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Fossil Diet

New evidence says paleo diet isn't what cavemen really ate, but it's still more healthful than what we eat today

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EAT LIKE A BEAST Meat and vegetables might be all the rage, but paleo diet detractors claim it's just another fad.
  • EAT LIKE A BEAST Meat and vegetables might be all the rage, but paleo diet detractors claim it's just another fad.

Unless you've been living under a rock (or in one), you've heard of the paleo diet. Based on eating like cavemen did, between 2.6 million and 10,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era, the diet is so popular that there's even a print magazine dedicated to it. And though it has some nutritional merit in today's overprocessed food jungle, new studies show that it's probably not an accurate portrayal of what our ancestors really ate.

There are many variations of the paleo diet, but the basic idea is to eat vegetables, meat, nuts, seeds, fruit and certain kinds of oils (not vegetable oil). This means consuming no sugared or alcoholic beverages, dairy, beans, grains or wheat flour. Perhaps the toughest adaptation to modern living is that processed foods are to be avoided as much as possible, because they push the extremes of what our bodies can handle. To consume the amount of sugar in 34 ounces of soda, for example, a caveman would have had to eat eight-and-a-half feet of raw sugar cane, a physical impossibility. And we still don't know the long-term effects of today's ubiquitous trans fats, as they only became popular about a hundred years ago.

Paleo is a high-protein, low-carb diet, consisting of 35 to 45 percent nonstarchy fruits and vegetables and up to 35 percent protein from meat and seafood. One of the main arguments against the diet is its recommendation of a higher fat intake, calling for more unsaturated fats like omega-3.

Though champions of the diet claim myriad health improvements, detractors insist it's just another fad.

"I don't really encourage people to eliminate food groups," says Melanie Larson, a registered dietician and manager of the nutrition department at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, "but this does have its place."

Larson occasionally recommends a diet similar to paleo for some of her patients, but likes to include whole grains like rolled oats or quinoa. Paleo might have some good ideas, such as reducing processed food intake, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, she says. "It depends on the individual and what their medical needs are."

Rebekah Saunders has a similar approach. She's been "about 90 percent paleo" for nearly two years, cooking paleo-friendly recipes for friends who want to sample the diet. "There are a lot of ways to still make old favorites," says the Rohnert Park resident, "but you have to be willing to adjust to dishes being tasty but just a little bit different." Substitutions she enjoys include spaghetti squash in lieu of pasta, almond flour instead of wheat or rice flour for baking, and coconut milk in place of dairy.

Though she feels good physically, there are some drawbacks to the lifestyle. "It can be hard to completely control your diet when you go out to a restaurant or eat over at a friend's house," says Saunders. Stir-fry is a go-to dish for her at home, in part because she likes veggies more than meat, and the combinations are endless—just leave out the rice. "People say the paleo diet is just meat, meat, meat, but it's really about vegetables, too," says Saunders. "I eat a lot of salads."

And yet Dr. Loren Cordain, who literally wrote the book on going paleo (2002's The Paleo Diet), might not have been completely accurate with his anthropological assesment. In a 2013 TEDx talk, anthropologist Dr. Christina Warinner debunks the idea that the "paleo diet" is what cavemen ate.

First of all, she says, diets of the Paleolithic Era varied greatly based on geographic location, and traces of barley and legumes have been found in fossilized plaque of cavemen. Though Warinner doesn't doubt the health benefits of eating fewer processed foods and refined sugars, she suggests the diet's biophysical, evolutionary, back-to-our-roots philosophy is inaccurate. Even unprocessed everyday staples like broccoli, bananas, olive oil, apples, beef and chicken—just about everything grown commercially—either didn't exist or were available in different forms before the agricultural revolution.

Take, for example, the recipe for chocolate molten lava cake. Besides the fact that, to a caveman, molten lava was either unheard of or something to run away from, it's unlikely there were readily available supplies of coconut palm sugar, blanched almond flour, pink Himalayan salt and cacao powder.

Our ancestors would have probably loved the taste, but we'll never know.

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