Is it re­ally wise to take diet ad­vice from a cave man?

The Times-Tribune - - HEALTH&SCIENCE - BY JANE E. BRODY

It seems these days that ev­ery third per­son I meet is ei­ther al­ready on the “Pa­leo” diet or plan­ning to try it. Their goals are ei­ther weight loss or bet­ter health, but cer­tainly not to save the planet.

The main premise of the Pa­leo diet: If the cave men didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t ei­ther. But is this sound nu­tri­tional ad­vice?

Let’s start with three ba­sic facts:

1. There is no such thing as “a” Pa­leo diet. The Pa­le­olithic era lasted 2.5 mil­lion years and in­volved dif­fer­ent and con­tin­u­ally evolv­ing pop­u­la­tions with a wide di­etary range de­ter­mined by cli­mate, ge­og­ra­phy, sea­son and avail­abil­ity.

2. Hu­man be­ings to­day and the com­po­si­tion of the foods they eat are not the same as they were in Pa­leo time. Ge­netic changes and breed­ing have re­sulted in very dif­fer­ent or­gan­isms for both.

3. There have been no stud­ies of large groups of peo­ple who have fol­lowed the cur­rently pop­u­lar ver­sions of the Pa­leo diet for decades to as­sess their long-term health ef­fects.

Keep in mind that the life ex­pectancy of peo­ple be­fore the ad­vent of agri­cul­ture 15,000 years ago rarely reached or ex­ceeded 40, so their risk of devel­op­ing the so-called dis­eases of civ­i­liza­tion is un­known.

There is one ba­sic premise of the Pa­leo diet that could ben­e­fit ev­ery­one’s health: Avoid all foods that are pack­aged and pro­cessed. That said, con­sider a daily menu of 2,200 calo­ries sug­gested in a pop­u­lar book on how to eat like a cave man:

Break­fast: 12 ounces broiled salmon, 1¾ cups can­taloupe.

Lunch: 3 ounces broiled lean pork, 4½ cups salad dressed only with le­mon juice.

Din­ner: 8 ounces lean sir­loin tip roast, 3 cups steamed broc­coli, 4½ cups salad (again, no oil, though some ver­sions of the diet in­clude olive oil), 1 cup straw­ber­ries.

Snacks: ½ orange, ¾ cup car­rots, 1 cup cel­ery.

With so many veg­eta­bles and fruits, the diet does con­tain plenty of fiber and most es­sen­tial vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. De­spite a few se­ri­ous nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies like cal­cium and vi­ta­min D from the lack of dairy foods spurned by Pa­leo en­thu­si­asts, it sounds healthy enough, as long as your kid­neys can han­dle so much pro­tein.

But is it prac­ti­cal? How many peo­ple try­ing to get the kids off to school in the morn­ing and them­selves ready for work will take the time to broil salmon? What will they do when they dine out, es­pe­cially in some­one else’s home? And most im­por­tant of all, can they stay on the diet in­def­i­nitely and live hap­pily with­out a piece of bread, cracker or, heaven for­fend, a serv­ing of ice cream?

And not all Pa­le­olithic di­ets are equally nour­ish­ing. Those who choose the an­ces­tors of the Inu­its as their guide would be eat­ing mostly meats and seafood and few if any fruits and veg­eta­bles, which grow poorly in the Arc­tic. As Mar­lene Zuk, an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota and au­thor of “Pa­le­o­fan­tasy,” told Nu­tri­tion Ac­tion three years ago, the fact that peo­ple like the Inu­its can adapt to a diet with lit­tle plant food “doesn’t mean they should live that way if they have a choice.”

I also won­der whether Pa­leo din­ers faced with cur­rently avail­able choices will stick to lean an­i­mal foods (grass-fed meats, skin­less poul­try, etc.), or would they be tempted to choose more suc­cu­lent, fat­tier, more caloric cuts like brisket, burg­ers and pork ribs. Even worse, they might se­lect pro­cessed meats like ba­con (al­lowed on some Pa­leo diet lists) and sausages that have been linked to an in­creased risk of can­cer and heart dis­ease. Would they suc­cumb to us­ing but­ter and salt to en­hance the fla­vor of steamed veg­eta­bles?

As I see it, a Mediter­ranean-style diet, now pro­moted by most di­eti­tians and re­searchers who study the ef­fects of what we eat, is far eas­ier to in­cor­po­rate into modern lives with min­i­mal risk to last­ing health. It is also bet­ter bal­anced nu­tri­tion­ally and a whole lot tastier.

The Mediter­ranean diet fea­tures only small por­tions of an­i­mal foods and de­pends more on plant pro­teins like beans and peas. It in­cludes olive oil and other mo­noun­sat­u­rated fats. It is more var­ied, less ex­pen­sive, less tax­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment, and eas­ier to fit into the de­mands of life as it is lived to­day.

Sev­eral short-term stud­ies among small groups of peo­ple (of­ten with no con­trol groups) sug­gest that the Pa­leo diet is more ef­fec­tive than the Mediter­ranean ap­proach at pro­mot­ing weight loss and re­duc­ing risk fac­tors for Type 2 di­a­betes and coro­nary heart dis­ease. Still, my vote goes for the more flex­i­ble and far more thor­oughly re­searched Mediter­ranean diet.

on Health VIEW POINT

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