Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There Is No One Definitive "Paleo Diet"

Chris Kresser recently addressed an important point about Paleo nutrition: THERE IS NO ONE DEFINITIVE "PALEO DIET."

Even cavepeople ate different diets, after all. The point isn't to mimic the precise eating habits of our prehistoric ancestors. Rather, the point is to stick with food choices for optimal health in a modern world, right?

Here's what Chris had to say about this topic:
[W]hat is a Paleo diet? Is it low-carb? Low-fat? Does it include dairy? Grains?
The answer to that question depends on several factors. First, are we asking what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, or are we asking what an optimal diet for modern humans is? While hard-core Paleo adherents will argue that there’s no difference, others (including me) would suggest that the absence of a food during the Paleolithic era does not necessarily mean that it’s not nutritious or beneficial. Dairy products are a good example.
Second, as recent studies have revealed, we can’t really know what our ancestors ate with 100% certainty, and there is undoubtedly a huge variation amongst different populations. For example, we have the traditional Inuit and the Masai who ate a diet high in fat (60-70% of calories for the Masai and up to 90% of calories for the Inuit), but we also have traditional peoples like the Okinawans and Kitavans that obtained a majority (60-70% or more) of their calories from carbohydrate. So it’s impossible to say that the diet of our ancestors was either “low-carb” or “low-fat”, without specifying which ancestors we’re talking about.
Third, if we are indeed asking what the optimal diet is for modern humans (rather than simply speculating about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate), there’s no way to answer that question definitively. Why? Because just as there is tremendous variation amongst populations with diet, there is also tremendous individual variation. Some people clearly do better with no dairy products. Yet others seem to thrive on them. Some feel better with a low-carb approach, while others feel better eating more carbohydrate. Some seem to require a higher protein intake (up to 20-25% of calories), but others do well when they eat a smaller amount (10-15%).
I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to be following a "Paleo template" rather than a "Paleo diet." After all, "following a diet doesn’t encourage the participant to think, experiment or consider his or her specific circumstances, while following a template does." A template allows for flexibility, while still generally following certain dietary guidelines. Here are Chris' rules of the road:
  • Don’t eat toxins: avoid industrial seed oils, improperly prepared cereal grains and legumes and excess sugar (especially fructose)  
  • Nourish your body: emphasize saturated and monounsaturated fat while reducing intake of polyunsaturated fat, favor glucose/starch over fructose, and favor ruminant animal protein and seafood over poultry  
  • Eat real food: eat grass-fed, organic meat and wild fish, and local, organic produce when possible. Avoid processed, refined and packaged food.
Within these guidelines, however, there’s a lot of room for individual differences. When people ask me whether dairy products are healthy, I always say “it depends”. I give the same answer when I’m asked about nightshades, caffeine, alcohol and carbohydrate intake.