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Food Speak / Stone-age diet has pluses and drawbacks

Published 6:46 pm, Thursday, February 6, 2014
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What's your take on the Paleo diet?

R.B.

Fairfield

It's more likely I'll get chased by a dinosaur than follow the Paleo diet.

The popular stone-age diet promotes foods that can be hunted or gathered: plenty of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts. It also shuns legumes, grains, dairy and sweets.

Proponents of the Paleolithic diet believe that humans are genetically predisposed to eat like cavemen and that's how we'll avoid modern day diet-related disease like obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

To be fair, a strength of the Paleo diet is that it's rich in fruits, veggies, fiber, vitamins, heart-healthy fats, potassium and magnesium. It also aims to cut refined sugar, flour and salt from the American diet while promoting heart- and brain-healthy omega 3 fatty acids in grass-fed meat over grain fed.

Beyond that, the Paleo diet dishes out more promises than evidence. For instance, the diet's founder claims to know exactly what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thounsands of years ago -- even though scientists are still figuring that out.

Besides, even if you tried to eat what our pre-agricultural ancestors ate, most of those foods are just not available today. Wild plants are not the same as what you see in the grocery store and grass-fed meat has been modified from its ancestors by breeding.

The Paleo diet also fails to provide a convincing reason to avoid whole grains, legumes and dairy, while ample research supports them. Legumes are nutrition powerhouses full of protein, fiber, iron, folate, calcium, potassium and antioxidants. Whole grains play a role in lowering the risk of cancer and diabetes and improving digestive health.

Dairy products offer valuable amounts of protein, calcium, potassium and phosphorous. Yogurt is rich in probiotics, which support healthy bacteria in the gut. While it may be true that cavemen may not have had the enzyme to digest lactose in dairy, many people today have evolved to digest dairy just fine.

Any time a diet cuts out entire food groups, you're less likely to be able to sustain it. The take-home message here is that being able to permanently adhere to a certain way of eating is one of the most important attributes of a healthy diet.

If you are considering going Paleo, I recommend that you take some time to educate yourself on both anthropology and modern science. That should convince you to adopt a modified version of Paleo.

Perhaps you can use the Paleo way as a springboard for cutting back on processed foods and eating a more plant-based diet. If you decide to limit dairy, remember that's where we get most of our calcium and vitamin D, so consider a supplement after talking with your doctor or registered dietitian.

Courtney Sansonetti is a medical nutrition therapist and certified diabetes educator for Rehabilitation Associates Inc. Her Food Speak column appears monthly. Email your questions to c.sansonetti@rehabassocinc.com.