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Eat for Optimum Health

posted Jul 12, 2017, 7:39 AM by Eli Roberts
by Christine B.

Waves of fear washed over me. My limbs tensed up, and I tried turning over again in bed. What about paying for that car repair? How was I going to finish that project at work on time? It was Saturday morning and instead of sleeping in or sitting down to a relaxing breakfast, I was seized with panic attacks. This was a regular occurrence for me until I started a new diet. Within weeks of this new diet, the panic attacks subsided to almost nothing. What kind of diet could cause such a dramatic turnaround? The answer to this question is the Paleo diet, one specifically designed by a renowned neurologist and nutritionist, David Perlmutter, M.D., to which I was exposed on PBS television and read about in the New York Times bestseller: Grain Brain, The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers (Little Brown and Company, New York; 2013).

Dr. Perlmutter’s diet falls into the broad category of Paleo diets, a new trend based on evolutionary ideas about what we should eat. The creators of these diets maintain that we should decide what to eat based on the majority of experience in human history, which was spent as hunter gatherers rather than as agriculturalists. Following this logic, we should be free to eat plenty of meats, fish, seafood, eggs, and nuts, but very little wheat, grains, or sugars. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers neither raised crops nor harvested much sugar cane. They would have only eaten fruit in season, resulting in severely limited sugar intake compared to the daily allotment in the Western diet of fruit, juice, and sweets. The period of time that humans have engaged in agriculture is actually extremely short, and Paleo diet practitioners maintain that it has not been even close to enough time to adapt to the majority of habits that arise from traditional agriculture, let alone that of modern, genetically modified, mechanized agriculture. Listen to Dr. Perlmutter speak about our Paleolithic ancestors:

"As a species, we are genetically and physiologically identical to those humans that lived before the dawn of agriculture. And we are the product of an optimal design—shaped by nature over thousands of generations. We may not call ourselves hunters and gatherers anymore, but our bodies certainly behave as such from a biological perspective." (Grain Brain, pg. 25)

Wow, I am a walking historical relic, programmed to be on the move all day long in search of small quantities of food and working hard hunting and preparing large and small game. How different from our sedentary lifestyles and easy grocery shopping!

Why do we feel compelled to consume a diet that is inconsistent with our genetic history? We have the same appetites, but a much different supply of food from which to draw. Every day, our Paleolithic ancestors had to face scarcity. In our age of plenty, we have no natural limits on the amounts of sugar, carbohydrates, and fats that we eat. Scarcity was the natural fasting and dieting mechanism that ensured there was no obesity and the pursuant problems. Also, up until one hundred or so years ago, food was not chemically engineered or processed. Chemically engineered foods such as high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils are now being recognized as dangerous to health after having been touted as wonder foods and put into almost every processed food on the grocery store shelf.

The reality of the Paleolithic diet was as follows: 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates. U.S. experts today recommend 20% fat, 20% protein, and 60% carbohydrates. The obvious differences are in the amounts of fats and carbohydrates. It is important to point out that the fats recommended in the Paleo diets are from sources such as nuts, avocados, olive oil and meats, fish and eggs. They do not include fried foods, potato chips or large quantities of dairy products. But what difference does it make to our health to eat the way most of Americans do?

Dr. Perlmutter maintains that eating food for which we are not genetically programmed causes many problems. Foods like wheat and sugar, especially in the large quantities we typically consume them, are like foreign entities to our bodies. We develop reactions to them that lead to inflammation of the brain responsible for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as other problems like depression, anxiety, ADHD, obesity, diabetes, insomnia, intestinal problems, overweight and obesity, and many others. While many communicable diseases and accidents our Paleolithic ancestors would have been subject to have been all but eliminated, “preventable, non-communicable diseases account for more deaths worldwide today than all other diseases combined.” (Grain Brain, p. 25), including heart disease and cancer.

One disease that many people fear is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is being called a “third type of diabetes” and the “link between poor diet and Alzheimer’s has been only recently brought to light with newer studies showing how this can happen.” (Grain Brain, p. 28) As I have gotten older and my memory has begun to fail me, the prospect of full-blown Alzheimer’s is alarming. Because of our access to large amounts of glucose, our bodies are under attack in the form of insulin resistance developed over time and leading to type-2 diabetes. This toxic sugar in the blood leads to many problems including “blindness, infections, nerve damage, heart disease, and, yes, Alzheimer’s.” (Grain Brain, p. 29) Modern medicine has no cure for Alzheimer’s. While it is true that genetics still play a role in determining who gets Alzheimer’s and at what age, the rise in cases in the Western world is alarming and supports science that links diet with Alzheimer’s. If you knew there was a way to prevent Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t you want to be an expert on it?

In addition to the problems of chronic high blood sugar levels, gluten has recently come under fire from many as being a source of poor health. Gluten-free products are found throughout the grocery stores and in many restaurants now. Paleo diets maintain that gluten is a problem because we are not adapted genetically to consume it. The wheat we eat today bears little resemblance to the wheat our ancestors ate with the advent of farming, but the fact is we are not programmed to consume the large quantities of wheat products pervading the American diet. It is true some people have diagnosable conditions of Celiac disease, but what the Paleo dieticians propose is that any wheat can be harmful to the body. This is no small matter. Giving up wheat products means avoiding a huge number of popular American foods. Wheat flour is found in so many recipes that making the change to a Paleo diet is an enormous undertaking. Taking the logic of Paleolithic diets to the fullest, most carbohydrates are not to be eaten, making life even more challenging. Can’t we adapt to these foods? Is it really so important to give it up if one doesn’t suffer from Celiac disease? According to Dr. Perlmutter, “gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.” (Grain Brain, p. 32) But why is this?

Dr. Perlmutter explains that any sensitivity to gluten leads to inflammation of the brain, even at levels that are undetectable by medical testing. The problem is that because our brains are lacking in pain receptors, we don’t know when this inflammation is happening until it is too late, in many cases. However, he has had results with patients who have responded well to gluten-free diets for a host of problems including headaches, Tourette’s syndrome, seizures, insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, depression or other unexplainable neurological problems. (Grain Brain, p. 33)

Another way that Paleo diets differ from otherwise recommended American diets is that cholesterol is seen as a necessary ingredient to optimum brain health. We know about good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what isn’t so well known is that there is actually a good amount of research that proves that cholesterol is necessary for good brain health. Eggs are a central feature of Perlmutter’s Paleo diet. He explains that “Study after study shows that high cholesterol reduces your risk for brain disease and increases longevity. By the same token, high levels of dietary fat (the good kind, no trans fats here) have been proven to be key to health and peak brain function.” (Grain Brain, p. 34)

Logic points to the Paleo diets as a rational choice for making important health decisions. Scientific evidence is mounting that proves such diets are an intelligent choice when faced with the many voices telling us what to eat. We are prone to more and more lifestyle diseases, a result of the abundance that we have available to us in our modern, Western culture and economy. After only three months of faithfully implementing this diet, Saturday mornings are now that pleasant, leisurely time of which I had only dreamed before. I have lost weight, gained energy, and experience more mental sharpness and better memory than before the diet. Even if you don’t have any neurological problems, if you could prevent dementia, heart disease and cancer just by eating a diet similar to our ancestors, and therefore in harmony with the bodies in which we have to live. Wouldn’t you want to do that?