Saturday, June 9, 2012

What is Paleo? Is it like Atkins?

   Often when I speak to my friends and tell them about the Paleo Lifestyle, I am confronted with usual  skepticism and hit with a barrage of similar questions over and over. There is enough literature out there about the Paleo Lifestyle and readers can certainly go to many other sites to get more details. My purpose is not to regurgitate the same information but to offer my own insight to explain this to my friends and family as I understand it. So here is the number one most asked question, What is a Paleo Diet or lifestyle? Is it like Atkins? Here is my understanding...

   A Paleo Diet is all about eating natural unprocessed foods while avoiding foods like grains, sugars, legumes, and dairy. The concept is very simple. As human race progressed and evolved during the paleolithic age, also known as the stone age, the foods available to us during the paleolithic age were wild games, berries, wild fruits, and nuts. Fruits and vegetable varieties may have varied depending on the region of the world, but animal fat and protein were a constant part of human diet. The human race survived and thrived on these foods for over 2.5 million years. The human beings were essentially hunters and gatherers. They hunted their food, and during the times the wild game was not available, they gathered fruits, nuts, and berries. They lived in small bands and traveled several miles per day in search for their food. Living in small bands was necessary for their survival. Every member in the band was responsible for making a positive contribution to the survival for their unit.  The hunter gatherer societies also did not create permanent settlements, they were essentially nomads. The fat and protein from the hunted animals provided nourishment for their bodies. Human brain grew in size and our DNA and genetic make up evolved as we consumed fats, proteins, and carbohydrates from the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries. Our genes are designed to process fats and proteins.

   Once the paleolithic era ended and humans began to create permanent settlements, domestication of grains came on the scene. This question may need to be answered, what came first? Did humanity develop settlements before they domesticated grains or the domestication of grains facilitated the development of settlements.The fact is still there that grains allowed the humans to store food for a longer period of time and slowly the hunter-gatherer societies disappeared. The small settlements eventually turned into large cities. At this point in human history, we see the birth of religion, social law/order, and arts. The domestication of grains is a very short phenomena dating back only about 10,000 years ago. Whereas, the human body really evolved during the paleolithic era for 2.5 million years. During this prolonged period our bodies were programmed to process proteins, fats, and little carbohydrates from fruits and plants.

   During this important period in human history, the genetic and hormonal compositions of our bodies were developed and defined. An important hormone insulin was developed in our bodies. Insulin is also known as the fat storing hormone. The purpose of insulin is to metabolize or process the sugars consumed from carbohydrates. Insulin forces glucose into our muscles, where glucose is stored as glycogen. Glycogen is energy that body can readily use when fight or flight situations occurred. Hence, insulin was important during the hunter gatherer years as our bodies needed to store glycogen for fight or flight situations against the predators. During the Paleolithic era the insulin regulation in the body was not a problem. The stored glycogen was always expended by several miles of walks or fight or flight situations. But the grains changed all that. Regulating insulin became a problem when grains came on the scene. See diagram below:

   The green section of the diagram shows when insulin is regulated properly in our bodies. Glycogen is always burned off and we end up staying lean. The red section of the diagram is where muscle cells become insensitive to insulin because there is no room for them to store anymore glycogen. This causes pancreas to produce more insulin and more storage in the fat cells. Our bodies end up becoming fat and eventually we develop diabetes. The grains, carbohydrate rich diets and lack of physical activities cause the insulin to be out of sync in our bodies. Proteins and fats do not cause a sugar spike in our bodies. The proteins and fats are used by the body as building blocks and nourishment. The little carbohydrate that is consumed with vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries is quickly consumed by the body and we end up staying lean.

   Paleo Diet and Lifestyle is simply to mimic the lifestyles of our ancestors by eating proteins, fats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This does not mean that we renounce our modern day life and move out to the woods and hunt our food. There is no way, I am about to give up running water, toilet, a shower, or my car in the near future. Humanity has worked hard to get to this point and it would be ungrateful for us to throw these things away. The change that we can make, is in our diet. We can give up processed sugary foods that are so detrimental to our health. So here are few things that we can do that are Paleo without giving up our modern life:

  • Eat a diet low in carbohydrates by avoiding sugars, dairy, grains, and starchy vegetables.
  • Eat proteins and fats. They won't kill you. Just remember we were genetically programmed to eat animal products. It is in our DNA.
  • Exercise, by simply getting out. If you have kids, you know this very well, that kids love to play tag games. Don't be afraid to play a tag game with your child. Believe me half hour of chasing the kids in my back yard tires me out and the kids are just getting warmed up.
  • Get some rest. 
   How is Paleo different than Atkins, when both diets push for low carbohydrates and high fats/proteins? The goal of Dr. Atkins was to lose weight, and lose weight fast. A low carbohydrate and high fat/protein diet accomplishes this goal quickly. Dr.Atkins lost the weight himself and stayed on this diet for his whole life. The Paleo Diet and Lifestyle is little different. Paleo focus on the total life experience rather than just focusing on the low carb diet. Paleo approach is to incorporate rest, exercise, and diet in one's life. In Paleo Diet one is to avoid vegetable and seed oils where these oils are perfectly normal to consume in the Atkins diet. The source of meat is a non-issue in the Atkins diet. Atkins diet does not care where the meat comes from. Where in Paleo Diet, the source of meat is very important. The grass fed animals' meat is far superior than grain fed animals. The Paleo idea has been around since the mid seventies and gained more popularity in recent years coupled with the gluten free movement. I personally believe that Dr. Atkins would have accepted and adopted the modern day Paleo Diet and Lifestyle if Paleo had been popular in his time. A pure conjecture on my part of course, but I believe that he would have accepted many facets of the Paleo Lifestyle without a fight. 

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