genes

Is the Paleo Diet the only diet that is right for humans?

  A lot is being written and said about the blessings of the “Paleo Diet”, aka Stone Age Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Caveman Diet. Supporters claim that this is what we evolved to eat and that this is the path to follow, if we want to lead a long and healthy life.

So, what is the “Paleo Diet”? The idea is, in a nutshell, that our genes haven’t had time to adapt to a diet based on agricultural product. We evolved as hunter-gathers, and the foods available to us for millions of years were meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and occasionally wild honey. With the advent of agriculture, grains and dairy were added to the human diet and have become staples, meat from domesticated animals largely replaced game. However, if we squeezed the history of humans into 24 hours, agriculture has only been around for mere minutes.

It makes sense then, that going back to the roots, relying on fresh meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, veg, nuts, and seeds, will do us good. And indeed it does: A lot of research has been done on the Paleo Diet, and the results sound promising. Subscribers to the Paleo Diet reportedly feel great, and many have been able to improve chronic conditions or even reverse disease. It seems that the Paleo Diet has a lot going for it.

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But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I have a few issues with it – before even going into whether or not the health benefits are real (I think they are, but that’s beside the point). Because the thing is: It is not sustainable. Even now our planet is struggling to provide the huge amounts of meat we are asking for. Even now, while many cultures around the world have a diet that is not based on meat – largely because they cannot afford it -, and even with factory-farming and mass-produced meat, Earth is struggling. If we were all to switch to the Paleo Diet, as allegedly we are designed to, this planet would definitely not be sufficient to feed us. For now though, this is the only planet we’ve got.

At the moment, of course, we’re ok. Rich Westerners can afford all the meat they want – but for how much longer? And isn’t it rather selfish to adopt this ‘natural diet’ at the expense of everyone else and ultimately the future of the planet?

These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I first read about Paleo. Although the concept sounded convincing, it also sounded all too simple. Did hunter-gatherers really eat meat every day? Where they always lucky enough to catch something? Did everyone, no matter where on Earth they lived, eat a similar diet? I was thinking of the Inuit today, whose diet is very low in fruit and veg, but high in meat and fish, because the Arctic climate doesn’t have much else to offer. Surely, the diet of mountain tribes would have differed greatly from those living in coastal areas

As it turns out, there never was one paleolithic diet. And even if we decide to go Paleo, it is impossible for anyone today to recreate the Stone Age Diet.

1) What they ate does not exist anymore

Everything available to us today is a product of agriculture, perhaps with the exception of game (even that is not necessarily as wild and un-tempered with as it was then). We have enhanced the size, shape, flavour and nutritious value of fruit and veg through cultivation and lately genetic modification. We get our meat from domesticated animals that are largely grain- or soya-fed, which has an impact of the fatty acid composition of the meat. We have to rely on fish from polluted oceans, we pasteurize honey.

2) We reject large parts of our ancestors’ diet

When it comes to food we – especially us in the Western world – are incredibly spoiled. We can go and buy what we want, when we want. And we can afford to reject what we don’t want. 50,000 years ago, humans would first have to catch something. They would then eat all the edible parts of the animal – including the intestine, thus enriching their own gut microbiome. If they weren’t able to catch anything, they might have had to rely on the scavenging of whatever the lions left behind or on meat from animals that had just died. They would have picked insect larvae from behind tree bark, and dug up bugs from the ground. None of that appeals very much to us today (although insects are coming back into the shops now).

3) They did actually eat wild grains and pulses

Stone tools – mortars and pestles - have been found that are 30,000 years old. Fossilised plaque from teeth shows abundant evidence of plant matter, including starches from fruits, grains, barley, tubers, and pulses.

4) There never was the Stone Age Diet

Just like I assumed before I read up on it, there were indeed multiple diets, as people had to make do with what they found wherever they lived. Our great advantage as a species is our flexibility and adaptability, which allows us to thrive on all sorts of different diets.

What’s the bottom line?

There is no doubt that the paleo diet has its merits, particularly for people suffering from chronic illness, especially auto-immune diseases. If you are sick, it is worth a try and it can be very beneficial. But it certainly is not the only road to good health: Studies find again and again, that people on vegetarian and vegan diets are at lower risk of chronic diseases. The Mediterranean Diet, too, gets very good reviews and results, especially – but not solely – in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.

What those diets have in common is that they all rely on natural, whole foods – or at least as natural and unprocessed as they can be in this day and age. It is important to eat a varied diet with as many different foods as possible. The wider your variety of foods, the wider the range of nutrients you are getting from them.

Eat fresh! The whole point of preserved foods is to prevent bacterial growth. Might such foods then have an impact of the good bacteria in your gut? They may well do.

All of these diets – paleo, vegan (or even ‘pegan’, a combination of the two), vegetarian, Mediterranean or other natural, wholefood diets – are rich in fibre. Low-fibre diets are associated with digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.

Yes, the paleo approach works, but it isn’t the only one that works. If you need to eat paleo to be healthy, then by all means do it, but you may not need to. You may be able to live a long and healthy life on a diet that the planet will be able to deliver. For ALL of us, not just the rich countries, and FOREVER, not just now.

For more on the real paleo diet, watch this TED talk by archeogeneticist Christina Warinner.

Interesting articles here from The Guardian, National Geographic and Scientific American.

