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The Paleo diet

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The Paleo diet

Orin Zebest

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by GianPaula Hulten

The Paleo diet: the newest food trend to hit the health world. Although nutrition books on the Paleo diet trace back to the 1970’s, the diet has seen a boom in popularity over the past decade. While the Paleo diet may be helpful for college students who are trying to stay healthy, whether or not the diet is attainable in a college lifestyle is still up for debate.

“Paleo” stands for paleolithic, a pre-agricultural era between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago in which our “cavemen” ancestors hunted and gathered in order to acquire food. According to Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of the paleo diet, those using the diet should eat like the early humans used to back in the day. The true hunter-gatherer diet depended hugely on geography, but overall it included: seeds, nuts, roots, fruits, vegetables, natural oils, eggs, grass-fed meat, and fish. It did not include: grains, legumes, dairy, potatoes, salt, processed foods, or refined sugars – some of the staples of the modern American diet, which make the new diet trend controversial.

UMass Amherst senior Allison Griggs says “I think it all boils down to will power. On paper, the Paleo Diet looks great! Implementing it is a different story. Meat and veggies are both well and good, but what happens when your friends want to party, and then order pizza? Realistically, how well does the diet fit into a college lifestyle? It seems restrictive, and I would never want to sacrifice a bit of fun because ‘my diet says so.’”

 The USDA food pyramid recommends six to eleven servings of grains, bread, cereal, rice, or pasta per day. Paleo proponents disagree with this suggestion and argue that today’s typical Western diet of red meat, refined grains, fried food, high fat dairy, and sugary desserts contribute to the prevalence of chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

 For this reason, some students who think the Paleo diet isn’t possible in college, agree that it may bring attention to larger health concerns regarding the way Americans eat.

“I feel the Paleo diet brings to light some of our practices that may need to be changed,” said

Keegan Krick, a UMass Amherst Biochemistry major. “But I also feel that it takes it to another unhealthy extreme.”

“It is important for us to reconsider the way we eat, given the many health problems out there, but at the same time I don’t see myself giving up grains and dairy just yet,” said UMass student, Kaelan Burkett.

 According to a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65 percent of American adults over the age of 20 are either overweight or obese. Furthermore, 64 million Americans have cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death nationwide), 50 million Americans are hypertensive, and 11 million Americans have type II diabetes. The study concluded that “these diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and afflict 50-65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people.” The ramifications of our nation’s current diet surely provide a compelling argument for going Paleo.

In addition to hindering the development of these diseases, some people believe that the Paleo diet can function to cure pre-existing conditions as well. In her 2011 TED talk, Terry Wahls, M.D., discusses how she was able to reverse her secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, an otherwise incurable ailment, by learning to properly fuel her cells with the Paleo diet. In her lecture, she states:

“We are alive because of complicated chemical reactions. If you are not providing the building blocks, those reactions cannot happen properly, leading to the wrong structures being made or structures not being made at all. This sets the stage for chronic disease. It does not have to be this way. When scientists have analyzed these hunter-gatherer diets, their results show that they exceed the recommended daily allowance two to ten fold, depending on the nutrient. These ancient peoples know more about eating for optimal health and vitality than we physicians and we scientists.”

Not all health professionals display equal enthusiasm about the new trend. Opponents claim the diet to be too exclusive, arguing that if hunter-gatherers had access to grains and dairy, they would have eaten them as well. Keith Ayboob, EDd, RD, professor at New York’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine, points out that “people who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and there are mountains of research about the health benefits of diets that include, not exclude, these foods.”  Another common complaint points to the fact that the diet’s basic premise clashes with the attributes of modern food. Most plant and animal species consumed today have been genetically modified or selectively bred over thousands of years, making fruits, vegetables, and meat fundamentally different from their Paleolithic precursors.

 For those who are hesitant to jump into this radical new way of eating, there is hope for a happy medium, and it exists somewhere between typical Western eating habits and a full-on caveman diet. In a moderate approach, grains and dairy may remain in the day-to-day diet, while heavily processed foods and sugars should be moderated.

Extreme and difficult as it may be, if you’ve been looking to change your eating habits and are curious to test the purported benefits and dine like a cave-man, the Paleo diet might just be for you.

 

GianPaula Hulten can be reached at ghulten@umass.edu

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The Paleo diet