When Molly Dunham prepares dinner for her family the scene is reminiscent of most family dinners – at least at the beginning. It starts with a carefully selected cut of grass-fed beef or some free-range chicken and includes a colorful array of vegetables from staple items such as onions and peppers to the new ‘it’ green, kale.
What’s different about the dinner at the Dunham’s house though is that for one, her two children actually eat their vegetables, and two you won’t find a grain of rice, a loaf of bread or a side of beans.
Dunham has transitioned her family onto the oldest diet known to man, the Paleo diet.
“Doing Paleo, more than anything, has taught me to listen to my body, which I don’t think I could do before,” said Dunham, who admitted to being a near vegetarian at one point in her life. “So there’s a lot of bio-feedback and I’m always paying attention to how things make me feel.”
Unlike fad diets like Atkins, Slim-Fast or the tasty but less-than-nutritious cookie diet, proponents of the Paleo diet point to the 2.5-3 million years of data to back up the nutrition behind Paleo.
The diet is simple, no more counting calories, timing when you should consume your big meal of the day or drinking powder drinks. The basis of the diet is if it wasn’t around 10,000 years ago, before the dawn of modern civilization, you can’t eat it. That leaves meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and eggs, but excludes things like grains and legumes.
“Now, even today, when we have a choice in the matter, we’re still slamming our system with too many carbs, producing too much insulin and creating the metabolic syndrome patterns of lifelong excess body fat and pro-inflammatory dietary conditions that set the tone for disease and dysfunction,” said Auburn resident and former professional triathlete Brad Kearns.
How our ancestors ate
Long before grocery stores and fast food, early man was a hunter and gatherer. Their main nutrition source was what they killed, whether it was an antelope, a bear or a rabbit. Many times it was either be fast enough to run away from a threat or quick enough to kill it before it killed you.
Between large meals of meat, early man ate vegetables and gathered berries and seeds to quell any hunger.
A typical day of the Paleo diet starts with a vegetable-filled omelet for breakfast or last night’s leftovers, lunch includes grass-fed beef, free-range chicken or wild-caught fish and a salad and another combination of meat and vegetables for dinner. Between meals you can eat fruit, seeds and nuts, especially walnuts or almonds.
Paleo followers typically get 20-35 percent of their nutrition from protein, 22-40 percent from carbohydrates and 28-58 percent from fat. Fats are largely derived from meat with oils like coconut and avocado used instead of vegetable and canola.
My Plate, a United States Department of Agriculture dietary guideline, divides a regular meal into 30 percent grains, 30 percent vegetables, 20 percent fruits and 20 percent protein with a small helping of dairy.
The Paleo diet varies wildly depending on which faction you follow. Some of the leading authors are Dr. Loren Cordain, who stresses low-carbs and high-protein through lean meats; Robb Wolf, whose style is similar to Cordain’s and Mark Sisson, who promotes the consumption of bacon and some dairy in addition to grass-fed meats and locally-grown vegetables.
The biggest adjustment might be in the preparation. Because of the strict guidelines compared to other diets Paleo makes eating out difficult, but not impossible.
“Definitely you have to adapt it to your lifestyle,” said Elijah Hrbek, owner of Auburn Crossfit, who has been on the diet for about nine months. “If one of these triathlete guys wanted to try it, they’d have to put in an ample amount of food.”
Benefits of Paleo
Kearns is the local aficionado on Paleo. He has served as the editor of the Primal Blueprint, a leading Paleo diet publication written by Sisson, since 2008 and co-developed PrimalCon, a three-day primal lifestyle retreat in Oxnard.
When he was a professional triathlete, a time in which he consumed about 5,000 calories a day, the thought of a Paleo diet was almost unfathomable.
“My first adjustment was to go from my giant cereal bowl every morning to my big, huge omelet,” Kerns said. “That’s primal approved, it’s got vegetables, eggs, a little bit of cheese, maybe some avocados on top and I’d have this huge meal every morning and I felt fantastic for several hours after and my energy was stable and everything was great.”
The main source of carbs for Paleo dieters are through fruits, which is a stark contrast to the typical American diet. High carbohydrate intake is known to increase the likelihood of type II diabetes and obesity, A recent study by the University of California San Francisco showed that a 10-day switch to the Paleo diet improved glucose tolerance and decreased insulin secretion.
It was for health reasons that Dunham switched to Paleo nine months ago.
“Little health issues started to get me to think that we can do better than this, we can live better and cure our ailments – whether they’re big or small – with food,” Dunham said.
She had a growth on her eye that her doctor deemed was a part of getting older. Dunham found that she was missing several key nutrients in her diet and made the switch. The growth has since gone away. Additionally, her husband suffers from chronic back issues and was told he would likely have to leave his career at UPS in about five years. His pain has largely gone away too since the family adopted the diet.
Like all diets, some health professionals are concerned about the Paleo diet. Depending on which version of the diet you follow, the fat intake can vary from 22-58 percent. A diet high in fat that throws out two major food groups is enough to cause alarm in the health community, said Catherine R. Nishikawa a registered dietician and the manager of nutrition and food services at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital.
“It is a fact that for much of society the modern day diet is far too high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods,” she said. “It is also a fact that prehistoric man did not have access to these foods, including wheat, rice, oats and dairy products. However, the long-term health benefits of following a diet that completely eliminates all grains, legumes and dairy remains unproven. There could in fact be negative health consequences if all of these foods are permanently eliminated from the diet.”
Whether Paleo is the diet that will take society back to the future or another in a long line of fads remains to be seen. But while doctors study the long-term affects of the diet, Dunham and other Paleo followers will enjoy their kale chips as they look to live healthier lives.
“As much as I can slow that down and age well, I’m all behind that,” Dunham said. “I want us to be active in our later years and that’s really important to me, especially because I see my grandparents and I see them just for years now suffering physically and I don’t want to do that.”