives the impression that early humans ate a lot of meat. But if you think about it, there’s not much evidence to leave behind if you’re a plant. Bones survive thousands of years, plants don’t — they decompose. It’s like searching for an ice cube after it melts. How do we know the Paleo diet wasn’t predominately plant-based, with a little meat thrown in on rare occasions? Recent research is suggesting that theory might be closer to fact than all the hoopla about the caveman diet.

My ancestors ate a plant-based diet, with a little meat when they happened upon fresh road kill, a slow rabbit, or whatever else was around during that time period. I doubt meat was a major source of energy. Since I can’t text my ancestors and ask, this is obviously speculation. For an older post I wrote on this and my thoughts on Paleo and how HLA DQ2 genes add to the mix, please read “Confessions of an HLA DQ2 Cave Woman.”

To make this information easier to “digest,” I’m simply going to compare the modern Paleo diet to what people who currently live the longest eat (Blue Zone communities, see below for details and references). Yes, you could say this is simplistic, misleading, and doesn’t do justice to the Paleo diet. I agree to some extent, but there are too many variables (individual biochemistry, unique gut ecology, genetics, lifestyle, outlook on life, activity levels, food quality, etc.) and not enough accurate historical information to give the Paleo diet a science-based thumbs up or thumbs down. Having said that, I’m not a fan.

Sample 1-day 2200 kcal Paleo menu (“The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based Upon Paleolithic Food Groups.” Loren Cordain, PhD, Department of Health and Exercise Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado)

Breakfast
Cantaloupe, broiled Atlantic salmon

Lunch
Vegetable salad with walnuts (shredded Romaine lettuce, sliced carrot, sliced cucumber, quartered tomatoes, lemon juice dressing, walnuts), broiled lean pork loin

Dinner
Vegetable avocado/almond salad (shredded mixed greens, tomato, avocado, slivered almonds, sliced red onion, lemon juice dressing), steamed broccoli, lean beef sirloin tip roast

Dessert
Strawberries

Snacks
Orange, carrot sticks, celery sticks

According to Loren Cordain, macronutrient percentages for a contemporary (2200 kcal) diet based on Paleo food groups (meats, seafood, nuts/seeds, fruits, vegetables) should be:
38 % Protein
23 % Carbohydrate
39% Fat
Food groups not included in Cordain’s version of the Paleo diet are: grains, dairy, dried beans, legumes

Sample 1 day 1900 kcal Blue Zone menu (this is an estimated compilation of several global Blue Zone diets, which are all similar in content)

Breakfast
Herbal tea with honey, corn bread, fruit, goat milk or yogurt

Lunch
Rice and beans, garlic, onions, large green salad

Dinner
Stir fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, spicy curries, red wine

Snacks
Vegetables, orange, nuts/seeds

According to Dan Buettner, longevity researcher and author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, the typical food groups of Blue Zone inhabitants include: grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, limited dairy (from local goats, for example), small amounts of meat or fish on rare occasions, red wine.

Although neither way of eating includes processed foods, junk food, or fast food, they are quite different in macronutrient composition. One is animal protein heavy (Paleo) and one is unrefined carbohydrate heavy (Blue Zone). Paleo doesn’t include grains or legumes, Blue Zone meals regularly include beans, corn, rice, lentils.

There’s a lot more to the longevity story than diet alone. I’ll focus on that another time, this post is about food alone.

So, what do you think? Paleo or plant-based?

Peace, love, and each to their own.
Melissa

References (aside from my own way of intuitive eating)

Blaser, Martin, et al. “What are the consequences of the disappearing human microbiota?” Nature: Reviews Microbiology, December, 2009.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society, Washington DC, 2012.

Cordain, Loren. “The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based on Paleolithic Food Groups.” JANA, Vol. 5, No. 3.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2005.

Hardy, Karen, et al. “Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.” Naturwissenschaften Journal, Vol. 99, Issue 8.

Henry, Amanda, et al. “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets.” PNAS, November 12, 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/2/486.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

confessions of an HLA DQ2 cavewoman

*Warning: this post took on a life of its own. If you’re looking for a quick recipe, bail out now. If you’re remotely interested in my take on the wonderful world of food, genetics, evolution and Celiac disease, brace yourself and read on.

Was this Paleo guy after the mastodon or the armadillo?

Or, maybe he was out doing some wild cereal hunting. That field of Triticum would be a lot easier to tackle than the mastodon. I’m pretty sure I evolved from a less aggressive, nomadic, grass-eating tribe. My ancestors hunted with pruning shears, not six foot long daggers with jagged tips. We ate grasses, berries, nuts, seeds, dates, olives, leafy green things and even rich, savory mushrooms once we figured out which ones didn’t kill us. We also ate a lot of fish depending on our travels.

Unfortunately, that’s where things went awry. When we stopped wandering and built condos on the Mediterranean Sea. I had HLA DQ2 ancestors and around 8500 B.C. they decided cultivating Triticum dicoccum (emmer wheat) was less dangerous than chasing 6 ton mastodons with sharp pointy tusks.

And so, the Celiac story begins – with the domestication of wheat and the interaction of HLA (human leukocyte antigen) genes and deamidated gluten peptides. To make it even more fun, let’s throw in sexual selection, mating preferences and pathogen resistance. We actually have some biological factors (those HLA genes again) influencing who we get a crush on and mate with. Darn it though, this little trick of nature doesn’t always play out to our benefit.

