Carmen Bott MSc, CSCS Interviews HPN's own Cliff Harvey ND.
- Carmen : How would you, as a leader in your area of Nutrition for Optimal Health, define or describe the Paleo diet - meaning do different "Diet Books" include some foods and yet, not others, but lack consistency in identifying what is truly "Paleo".
I think the thing to remember is that the term 'Paleo' is simply that; a term used to define a style of eating. There really is no definitive definition of 'Paleo' and there certainly is no set diet that hominids in the Palaeolithic era ate. Humans are by nature fantastic omnivores and the diet that was eaten by proto-humans and early humans was defined by geography, and so there was a large variation in types and quantities of various foods eaten.
The only definitive thing that can be said is that in Palaeolithic times human animals didn't have heavily refined and processed foods and intake of certain food types (particularly dairy and grains) would have been markedly lower (but not necessarily absent).
The term 'Paleo' to me simply means: Natural, Whole & Unprocessed, which my students and readers will know has been my catch cry for the entire length of my time in practice as a nutritionist and naturopath.
Carmen: Is it true that consuming such high amounts of animal flesh, even if it is grass fed and organic, that, in the long term, can be inflammatory - promoting and thus could be considered a health risk?
Cliff: There have certainly been many studies that have highlighted the possible link between meat intake (especially red meat) and cancer of the bowel. Many Paleo advocates would argue that if one eats grass fed, free range meat they will avoid the most serious carcinogenic imperative provided by a high intake of omega-6 fats (and a distorted omega 6-omega 3 ratio). The omega 3 - omega 6 ratio in our diet is critically important for regulation of inflammatory processes, but there is more to it than simply that. The development of any disorder or disease is multi-factorial in nature. Other factors that may predicate one to cancer (for example) may be a lack of antioxidants in the diet, impaired acid-base balance and buffering capacity, and of most interest with respect to Paleo: potential pathogens from meat (DNA viruses, mycobacterium etc.) that may also play a role in the development of cancer, and nitrosamines resulting from the ingestion of cured meats (especially in the absence of mitigating co-factors such as vitamin C and flavonoids).
Grass fed and organic beef is great in my opinion, but to eat it excessively, without regard to balance could be self-defeating. Further, to believe that there isn't any potential harm from what appears to be a Paleo staple; bacon, ingested in high amounts could also be shown to be detrimental. Finally, feasting multiple times per day on large amounts of animal flesh is almost certainly not what would have been available to our forebears in their existence of relative scarcity and so flies in the face of a 'Paleo' ideology.
Of course these criticisms are more about the application of Paleo principles rather than a vilification of Paleo itself. Many people that I know who eat Paleo don't over-do meat and balance meat consumption with a high intake of vegetables and berries.
Carmen: Cliff, in my opinion, the best training program is the one that is INDIVIDUALIZED, would you agree that the same rule should be followed with respect to nutrition? Are you a fan of the Paleo diet?
Cliff: I agree completely. There are generalities that almost all of us would agree with (reduce processed foods, eat grass fed, organic and wild meats and eat more vegetables) but there are also innumerable nuances that account for individual differences in what can and should be applied in nutrition.
It's fair to say that many of us won't be able to tolerate wheat and gluten all that well. It may be that over 1/3 of people are intolerant to these...but there are equally people who tolerate and indeed thrive when eating grains. The same goes for legumes and dairy, and so although what may be good for a lot of people, a lot of the time, isn't necessarily what is best or most sustainable and maintainable for everyone all of the time.
Other health related factors will always play a role too, and constitutional type, adrenal status and individual immune and allergenic response should be taken into account in an individualised nutrition plan.
Carmen: What are your top 5 pitfalls with respect to the Paleo Diet?
Cliff: 1. It can be a (false) regressionist utopia...
Just because something wasn't around in Palaeolithic times doesn't be necessity mean that it is bad for us, or that we shouldn't eat it. Most of my friends and colleagues who eat Paleo don't think this, but I have certainly come across it. If we discount the advances of mankind in technology, exercise physiology, medicine and other fields we do ourselves a great disservice.
Is 'natural' always better then 'man-made'?.. What is 'natural' anyway?... Are we not animals? (Answer - yes). So by extension isn't it all part of the 'natural' process of evolution and development?
Of course I espouse the philosophy of eating a diet that is mostly composed of Natural, Whole and Unprocessed foods...however that is a dictum for a broad sense of what is best, most of the time. I always rationalise this with the tenet "most of the time". Particularly with regard to per-training and peri-event nutrition (what to eat before, during and after exercise) there is a string case to be made for using supplements that are inherently counter to the claims of some in Paleo circles.
2. It ain't even Paleo...
Few if any of the foods we now eat could truly be classed as Paleo. So in reality we are simply trying to get as close as possible. Almost all the foods we now eat are the result of Neolithic developments in agricultural breeding techniques. This is true of some of the Paleo staples such as almonds which are inedible in their natural form; or olives which are toxic in their wild varieties; or the vegetables kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage...which are all different varietals of the same species that have been breed to exhibit certain characteristics over many years of selective breeding (a result of agrarian society.)
