"A Healthy Body Is The Guest Chamber Of The Soul; A Sick One Is Its Prison." ~Francis Bacon
As of late "The Paleo Diet" has become all the rage. What is it? How can it help us? Why is a "caveman diet" relevant to us today? Ever since I can remember I've been fascinated by the topic of cultural longevity. This overlaps my fascination with archaeology, medical anthropology, epidemiology and exercise physiology. There are very basic and simple laws, which we all fall govern to: the laws of nature. No one can escape them. No one can refute them. They are impersonal, un-bias, and un-wavering. Yet, there are nuances and subtleties within these laws. You could liken this to the intricate veins of a leaf. One leaf, one snowflake is not like another. In other words, every snowflake is governed by nature's laws, yet each is unique. We too are like this. The "art" of being a medical provider is maintaining a "bird's eye view," or larger perspective, while examining the individual canvass of each person before him/her. This is the discipline, as the Chinese say. "See yin within yang, yang within yin." Easy to say, a challenge to be sure.
Let us get out on the table some questions I hear every week in my practice. "Is there one diet for everyone, Almine?" The answer is no. Do I think every single person on the planet should be on "The Paleo Diet." My answer is "No." I will say this, however. The broad sweeping "bird's eye view" on our culture is in need of it.
We are statistically the most obese nation in the world. This is not a badge to be proud of. It is a concern. In fact, former president Bill Clinton called it "an American health crisis unparalleled."
So, do I believe (and have seen clinically) that "The Paleo Diet" is a solid "prescription" for the majority of Americans? Yes. You will have the "outlier," who defies the "bell-shaped curve" of nutritional needs. As "CrossFit" founder, Coach Glassman calls them "The Specialist." However, that is not the demographic this post is addressing. It is addressing the "general athlete," & "average American."
When Dr. Loren Cordain, Ph.D. first expounded upon his research of "The Paleo Diet," as he termed it, he was "poo-pooed" by his fellow colleagues. "But, what about the fact that 'Paleo Man' only lived to be in his/her 40's (at the most)?" "What about the endurance athlete?" "What about the 'tried and true' theory of 'carb-loading?" All of these questions were fired over and over. His responses, however, fell on deaf ears. To be frank, the academic community did not embrace doctor Cordain's research. Until now.
An old adage states "A prophet is never honored in his/her own land." This is as applicable to modern scientists, as to sages of old. A friend of mine stated (whose a Quantum Physicist), "Quantum physics will be accepted when the old guys who cling to worn out theories are dead and gone. Only then will the latest research have minds open enough to grasp it." Moral of the story? It often takes years for a theory to become accepted.
"The Paleo Diet" is a wake-up call. What is it waking us up to? Ancestral wisdom. Perhaps we can be open enough to see that progress is not necessarily linear. For all our new "faux foods" ("faux" or imitation meats, milks, etc.) we're none the better for it. Our obesity rates continue to soar, & our preventable diseases continue to rise.
"The Paleo Diet" is really a practical application of the late Dr. Weston A Price's research (1870-1948), who was a forefather in the realm of Medical Anthropology. Dr. Price and his wife spent their latter years, traveling, studying what he termed "ancestral diets" amongst traditional peoples. We call this "historical nutrition" in Medical Anthropology. Dr. Price is known in Medical Anthropology circles as "The Charles Darwin Of Nutrition." An excerpt from a Medical Anthropology textbook (which was my "Bible" in undergrad.) states:
"Price traveled the world over in order to study isolated human groups, including sequestered villages in Switzerland, Gaelic communities in the Outer Hebrides, Eskimos and Indians of North America, Melanesian and Polynesian South Sea Islanders, African tribes, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori and the Indians of South America. Wherever he went, Dr. Price found that beautiful straight teeth, freedom from decay, stalwart bodies, resistance to disease and fine characters were typical of primitives on their traditional diets, rich in essential food factors."
Seminole Native American studied by Dr. Price. Note the perfect teeth structure, jaw line and nasal passage openings. All indicators to Medical Anthropologists that give a clue as to excellent pre-natal nutrition of the mother, and a continuation of high fat-soluable vitamin intake.
"When Dr. Price analyzed the foods used by isolated primitive peoples he found that they provided at least four times the calcium and other minerals, and at least TEN times the fat-soluble vitamins from animal foods such as butter, fish eggs, shellfish and organ meats."
It was Dr. Price's research that spurred Dr. Cordain to further investigate "Paleo Nutrition."
A fundamental difference you will see between Dr. Price's work and Dr. Cordain's work is the exclusion of dairy in "The Paleo Diet." Dr. Price was an advocate of raw, grass-fed dairy and its products (cheese, kefir, yogurt, butter, curds, etc.). Dr. Cordain is not.
