To your health: Pros and cons of going on the caveman diet

To your health: Pros and cons of going on the caveman diet

By Leia Kedem

The caveman diet is one of the hottest diets being touted by celebrities and average Joes alike. Also called the Paleolithic diet or Paleo for short, the idea is that we should be sticking to the eating patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors for optimal health.

With a catchy name and a scientific-sounding premise, it has the winning formula for a fad diet.

Most weight-loss crazes are ghosts of diets past: That is, they are simply old ideas that have been repackaged and reincarnated for a new generation.

Paleo is no exception. It was first described by a gastroenterologist in 1975. Walter Voegtlin's ideas make sense. Human genetics haven't changed significantly for more than 10,000 years, so we should follow the diet we evolved to eat.

This means that foods that emerged with the development of agriculture, such as grains, legumes and dairy products, are out. Refined salt, sugars and processed oils are also no-nos. The diet focuses on foods that could be hunted or gathered by our ancestors: meat, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruits.

A diet with plenty of lean protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals can indeed be healthy. But is Paleo the answer to our obesity epidemic? That might be taking it a bit far.

Advocates claim that agriculture is the root of the problem with obesity and related issues like diabetes and heart disease. But a large body of research supports the health-protective properties of diets that include whole grains and low-fat dairy. Studies show that fiber-rich whole grains can help manage cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer. Dairy also is important, not just for its bone-building calcium and vitamin D, but also for its potassium, riboflavin and other essential nutrients.

There is the concern, as with all fad diets, that cutting entire food groups could lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Another problem with eliminating whole food groups is sustainability. Most of us probably grew up on milk, cheese, corn and wheat. Can you imagine not eating those foods? You might be able to keep it up for a while, but as a permanent change to your lifestyle? I'm not convinced.

Besides, it's just not necessary; the real problem is not specific foods but excess quantities. Regardless of the source, too many calories is what leads to weight gain. In contrast, creating a calorie deficit is what causes weight loss.

Cutting out sources of refined sugars, as with Paleo, is a great strategy. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables as prescribed in this diet is another way to fill up and get plenty of nutrition without a lot of calories.

But Paleo proponents argue that fruits and vegetables should be organically grown, as they would be most similar to what hunter-gatherers might have come across when foraging. In the contemporary interpretation of this eating pattern, meats also should be organic and grass-fed, and fish should be wild-caught.

Unfortunately, this brings up another downside to the diet: cost. At this point, organic products are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and studies show that they are not significantly more nutritious.

Interestingly, some argue that eating organic meats is more sustainable, but producing plant-based proteins like beans (which are not allowed on this diet) is less demanding on the environment.

The emphasis on meat not only has environmental impact, but our bodies really don't need that much protein. Getting more protein won't automatically increase your muscle mass. Remember, extra calories — including those from protein — are stored as fat.

In sum, there are a few good things about the Paleo way of life. Decreasing processed foods is an excellent idea as these are often high in sugar, salt, fat and calories.

Feel free to "go wild" — in both senses of the word — with lots of fruits and veggies.

Choose lean proteins like poultry, fish and lower-fat meat, but don't forget about legumes, too. Beans are an affordable source of protein and fiber that shouldn't be counted out.

Plus, including whole grains and low-fat dairy will provide essential nutrients and prevent the need for supplementation.

Go ahead and eat like a caveman — but with a dose of Midwestern sensibility.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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