Eat fats? Avoid grains? Fans of paleo diet say it works for them

June 22, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Hagerstown resident Bob Boone is following the paleolithic diet, named after the diet eaten by humans before the beginning of agriculture. The diet emphasizes vegetables, meat and healthful fats  ingredients Boone combines in his omelet muffins.
By Yvette May/Staff photographer

I've often thought modern humans would be wise to look to earlier generations for guidelines on how to live well individually and in groups.

So I was intrigued in late 2011 when my wife said she was going to follow the so-called "Paleolithic diet" for a month. She read "The Primal Blueprint" by Mark Sisson, which encourages people to eat like humans did before the development of agriculture.

"I'm only going to eat things people ate before 10,000 years ago," my wife said. "Meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts. No grains. No legumes. No dairy."

No grains? Really? My Italian-American, bread-at-every-meal wife would eat no grains for a month?

"Grains have gluten, and humans didn't evolve to eat gluten," she said. "They were hunter-gatherers."

"But humans are opportunistic eaters," I replied. "I bet some Paleolithic people ate wild grains or milk from wild cows. I bet, when they were starving, they ate just about anything they could get their hands on — bugs, grass, bark, anything."

But my wife persevered. She completed her month-long paleo diet, and she felt good. She lost 5 pounds and her complexion improved. So she decided to continue.

What is the paleo diet?

Proponents say the paleo diet — also called the primal diet or cave man diet — works because it's the diet humans evolved to eat over hundreds of thousands of years. The name comes from the Paleolithic Era, the prehistoric period before the advent of agriculture.

Researchers don't know exactly what Paleolithic humans did and did not eat, but they have some educated guesses.

In a 2009 paper, "Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet," published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Lynda Frassetto wrote, "... (O)ur ancestors, including Homo sapiens, lived as hunter-gatherers, eating wild animal-source foods (lean meats, internal organs, bone marrow, but no dairy) and uncultivated plant-source foods (mostly fruits, nongrain vegetables, nuts, but no legumes)," she wrote.

Mark Sisson was an early proponent of eating a Paleolithic-style diet. But for him, the diet should be part of an overall lifestyle. He calls it his "primal blueprint."

"The Primal Blueprint is not just an eating strategy," Sisson said by phone from California. "It's a lifestyle that encompasses how you move, how you sleep, how much sun exposure you get, the amount of play incorporated into your life, and a lot of other elements that ... ultimately make for a strong, lean, fit, happy, productive individual."

Experts change their mind

Tammy Thornton is a registered dietitian at the Washington County Health Department. She is now generally following paleo-diet guidelines. She said research convinced her that eating a paleo diet was healthier than eating a diet low in fat and high in whole grains — the diet supported by conventional wisdom.

Thornton's boss, Mary McPherson, program manager of health and safety promotion for the health department, is also following the guidelines of a paleo diet.

McPherson said, for her, research is beside the point.

"I don't think bread is bad. I don't think milk and cheese are bad. Human beings have been on this planet for a long time. They can eat a lot of things," she said. "For me it's not about the research. It's about what works for me."

McPherson said she's gained weight over the years and also has developed multiple sclerosis. The paleo diet helped her with both.

"I've never been successful with a diet. I found myself at 165 pounds. My doctor said, 'You've got to get the weight off,'" she said. "I'm down to 140 pounds, and I've kept it off."

McPherson described an average day's meals: An egg and fruit for breakfast; a salad with protein for lunch; mixed nuts or dried fruit for an afternoon snack; and a chicken Caesar salad or pan-seared fish with broccoli and fruit for dinner.

"The whole family eats this way — because I cook for the family," she said. "My teenage girls have not minded paleo. Shish kebabs — they love them. They have not missed the potato at all. Instead of white potatoes, we eat sweet potatoes."

The conventional wisdom

Since 1980, the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have issued nutritional guidelines every five years in an effort to help Americans eat well. In 1995, the guidelines introduced the Food Guide Pyramid, an attempt to help Americans visualize foods they should eat more of and foods they should eat less of.

In the smallest segment of the pyramid — indicating the food experts wanted Americans to eat least — were oils and fats. In the largest segment of the pyramid — the food experts wanted Americans to eat most — were grains.

That was the conventional wisdom in 1980. That became accepted fact: Fats are bad for you. Whole grains are good.

But the primal-paleo approach takes the opposite point of view. McPherson acknowledged she had to work out for herself how to balance her responsibilities to the health department with her new perspective on her diet.

"The health department follows the nutritional guidelines set forth by the federal government. There are good reasons to eat whole grains. There's lots of research to support that," she said. "However on a personal level, I have lost weight (while avoiding grains). I have more energy.

"This is a personal lifestyle. I think that I wasn't really concerned about the biochemistry, the research. I was more concerned about feeling better."

Living without grains

Several local families found that paleo-style diets improved their health.

Amanda Collins, who lives in the Huyetts Crossroads area, said she had read about the paleo diet as she researched ways to alleviate her 7-year-old daughter's celiac-related health issues.

"We ate gluten free but we still had reactions to a lot of things," Collins said. "Since November 2011, we've eaten paleo. So now our diet is heavily meat and vegetables and fruit."

Collins said it's more time consuming to cook fresh foods every day, but the results have been worth it.

"We're healthier," she said. "The dark circles under our eyes have gone away. My daughter's skin is clearing."