Certain foods such as legumes and grains are also discounted from the diet because they weren't eaten in hunter-gatherer times, which is simply untrue. Archaeological evidence shows that grains were collected by many hunter-gatherer peoples and prepared by either soaking, sprouting, roasting or a combination of these techniques. Legumes likewise were eaten in some amount by many hunter-gatherer societies. Modern example of hunter-gatherer tribes show this as well. It's fair to say that the amounts eaten were lower and the frequency with which they were eaten were also lower.
One of the supporting arguments for avoiding grains and legumes is because of the amo8unts of phytates contained in these foods (phytic acid binds to many minerals, making them unabsorbable) but many supposedly 'Paleo' foods (nuts, seeds, coconut and some vegetables) are equally high or higher in phytates than legumes and grains. Phytate and other anti-nutrients are also markedly reduced by food preparation techniques such as soaking and sprouting and good bowel health (with ample 'good' bacteria) reduces the effects of phytates.
3. Refined and processed foods made from 'Paleo friendly goods'
I keep seeing online a plethora of supposed 'Paleo' cakes, cookies, brownies and the like. Made from Paleo friendly foods like almond meal and coconut flour, they are to my mind still processed and refined foods.
What happens when you grind up a nut, leave it exposed to light and air and then cook with it at high temperatures? Answer: rancidity. And so we may end up with some of the same negative effects that one would seek to avoid by eating Paleo. I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with using different (non-grain) substitutes in cooking, but we begin to make the whole Paleo idea a bit of stretch when we are eating cookies and cakes, no?
4. Many dogmatic Paleo advocates discount short term genetic and mechanical adaptation and the role of epigenetics
When people say that 'Our genes haven't changed in 10,000 years' or similar statements they are discounting the changes that have in fact occurred along with epigenetic factors, and short term structural-functional changes. For example a rapid shift in the ability to digest lactose after infancy occurred in Europe with the development of agriculture and now Northern/Western Europeans have very low rates of lactase deficiency (around 5%) as compared to Asians (~90%). So IF an individual doesn't have any allergenic issues arising from casein or whey AND digests lactose well, is there any good reason to arbitrarily exclude dairy from the diet?
Epigentic changes are also potentially rapid, and the determinants of gene expression are many and varied. Psycho-emotional, nutritional and environmental factors all paly roles in gene expression. Merely having a set of genes doesn't not necessarily determine how they express and therefore what we can absorb, tolerate and utilise.
5. It can discredit sound nutrition practices such as veganism
I certainly don't think that a vegan diet is healthier than one that includes meat, but I don't necessarily think either that a vegan, raw-vegan or vegetarian diet is unhealthy for all people, or less healthy for some. Again individualisation plays a role. There are great examples of extremely successful vegan/vegetarian athletes across a range of sports. An argument I often hear is that "They'd be even more successful if they ate meat". Which really is an extension of confirmation bias that would in a practicable sense be unprovable and that could equally be applied by advocates of veganism to Paleo eaters.
Can't we all just get along!
Carmen: So do you eat Paleo?
Cliff: I actually really like the fundamental idea behind Paleo - which is to eat natural, whiole and unprocessed food. And so I guess I'd say that I eat Paleo most of the time...except when I'm not!....
Which really means that I eat food that in the main is whole and unprocessed, interspersed with treats (brownie, banofee pie) and a regular intake of extremely dark chocolate and espresso. I also drink a couple litres of raw, organic, whole, A2 milk every week. (One of the benefits of teaching nutrition at a Naturopathic College is that I have extremely cool students who give me great stuff like homemade kombucha and fresh raw milk!)
Oh yeah...and I also spend about 3 months of every year eating a vegan, sugar-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free diet.
So commonly we read how much better people feel when they switch to a Paleo diet, or conversely how much better they felt switching to a raw vegan diet, or how much better they felt switching from 8 meals per day to 2, or switching from eating twinkies to eating Tim-Bits....
Perhaps it's fair to say that variety is good, change is the only constant, and that if you do most things right, most of the time you'll be fine!
My man Jack Lalanne said that 'If man made it, don't eat it'...which is sage counsel, but should always be tempered with 'most of the time'- lest we become utopian regressionists and discount the marvels of modern medicine, intelligent supplementation and joy of eating occasional grain and dairy based treats, or intelligently prepared traditional foods.
A big THANK-YOU to Cliff Harvey for providing our readers with such delightful information!!!
About the Author: Cliff Harvey (ND, Dip.Fit, HbT, CN) is a naturopathic physician, clinical nutritionist, 2 x IAWA weightlifting world champion and founder of Holistic Performance Nutrition™ He is based in Auckland, New Zealand where he works in private clinical practice and teaches sports nutrition for the clinical nutrition and naturopathic programs at Wellpark College; New Zealand's leading college for naturopathic medicine.