 

 

Coffee - It's not black and white

Do you love your coffee? And if you do, do you feel guilty about it? After all, coffee seems to be bad for you and many health experts discourage its consumption. But as with most things concerning health and nutrition: It’s not black and white. We all know people who can guzzle a “venti” (20 fl oz = 600 ml) and still have a nap afterwards, when others only so much as sniff an espresso and are wired all day long. That’s because how you respond to caffeine - coffee’s most predominant active compound - is governed by your genes, some of which affect the way your liver processes caffeine, others influence how the brain reacts.

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Coffee and Blood Sugar Levels If you are stressed - and who isn’t these days - or are struggling with your weight, you should learn how to control blood sugar levels. You need to avoid sudden spikes, because high blood sugar levels stimulate the release of insulin, which in turn contributes to weight gain. Caffeine, a stimulant, does raise blood sugar levels. However, a Finnish study found that coffee increases insulin sensitivity (that’s a good thing) and lowers the risk for diabetes II. This is effect is attributed not to caffeine, but chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant in coffee. Chlorogenic acid is also responsible for many of the other beneficial properties of coffee.

So, coffee does raise blood sugar levels to some extent. We all love a biscuit or even a slice of cake alongside a cup of coffee, but combining coffee with sugar triples it's effect on blood sugar. Bad news, I know. So on to the good news …

Coffee and cardio-vascular disease Coffee is often thought to adversely affect the heart. However, according to an article published in Current Vascular Pharmacology in 2014, it is actually beneficial when consumed in moderation. Coffee lowers the risk for stroke and it does not even affect blood pressure to any great degree, but patients suffering from arrhythmia should avoid it. A word of warning though: Some people’s genetic make-up causes them to metabolise caffeine more slowly, and for them, there is indeed an increased risk of non-fatal heart attacks. (Fast caffeine metabolisers, on the other hand, actually lowered their risk of heart attack through coffee consumption.) Also, even if blood pressure is not greatly affected in healthy people, you should exercise caution and steer clear of coffee if you know that you suffer from hypertension.

But coffee does hurt the stomach. Doesn't it? It appears that even the most stubborn rumours about the ill effects of coffee are being overturned. A 2013 cross-sectional study in Japan found no correlation between coffee consumption and stomach ulcers, upper intestinal ulcers, or heartburn.

More good news Coffee has been found to protect from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, depression, liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Moreover, higher coffee consumption was found to significantly reduce the risk of recurrence of colon cancer, and reduces the overall risk of mortality meaning: Coffee makes you live longer - at least as long as you do not overdo it.

Who should avoid coffee? If your genes have not equipped you to tolerate coffee well, you very likely already noticed. If it makes you feel jittery, wired, causes tremors and gives you palpitations - avoid. You won’t need me to tell you that. Also, coffee is undoubtedly an addictive substance, as anyone who has ever gone through withdrawal will know, and that in itself will put a lot of people off who would rather not go there.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women and those trying for a baby should avoid coffee as it has been linked to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and lower birth weight. If you can’t live without the stuff, do not have ore than one cup a day.

If you are not sure whether or not you are a slow metaboliser - whose risk for heart disease, if you remember, is increased when they drink coffee - and would like to find out, you could do a gene test, which have recently become available at very affordable prices. (Note: The tests look at a number of health genes, not just the way you metabolise coffee.)

How to make your coffee The way you make coffee can change its properties: Boiled and unfiltered coffee may raise cholesterol and triglycerides, and paper-filtered coffee appears to contribute to inflammation. A possible reason for this is that with this method, the beneficial polyphenols in coffee are filtered out.

Consider what you’re adding Much of what gives coffee a bad reputation is not so much the coffee itself, but ingredients we like to add to it: Coffee as such has 0 calories. It may contribute to weight gain by raising blood sugar levels, but all by itself, it won’t do much damage. Consider, however, what you add to it: sugar, including syrups, lead to much greater blood sugar spikes and thus greater insulin excretion. Sugar also has powerful pro-inflammatory properties, and avoiding it is generally a good idea. Milk and cream (and sugar) all increase the calorie content of your coffee. And need I even mention marshmallows?

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On the other hand, you can improve on the properties of coffee by adding either cinnamon or ginger to it. Both substances have been tested in combination with coffee - albeit only in vitro - and were found to have enhanced anti-radical and anti-inflammatory properties. Other spices that go well with coffee are cardamom, cloves, or saffron.

Is decaf a good alternative? No, is the short answer.

First of all, be aware that “decaffeinated” does not mean that the caffeine content is zero. Processing usually removes 97% of the caffeine. Most commercial brands use chemical solvents to remove caffeine from the green coffee beans, and although the industry ensures us that there will be no residues when we drink it, I personally just don’t like the thought, and it will still impact on the environment.

How much coffee is ok? It appears that coffee consumption “in moderation” is not only harmless, but even healthy for most people. But how much is “moderate”? I’ve seen recommendations that say up to 600 mg of caffeine daily is ok, but most are lower, 400 - 500 mg. Translated into cups of coffee this is approx. 4 - 5 cups. That amount of coffee is also associated with the lowest risk of death (meaning: people drinking less than that are at a higher risk of death!).

So, that’s the lowdown on coffee. If you would like to read more on coffee, click here. Or - better still - sign up to my newsletter. Tomorrow morning's edition has more on antioxidants and a recipe for cinnamon almond latte.