I recently attended the Dietitians of Canada Conference in Ottawa with two of our team members, Erin and Vanessa. The conference had several inspiring talks about the latest research in the world of dietetics. One of our favourite talks was titled “Paleo, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Oh My!” By Jennifer Sygo RD, MSc and Tanis Fenton RD, PhD.  Their talk broke down the science behind the Paleo diet to better prepare Dietitians to support their clients. . It was so interesting that the team and I decided to share this information with all of you in an effort to help you understand the Paleo diet.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Many of you have likely heard about the Paleo diet aka the “Caveman” or “Hunter-gatherer” diet, but what does being on this diet actually mean? It is based on the food eaten during the Paleo era, which spanned from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. This time period  began with the use of stone tools and ended with the emergence  of agriculture. The premise of this diet is that our genomes (genetics) have not changed very much over ~500 generations, yet our food supply has changed rapidly. The advances in agriculture practices (example- mass crop production) and increase in the consumption of processed foods are examples of changes that have occurred in the food supply. Supporters of the Paleo diet believe our body is better adapted to the Paleo diet than to the food our current food supply provides.

Paleo Diet Foods

Included

Excluded

Meats and/or game, preferably grass-fed All processed foods
Fish, preferably wild Processed oils (corn, sunflower, etc.)
Eggs Added sugar
Fruits (whole/unprocessed) Added salt
Vegetables (whole/unprocessed) Grains of all kinds, including ancient
Nuts (except peanuts which are a legume) Cereals and pseudocereals (ie. amaranth and quinoa)
Seeds Dairy
Some oils (ie. olive, macadamia) Beans, lentils, pulses/legumes
Sprouted grains/legumes Alcohol (more than 3 drinks/week)

 

The principals of this diet include a higher protein intake, lower carbohydrate intake, and moderate to higher fat intake. A high fibre intake is also recommended focusing on fruits and vegetables, because whole grains and legumes (usually a primary source of fibre) are excluded.

One of the reasons I (and other Dietitians) have such a hard time believing that the Paleo diet is a healthy way to live is because it excludes some of the healthiest foods – grains, legumes, and dairy. When you’re deciding whether to make changes to what you eat or follow a new diet, I recommend looking at the research. It’s one thing that your friend “felt great” for the past 4 weeks, but let’s get to the truth of the matter…

1. Grains are harmful to our health

What’s Wrong With Grain?

Evidence/research

“Net acid producing” No evidence
High glycemic and insulin response Some more than others
Downstream effects on inflammation, and therefore heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer risk Evidence that grains promote inflammation is not strong
Humans didn’t evolve with it There is counter evidence to support that some of our ancestors did consume grains
Contains phytates, nutrients that block absorption of calcium, iron, & other nutrients Only a concern if the diet is 90%+ whole grains

Bottom line: Lack of strong evidence that grains are harmful to our health.

2. Legumes are toxic

What’s Wrong With Legumes?

Evidence/Research

High in anti-nutrients (potentially toxic, especially in uncooked legumes) Uncooked beans can be harmful, even toxic BUT once cooked, toxic components disappear almost completely
Thought to trigger “leaky gut” No high quality human trials showing beans trigger leaky gut
Low bioavailability of protein, zinc Diets with legumes associated with higher nutrient status, positive health outcomes

Bottom line: Cooked beans are completely non-toxic and actually associated with positive health outcomes. There is no evidence to support that they trigger leaky gut.

3. Dairy is harmful to our health

What’s Wrong With Dairy

Evidence/Research

Net acid producing Evidence supports this is not true
Produces high insulin response, despite modest glycemic effect Also muscle growth promoting
May be a trigger for acne as part of a wider inflammatory response Evidence is not strong to support this claim
Humans didn’t evolve with it Some Caucasian populations have developed the lactase enzyme to help break down lactose, some have evolved to tolerate it
North Americans have some of the highest calcium intake in the world, but also some of the highest rates of osteoporosis We do not have higher rates when you compare across sedentary populations

Bottom line: If you can tolerate dairy, none of the other claims hold true when compared to research.

 

Researchers found that participants who were eating a Paleo diet ate fewer calories than participants eating a regular diet. Is this because they felt fuller eating a higher protein and fibre diet? Or is this because they couldn’t figure out enough foods to eat? We can’t know for certain. However, we do know that there are some significant challenges to following a Paleo diet including cost, availability, and environmental consequences. High quality protein sources such as grass-fed meat and wild fish are lovely and I do recommend these foods if possible, however they come with a higher price tag. Producing meat also requires a lot of energy and resources while vegetarian protein sources such as beans and legumes are inexpensive and environmentally friendly to produce.

The research on the Paleo diet is quite limited… we just don’t know enough about how it can affect you. I think many people with IBS and digestive distress that have followed this diet have seen improvement in symptoms, simply because they have cut out so many carbohydrates. If we look at the FODMAP diet, we know that many (but not all) carbohydrates can cause digestive issues, specifically those that are poorly digested. Sometimes when you follow a new diet you are highly committed and cut out all the “crap” in your diet – THIS is what we can often attribute success to.

Here are some components of this Paleo diet that make up the foundation of a healthy diet:

1) Eat more whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables.

2) Diets higher in protein and fat tend to help you feel fuller, helping with weight loss.

3) Eat less processed foods, added sugars, and refined grains

Well doesn’t that sound lovely. We should all try and eat more real food, include enough protein, and limit the amount of carbohydrates we have. My opinion – don’t cut them all out, but focus on the ones that are high quality and easily digested.

At the end of the day, the “right” diet is one that will work for you. And by diet, I mean simply the foods you eat to nourish yourself and give you energy, not a strict regimen you choose to follow.

 

Much love and good eating,

Stephanie