Words of Wellness: Paleo

Posted by on Aug 14, 2012 in The Food Well | 14 comments

Words of Wellness: Paleo

Let me stipulate right up front that this is not a post about the pros and cons of the hunter/gatherer diet. Plenty of other better-qualified folks are researching, reviewing and debating the merits of eating like a caveman. Not I.  (If you’re interested, Dr. David Katz’s HuffPost commentary from 2011 is a good place to start.) My interest is purely…epicurean.

Paleo piqued my curiosity when it surfaced unexpectedly in two unrelated conversations. The first was with my son Ben. He’s 26, lives in San Francisco, and is part of an electronic music group, The M Machine. During a recent North American tour, he played Montreal and we met up with him there. The diet of a touring musician often leaves something to be desired, so my first question was, are you eating your vegetables?

“Mom, I’m really into the Paleo diet on this tour. It’s working great for me.”

“Does that mean you’re not eating your vegetables?”

“I eat a lot of meat.”

“Do you eat any vegetables?”

“Mostly meat.”

Is this really what the Paleo diet is all about? Mostly meat? Being mostly vegetarian myself, I hoped it might be a passing fancy.

Fast forward to an online conversation with a young friend I first met in Romania, who now lives and works in Germany. Through the grapevine, I learned Erzsebet had diabetes. I emailed my concern.

“I am on a special diet now,” she wrote back. “It is called the Stone-Age diet and it really helps my condition. I am just feeling great.”

Could this be the same mostly meat diet that is “working great” for my son?  Whatever you call it, Stone Age, caveman, hunter/gatherer, the Paleolithic Diet seems to mean different things to different people.

What’s for dinner?

Basically, “Paleo” refers to a nutritional plan based on the eating habits of our Homo erectus forbearers who lived during the Paleolithic era some 2 million years ago, a period that ended with the dawn of agriculture. The premise is that we are genetically adapted to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors and will be healthier and live longer if we eat like cavemen.

But, as Dr. Katz pointed out, the devil is in the details with this diet. I wondered what these two 20-somethings were actually eating. There is general agreement that the real Stone Age diet included both plants and animals, but how much of each is subject to debate. Whether scientists analyze modern day hunter/gather societies or research the supposed diet of the ancients, a lot seems to depend on where on the planet you lived, and what foods were available.

Paleo has possibilities

As I see it, here are some of my options if I want to go Paleo:

1. Purist: I can eat only what I could have hunted, fished or foraged two million years ago. Wild animals (mammoth, elk?), seafood and foods that can be gathered, like eggs, insects, fruits, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Nothing that was unavailable before agriculture appeared on the scene: No grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. No alcoholic or fermented beverages either.

2. Practical: I can eat modern day foods (including cultivated and domesticated) that emulate the diet of my ancestors: fish, grass-fed pasture raised, lean meats, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts. Again, no grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar or processed oils. I can drink water and maybe tea.

3. Protein-packed: Some, including Walter L. Voegtlin, one of the diet’s earliest proponents and author of The Stone Age Diet, believe our ancestors ate mostly fat and protein, with only a small amount of carbohydrates.  Therefore, most of my calories would come from animal sources. (I doubt deli meats are allowed, but this is where the Paleo diet picks up some of its most carnivorous fans.)

4. Proportional: Another key voice in the movement is S. Boyd Eaton, author of The Paleolithic Prescription. He advocates a more balanced (1:1) calorie intake from animals and plants. I can eat the same proportions of macronutrients, vitamins and minerals as were present in the diet of late Paleolithic people. I can add skimmed milk, whole-grain bread, brown rice, and potatoes prepared without fat to my diet.  I might even be allowed to add olive or canola oils.

These are just a few of my Paleo possibilities. There are infinite variations, and lots of debate on the details, possible health benefits and the evolutionary rationale, which I promised not to go into.

Paleoterranean

So here’s what I think. If I take door #4, stick to fish, limit dairy to a bit of Pecorino, add Fava beans, allow a teeny bit of whole-wheat pasta now and then–and wash it all down with a good Chianti–I could go Paleo. (I like to think my Paleolithic ancestors came from the Mediterranean, if there was one back then.)

I’m hoping that Ben and Erzsebet are practicing something more like my version of the Paleo diet…because I think it would really make them feel great.

P.S.

I’m pretty sure Ben opted for door #3. When we offered to take him out to dinner, he specifically asked to go to Montreal’s Schwartz’s for “World-Famous Original Smoked Meat,” with a side of fries.  Paleo Plus!