By now, just about everybody who is concerned about staying healthy has heard of the paleo diet. Advocates of this diet argue that it’s a reliable tool for improving your well-being.
Critics see this type of eating plan as just another fad destined to go the way of diets like the drinking man’s diet and the grapefruit diet – previously popular regimens that disappeared suddenly after enjoying a blaze of publicity.
They have reason to be cynical – diet fads come and go.
But a growing group of medical researchers say don’t be so quick to write off the paleo plan.
In fact, they argue, this diet has merits that may help lower your risk for chronic diseases – including cancer. Keep reading for the full scoop…
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The core idea of the paleo diet is to eat the types of foods that humans ate in hunting and gathering (also called foraging) cultures, before the growth of farming about 10,000 years ago. Paleo advocates argue that the human body evolved to consume and function at its best with those foods. Widespread agriculture led to the introduction of grains into our daily meals, and our health has suffered in significant ways ever since.
Now, of course, there’s no way you can precisely replicate the foods people ate thousands of years ago before we began to grow amber waves of grain to be harvested and milled into bread. Nevertheless, researchers who have studied the diets of today’s foraging societies say that the “dietary trends that… represent nearly all the world’s hunter-gatherers” can form the basis of a healthy paleo diet.
Furthermore, in the view of its proponents, the paleo diet offers a healthy selection of the foods we should be eating for optimal health – in contrast to the overly processed packaged foods most of us devour.1
Cutting the carbs
According to researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany, it makes perfect sense that the paleo diet can significantly lower your risk of diseases like cancer.
They point out that processed foods have figured in our diets for only a small fraction of the time humans have peopled the earth.
They add that for 99 percent of the time humans have been around, they have eaten a foraging diet – a diet that consists of mostly meat and fat with occasional helpings of roots, berries, nuts and other vegetarian sources of unrefined carbohydrates. From the German researchers’ point of view, eating the ancient “caveman’s diet”2 was a “lifestyle factor” that protected early humans against cancer.
The agriculture revolution made it possible for humans to generate vastly greater amounts of food, resulting in much bigger populations and the first settled villages, towns and cities. Before that, people had to keep constantly on the move to find food.
But those large populations consumed less meat – in some cases, almost no meat at all. Raising livestock takes a great deal of land. Therefore, the same area of land supports far more humans if they subsist on grains instead of feeding the grain to animals and then eating them.
In China, which had by far the largest population in premodern times, the peasantry ate almost no meat. Hindu India was famously vegetarian. And in all parts of the world, carbs were the primary food group.
As the saying used to go, “Bread is the staff of life.”
Today’s typical diet, warn advocates of the paleo diet, is “dominated” by easy-to-digest carbohydrates, often consisting of sugar, refined wheat and corn. It also includes processed ingredients that our genes and metabolic systems haven’t had time to adjust to.
And those refined and manufactured foods are making us sick in a variety of ways.
More organic meat may mean less cancer
Research on more than 200 hunter-gatherer societies around the world shows that two-thirds of their calories come from meat. And by this I don’t mean hot dogs, luncheon meats and other processed meats – the kind linked to higher rates of cancer. The meat eaten by foraging societies is from free-range, organic animals.
The meager carbohydrates hunter-gatherers get from plants have little resemblance to the refined carbs found in the products on supermarket shelves.3 The carbohydrates in these foraging diets are accompanied by large amounts of indigestible dietary fiber. As a result, the GI tract absorbs these unrefined carbs slowly.
As I’ve previously noted, the refined carbohydrates in processed foods are “high glycemic” items. That means their quick and easy digestion allows sugar to rapidly enter the bloodstream and spike your blood glucose levels. That elevated level of glucose in the blood not only raises your chances of diabetes and heart problems, say the Würzburg scientists, it seriously adds to your cancer risk.
In their words, when it comes to cells forming tumors, “It’s all about the glucose.”
Ironically, the role of glucose in fostering cancer was discovered way back in the 1920s. Mainstream medicine paid little attention – and the food industry paid no attention at all. The medical profession focuses on treating disease, not preventing it, and scorns the idea that the way we eat helps cause cancer.
Mainstream doctors acknowledge the role of glucose in diabetes – how could they avoid it? – but even there they focus on medications rather than lifestyle changes.
