Our genetic heritage and nutrition
We evolved as hunter gatherers and genetically our bodies run optimally when we eat in line with our genes. Would you feed a rabbit meat, or a lion grains? Many of today’s illnesses exist purely as a result of the mismatch between what we are designed to eat and how we actually eat.
Here are 10 key ways the standard diet today is dramatically different from that of Paleo / Hunter & Gatherer diets, how this affects our health and how we can correct each so that we eat in line with our genes to maximise health.
1. The Glycemic Load of today’s diet is far too high
The glycemic load of a meal is the blood glucose load from digested carbohydrates of that meal. Imagine you’ve just consumed 2 cups of rice – which when digested gets converted into 20 teaspoons of pure glucose. This floods your blood stream minutes after you eat it. Your blood sugar levels are now high (you literally have sweet blood). In order to reduce blood sugar and send it to the cells you release a gush of insulin. Neither high blood sugar – which damages the delicate lining of blood vessels and increases oxidative stress, nor high insulin – which causes inflammation and fat storage, are healthy.
Today’s diet is abundant in processed grains, sugars, starches and sweet fruits that simply did not exist in our past. A high glycemic load diet promotes hunger, cravings and overeating, and increases the risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, and acne.
By eating mainly non starch vegetables and fruit with minimal starchy food and no sugar, we dramatically lower blood sugar load. By including lean protein and good fats with each meal we get further blood sugar control.
2. The Fatty Acid Balance- our diets are now very high in Omega 6 and low in Omega 3, plus we have added chemically altered fats
Wild meats and plants have a much higher ratio of omega 3 fats (which are anti-inflammatory) to omega 6 fats (which increase inflammation) than farm raised, grain fed animals and poultry. Wild animal meat is also lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturated fat. Today’s diet also contains an abundance of chemically extracted vegetable oils that are high in omega 6, and other chemically altered fats that increase heart disease. These fats are used widely in the food industry.
Paleo diets had a ratio of 2:1 omega 6 to Omega 3. Our diets today are around 10:1 or higher. Consequently we are producing an abundance of hormones that increase inflammation, especially silent inflammation, that cannot be felt, but over time increases risk of heart disease, cancer and dementia. Omega 3 deficiency is also linked with mental health disease including ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression and hostility.
To mimic the fatty acid intake from wild meats we need to eat lean meat and add primarily monounsaturated oils to our diet (olive oil, raw nuts, avocado). A small amount of good saturated fat such as coconut oil may be used. Most people, unless eating a lot of oily fish will not get adequate omega 3 without taking a supplement. I recommend buying omega 3 that has guaranteed purity.
Avoid chemically extracted vegetable oils which are too high in polyunsaturated omega 6. Totally cut out trans fats – a chemically altered fat found in fast food, commercial baking, deep fried food and peanut butter. Also cut out margarine as it contains the chemically altered interesterified fat, linked to increased insulin resistance. Don’t eat excess saturated fat especially from meat and dairy, as these increase LDL “bad” cholesterol.
3. The Macronutrient Balance-the ratio of protein, carbohydrates and fat has changed
Dr Cordain and his researchers have analysed the balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat in the diets of many different hunter and gatherer races, and found that protein was 19 – 35% calories, carbohydrate 22- 40% calories and fat 28 – 47% calories. Dr Barry Sears designed the Zone diet using an average ratio of 30% calories from protein, 40% from carbohydrates and 30% from fat. The typical US diet contains protein, 15.5%, carbohydrates, 49% and fat 34%.
By increasing protein and decreasing carbohydrate we decrease the risk of disease associated with high blood sugar, plus we get better appetite control and increased metabolic rate so weight loss is far easier.
By roughly following Zone diet ratios you will easily hit this balance. Another way to hit this ratio is to have a palm size of protein at each meal, plus a lot of non starch veggies, a piece of fruit, and a little olive oil, avocado or nuts.
4. Trace Nutrient Density – the amount of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in the food we eat today is very poor
In today’s world we are well fed yet undernourished. This is because the nutrient content of our most commonly eaten foods is extremely poor per calorie. White rice, bread, pasta and sugar are low or devoid of vitamins and minerals. Eating foods which mimic paleo choices mean that every calorie you eat is choc full of nutrients. Today’s dietary advice to eat lots of whole grains to get B vitamins is misplaced. When analysed and compared to fruits and veggies, cereal grains are B-vitamin lightweights. An average 1,000 calorie serving of mixed vegetables contain 19 times more folate, five times more vitamin B6, six times more vitamin B2 and two times more vitamin B1 than a comparable serving of eight mixed whole grains. On a calorie-by-calorie basis, the niacin content of lean meat and seafood is four times higher. By choosing lean meats, seafood, fruit and veggies, nuts and seeds, you will get a stack of minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants that far exceeds the recommended daily intake.
