Put down that bone fragment you were digging with and let’s grapple with a basic fact: You are a post-Neolithic human, born 10,000 years after the close of the pre-agricultural paleolithic era that dates back 2.5 million years.
The Wheat Belly lifestyle and the popular notion of a “paleolithic” diet overlap substantially . . . but there are differences. This is a common question that arises. So here we go and discuss our points of difference.
First of all, what I am not doing here is bashing the ideas promoted by most followers of the paleo concepts. The ideas they follow are a damn sight better than conventional notions of healthy eating and wonderful results can indeed be achieved on a “paleo diet.” Many authors from the paleo community are among my friends.
There is plenty of overlap between Wheat Belly and what most authors regard as the principles of paleolithic eating. We agree on this notion that reverting back to the dietary habits and foods that molded us evolutionarily for 2.5 million years is logical, representing a return to the habits to which our bodies have adapted. Both reject all grains, for instance, the biggest issue of all, given their relatively recent introduction approximately 10,000 years ago. (I am referring to widespread consumption, not isolated pockets of consumption that may have marked, for instance, oat consumption among limited numbers of humans earlier than 10,000 years ago.) Both reject use of refined sugar, sweeteners such as agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup, oils such as corn, soybean, and canola, and highly processed commercial and genetically-modified foods. So we agree on something like 90% of dietary issues.
But there are indeed differences. Let me list them item-by-item:
- In Wheat Belly, we strictly limit digestible carbohydrates, while in most popular “paleo diets,” such carbohydrate sources as honey, maple syrup, and fruit are consumed ad lib. We limit carbs because the majority of people starting out on this lifestyle are type 2 diabetics, pre-diabetics, or have some degree of insulin resistance. We limit carbs because a lifetime of eating sugar/grain breakfast cereals, drinking soft drinks and other sugar/carb sources means you have a good chance of having damaged at least some of the pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin. We limit carbs because you likely have all the downstream inflammatory phenomena that develop with insulin resistance, such as higher levels of inflammatory interleukins, tumor necrosis factor, and c-reactive protein, as well as leptin resistance. We limit carbs because your bowel flora is dramatically different than paleolithic human bowel flora, as suggested by examination of primitive people’s bowel flora, such as the Hadza who continue to live a paleolithic-like lifestyle, meaning you digest carbs and other nutrients differently and have greater insulin resistance. We limit carbs because we are aware that the phenomena of glycation (glucose modification of proteins that develops whenever blood sugar rises above 100 mg/dl) will accelerate aging; there was no awareness of the mechanisms of aging in paleolithic times and we want to take action that will slow the inevitable deterioration of aging provoked by higher levels of glycation since we live longer than paleolithic humans (though it is a well-established fact that people in the paleolithic era could reach old age, such as age 60; but we live much longer than that and hope to maintain optimal functionality until the end). Note that the worst form of glycation is fructation, i.e., fructose modification of proteins that is 10-times more vigorous than glycation by glucose. This means that ad lib consumption of honey, maple syrup, and fruit–all rich in fructose–will accelerate development of cataracts, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. (Nobody knows exactly where a safe level of fructose consumption falls, but it is likely fairly low, e.g., no more than that contained in one apple, or about 10 grams in a medium-sized apple.) We also limit fruit because modern fruit has been hybridized for large size, sweetness, and reduction in fibrous content to encourage consumption.
- We include consumption of legumes and tubers although we adhere to a strict carb limitation in doing so. The consumption of “underground storage organs,” what I shall label tubers for simplicity, dates back to pre-Homo australopithecines over 2.5 million years ago. Observations of the Hadza, !Kung, and aboriginal Australians suggest enthusiastic consumption of tubers obtained by digging, at least seasonally. While the frequency of tuber consumption in Homo species over the years is unclear, the fact that our intestinal lining is heavily dependent on the fatty acid, butyrate, suggests that the human digestive tract requires the fibers that yield butyrate upon microbial “digestion.” Underground fiber-rich tubers such as (uncooked) potatoes and legumes such as beans and lentils are rich in the fibers that yield butyrate when bowel flora consume. Denying yourself such prebiotic fibers by eliminating all legumes and tubers therefore risks dysbiosis, or distortions of bowel flora composition.
- In the Wheat Belly lifestyle, dairy products are conditional, i.e., we consume them on a limited basis and are selective. Unlike grains, for which there was essentially no precedent for their widespread consumption prior to 10,000 years ago, consumption of the milk of mammalian breasts is different: infant humans have consumed the milk from their mothers’ breasts for as long as our species has walked the earth. (We are called “mammals,” after all.) What is relatively new is the consumption of the milk from bovine (or other species’) breasts (also starting around 10,000 years ago with the domestication of animals such as aurochs, a period that also coincides with the introduction of zoonoses, the diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis transmitted to humans from our domesticated livestock) and continuing to consume it beyond the initial 4 years of life. (Primitive humans suckle their young up to 4 years old, when a child is able to start foraging for itself.) Superimposed on these basic issues is the appearance of the casein protein variant, casein beta A1, that appeared only 6000 years ago with a change in a single amino acid of the protein, as well as the issues introduced by high-volume commercial production of dairy products, especially use of antibiotics, bovine growth hormone, and milking pregnant cows for the entire duration of pregnancy that ups the hormone content of pooled product. For these reasons, and because many dairy issues are “dose-dependent,” i.e., effects worsen with consumption of greater quantities, I believe that some people are okay consuming small quantities of dairy. Nobody is safe consuming ad lib quantities of non-organic dairy, as it will invite issues with hormone over-exposure, the insulinotrophic effect of whey, and immunogenicity from the casein beta A1 protein (e.g., type 1 diabetes). Fermented cheeses are among the least problematic, given the alteration of the casein and the reductions in whey and lactose introduced by the fermentative cheese-making process. Ironically, the healthiest, most benign component of dairy is the fat, meaning the modern obsession with low- or non-fat dairy products made dairy a more offensive food by removing the one truly healthy component. Also, the butyrate contained in butter is a powerful anti-inflammatory and intestinal health-maintaining factor. But we’ve got to be careful with dairy: small quantities, organic, favoring butter and fermented cheeses.
There are other differences, such as consumption of saturated fat and use of salt in which we differ. (I encourage consumption of saturated fat or at least discourage limitation, and I believe that higher levels of salt are perfectly safe, provided they are not the obscene levels you might obtain by, say, eating frequently at fast food restaurants that are responsible for intakes over 10,000 mg per day.) One of the difficulties with the various versions of paleo diets is that there are as many variations as there are proponents, i.e., there is no one paleo diet. Some limit saturated fat, others do not. Some limit salt, others do not. Some say oats are okay, others say they are not. Some say non-grains such as quinoa or buckwheat are okay, others say they are not. Think of it: the paleolithic diet of the African savannah was different from the paleolithic diet of northern Europeans was different from the paleolithic diet of southeast Asia and so on. Rather than thinking about a “paleo diet,” I think it makes more sense to ask: what was common among all humans from Homo habilis and onwards in their eating habits, regardless of location and climate? Several general behaviors emerge: all humans have hunted and consumed the flesh and organs of animals, all consumed non-grass plants, all relied on some source of butyrate to maintain digestion, and nobody consumed the seeds of grasses, i.e., “grains.”