Over the past few months I’ve been writing a lot (here on the blog, and on my Facebook page) about the benefits of a Paleo diet. And while I do think it’s probably the healthiest diet for us humans to eat, I’m not dogmatic about it. At least I try not to be. I realize that I may have come off that way recently, so I want to take a few moments to clarify my position.
There’s no doubt in my mind that a Paleo diet is what we’ve evolved to eat. That’s hard to argue with. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be healthy while eating foods that are not considered “Paleo”, regardless of what the Paleo zealots will tell you. Some of the foods the Paleo diet excludes are more harmful than others, and of course there’s a significant amount of individual variation.
I think the evidence is clear that excess sugar, processed and refined flour, and industrial seed oils contribute to virtually all modern, degenerative diseases—from diabetes and obesity to heart disease and autoimmunity.
Beyond that, however, things start to get murky. The Paleo diet excludes dairy products and grains. Yet Weston A. Price identified isolated groups of people, like the traditional Swiss Loetschental, who were exceptionally healthy and subsisted primarily on a diet of bread, milk & cheese.
Strict Paleo diets also exclude potatoes, claiming that the saponins and glycoalkaloids they contain make them unfit for human consumption. Yet as Stephan Guyenet’s recent articles have revealed, it’s quite possible to eat a lot of potatoes and be perfectly healthy. In fact, Stephan’s most recent article on the subject was about a guy named Chris Voigt who ate nothing but potatoes for two months. Did he keel over and die? Did he get fat? Hardly. He not only lost weight (21 pounds), but also experienced improvements in several other markers, such as a decrease in fasting glucose & triglycerides, and presumably an increase in insulin sensitivity.
There’s a similar story with legumes and nightshades. They aren’t Paleo, but I haven’t seen any evidence to convince me that these foods play a significant role in the modern disease epidemic.
What about carbs? Low-carb diets are all the rage. And while it’s true that very low carb diets can help with weight loss, there’s no evidence that they are superior to moderate carb diets (@100g/d) for healthy people.
Here’s the thing. As convenient as it would be to have a “one-size fits all” diet that works for everyone, we’re not robots. We’re more diverse than that. Someone who’s dealing with an autoimmune disease, leaky gut, arthritis and skin rashes would certainly benefit from a strict Paleo diet and may even need to follow that approach for the rest of their lives. But for someone that is fundamentally healthy, such a diet may be unnecessarily restrictive. They might do perfectly well eating grains (other than wheat), especially when those grains have been properly prepared by soaking and/or sprouting. Dairy is similar. I have patients that tolerate it well in spite of being quite ill (they’ve removed it for long periods and added it back in without negative effects).
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we also consider the effect of season, geographical location, constitution, state of health and lifestyle when making dietary recommendations. So not only is each person different, what works for one person at one time may not work for that same person at another time.
So with this in mind, what do I recommend people eat?
The answer, of course, depends on the person. For healthy people, I suggest they follow a high-fat, nutrient dense diet that removes the most significant food toxins (wheat, sugar/HFCS & industrial seed oils). If they do well with properly prepared grains and raw, fermented or at least organic dairy products, I don’t have a problem with that.
I also suggest they follow what I call the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time they should follow the guidelines very closely, and 20% of the time they’re free to loosen up and just eat what they want to eat. There’s a lot more to life than food, and in fact I believe (as did the ancient Chinese) that in some cases it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the other way around.
Unfortunately, the 80/20 rule doesn’t apply to those dealing with serious health challenges or allergies or intolerances to specific foods. It’s never a good idea for someone with Hashimoto’s disease and gluten intolerance, for example, to just throw caution to the wind and have a pancake feast. That could trigger an immune reaction lasting up to several weeks.
Likewise, if someone comes to see me in my private practice and they’re dealing with multiple health problems, one thing I often do is put them on a strict Paleo diet for a short period of time. Why? Because it gives us a baseline to work from. By removing all common food toxins and observing what happens, we learn which foods may be contributing to their issues and to what extent. From there the next steps usually become a lot more clear.
Ultimately, each of my patients ends up discovering their own ideal diet through experimentation and careful tracking. Some might end up doing the strict Paleo thing indefinitely. Others find they tolerate dairy, nightshades and even properly-prepared grains (gasp!) quite well.
Where do I fit in? I’m somewhere in the middle. I avoid grains with the exception of occasional homemade sourdough buckwheat crepes (which is technically not a grain anyway), but I do eat a lot of raw, fermented dairy products like kefir, yogurt and creme fraiche. I also don’t seem to have a problem with nightshades, so I eat tomatoes and chili peppers in moderate quantities. I do, however, avoid white potatoes because I don’t feel good when I eat them.
So there you have it: my manifesto on food and health, and how to use the 80/20 rule to avoid food fascism.