Dr. Wall Says

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What is this Paleo diet you speak of? (Part I)

Image courtesy of fitnessista.com
Image courtesy of fitnessista.com

There are so many fad diets out there. Each one promises the same thing, huge weight loss in no time if you are willing to starve yourself, have a liquid diet, or swallow some kind of pharmaceutical miracle. At the end of the day they are all the same, short termed, short lived and fundamentally preying on the our desire to get where we want to go fast and without effort. With that in mind why would anyone care to know about, try and eventually adopt another diet? Well, with the Paleo diet the answer is simple but multifactorial: 1) This is not a fad diet, it is not designed to make you drop 20 pounds in four weeks, this is a life style, it’s a nutritional choice. 2) None of those other diets do anything for your overall health, whereas eating Paleo has been associated with improved health across the board (more about that in the next few paragraphs). 3) It makes sense and 4) if your goal is to be healthier and if losing weight is a by-product of that the Paleo lifestyle will work, it will work very well.

Named the caveman diet by mainstream media, the Paleo diet is founded on the principles of eating real food and eating foods that are designed to be digested and handled properly by our bodies. What does that mean? Well it means that instead of eating junk food, frozen TV dinners, and processed foods that contain a list of ingredients that require a chemist to translate them, it focuses on eating protein (meats, seafood and eggs), vegetables, some fruit, healthy fats and some nuts. I know what you are thinking: “Where is my fiber? Where are my multi-grains? Don’t I need those to be healthy?” The short answer is no, but I realize that will not satisfy you so here we go…

Part I: The long and the short of why the Paleo diet doesn’t include grains, legumes and refined sugar:

Courtesy of life.dailyburn.com
Courtesy of life.dailyburn.com

Let’s start out by being fair, grains are a great source of calories. What I mean by that is that they hold a large amount of calories in a very small and dense package. When considering  how to feed hungry nations this is a very economical way of meeting caloric needs rapidly. Unfortunately the benefit of grains stops there. What you need to undestand is this:

1. Human evolution is a very, very very, very slow process. It takes a long time for us to truly adapt at a genetic level to our environment. For thousands of centuries we have been hunter gatherers and during that very, very, very, very long period of time our bodies have evolved to effectively and efficiently process hunter-gatherer food sources (i.e. meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, a small amount of fruit and a small amount of nuts). Then in what can be considered extremely recent history (if you are considering the whole of human evolution) we developed the ability to farm. With farming came great things: more organized societies, greater stability and safety, more stable food sources. What also came with farming and the agricultural revolution was a new found reliance on grain as a primary food source; consider how much of your diet is derived from one kind of grain or another. According to Loren Cordain, the founding father of the Paleo movement “cereal grains, legumes, dairy, vegetable oils, salt, alcohol, and refined sugars now comprise 72 % of the nutrition in the western society.”  Because grains were not part of our food source prior to about 10,000 years ago, our bodies have still not adapted to them. I hear you again: “Wait, wait wait! You are talking thousands of years here, that is a long time!” It is, but not in terms of evolution, in evolutionary terms that is a blink of an eye. But maybe you need to know a bit more about grains to undersand why we struggle to adapt to them.

2. Remember how I mentioned that grains pack a whole lot of calories in a small package? The way they do that is by having high carbohydrate (i.e. sugar) concentrations. So you eat a few table spoons of the grain of your choice and you are effectively consuming as many carbs as if you ate several cups of lets say eggplant. The problem is that after two or more cups of eggplant you feel full, whereas none of us will stop after a few tablespoons of rice, so we eat more, and we get take in way more calories than if we had eaten our two cups of eggplant and felt full. The carbohydrates once ingested will be converted to a simple sugar called glucose. Glucose is used as fuel for your body. When our body detects glucose it produces insulin to deal with all this sugar. Insulin is a hormone, and it’s job is to remove excess glucose from the blood stream because too much glucose can be toxic. Some of the excess glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver or muscles for future use, but once those stores are full the excess gets converted to fat. Because we are consuming way too much sugar, our pancreatic system and our cells are being asked to work over-time, and like anything else they get tired and starts to malfunction. With repeated exposure to these high levels of glucose our cells start to become resistant to insulin and more and more of that excess sugar simply by-passes the cell storage stage and is converted to fat. So sugar in one form or another goes in and what your body ends up doing is producing more and more fat. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in our country.

3. Grains too evolve, and one of the things they evolve to do is mature long enough to get into ground and produce a plant, and the best way they do that is making sure that they are difficult to eat and hard to digest. Now, it’s not like the grain is thinking this, or that there is a purposeful action; we are talking about grains here. But, in their evolutionary process that is exactly what has happened. Grains contain toxin called lectins, gluten and phytates that we as humans are not designed to consume (birds and some rodents however have evolved to tolerate these same toxins).

      • Lectins’ job is to make sure grains are hard to digest. Ingestion of lectins leads to gut issues and digestive problems to say the very least. Additionally, they create leptin resistance which means that they dis-regulate the satiety response. In layman’s speak that means they keep us from feeling full even though we have had enough to eat, and thus we over eat.
      • Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Other grains have similar proteins. What it does over time is that it breaks down the lining in your gut which can cause serious problems such as leaky gut syndrome. At its worst leaky gut can lead to auto-immune issues, think Celiac Disease, and at its best it leads to digestive problems and allergic reactions. Lectins work with gluten in this process by inhibiting repair functions in your gut and then helping carry particles from your gut to your bloodstream. The body doesn’t take kindly to that and reacts with an immune response to rid the body of these unwanted guests.
      • Phytates or phytic acid are a mineral blocker and they prevent the absorption of calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and copper; now it makes sense why they try to pump extra calcium and iron in everything we eat (including cereals), but it’s a no go if we are eating grains, because we can’t absorb these minerals  So although there is a lot of talk about how whole grains are a great source  of essential vitamins and nutrients, well… all I know is that we can get all those same nutrients from vegetables, fruits and meats and all that without impeding the absorption of important minerals.
  1. More on why to avoid grains by Mark Sisson
  2. How Grains are killing you slowly”- Wellness Mama
  3. What is the Paleo diet?  by Robb Wolf

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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