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The Paleo Diet: for and against

Date
Health concerns ... lean protein, lots of vegetables but not enough fibre.

Health concerns ... lean protein, lots of vegetables but not enough fibre. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Sometimes nutrition seems like a war zone with different tribes slugging it out over what’s the best way to eat – and one current skirmish has the Paleo People pitted against the Grain Eaters.

If you haven’t tuned into the Palaeolithic Diet yet, its followers say we need a diet that’s as close as possible to that of our hunter gatherer ancestors: lean animal foods like meat, birds and fish, along with vegetables and nuts but not too much fruit. Dairy foods, legumes and grains are off the menu. As relative newbies that weren’t part of our diet until the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, these foods can cause many health problems now dogging the industrialised world because, according to Paleo philosophy, we haven’t adapted to eating them.  

"If you take these grains out of your diet, along with lentils and beans, can you still get enough fibre?" 

It’s hard to argue with a diet based on lean protein and lots of veg, especially one that kicks highly processed food off the plate. Nor would you disagree that there are some people who can’t tolerate wheat and gluten and are healthier without them. But while the Paleo Diet gets brownie points for being based on whole food, its reliance on meat, fish and poultry doesn’t tick many boxes for environmental sustainability or animal welfare – or anyone on a tight budget.

Against the grain ... no place for muesli in the Paleo diet.

Against the grain ... no place for muesli in the Paleo diet.

The Paleo Diet also leaves me wondering what’s so bad about a whole food diet that includes some grains – foods that have sustained so many traditional cultures for thousands of years. I don't mean diets swamped by refined grains, but modest amounts of the rougher stuff - whole grains like oats, barley, bulgur and brown rice that provide fibre as well as nutrients. If you take these grains out of your diet, along with lentils and beans, can you still get enough fibre?

“You can – but you’d have to work a lot harder to get it and you’d also miss out on getting a diversity of different fibres,” says Dr Tony Bird, Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Food Futures National Research Flagship.

Bird believes we need a mix of three types of fibre for optimal health – there’s the heart healthy viscous fibre from oats, barley, some vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, and there’s insoluble fibre from grains and quinoa that help keep the bowels moving. Then there’s a third type - resistant starch from legumes, whole grains, under-ripe bananas, cooled cooked potatoes and al dente pasta that may give extra protection against colon cancer.  

The reason is that resistant starch provides food for friendly gut bacteria, which then produce a substance called butyrate - and this seems to protect cells in the colon from DNA damage.

“There’s strong evidence for this from animal studies along with corroborating studies in humans,” says Bird.” And if you look at African populations with rates of colon cancer that are about one tenth of ours they have diets very high in resistant starch.”

Tony Bird also speculates that lack of sufficient resistant starch in the diet may help explain what he calls the Australian paradox – that while our intake of fibre has increased, our bowel cancer rates are still high.

While the Paleo Diet sees grains as an enemy contributing to many western diseases, Bird points out that research also suggests that high fibre grains are linked to less obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease – and that if you look at the populations with less risk for western diseases, they tend to be those eating diets high in starchy fibre foods.  

Whether you go with the grain or without it is up to you, but for now I’m sticking with a whole food diet that includes a mix of different grains. The Paleo Diet may be pretty healthy, but then so are eating styles based on traditional diets like the Mediterranean Diet and the Okinawa Diet. Both include some grains but, like the Paleo Diet, they don’t include highly processed food –and that’s likely to be the real enemy.

Are you for or against grains in the diet?

169 comments so far

  • The author has not done her research. The paleo diet insists on clean, not lean, meats - in fact the fats of healthy animals are a main source of nutrients. That was a claim made in one single book, published 10 years ago and since superceded by even its own author, to ease its acceptance by a fat-phobic public.
    To understand paleo you must educate yourself on the fallacies of the lipid hypothesis: eating fat DOES NOT make you fat, nor does it raise your chances of heart disease. The research has been clear on this for many years but the dogma is hard to shift.
    As to the grain question, I will ask one in return: Why does a strawberry taste good? Because it evolved to. It's red so we can see it, sweet so we will like it (sugar is rare in nature, and a dense source of calories, which is why we are predisposed to like it) and full of seeds which the plant wants spread far and wide in convenient fertiliser packets. How does a grass reproduce? A grain is a seed and fertiliser packet all in one. It grows on the top of a stalk so the wind can spread it. It does NOT want to be eaten, so it evolved lectins and other anti-nutrients that make it hard to digest, so animals (other than birds, who have the gizzard to handle grains) will get a stomach ache after eating it and not try that again. Processing mitigates the stomach ache but does not remove the lectins.

    Commenter
    Lauren
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 9:29PM
    • having been around horses and cattle for years, I suspect that animals eating whole, uncrushed grains does not lead to them getting a stomach ache - it's just that the grains can tend to pass through without being digested. Which actually is a great way for grains to be distributed around the place - the plants way of sowing themselves (in a nice rich pat of manure), and ensuring their survival and spread. The point is that for this to work the seed has to be indigestible, but not unattractive to eat. I think probably what happens is not that animals avoid grain seeds, or that grain seeds don't 'want' to be eaten, but just that they eat them in the course of eating the leaves and stems of the grasses and grains, which they CAN digest.

