Volume 6, Number 1: Spring Equinox, 2004

What if anything do Paleolithic diets teach us? - BC Diabetes Foundation

Excerpt from Eating Well:The Magazine of Food and Health Summer 2003

Robert Atkins (1930-2003) MD

Founder of the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine

What we learn from our early ancestors’ eating habits are the myriad ways that one can eat and be healthy. Unlike the conventional nutrition community attempting to force everyone into a one-diet-fits-all mindset, our Paleolithic ancestors discovered that they needed to be flexible to survive. Modern individuals need to find the type of eating pattern that provides good nutrition yet meets their unique needs. We must begin to provide individualized regimens that allow for dietary diversity as well as health benefits.

Whole foods of animal origin, vegetables, fruits, unrefined grains, seeds and nuts are the best choices for promoting good health. Processed foods, added sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, such as white-flour products, pasta and snack foods, contribute to the over consumption of calories, elevated blood-sugar levels, high insulin production and our current obesity and diabetes epidemics.

Walter Willet MD PhD

Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health

The major threats to survival in Paleolithic times were not coronary heart disease and cancer, but more likely, infectious diseases, starvation and violence. Thus, populations consuming diets that promoted a robust immune system, a reliable source of calories and physical prowess would have been most advantageous. The same diet would not necessarily be optimal for 21st century North Americans.

Today individuals who are sedentary and overweight, when fed a high-carbohydrate diet, experience elevated risks of heart disease and diabetes. Not until high consumption of grains collided with modern refining processes, added sugar and extreme inactivity did we experience an explosion of obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately, the full price in terms of heart disease and kidney failure is yet to be paid. Learning more about Paleolithic diets is fascinating and can be useful, but further research is desirable before ordering from the Paleolithic menu.

Barbara Rolls PhD

Professor of Nutrition at Penn State University

For most, ancient diets do not apply well to modern lifestyles. We learn to like particular food as kids, and they become a part of who we are. These foods are very different from those eaten by our early ancestors.

While reading about ancient diets is fascinating, we don’t need to go back in time to determine today’s optimal diets. Instead we should focus on what is currently available and practical. Numerous nutritional investigations show that eating more high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with lean protein sources, can have health benefits, including weight control.

Unfortunately, messages that reach the public about dietary choices are those that are either controversial or extreme. Nutrition professionals must emphasize areas of agreement about what constitutes an optimal diet if they are to convince the public to change their eating habits. It is unlikely that such changes will get us close to a Paleolithic diet, but we could all benefit by going out and hunting and gathering more high-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables.

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