As we’ve often noted in these pages, Otto Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for demonstrating the link between sugar and cancer.4 And that means sugar broadly defined – your GI tract quickly converts all grains as well as potatoes into glucose.
Now Dr. Warburg’s discoveries have come back, with a vengeance. Recent research has pinpointed a wide range of specific cancer dangers linked to eating refined carbohydrates and experiencing elevated blood sugar:
- When your blood sugar climbs after a typical fast food meal or junk food snack, that extra glucose running around your body makes it harder for immune cells to take in ascorbic acid (vitamin C).5 When these cells are deprived of this nutrient, they are less effective at destroying cells that are forming tumors.
- When glucose climbs in the blood it stimulates immune cells to release substances that increase inflammation and help tumors grow.6
- High blood sugar also leads to more insulin in the blood along with a protein called IGF1 (insulin-like growth factor 1). Both of these can accelerate the growth of tumors.7
The German researchers warn that the way most of us snack and munch our way through the day – constantly consuming foods that raise our blood sugar – means we spend much of our life with too much glucose and insulin circulating in our blood. And that’s a frighteningly efficient way to boost our risk of cancer.
The paleo advantage
Since the paleo diet is low in sugar, and relatively high in protein and fat, it encourages the liver to produce what are called “ketone bodies,” substances that serve as an energy source for the body when glucose levels drop.
And research on these ketone bodies shows they can potentially exert a direct anti-tumor effect.8 Studies have found that while healthy, normal cells produce enzymes that can convert ketone bodies into useful energy sources, cancer cells generally don’t possess those types of enzymes.9
Plus, lab tests at the University of South Florida show that supplements of ketone bodies, in some cases, may possibly lower the chances of dying from cancer.10
Go grainless, live longer
One of the main features of the paleo diet is the requirement to forgo grains which, in the typical American diet, are the main source of the carbs that spike blood sugar.
Besides that, when you eliminate grains you eliminate several other substances that can increase cancer-linked inflammation in the body. Grains are often rich in omega-6 fatty acids (which are already too high in the processed vegetable oils we take in), lectins (irritating proteins that can damage the walls of the intestines)11and gluten, a source of severely damaging reactions in many people.12
Also do these other things our paleo ancestors did…
Along with cutting back on processed foods, folks who follow a paleo lifestyle, with daily habits that adhere more closely to the daily routines of foraging societies, enjoy other factors that can lower cancer risk.
The Würzburg scientists say that some of the salient elements of this lifestyle include:
- Being more physically active.
- Being out in the sunshine more frequently to allow the skin to make more vitamin D.
- Getting more sleep at night.
- Lowering chronic stress.
In their review of the research surrounding the anti-cancer benefits of the paleo diet, the researchers at the University of Würzburg conclude that “cancer (is) a disease of civilization that has been rare among hunter-gatherer societies until they adopted the Western lifestyle.13
One best-selling author, Yuval Harari, argues in his book Sapiens that pre-agricultural humans were in general happier than the settled farmers who followed them and took over the world. They exercised more, ate better and worked only a few hours a day to get their food, and didn’t have legions of bossy kings, nobles, soldiers and priests to rake off most of what they produced.
Maybe Adam and Eve didn’t fall because they ate an apple – they fell because they learned how to farm.
Harari’s views are controversial. I don’t think I’d want to live in a foraging society. But I do believe the evidence that carbs are a principal cause of the diseases of aging, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
The paleo diet isn’t going away soon. Its health advantages and anti-cancer benefits are too powerful to allow its quick demise.
Editor in Chief: Lee Euler Contributing Editors: Carl Lowe, Mindy Tyson McHorse, Carol Parks, Rae Robinson and Michael Sellar Webmaster: Holly Cornish Fulfillment & Customer Service: Joe Ackerson and Cami Lemr
Health Disclaimer: The information provided above is not intended as personal medical advice or instructions. You should not take any action affecting your health without consulting a qualified health professional. The authors and publishers of the information above are not doctors or health-caregivers. The authors and publishers believe the information to be accurate but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. There is some risk associated with ANY cancer treatment, and the reader should not act on the information above unless he or she is willing to assume the full risk.
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