Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: The Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet, written by Loren Cordain, Ph. D., is one of the few books out there specifically devoted to the paleo way of eating. It's divided into three main sections, "Understanding the Paleo Diet", "Losing Weight and Preventing and Healing Disease", and "The Paleo Diet Program".

The first section covers the basics of the diet - the "rules", as it were. And, unfortunately, this is where it starts to go wrong. While Dr. Cordain makes a strong case for the fact that we're not that different from our ancestors going back a thousand generations, and thus grain and starch and refined sugars are not things that should be in our diet, he still is unwilling or unable to make the final leap - fat. He claims that the meat eaten by our ancestors would have been the leanest muscle meat, whereas it is well documented in modern-primitive cultures that the fattiest portions (such as brain tissue) are highly coveted delicacies. Later in the book, he also makes a strong case for Omega-3 fatty acid consumption, but then advocates using flax seed oil. It is well established that the kind of O3 fatty acid in flax seed oil, ALA, is not the kind our body needs, and is only weakly converted to DHA and EPA within the body.

The second section of the book discusses the health aspects of the diet. Not too much to argue with here, except he continues his apparent hatred of animal fats, stressing the leanness of proteins to be consumed. He also relies on BMI tables, whereas modern medical thinking is moving away from using the BMI as an indicator of health (given that it was never intended for that in the first place). Curiously, he does discuss in this section how grains raise the "small, dense" (AKA dangerous) LDL cholesterol, but doesn't seem to discuss much about how the fats from meat raise the HDL (good) cholesterol and thus improve the overall HDL/LDL ratio in the body. If he did this, he might have to stop stressing "lean" protein so much, though.

More than half the book is taken up by the third part, "The Paleo Diet Program", because it contains six weeks' worth of recipes and food plans, as well as a discussion of what is and is not allowed under his version of the diet. He also advocates a three-stage introduction to the diet, where in the first stage you can "cheat" three times a week at "open meals", in the second stage twice a week, and in the third stage once a week. Oddly, he allows diet sodas "in moderation" in his version of the diet, as well as low-fat salad dressings (which tend to contain a lot of sugar).

In summary, while much of the background information Dr. Cordain gives in this book is quite useful, his conclusions are at best coloured by "conventional wisdom". Unless you truly believe that our neolithic ancestors dined on the breast meat of wild chickens, with a side of lettuce smothered in low-fat thousand island dressing, and washing it down with a diet cola, you might be better served looking elsewhere for solid day-to-day advice.

It probably seems like I'm being unduly hard on this book. Maybe I am. But it just seems to "go halfway", and misses the endgame, in my opinion. But what do I know? I'm just a caveman.

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