      Commenter
      ridesabikealot
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 11:37AM
    • Phytates and lectins are believed to function as germination inhibitors, to enable the seeds to pass through the gut of animals and birds without germinating. Birds and animals perform an important function (for the plant) of dispersing the seeds. Seeds of the size of cereals (wheat, oats, barley etc) are too large to be very effectively wind-dispersed.

      FYI, soaking grains, especially in a mildly acidic liquid, effectively inactivates the phytates. Perhaps the move away from real sour-dough bread and porridge as a breakfast (as opposed to hyper-processed commercial cereals) has something to do with the modern demonization of grains?

      Commenter
      TB
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 2:04PM
    • I believe we're over-thinking this whole concept way too much and not relying on what our bodies actually need. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were intuitively orientated toward what they're bodies needed. These days we're influenced by media and marketing we now 'think' ourselves fat.

      The point I'm raising is to know the demands of your body and feed it sound nutrition which allows it to flourish. If you feel good an hour after eating and don't have headaches, flatulence, belching etc you've chosen correctly. If you're lean, fit and have good blood results with no inflammatory markers and have no major illness or disease (cholesterol, diabetes, autoimmune disease etc) you're eating the correct nutrients and sustaining healthy living.

      As a health professional I find people arguing irrelevant points about who is right or wrong. It doesn't matter, since we live in a subjective universe. Your perception colours your reality. Read 'Health at 100' by John Robbins for an insight on the longest living people in four major areas of the world to see what they eat to sustain a long life. It is mixed and varied. Each diet suits the genetic expression of the race.

      Commenter
      John
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 7:33PM
  • The author implies that paleo is unsustainable, but ignores that the sustainability question in fact leads to the most radical suggestions of paleo, namely that the industrial food supply system is unsustainable and unhealthy for animals, plants, land and humans, and must stop. Paleo advocates eating locally, seasonally and buying from a known source. There are biochemical reasons why this is healthy, but the ecological argument will suffice.
    And finally, please think critically for a moment about fibre (which is not starch, and not grains). If we "need" it, how do breastfed babies poop? And poop they do! How do fasting monks poop? The Inuit during the winter months? The colon cancer thing is a red herring - killing off your gut flora and needing a "broom" to clean out your guts is far more damaging than eating fermented foods and avoiding All Bran.
    Think. Read.

    Commenter
    Lauren
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 9:35PM
    • Well to start with breast fed babies poo a slurry of breastmilk. It only starts thickening once they start eating solids. Our guts and colons are long... much longer compared to a strict carnivore. Let's look at a cat which is a strict carnivore. They have pure carnivore teeth designed for ripping flesh. We don't. Most of our teeth are designed for grinding. A cat's stomach is high in acid to break down meat. Our guts aren't, which indicates that we were designed to be carrion eaters. Whilst we don't eat rotting flesh now (homo habilis was unlikely to have been a hunter but a scavanger) we cook meat to speed up the rotting process. A cat's intestines are short designed to process and expel the meat as easily as possible. Ours are longer which indicates we are supposed to be eating primarily vegetarian foods. So if the bowel/colon cancer is a red herring WHY is it that when you have a colonoscopy they ask you to stop eating meat for weeks before the procedure? Because red meat STICKS to the sides of your colon and they can't differentiate it from blood. You need FIBRE to process the meat in your guts.

      Commenter
      Fernandes
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 10:29AM
    • Oh an also... using the Inuit as a yardstick is a tricky situation indeed. Inuits HAVE to eat mostly meat because... ah... nothing grows in ice. Now they have developed incredible livers to cope with the amount of meat they eat. The first white european explorers to the Artic often died of Vitamin A poisoning because their livers could not cope with the amount of vitamin A from eating so much meat and offal.

      Commenter
      Fernandes
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 10:31AM
    • One of the great findings that comes out of W A Prices research (Nutrition & Physical Degeneration) was that there are many very different diets that seem to be very healthy, including diets high in grain and diets high in animal.
      Notably, some of these healthy diets were very low in fibre.

      Commenter
      Gordon Rouse
      Location
      Yinnar South
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 10:51AM
    • Lauren, infact Inuits have a very high rate of colorectal cancer in the world. I have nothing against the Paleo diet but I think what the article says about the importance of fibre in the diet is true.

      Commenter
      Jezz
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 11:00AM
    • @Lauren: "industrial food supply system is unsustainable... Paleo advocates eating locally, seasonally and buying from a known source"

      With plenty of meat and fish...

      To feed the six billion people on the planet, we need an industrial food supply system.

      Eating local, while sounding good, simply isn't practical for a huge proportion of the population. I look out my window and see high rise buildings, not fields with cows and sheep frollicking around.

      Commenter
      bjingo
      Date and time
      March 14, 2012, 1:36PM

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