Many people think the Paleo Diet is the new Atkins Diet.
Others argue that the Paleolithic Diet focuses on protein and fat quality—meaning that animal products are sourced from sustainable, organic, or even “wild” farms. While this is often the case, Paleo foodies eat large quantities of meat. And sure, their meat is often topped with healthy fats like coconut oil and egg yolks from happy hens, but plants are often used like condiments.
Paleo foodies claim that many plant foods are “difficult to digest.” But is this a good reason to minimize plant foods in the diet?
The reality is that plant foods ultimately enhance your digestion.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet is based on the principle that the human gene pool hasn’t changed much in the last 50,000 years.
Our Paleolithic ancestors foraged for their food, hunted, and moved on foot according to the season and their environment. They were nomads. About 10,000 years ago, this all changed as groups of people began to settle and farm land. Also known as the Neolithic Era, this is when grain became a staple in the diet.
According to the Paleo Diet, the introduction of cultivated plant foods, which includes grain, heralded an age of chronic disease. This includes disorders like obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.
Those who support the Paleo Diet claim that human beings are not genetically adapted to fully digest domesticated plant foods or dairy. But is this true?
The Missing Link in the Paleo Concept: The Inner Ecosystem
The gut is an ecosystem. And, in addition to all the cells that make up the intestinal wall, you will find living microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and sometimes even parasites.
Studies have shown that these microorganisms are critical to your health and even your survival. They balance the immune system. They help control inflammation. They keep your moods buoyant. They support the liver and metabolize toxins, like heavy metals. And, of course, these microorganisms also help you to digest food and create metabolic energy.
Over the past several years, scientists have studied these bacteria. They've discovered that:
- The human body contains 10 times more microbial cells than human cells.
- There are 3.3 million unique genes in the human gut.
- There are 150 times more microbial genes than human genes.
According to these numbers, you could say that we are far more microbial than we are human!
Furthermore, researchers have concluded that the inner ecosystem is shaped by diet, environment, and the health of the immune system.
For example, Japanese people have genes that help them break down some of the complex carbohydrates that are found in seaweed. Most Americans do not. But these genes are not human—they are microbial.
As it turns out, bacteria living in the gut of the Japanese picked up the genetic information on how to digest seaweed from bacteria living in the ocean.
It works like this: Bacteria do not rely solely on their ancestors for genetic information. Horizontal gene transfer allows bacteria to quickly exchange genetic information as easily as you hand over a dollar bill for change.
Thus, while Paleo supporters contend that the human genome has not adapted to digest domesticated grains, legumes, or dairy, they are missing the key fact that the microbial genome has evolved to do those very things.
What Are Cultures Without Chronic Digestive Issues Doing Differently?
The Paleo Diet removes domesticated food crops—like grains and legumes. Strict Paleo also does not allow dairy. But are these foods really the problem?
An interesting study published in 2010 compared the diet and inner ecosystem of two groups of children. One group of children lived in a rural village in Africa that closely resembled the Neolithic farms of our ancestors. The other children were from Florence, Italy. Both sets of children were the same age.
The children living in rural Africa came from a community that did not have any chronic disease of the gut. This means no irritable bowel syndrome. No dysbiosis or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. No gas, bloating, cramping pain, or heartburn.
The African diet in this small village was a traditional diet. It was rich in starch, fiber, and complex plant sugars. This included gluten-free grains like millet and sorghum, in addition to legumes, vegetables, and herbs. The intake of animal protein was low.
On the other hand, the children living in Italy enjoyed a typical Western diet that was high in animal protein, sugar, starch, and fat—and low in fiber.
This study shows that the agricultural revolution may not necessarily be at the root of disease, as the Paleo Diet asserts. Both groups of children were fed agricultural foods.
Researchers discovered that the group of children from the rural village had a more diverse inner ecology than the children living in Italy. The diet high in plant fiber increased the beneficial bacteria and the microbial genome, all of which enriches the inner ecosystem.
Likewise, generic and refined foods are often missing not only fiber, but they are also more “sterile.” Traditional food preparation techniques, like fermentation, preserved food, protected against infection, and supported the inner ecosystem.
Building Your Inner Ecosystem
Across the globe, diets that are rich in fat, protein, and refined sugar—but are missing dietary fiber—are associated with an increase in chronic gut disorders.
But it’s not just the ratios of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that matter. The missing link that many diets fail to address is how these foods affect the inner ecosystem of the human body.
Whether you are vegan, Paleo, or somewhere in between, there are always success stories. The Paleo Diet has helped many people drop weight or resolve nagging inflammatory disorders. But we often hear that many of these health concerns return.
It is not the presence or the absence of grains, legumes, and dairy that shapes human health. It is the presence or absence of overly processed, generic foods.
Overly processed, generic foods are the cornerstone of the Western diet. And these foods starve the inner ecosystem. When combined with an overuse of antibiotics and oral contraceptives, you have the perfect storm for chronic disease, inflammation, obesity, hormonal imbalance, digestive disorders, and Candida fungal overgrowth.
Whatever dietary guidelines you may follow, working in partnership with your inner ecosystem is the best way to get to the root of chronic health disorders. It is crucial to improve both digestion AND absorption, cleanse toxins and infections, heal the gut lining, and repopulate thriving colonies of beneficial bacteria and yeast.