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The Paleo Diet

Worth Following or Just a Fad?

The paleo diet is a recently popular way of eating. It is gaining traction in the health and fitness world and is especially popular with fitness movements such as CrossFit.

 What is it?

 Paleo stands for paleolithic, meaning the paleolithic era. The paleolithic era extends from as far back as 2.6 million years ago until about 10,000 BC. That’s an incredibly long time. It’s long enough that the era itself cannot be characterised to one specific set of human behaviours or lifestyle characteristics.

The paleo diet claims to be the diet that mirrors this period in human civilisation. It is claimed to be the diet that was consumed by early humans before the introduction of agriculture. Before agriculture there was limited access to grains and dairy and all foods were whole and natural. So the claim for paleo advocates is that this is how humans are naturally built to eat. Paleo followers say that anything that was not eaten in the paleolithic era is not fit for human consumption if optimal health is to be attained.

The paleo diet consists primarily of the following:

 

--- Meats such as beef, lamb, chicken and pork.

--- Fish.

--- Cruciferous and leafy vegetables.

--- Eggs.

--- Nuts and seeds.

--- Fruits, with an emphasis on berries.

 The following is eliminated:

--- Grains of any kind, regardless of how whole and natural they are. This includes corn. Paleo followers consider corn a grain, and they are right to a certain degree.

--- All sugars except honey and that which is naturally consumed through fruits and vegetables.

--- Root vegetables such as potato, carrot, sweet poato, yams, turnips etc.

--- Dairy products.

--- Legumes, which includes all beans such as kidney beans, navy beans, broad beans etc. It also includes some things we group into the nut group such as peanuts.

 That’s a basic outline of what the paleo diet includes and excludes.

 The Claim

The claim of paleo diet advocates is that humans ate this way for hundreds of thousands of years. The human body over this time evolved and adapted to eat this way. Everything else is harmful to long term health because the human body is not equipped to properly digest it.

What is this based on? It’s based simply on assumption and history. There are some good points made by paleo followers, however as a whole the thinking and rationale is flawed. The assumption is that if it was not consumed by the prehistoric human then it is automatically bad for you. Scientific research on this is limited and there has been no actual study that proves irrevocably that the paleo diet is healthier for the human body than a healthy modern diet.

The Truth

I will start by saying that I am not debunking the entire paleolithic lifestyle. Followers of this diet are partially right. They are right in saying that dairy is something that is not entirely necessary, however it is not something that needs to be completely eliminated either. They are right in saying that processed grains, which now days are a vast majority of grains, are void of nutritional value. Food indeed should be whole and natural. But does it have to be so strict?

My argument is that just because something wasn’t available to cavemen does not mean that it is bad for us. Looking at the human digestive system we clearly have enzymes and functions in place designed to digest pretty much any whole and natural food that we consume. If grains were all bad we would not have the ability to digest them at all. Try feeding a 100% herbivorous animal some meat and see what happens. Feed a cow a daily serving of lamb. That cow’s digestive system would not be able to process it because it is not equipped to eat that.

Any animal, humans included, will naturally eat the kinds of foods that are preferred, both psychologically and by the body’s systems. Put a bunch of horses in a paddock with grass, lamb chops, rice and cheese. The horses are guaranteed to eat the grass. They will not touch the lamb chops because it’s not a natural food source for them. Humans just happen to be omnivorous, meaning we eat vegetable products and animal products. We have a digestive system that is not specialised to a limited group of foods. Our digestive system is designed to cope with variety. In fact, eating a narrow choice of foods is known to cause an intolerance to certain things.

Back to what I said earlier about animals eating what they are meant to eat. This is true overall, but not entirely true in the details. Every animal, given the opportunity, is equipped to overeat. It’s a survival mechanism. This is one of the major causes of obesity and poor health, simply too much food availability and such a lack of effort to get the food. Secondly, us humans have developed foods that do not resemble their natural state. So what has happened is we have become subconsciously confused. The choices we make are not wrong choices if the foods were in their natural state, they are simply the wrong VERSION of a food we should be eating.

As I said before, just because it was not available to us in the paleolithic era does not mean it is automatically bad. No WHOLE food group is bad for humans. Variety in the human diet is absolutely necessary to maintain good health.

What can we take from the Paleo Diet? How should we REALLY be eating?

No animal is meant to eat processed foods. By the same token, we are not built to continuously overfeed ourselves. These are the ONLY causes of nutrition-based health issues. We either eat too much, not eat REAL food or both. Most often it is both.

So the answer to well-being is quite a simple one. It’s not one of complete exclusion. We don’t have to avoid dairy, give up all grains and live off meat and vegies. There are two rules:

1.      EAT REAL FOOD – Eliminate anything that has been manufactured. Chicken breast should not have a list of ingredients, it should be cut straight from the chicken with additional treatment or processing. The same goes for all foods. Only eat foods that come in their natural state. For grains there is always going to be some human involvement. But they can still be eaten in their most whole form.

2.      STOPPING EATING SO MUCH – All animals, including humans, are not meant to have 24/7 access to a constant food source. Many people eat too much of something at least several times per week. Obviously eight slices of toast is never a good idea, neither is a bucket of chicken wings. If you want to take one thing from cavemen it is the lack of continuous food access. Obviously cavemen could go hungry for days or even not eat for a week. No need to go to that extreme. But stop eating six meals a day. Stop snacking on high calorie foods. Give your body a rest from eating. Learn what it’s like to be hungry sometimes. Then when you eat, learn to push the plate away when your body has consumed the required amount of nutrients. Don’t keep eating until you are completely full.

The paleo diet has some good points, but overall it is a fad, probably a fad that will be around a very long time. However it is too restrictive, to the point where it is not necessary. Follow the above two rules, eat a wide range of whole foods, go organic where you can and avoid most foods that have been manufactured by humans, and pretend you don’t have constant access to an endless food supply. Food is to be enjoyed and should nourish your body. Any kind of “diet” is detrimental to your mental and physical health.

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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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