5. The Acid/Base Balance -every food reports to the kidneys as either acid or base, we now have a high acid load diet
Once digested foods either report to the kidney as acid or alkaline. Foods that increase acidity are protein, grains and salt laden foods. Fruit and vegetables are alkaline foods. When you have a high acid load diet, calcium is pulled from the bones to buffer it – leading to osteoporosis. It can also raise blood pressure and aggravate asthma. The average New Zealand diet today is predominantly acid forming, with inadequate alkaline forming fruit and veggies.
As protein is an essential nutrient, important for muscle repair and blood sugar control, you can’t reduce this. However you should avoid processed meat and cheese which contain large amounts of salt and increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Instead of choosing grain based carbohydrates like bread, pasta and rice, choose vegetables and fruit. By using the Zone balance and getting 30 – 40 % of your calories from fruit and veggies you will get a net alkaline load. See this link for a chart of acid / alkaline foods. http://thepaleodiet.com/nutritional_tools/acid.shtml
6. The Sodium/Potassium Balance – We eat far too much sodium and too little potassium
The imbalance in today’s diet of high sodium and low potassium promotes or aggravates diseases due to acid-base balance, as salt increases the net acid load to the kidneys. These diseases include high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney stones, asthma, stroke, and certain forms of cancer. Excess salt in the diet also impairs sleep. A low salt diet can help you sleep better.
By cutting out processed & commercial foods and added salt, and eating potassium rich fruit and vegetables, this imbalance is corrected.
7. The Fibre Content – we eat a fibre poor diet
Fibre is absolutely essential to health and at least 13 illnesses can result when you don’t get enough fibre in your diet. The Paleo diet is naturally high in fibre because of it’s abundance of fruits and vegetables. In fact it is 3 – 5 times higher than a typical American diet. Non starch vegetables contain 8 times more fibre calorie for calorie as whole grains. Common digestive problems typically disappear using Paleo food choices: constipation, heartburn, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and gallbladder problems.
8. The addition of large amounts of Neolithic / gut irritant foods that did not exist in our diets in Paleo times
Grains, legumes (includes soy and peanuts), and dairy foods were not part of the ancestral diet and have a number of problems, they irritate the gut, interfere with digestion of food and absorption of minerals. 1 in 10 people are known to be sensitive to gluten and most don’t know it, they have sub optimal health such as brain fog, depression, bloating and indigestion. Cereal grains, legumes and dairy are suspected in auto-immune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Try cutting out these foods completely for a month to see if this makes a difference to your health.
9. We eat a chemical cocktail of additives
Today’s food – especially processed food has a plethora of chemical additives that did not exist even 200 years ago. Synthetic flavours, sweeteners, preservatives, colours, not to mention chlorine and other chemicals in water, and the leaching of plastics from packaging. These chemicals are being linked with a vast array of health issues like behaviour problems in children and decreased sperm count in men. Eat fresh, organic, in season, non packaged, non processed food wherever possible. If you use protein powders for convenience use pure whey or egg white, and if sweetened, use a brand such as Red8 that uses stevia (a natural herb) to sweeten.
9. We eat too much food
When humans had to chase down animals and forage far and wide for edible plant foods, there was no place for gluttony as procuring food consumed much time and energy. Today food is far too easy to come by and we are surrounded by it. Most of us use little time and energy to get the calories we need for fuel.
Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, increased oxidative stress, inflammation, declining health and early death result from overeating.
By using the Zone protein prescription of .7 – 1 gram of protein per lb of lean body mass (this gives you the right amount of protein for muscle growth and repair) and balancing this with approximately 30% calories from fat and 40% from carbohydrates from nutrient rich food types, we reduce calories while providing a nutrient dense diet. In every animal tested from mice to chimpanzees calorie restriction plus nutrient density increases life span, but more importantly it decreases the slow decline of health – it keeps body and mind young and sprightly into very old age.
Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley& Sons, 2002
Sears, Barry. Enter The Zone. Regan Books, 1995