My feeling on this? If one participates in one's own animal husbandry, and/or has access to raw, organic, grass-fed dairy, then try it. See how it does for your body. I see genetics come into play quite a bit with the dairy issue. I have a lot of French blood in me. I do well on raw, European sheep's and goat's cheeses. I allow myself a "cheat day" 1x per week, where I decadently eat the best French sheep and/or goat feta I can find. My body sees it as something special, and a rare treat. I digest raw feta well, but keep it to a minimum in my diet.
Dr. Cordain's argument for eliminating dairy is that the majority of the American people will not take the time to source, the high-quality dairy that Dr. Price saw amongst native peoples. I think he's accurate. That's not to say that its unavailable. It is available, but you have to mimic the practices of your ancestors by sourcing the "local dairy," and connecting with a small, family farm in your area. Luckily, this is becoming more and more easy to do. Through venues like farmer's markets and websites, in fact, its easier now than ever before. A good website to use as a reference for this is: http://www.realmilk.com/
If you look at people with genetics from Scandanavia, they tolerate high-fat dairy very well. Its how they obtain their vit. D in such a sun-deficient land. In fact, its necessary to their health. They do, however, count quality as priority in their dairy. Many of them keep one cow, and even ingest reindeer milk products (high-fat) to obtain the fat-soluable vitamins so vital that Dr. Price spoke of. Neurological disorders ensue, north of the equator the more north you go, and the less sunlight you see. This is of course, if you're not supplementing via animal fat products. Let me be clear: there is NO vegan equivalent for fat-soluable vitamins. You MUST OBTAIN IT FROM ANIMAL FAT. There is no chlorophyll and/or plant compound equivalent that makes up for "edible sunlight" in the form of vit. D.
Vit. D and A levels are highest in raw dairy, not to mention CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) being a bonus as well (the newly touted "anti-cancer miracle").
If you live north of the equator, or in an area that obtains little sunlight, in comparison to the tropics, you are doing your liver and immune system a disservice be eating a vegan diet. Vegan diets are wonderful "temporary fixes" for obesity. So is a low-carb diet. It doesn't provide adequate nutrition, however, for the growing child, pregnant mother, athletic woman or vital senior. Not even by a long shot. Take it from a "recovering vegan." My blood-work #'s while being a vegan for 5 yrs. are like night and day compared to them now. My primary care naturopath says I have the #'s of "the healthiest teenager I've ever seen." What turned them around? Eating good amounts of (gasp!) high-quality animal fat and protein via animal sources.
Concerned about the welfare of animals? You should be. If you're not you're eating unconsciously. I was a vegetarian for 10 yrs. (5 of those vegan) for ethical reasons. However, my diagnosis of obesity (yes, on a vegan "healthy" diet!) coupled with chronic fatigue (CFS) and fibromyalgia diagnosis got the better of me. This is when I was in my 20's. I realized I couldn't live like that anymore. I began to wonder "Whose suffering more here? The animals or me?" I wondered as I huffed and puffed up 1 flight of stairs, body aching the next day because of it. In earnest, with a sincere heart, I asked my meditation teacher "What do I do? I want to live an ethical life, but my body is hurting me." Her response (and she is a vegetarian from India):
"Suffering is a relative concept. If you alleviate the suffering in your own body, you will be stronger, so that you may inspire and help others. I understand your compassionate heart, but you must do what is right for your body, so that you can do your 'dharma' (role or mission) in this world. That is the most important thing. If your body requires you to eat meat to be strong and healthy, you should."
My meditation teacher, whom I met in 1995, Mother Meera
My husband and I take painstaking care to source our grass-fed meat from small family farms in our area. Factory farming has no place in our household. We don't advocate cruelty. Nor do we support it. Large agri-conglomerates are stamping out the rural family farm. A family farm, with 2-4 livestock animals has become a thing of the past. "Monsanto" has put fear into the hearts of multi-generation family farms to succumb to the corporate structure of farming, thereby creating un-sanitary, cruel, and un-savory conditions for animals to live in. In addition, consider this: when an animal (or a human being) is under long-periods of stress, cortisol, our "fight or flight" hormone is released in large quantities into the blood stream. This actually compromises meat quality, and thereby nutrition. A happy animal, is a power-packed nutrition source. Clean air, grass, sunshine and kindness will in fact nourish your body more, by way of a happy animal. A relaxed cow, is a nutrient-dense cow. We are no different. When we're stressed our health quality is poor. All creatures are governed by this law.
Poor conditions for animals in factory-farms leads to poor-quality meat, and inhumane treatment of animals.
By voting with your dollars, and supporting small family farms, you are doing an immense amount of good. You're not only supporting local families, your ingesting high-quality food that will nourish your body whole.
