Eating like our paleolithic ancestors could benefit health and longevity, so how can you start the paleo diet?
Paleo sees a return to the simpler diet of our paleolithic ancestors from more than 10,000 years ago. Before farming and mass food production, hunter-gatherer humans of the paleolithic period enjoyed a healthy mix of meat, fish, and fruit and veg. Unlike the fad weight loss diets of the recent past, more modern diets like paleo instead focus on improving health and gradual weight loss. By removing highly processed food, dairy, and grains from the diet, paleo also provides numerous health benefits. What is paleo exactly, and how can it improve health and longevity?
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet takes a trip back in time to the paleolithic era over 10,000 years ago. Cereals, grains, and dairy were not introduced into the human diet until much later with the advent of agriculture. Eventually, we ended up with the highly processed, low nutrition foods of today.
Paleo proponents argue that while our diets have changed rapidly over the past 10,000 years, our bodies have not had time to adapt. This has resulted in an evolutionary mismatch between our bodies and our diets. This theory is known as the ‘discordance hypothesis’ on which the paleo diet is based. Paleo eliminates relatively modern foods like dairy, cereals, and grains, as well as the processed foods of today from the diet to improve weight loss, health, and longevity.
Benefits to health and longevity
While this theory has been contested by anthropologists, paleo nevertheless promotes a balanced diet that can boost health and longevity. Eating a paleo diet is associated with improved body weight, weight circumference, blood pressure levels, and lipid profiles – all risk factors for chronic and metabolic diseases .
A major health benefit of paleo is that it encourages eating whole foods instead of highly processed food. Generally, the more processed food is, the worse it is for health and longevity. Highly processed foods include sugar and all things nice; soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, and ready meals to name a few. While a delicious treat on occasion, the extent to which highly processed foods make up the modern diet is literally killing us.
With the proliferation of processed foods in the modern diet, taking the simpler approach of our ancestors is a good idea. Paleo eliminates highly processed foods, instead focusing on minimally processed whole foods like meat, fish, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Hunter-gatherers would get their sugar fix from natural sources like berries and honey.
Paleo also eliminates carbohydrates like cereals and grains from the diet. This means it is conveniently low-carb, and can be used to promote healthy weight loss and improve metabolic conditions. The paleo diet has high satiety, and therefore high compliance rates, regardless of low calorie intake.
It is also gluten- and wheat-free, so suitable for people with allergies or intolerances. In fact, some paleo practitioners even blame the relatively recent introduction of cereals and dairy in the diet for the prevalence of allergies.
The dairy debate
Another food group that makes up a major part of the modern diet is dairy, introduced when humans began farming livestock. Such a staple in our diets that it was once delivered daily to households by a dedicated milkman, dairy is fast falling out of fashion. With the popularisation of vegetarianism and environmentalism, many people are forgoing cows’ milk for dairy-free alternatives.
Whether dairy benefits health has been highly debated. Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt contain protein and minerals like calcium. Calcium famously improves bone mineral density, important for growing children and older women exposed to osteoporosis . However, dairy products also have an excess of saturated fat, and are the biggest source of it in the American diet . High levels of saturated fat, the ‘bad fat’, is linked to heart disease – the top cause of death in America. Studies have also linked dairy to increased risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer, speculatively because of its fat and hormone content .
Guide to going paleo
Despite being on a diet, people on paleo can enjoy a wide variety of healthy whole foods including:
- Fruit, try berries if you want to eat like a true hunter-gatherer
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean meats, mainly from grass-fed or wild game
- Fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon or mackerel
- Fruit and nut oil
Foods that are restricted on the paleo diet include farmed foods and highly processed food inconceivable to hunter-gatherer humans:
- Cereals and grains, including bread, pasta, oats, and rice
- Legumes, like beans, lentils, and peas
- All dairy products – try calcium-rich foods like sardines, salmon, and mackerel plus spinach, kale, and collards instead
- Refined sugar
- Highly processed food
Since they had no means to farm or store food, hunter-gatherers were also fond of fasting. Interestingly, fasting has been linked to improved health and longevity by triggering autophagy. This is the process by which old and damaged cells are rejuvenated. It is worth considering doing an overnight fast along with eating a paleo diet during the day.
While extreme in its banishment of dairy, cereals, and grains, the paleo diet nevertheless promotes eating healthy whole foods from the past over highly processed foods of modern day. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep are the foundations of health and longevity. However, as we all know, this can be challenging to adhere to all the time. Following a delineated diet plan like paleo could help people stick with a balanced diet, improving health and longevity.