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Then and Now: Going Paleo (Part 1)

January 2, 2012

Most people would be surprised to learn that 72.1% of the total daily energy consumed by all the people in the United States come from foods that were not part of the diet of our hunter-gather ancestors. These foods include dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils and alcohol  (  If you include in the analysis the fact that meat today is laden with harmful antibiotics, bacteria and hormones and is much higher in saturated fat and much lower in the beneficial omega-3 and omega-9 fats than wild or paleolithic meat, then the number gets closer to 100%. The number gets even closer to 100% if you count the often fructose laden fruit commonly available at the local supermarket. To make matters even worse three of the major food companies in the U.S. are owned or were owned by cigarette companies or cigarette company stockholders ( , The USDA food pyramid, although it points in the right general direction, overemphasizes grains, possibly because of cost issues or because the US is a major supplier of grains to the rest of the world. Dr. Memet Oz, possibly America’s best known nutritionist, enunciates the problem rather well: Americans spend two to four times as much on health care as Mexico, China, Japan, India and most of Europe and have two to four times as much chronic disease.  We are facing an obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer epidemic in this country that rivals the bubonic plague of the middle ages. The economic consequences could be disastrous ( ). To overcome this problem, I am not advocating going back to the 1970’s, 1900’s , or even the 1600’s (possible milestones in the epidemic of processed foods), I am advocating going back as much as 2 and 1/2 million years to a world that was radically different from today’s world. It is that world that shaped the human genome.

How the paleolithic diet/lifestyle differed from today’s diet/lifestyle  can be understood by looking at a number of different nutritional and lifestyle parameters:

Dairy Foods

About 10.6% of today’s Western diet calories comes from dairy foods. There is direct chemical evidence for dairying only going back to about 6100 BP (before the present). Milk is highly insulinotropic (insulin producing), with insulin indexes that are comparable to white bread. The insulinotropic effects of milk and yogurt are 3 to 6 times  greater than the corresponding glycemic indices (respectively), although both have very low glycemic (blood sugar raising) indices. Milk has a glycemic index that is twice that of yogurt. Yogurt is a good source of calcium, beneficial bacteria (probiotics), and protein and contains no fructose. One serving  contains about 1/500 as much glycotoxins or AGE’s as a serving of roasted chicken (Table 1).  Yogurt is slightly acidic ( It is a probably a good idea to either eliminate dairy products from your diet or limit dairy to a cup or two a day of sugar free preferably organic yogurt. Cheese is a much bigger problem. It is often high in cholesterol raising saturated fat, tends to be highly acidic and, gram for gram, contains the same level of glycotoxins as roasted chicken (Table 1). I don’t have any data on whey protein at the present time but my guess is that it is substantially less insulinogenic than yogurt (no lactic acid) and significantly lower in AGE’s (no fat) than roasted chicken particularly if it is cold-processed (ie 99% not denatured protein). It has been shown to promote fat loss and muscle gain if it is consumed before a bout of exercise. Hence it is a favorite of body builders. A final problem  is that all dairy products contain peptide sequences that can trigger auto-immune responses (


About 23.9% of todays western diet calories come from cereal grains. In the U.S. 85.3% of these grains are highly processed. Before the Epi-Paleolithic (11,000 years ago), humans consumed very little or no grains. Refined grains such as bread, pasta, white flour or white rice tend to be low in fiber and have a high glycemic index, a measure of how quickly a food will drive up  a person’s blood sugar and (indirectly) insulin levels. Chronically high insulin levels can interfere with a hormone called leptin that tells the brain how much fat is on board and suppresses appetite. ( This leads to obesity and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a driving factor behind the metabolic syndrome.  It is a no-brainer that you should eliminate flour from your diet or greatly reduce it. It is not so obvious that you should eliminate or significantly reduce whole grains as well. Whole grains contain anti-nutrients  such as phytates, alkylresorcinols, protease inhibitors, and lectins that can suppress the absorption of valuable vitamins and minerals such as niacin, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc ( Like dairy, grains contain peptide (or protein) sequences that may stimulate autoimmune responses ( The whole grains  contain anti-nutrients called lectins (specifically wheat germ agglutinin-WGA)  can also stimulate the influx of dietary antigens (including dietary proteins found in dairy, grains and legumes that mimic the body’s collagen) into the blood stream that can set off an autoimmune response. The end result is that the body loses its ability to distinguish self from non-self. Hence if you have autoimmune problems, eliminating grains would probably be particularly useful. One exception to at least some of the problems with grains is Ezekiel bread, which contains sprouted whole grains and no flour. The sprouting eliminates the lectins and anti-nutrients but probably has little effect on the immune system provoking proteins or peptides.

Refined Sugars

Refined sugars constitute about 18.6% of the calories in the western diet (  and of course 0% of the paleolithic diet. However paleolithic humans consumed small amounts of honey. Among  the Ache Indians of Paraguay, honey represented about 3% of total daily intake over a 4 year period. Table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup are major constituents of the modern western diet. Both are combinations of fructose and glucose. Glucose is relatively benign although it may cause weight gain but fructose, in excess, can cause serious health problems such as dislipidemia (leading to cardiovascular disease) and increased blood pressure ( and  It is a good idea to eliminate added sugar and corn syrup from your diet. If you must have something sweet try stevia (brand name Truvia) or brown rice syrup as sweeteners. There are now many commercial products that eliminate fructose as a sweetener by replacing sucrose and corn syrup with stevia or brown rice syrup. You can also significantly reduce your intake of fructose by eliminating fruit juice. Eat berries that are very high in antioxidant plant polyphenols and compounds that suppress carbohydrate digestion. Acai berries are a very good choice because they contain no fructose and top the charts for antoxidant capacity. There are a number of brands that can be found in the frozen fruit section of your natural foods store. A fundamental problem is that any sweet tasting food will lead to increased calorie consumption because the brain registers sweetness separately from other food sensations ( In one study a group of rats were given additional bread and chocolate in their diet. As a result their caloric intake increased by 84% and within 120 days their body weights had increased by an average of 49%(Rogers, P. J., & Blundell, J. E. (1980). Investigation of food selection and meal parameters during the development of dietary induced obesity[Abstract]. Appetite, 1, 85.)!

The bottom line is that to lose weight and improve your health cut back on fructose (especially in juice) and on sweet foods in general. Eliminate or greatly reduce refined sugar and corn syrup from your diet. A huge variety of foods contain refined sugar-most baked goods (cookies, cakes,  pies), most candy, most ice cream including soy ice cream and many, many other refined foods.)

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