Content, free-ranging cows in the Swiss Alps
While it is true that certain periods of athletic activity require higher glycemic carbohydrates, you may be surprised as to the amount that you need. The "carb loading" theory, that endurance athletes have seldom questioned, has its "holes." When looking at the level of importance amino acids play in endurance events vs. carbohydrates, you may reconsider which is more needed. Amino acids come from protein. Think having a piece of toast vs. an egg before a race is more beneficial? Think again. There IS a time to increase carbohydrates during a racing event, but it might shock you as to when you should take them and quantity. This is something that has to be carefully examined and "tweaked" by coach, athlete and medical provider. This is a delicate process, not unlike a spider web. Each strand of the athlete's nutrition has to be properly accounted for and taken into consideration.
When you begin to look at the nutrition needs of the Adventure Racing athlete, or those doing such physical events like an "Eco-Challenge" or ultra-run, then we're getting into the realm of "The Specialist," or "Outlier," where other issues must be taken into consideration. This too, is taken into account, by Dr. Cordain's second book "The Paleo Diet For Athletes." I HIGHLY recommend all endurance athletes and coaches read this book. It will answer all your questions in great detail.
With the agricultural revolution came the industrial revolution, hot on its heels. As we began to understand how we could manipulate the laws of nature, this created a "ripple effect" of consequences. We began to gain power and control over not only the seed itself (with patents on seeds!), but also realized we could "create" food. This began the advent of "boxed meals." You may think that rice milk or soy milk is much better than a "Lean Cuisine," but think again. You're drinking predominately refined carbohydrates, and unnecessary ones at that. A statement that bluntly drives home this point was once told to me by the great herbalist, Susan Weed: "If it doesn't have breasts, it doesn't make milk. Period."
Here's how you need to consider boxed meals: they are products where "filler" agricultural remnants go. Where the "waste" of agriculture ends up. Its the food equivalent of "fluff" or styrofoam "peanuts." Very little, if any nutritional value.
As "The Zone" diet advocates: stick to the perimeter of your grocery market. Perishable items are usually a safe bet. The ratio of fats/protein/carbs. in these products tend to be the way Mother Nature wanted it. Not manipulated by man.
In addition, I would recommend game meats vs. agricultural meats, if given a choice. Find a neighbor in your area who ethically hunts (takes only whats needed for neighbors and family, practices humane hunting methods). Game meats are more nutrient-dense than agriculturally raised meat. Buffalo, elk, venison, rabbit, various game fowl are good choices.
The Greeks and Romans Had A Name For Their Hunting Patron, "Artemis" or "Diana" The Huntress :)
When eating seafood take the time to talk to the people behind the front counter. They can tell you what is on the endangered list. "Whole Foods" provides a "key" or "legend," which is on each type of fish sold telling you about its eco-sustainability rating.
An Inuit Man Ice Fishing In Alaska
In addition to game meats, I would like to recommend emphasizing organ meats as the primary protein/amino acid source in the diet. Quality counts here, and organic is imperative, unless you want to ingest the main "filter" of the animal's body, where all the anti-biotics, pesticides, etc. go. Organ meats are virtually powerhouses of amino acids. Its a no wonder the old school "strongmen and women," as they were called in Europe (the warriors of the Celts & Sparta) ate nothing but organ meats, berries and fruit. Annals say they trained on organ meats alone.
When the first white settlers came to Tanzania and Kenya they encountered the Maasai. Fierce, warriors, "superior physical specimens of unparalleled athleticism," one priest wrote in his diary. Oddly enough, he also touted them as "heathens" for drinking blood mixed with raw cow's milk and eating liver. I wonder how they got so "superior" and "athletic?" That's a menu of 100% amino acids, protein, mixed with the proper ratio of carbs. and fats.
My brother had the opportunity to participate in this culinary experience with them, when in Africa. He stated you saw no declining health in these people. The women carried heavy loads across miles (with their children on their backs as well), while the men hunted lion (yeah, that might take some "athleticism") and game during the day. Cows are very important to their culture, and they prepare them by ethical culling. In other words, they kill them in a kosher manner: they aim accurately for the most "vulnerable area of the jugular" & swiftly blow a dart into the cow. The cow painlessly dies within seconds.
Maasai Warrior, Kenya
After discussing some of the finer points of "The Paleo Diet" we can sum it up in few words. Coach Glassman founder of "CrossFit" states simplistically:
"Base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar."
To reduce high-glycemic carbohydrates, increase protein and amino acid dense foods, and decrease boxed items will be, in and of itself, of huge benefit to anyone. Try to do these simple things, and you will notice a remarkable increase in health, vitality and fitness. To be fit and healthy is to be strong, so that you can help others. When one lights their own candle, they can then, in turn, light others. Support local farmers. Eat consciously. Move outside. Feel gratitude.
Backpacking Through The "Sisters Wilderness," Middle Sister In The Background