HLA genes are involved in immune function. They guard against nasty invaders and do a good job keeping us healthy. They also magically prompt us to compliment our disease fighting ability with genetic dissimilarities. We subconsciously strive for varied biological attributes in our offspring. Bottom line? These genes play a role in who we get the hots for.

Seriously. I’m not making this up. Check here for details.

It’s called olfactory curb appeal. Okay, I made that up.

But, have you ever been attracted to someone simply because they smelled good? You don’t know why they smell good, it’s not perfume or cologne or anything. It’s just them. That’s deep, dark and delicious biology working to keep the species healthy. We don’t know it, but we’re seeking to keep our DNA loaded with a genetic mixture of diverse immunity, so we sniff out complimentary HLA genes. Unfortunately, the introduction of wheat, barley and rye played havoc on our genetic blueprint. These normally brilliant little HLA DQ2 genes also code for autoimmunity (check here for details), as is the case with Celiac Disease and Type 1 Diabetes.

Oops.

Okay, that was a rather convoluted introduction to why I don’t favor the Paleo diet, but I had to set the biogeographical stage. You see, my ancestors go back 10,000 years ago to the Fertile Crescent. I was sunbathing on the Syrian coast and eating a Mediterranean diet way back when. Before it was cool and trendy to eat like that. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t loading up on pounds of mastadon meat. Maybe on rare occasions like someone’s wedding or the toppling of a rival empire, but not often.

I’m also thinking my female ancestors frequently had to settle for HLA DQ2 suitors rather than shaking things up with an anti-Celiac DQ4 guy. Life was different then. It’s not like you could jet off to the Andes in hopes of diluting the DQ2 gene pool. You got stuck with whoever was in your merry band of hunters and gatherers and that probably meant similarly encoded DQ antigen regions.

I’m just curious about all this because I think it’s in my genetic makeup to favor plants. I’m not much of a meat eater. Paleo eating is popular right now and supporters suggest we evolved to eat a high animal protein diet, but that doesn’t work for me. At all. Ethics aside, I’m not fond of animal products and I don’t digest meat or dairy well. I’m much better off eating a big bowl of leafy greens, some brown rice and a mix of roasted veggies than I am a slab of prime rib or a chunk of cheese. I’m sure I’d do better if my meat sources were from wild, organic, healthy animals and my dairy sources were raw and from 100% grass fed, happy cows, but in general, and for a lot of reasons, I’m more suited to a plant-based diet. Considering the toxic chemicals in our food supply, the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) and the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, I don’t think a diet heavy with animal protein is healthy.

By the way, this post isn’t an endorsement of any specific eating plan. I’m just thinking out loud. So, don’t hit me over the head with a club if you’re a Paleo fan. For the record, I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but fairly close and if I do eat animal products, I’m grateful that I can be picky about the sources.

Okay? Are we all friends? Omnivores and herbivores? Vegans and meat eaters? Berry pickers and spear throwers? What works for one person doesn’t always work for another. We’re biochemically unique. I’m also convinced that genetic influences (as wildly explained above), environmental determinants, ethical leanings, lifestyle factors and nutrient feng shui make a difference.

I made up that nutrient feng shui thing. That’s my phrase for food combining, which I’m not into either. Life is hard enough, lets make eating easier, not more difficult. A nutrient-dense, whole foods, plant-based diet is easy and healthy. At least for my DNA.

Points to Ponder

• Recent research suggests that red meat consumption increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011

• Study reveals direct evidence for a variety of plant foods in the Neanderthal diet, including legumes, date palms and grass seeds (Triticeae). PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2010

• Don’t assume we were all heavy meat eaters. Molar macrowear in Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens suggests high dietary variability. My ancestors were Paleo Plant People from Mediterranean habitats. Check here for the research details. I made up Paleo Plant People, but who knows, that might emerge as a classification system. I’ll contact the Paleolithic genome project and suggest it.

• Maintaining a healthy pH balance is important to health. Beef, pork, poultry, milk, butter, cheese, cream are acid-forming foods. Plants are alkalizing. An acidic internal environment is disease-promoting. Low acid diets may protect against several diseases, including osteoporosis (yes, osteoporosis). Check here for details.

• According to my weight and age, I’m supposed to consume about 45 to 50 grams of protein per day. The average American adult consumes at least twice that much per day (100 to 120 grams per day). When that much protein (along with the often higher percentage of fat in animal products) is consumed, other important nutrients are often excluded from the diet. Fiber percentages and beneficial plant nutrients are often lacking in high protein (animal source) diets. I prefer less protein than the USDA’s RDA and more fiber than they recommend. That can easily be accomplished on a high-grade, plant-based diet. Even if you’re exercising a lot. Even if you’re a serious athlete.

• Strong and consistent correlations are reported between death rates from cancer and per capita consumption of animal products. Check here for epidemiological correlations between diet and cancer frequency.

• It’s my opinion that a whole foods, predominantly plant-based diet filled with lots of fiber and organic, nutrient-dense vegetables is the best way to heal and thrive if you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. I have DQ2 genes and Celiac disease. People like me often have difficulty digesting animal products (meat and dairy). Maybe we didn’t evolve to do so. Maybe our genes are telling us something. Maybe Paleo isn’t for us. Maybe we’re Paleo Plant People.

Peace, love and green veggies.
Melissa

 

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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