Jen Frias of Hagerstown said she originally accepted the conventional wisdom of eating whole grains and minimizing fat. But she struggled with infertility and with maintaining a good weight. She explored different dietary approaches, and now follows a low-grain, high-fat diet promoted by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

"My husband's Filipino. The way traditional cultures eat is very different than Americans," Frias said. "The Western world is pretty much the only one to eat low fat. I was resistant to eating this way, but none of (my husband's family) really have health problems, so I kept that tucked in the back of my mind."

Frias grows her own vegetables, buys raw milk, eats grains only if they have been soaked, sprouted or fermented, eats no soy products, and avoids processed foods. That means no pasta, which she misses.

And cooking fresh meats, fruits and  vegetables daily is expensive. But so is medical care. Frias believes eating well will reduce her health-care costs.

"You can pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later. It's all about what are you investing in" she said. "I'm anticipating that my medical bills will be less."

Study shows benefit

Lynda Frassetto's 2009 study on the health effects of the paleo diet was small. She fed a paleo-style diet to nine non-obese, sedentary, healthy people for 10 days, following a week of "ramp-up" foods. She compared blood pressure, blood-lipid level, blood-sugar level and other biometric measurements before and after the paleo diet.

The volunteers did not exercise. Their diet was adjusted so they would not gain or lose weight. Frassetto wanted to see strictly how the paleo-style diet would affect health.

The results, she said, were impressive.

"What we found was that some of these people adapted remarkably to being on this diet for two weeks," she said. "There was an average cholesterol drop of around 35 milligrams per deciliter. Some people, like the people whose blood pressures dropped the most, their cholesterols would drop as much as 70 milligrams per deciliter.

"This is a huge drop in cholesterol in two weeks' time. No weight loss. No exercise. And the only thing they're doing is changing their diet for two weeks."

Frassetto said she wants to do a larger study, but the National Institutes of Health rejected her funding proposal. She said she was told the paleo diet was simply a "fad diet." Frassetto wanted her proposal to be evaluated on the results of the first study.

"We're not making this data up. These results really are what we see," she said. "And you wouldn't ever expect medications to act this quickly. Statins take six months and require weight loss and exercise. This diet does it in two weeks and doesn't require exercise and weight loss."

Frassetto said she has changed her own diet, but she tells everyone not to go paleo without first checking with a doctor.

"There are medical reasons (why certain) people would not be a good individual to put on this diet," she said. "Make sure your doctor says it's OK."

Try something new

Hagerstown Community College Fitness Center Director Thomas Burge urges his clients to consider eating a paleo-style diet. He pointed out that eating fats doesn't directly lead to getting fat.

"If your body is metabolizing energy correctly, an increase in fat (consumption) will not lead to an increase in fat in your body," he said. 

Hagerstown resident Bob Boone is one of Burge's clients. He said he listened to Burge, bought a book about the paleo diet, and now he's a convert.

"I was losing weight, but I wanted to lose a lot more," Boone said. "As a result of (eating paleo), I'm down from 240 to 216. My blood pressure has gone down. I encourage people to at least try it."

Burge said many people he talks to think grains are good to eat and fats are bad. They object to eating a lot of fats. But Burge believes the paleo approach is healthful.

"I think it comes down to habit and addiction. It comes from eating that type of thing in childhood. It's more cultural than anything else," he said.

Closer to home

My wife is still eating paleo. Which is fine by me — what's not to love about eating a breakfast of bacon and eggs with sauteed onions, kale and peppers? Or dinners of chicken, vegetables sauteed in butter and a salad?

We buy vegetables at area farmers markets. We buy beef, pork and chicken from a farm north of Hagerstown. We cook with butter, put real cream in our coffee and eat high-fat, Greek-style yogurt. And we cook nearly every meal from scratch.

I'm not sold on everything in the paleo/primal approach, but it does make sense that my body would do well on foods similar to those my ancestors ate for thousands of years.

It's like what Mary McPherson said about the diet. She was trained in the conventional approach to nutrition, but is now trying something different, radically different. She is open to a diet that leads to health.

"Change is hard, especially if you have been eating a certain way since you were a child," she said. "This (paleo diet) fits me. Do I think this is for everybody? No. All I know is this worked for me."

Omelet muffins

6 eggs (see cook's note)

1/8 cup water

1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked chicken, ham or sausage, chopped or crumbled

2 cups diced fresh vegetables (see cook's note)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease muffin tin cups or line with paper liners.

Beat eggs and water in medium bowl. Add meat, vegetables and spices. Divide mixture among muffin cups. 

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until inserted knife comes out nearly clean.

Remove from tin and serve immediately or cool and refrigerate for another day.

Cook's notes: You should

use 1 egg per cup in your muffin tin. If you have an  8-cup tin, use 8 eggs and  increase other ingredients by about 1/3. One suggested vegetable combination is 1 red bell pepper, 1/4 pound asparagus or broccoli and 1/2 yellow onion, all chopped medium.

This recipe can be adapted easily — add one or more of the following: 1/4 cup shredded cheese, 1/4 lightly drained salsa, more spices, different vegetables, additional meat. 

— Courtesy of Bob Boone of Hagerstown


  •  "Eat Like a Dinosaur: Recipe & Guidebook for Gluten-free Kids" by Paleo Parents
  •  "The Paleo Diet" by Loren Cordain
  •  "Everyday Paleo Family Cookbook: Real Food for Real Life" by Sarah Fragoso
  •  "What if it's all been a big fat lie?," a 2002 New York Times Magazine article challenging the conventional wisdom that a low-fat, high-grain diet is healthy —
  • Mark's Daily Apple, a daily blog by Mark Sisson — www.marks
  •  Hagerstown resident Jen Frias writes a food blog called "Real Food Freaks"

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