Should you go paleo?

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Nutritionist Jess Kelley uses beets and turnips as substitutes for pasta. Starches, such as wheat noodles, are not allowed on the paleo diet.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Mashed potatoes. Camembert. French bread. Pasta carbonara. Rice and beans. Corn on the cob. Peanut butter. Bad, all bad.

Ice cream. Cheese cake. Doughnuts. Banana cream pie. Chocolate truffles. Cotton candy. Forbidden, all.

Are we in a bad dream, living under a warped regime that permits no pleasure on the plate, no enjoyment of the palate?

No, it’s the paleo diet, that phenom of uber-healthfulness sweeping the nation and our own little town, the tenets of which consign almost every starch, every grain, every legume, every dairy-based treat and treasured sweet to the garbage disposal.

This extreme action is necessary, paleo’s supporters contend, to counteract an American diet so contaminated with high-sugar, low-nutrition processed foods that it’s causing its good citizens to suffer from diabetes, obesity, heart disease and autoimmune illness, to name just a few of society’s modern medical scourges.

Paleo proponents offer instead the simple diet of our ancient ancestors, meals based almost entirely on meat and vegetables, with a few nuts, seeds and fats thrown in for good measure. Gone are all sugars, grains, dairy, legumes and processed foods, which include bread, pasta, white potatoes and most alcoholic beverages.

“Toss out that little bit of oatmeal or whole grain bread, go ahead, get rid of it,” urges Haley Mason, author of the Make it Paleo cookbook with her husband, Bill Staley.

In place of traditional starches, Mason and Haley promote rutabagas, turnips, sweet potatoes and winter squash. To substitute for regular butter, they offer coconut oil, palm shortening, butter from grass-fed cows and that French favorite, lard.

Their cookbook features dishes such as Eggplant Hole in the Head, a grilled eggplant slice standing in for toast, its center removed and an egg fried in the middle; zucchini lasagna, a casserole of the vegetable and tomato sauce sans cheese or pasta and a BBLT, 4 ounces of ground bison topped with four strips of bacon and, oh yes, beefsteak tomato and butter lettuce, no bun.

Sometimes referred to as the primal diet, backers point to the science underpinning the diet’s severe restrictions on carbohydrates – the human gastrointestinal system hasn’t evolved much since the age of the caveman.

“Genetically, we’re not designed to eat the amount of sugar and carbohydrates we have in our diet,” said nutritionist Jess Kelley of Durango Nutrition. “We don’t have enzymes to break down things like high-fructose corn syrup.”

One of the reasons for the popularity of the diet with health-care professionals (Maria’s Bookshop featured a display of no less than eight paleo cookbooks recently), is that they’re finding many clients who are allergic to gluten are also intolerant of corn, rice, quinoa and other grains.

Kelley, who follows the diet herself, recommends it to clients with inflammation, blood-sugar problems, autoimmune issues, heart disease, gastrointestinal distress, neurological or cognitive difficulties, anxiety and depression, among other medical conditions.

“I wouldn’t be in business if it didn’t work,” she said.

But this is Durango, and, well, there are those who would disagree.

Some hesitate to discount the diet of an entire continent that receives its primary nutrition from a single grain – rice – doubting that it causes Asians, the thinnest people in the world, the same diseases we have.

Some point to the healthfulness of the vegetarian diet, which is based primarily on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with dairy as a solid source of protein. And others debate the notion that we should eat as we did thousands of years ago, noting that the human body has difficulty digesting meat.

“I don’t think our ancestors lived on meat. I think we ate fruits and vegetables,” said Feather Smith of Light as a Feather, her business promoting healthy eating and the raw food diet.

She follows the 80-10-10 diet, which advocates eating 80 percent simple carbohydrates, i.e. fruit, 10 percent protein from vegetables like broccoli, kale and other greens and 10 percent fat. Further, she disavows heating anything beyond the temperature of her hand, deeming it a refined food.

“We’re eating meat way in excess of our human needs,” she said. “When you eat too much you get gout, joint problems, heart problems. You might lose weight, but what good is that if you lose your health?”

Local nutrition experts agree on two points about the paleo diet: you will lose weight (simply because it restricts calories so severely) and you will eat healthier than the typical American.

For one, you basically can’t eat out.

“You can’t get something paleo from McDonald’s or Subway,” said Nicola St. Mary, a naturopath. “You can’t eat on the go.”

For a person accustomed to eating a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, the diet forces you into a whole new world – your kitchen. It requires you to cook, and not only that, to be intensely aware of the ingredients you use. For some folks, that’s a novel experience.

But paleo mimics many of the diets that came before it – Atkins, Protein Power, South Beach – which exhort followers to ditch sweets and refined foods (though whole grains are allowed) and eat more vegetables. The extreme restrictions of the paleo diet make it a good starting point for people interested in losing weight and learning about healthy eating, St. Mary said, but those same restrictions make it hard to stick with.

While the paleo diet undoubtedly offers good advice in promoting the healthy practice of cooking your own food and limiting sugars and processed starches, local cardiologist Bruce Andrea remains skeptical of its main tenet.

“I’m not convinced that because something worked in the (ancient) past it will work now. It doesn’t mean it’s good for what our bodies need to thrive today,” he said.

Further, Andrea said he knows of no evidence linking whole grains with inflammation and plenty of evidence to suggest that colon health can be compromised by consuming too much meat, especially products with sulfites, such as bacon. He recommends the South Beach diet to his patients, saying the Mediterranean model of lots of vegetables, some lean meats, limited carbohydrates and plant-based fats is a more balanced approach to food.

And he reinforces the mantra of every diet on the planet – the absolute, unequivocal need to exercise.

“Cavemen were exercisers. No diet is going to save a couch potato,” Andrea said.

Ah, a potato, topped with butter and sour cream or mashed with butter or best yet, fried to a perfect crunch or, or, or … better forget about it.

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