Jeb Bush’s life without bread or beer

No pizza either. Why? Because as the Presidential election cycle begins to accelerate, the 62 year-old Bush has to compete with his younger rivals on the svelte meter. So he’s adopted a caveman diet. And- he’s lost 30 pounds so far!

But is it healthy? Yes, and here are the 4 reasons why:

  1. Paleo Diets are More Natural and Tuned to Our Genes
  2. Paleo Diets are Low-carb and Gluten- and Lactose-free
  3. The “Paleolithic Prescription” is Functional Medicine
  4. Just Because Celebrities Do It Doesn’t Mean It’s Wrong

Reason #1 – Paleo Diets are More Natural and Tuned to Our Genes

Depending on how you look at it, the “Paleo Diet” (or Caveman Diet) is either at least 2 million or only 28 years-old. Back in 1985 two biomedical researchers at Emory University, S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, published their theory that the foods of our Stone Age ancestors must have been much more nutritious and healthy for humans than modern diets. It was in this prehistoric, natural state that humanity’s DNA evolved to take advantage of the hunter-gatherer environment in which early humans lived. Then there was an agricultural revolution starting about 10-12,000 years ago that changed not only the amounts but also the very types of foods that humans ate and these were not the nutrients that our bodies and genes were designed to thrive on. As the story goes, this mismatch between our genes and our eats has led to modern epidemics of diet-triggered “diseases of civilization” such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Drs. Konner and Boyd had to rely on a fair amount of educated guesswork about the staple foods our African ancestors ate a million years ago. But most researchers now believe that these foods included fruits, berries, shoots, flowers, buds, young leaves, muscle and organ meats, bone marrow, fish, shellfish, insects, larvae, eggs, roots, bulbs, nuts and non-grass seeds.

After more than 25 years of experience, the consensus is that paleo-type diets are safe and may be effective for the prevention and treatment of disease.

Because paleo diets do not include dairy products, some nutritionists have expressed concern that this type of eating may lead to calcium deficiency. But as most vegans know, people can satisfy their daily requirement for calcium by eating paleo-friendly dark green vegetables and certain kinds of nuts.

Reason #2 – Paleo Diets are Low-carb and Gluten- and Lactose-free

As Dr. Christine Knight of the University of Edinburgh puts it,

“Most people are simply not designed to eat pasta.”

This is based on humanity’s evolutionary history, written in its DNA. This principle has been discovered or rediscovered numerous times over the past century and there have been many variations over the years.

Most people have heard of the 1960’s work of Dr. Robert Akins and his controversial diet. Dr. Arthur Agatston’s South Beach Diet was a popular variation on the low carb theme. Tim Ferriss advocated a “slow carb” diet in his book The 4-Hour Body (“slow carbs” come from foods that have low glycemic indexes). The low-carb approach advocated by French physician Dr. Pierre Dukan became popular when Kate Middleton’s mother used it to slim down for the royal wedding of Kate and Prince William. The science and physiology behind restricted carbohydrate diets for “correcting” weight and health is very strong and has been described in several books by Gary Taubes including Why We Get Fat.

Countless paleo diet plans and recipes may be found in books and on the Internet but the basic prescription is:

Eat this

Meat, fish, fruit, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts

Not that

Dairy products, cereal grains and products made from them, beans, refined fats, sugar, candy, soft drinks, beer and extra salt

It’s interesting that modern, paleo-type diet plans don’t usually include the bugs and slugs, lizards and gizzards and other delicacies that tempted our hunter-gatherer forbears (even though celebrity role models such as Angelina Jolie and her kids eat crickets and cockroaches like potato chips, a dietary practice called entomophagy). Indeed, modern paleo diet plans have been “adjusted” to accommodate modern, Western food sensibilities and also to comply with prevailing medical advice about dietary fat.

Reason #4 – The “Paleolithic Prescription” is Functional Medicine

Most people who practice paleo nutrition will tell you that it’s not so much a diet as a lifestyle. Functional medicine is integrative medicine that focuses on how our minds and bodies (including our digestive, hormonal and immune systems) interact with our environment that includes the foods we eat and the toxins we may be exposed to. Also, according to Dr. Mark Hyman,

“Functional medicine views “foods as pharmacology”

In other words, how foods can act as drugs or toxins to enhance or disrupt our hormonal and immune systems and our overall health.

For example, because paleo diets are gluten-free, they may be useful in preventing or treating this type of food allergy. Paleo diets are also dairy-free and this is great for people who are lactose-intolerant. And because paleo diets are low carb diets, they have direct and beneficial effects on levels of blood sugar and the hormone insulin in our bodies: both high blood sugar and too much insulin are directly related to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Research studies have shown that paleo diets have beneficial effects on patients’ risks factors for both type 2 diabetes and heart disease. An added benefit is that, calorie-for-calorie, paleo diets are more satisfying than Mediterranean-type diets and diabetic diets that are usually recommended for people with heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Reason #4 – Just Because Celebrities Do It Doesn’t Mean It’s Wrong

Many celebrities experiment with or adopt lifestyle practices for which scientific evidence is weak or non-existent leading many doctors to discount celebrity recommendations or endorsements of beneficial health effects. And in most cases, these doctors are right. A number of celebrities swear by their paleo-friendly lifestyles and these include Kellan Lutz, Jack Osbourne, Jessica Biel, Matthew McConaughey, Eva La Rue, Megan Fox, Gwyneth Paltrow and even Miley Cyrus who famously tweeted “Gluten is crappp.” In this case, however,

“the science agrees with the celebs.”

Nearly 30 years of research has shown that the theory of Paleolithic nutrition is not wrong, just incomplete, and that paleo diets are useful models for prevention and treatment of common diseases of Western civilization.

In what ways is the theory of Paleolithic nutrition incomplete? Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk and others believe that we’re engaging in paleo nostalgia and that modern versions of paleo nutrition are half-baked “paleofantasies” because they’re based on an idealized, universal ancestral diet. But studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies prove that diets are largely based on geo-location. In other words, what Inuits in the Arctic Circle eat is not the same as the !Kung bushman of the Kalahari desert in Africa. While we agree that real Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer diets were neither universal nor “ideal,” modern paleo nutritional concepts agree well with our current knowledge of integrative medicine and physiology.

There are other important factors that Paleolithic nutrition theory doesn’t take into account because these factors have only recently come to light. Research has shown that our diets and health are not strictly programmed in our genes but also determined by “epigenetic” changes to our DNA that take place in the womb. Another important factor is the so-called “flavorscape” we experience through early-life food exposure and taste stimulation that establishes our food preferences. Lastly, paleo nutrition doesn’t take into account the trillions of bacteria (“biotics”) that live in our intestines and help us process food.

In conclusion, paleo nutrition theory is one important and useful step toward a truly integrative, systems approach to diet and health.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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