The Paleo Diet: Ancient Wisdom or Diet Gimmick?

More and more people seem to be eating “Paleo” these days, touting their almond and coconut-flour pancake breakfasts and high-protein, gluten-free dinners. There are a slew of books and blogs promoting Paleo as a way to optimize health, lower chronic disease risk, and lose weight. But does it work?

The diet is based on the premise of a hunter-gather regimen. In other words, foods that were available to our ancestors during pre-agricultural times that could either be hunted (meats) or gathered (fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables). The Paleo diet is generally higher in protein, fat, and fiber and lower in carbohydrates and sodium. It is also naturally gluten-free, making it an attractive option for individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Eating “Paleo” does have a number of desirable nutrition benefits: it is much higher in fruits and vegetables than the typical American diet and therefore higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals; it also strongly discourages processed foods, making it lower in sodium and added sugars. And who couldn’t benefit from more fruits and veggies and less junk food, right?

Not so fast.

Because the diet is based on foods our ancestors potentially ate, it encourages eating animal protein freely – including organ meats, pork, and beef, which can easily lead to consuming too much unhealthy fat. In addition, it discounts that these foods were probably not in constant supply and that our ancestors likely also ate lesser known organisms, like lichen, to supplement their diet. Sadly, Paleo also completely eliminates legumes (beans), dairy, and all grains.

Although the diet is promoted as “healthy” and high in nutrients, knocking grains completely out of your diet means you are also missing out on important sources of energy, fiber, essential B vitamins and minerals, and an array of distinct antioxidants and phytochemicals not found in fruits and vegetables. Plus, research demonstrates that individuals who consume whole grains as part of an overall healthy diet reduce their risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

If you are intent on looking to our ancestors for diet advice, why not try some nutrient-packed ancient grains?  Ancient grains have been grown for centuries and many also happen to be gluten-free (going gluten-free is not necessary for good health).

Quinoa – A Protein Powerhouse

Quinoa has been touted as a superfood thanks to its protein content – one of the highest of any grain.  Plus, it includes all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. This versatile starch cooks up quickly and makes an excellent substitution for brown rice or couscous and is delicious as a salad!

Try this pear-quinoa dish.

Millet – Packed with Mighty Minerals 

This tiny grain is an excellent source of several essential minerals – including manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and copper: all important for keeping our heart, immune system, and metabolic processes functioning well.

Millet makes a great substitute for hot breakfast cereal and adds creaminess to cauliflower in this potato-free millet-cauliflower “mashed potato” recipe.

Buckwheat – A Great Grain Alternative

Botanically related to rhubarb, buckwheat is not actually a grain, and is not a type of wheat, despite its name. But its nutrient profile and grain-like appearance led to its easy adoption into the grain family. Like quinoa and millet, buckwheat is packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, plus some research suggests it may be helpful in keeping blood sugar levels steady.

Buckwheat flour is a tasty gluten-free alternative to wheat flour – give buckwheat a try, and treat yourself to these buckwheat crepes for breakfast!

About the Author:

Veronica Salsberg is a dietetic intern at MGH, completing her year-long comprehensive training in nutrition. She completed her Master’s degree in Nutrition and Health Promotion at Simmons College in 2013. Veronica enjoys experimenting with recipes that fuel her through one of her favorite activities: running. She is eager to start her career guiding and inspiring others to meet their own health and wellness goals through nutritious foods and active lifestyles.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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