Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paleo Portions

In my last post, I shared some nutritional guidance from my preferred Paleo Pyramid and other Paleo followers—a general summary, if you will, of what Paleo nutrition should look like. In reading that post, you may have noticed that none of the Paleo Pyramids I shared provided daily portions. There is a reason for that. As I pointed out, there are variations to the Paleo diet, and each person can choose what to incorporate. There are many ways to be Paleo.

Just take, for example, our ancestors' nutrition, which varied based on their location on the planet. Even Dr. Wahls noted in her TEDx presentation that our ancestors' hunter-gatherer diets varied based on where they lived. We don't know exactly what they ate 2.5 million years ago, but fortunately, some evidence of their diets has survived today in the form of our modern hunter-gatherers. In the 1800s, the diets of several modern hunter-gatherers was observed, studied, and recorded. There was no structured breakdown of protein, fat, and carbs every day, and they certainly didn't calorie count. They ate to survive in their various climates and ecosystems.

So, what was the common denominator that allowed each group not only to survive, but to thrive, especially if their diets often varied from each other? The common denominator was a focus on consuming fat and protein. Those with access to vegetables ate them, and thereby obtained their essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Those with little access or no access to vegetables obtained their essential nutrients from organ meats. It should go without saying that their food wasn't processed or refined and they did not have a carb-rich diet as the Western society does today.

To illustrate, take the Inuit people, who in the early 1800s, were studied. They lived in very cold Arctic areas and ate diets consisting of the fattest animals they could find: caribou, whale, and seals to name a few. They focused on eating the fattest parts of the animal and the organ meat instead of the lean muscle our society prefers today. In terms of calories, their intake of fat was usually more than that of their intake of protein. They were carnivores, eating copious amounts of fatty meat, yet there was little if any chronic disease (cancer, diabetes, heart disease), let alone obesity, present in their populations in the early 1800s.

In the 1850s, another group of hunter-gatherers was observed living off wild game they hunted, cattle and chickens they raised, fish they caught, and the vegetables they grew. They were a Native American tribe called the Pima. They too were in optimal health at this time. Unfortunately, newcomers arrived not long after, exploiting their land, and hunting local game practically to extinction, and by the 1870s they were living through a great famine. As a result, they began relying on government rations of white flour and sugar. Not long after, their community saw an explosion of obesity and diabetes.

As you can see, here are two different "hunter-gatherer" diets, yet the two groups who ate these diets thrived in optimal health while eating this way. In fact, when both these and other similar hunter-gatherers were observed and studied, researchers found that as they incorporated "Western" foods (white flour and sugar) in their diets or as they moved into the cities from the rural areas, the "diseases of civilization" would shortly follow. Amongst the Inuit people, for example, a disease like cancer that they'd never seen began to manifest itself in their population in the 1960s.

Fuel sources


To understand how our ancestors survived on different Paleo diet variations and yet thrived in optimal health, we must understand what our body uses for fuel/energy. The body can fuel itself by three energy sources. The one you probably know by heart is the carbohydrate. The other two energy sources are fat and protein.

Now, having just seen an example of a carnivorous society (the Inuit) that rarely if ever ate carbs, we can see that it is, in fact, possible to not only survive, but to thrive only on meat (which contains protein and fat); yes, no carbs. In fact, the Inuit ate large amounts of fat; sometimes as much as 80% of their caloric intake was fat. I will explain more in a future post, but for the time being, from the information we've just seen, we can assume the body's primary desired fuel source is fat, not carbs (contrary to popular belief).

So we know that the body can use fat and carbs as a fuel, but how about protein? In a previous post, I touched on this. Our body is also known to dip into the muscles for protein when it thinks it is being starved of the other two fuels. Taking protein from the muscle causes the muscles to atrophy and the body to become weaker. In cases like these, people may think they've lost "fat" weight when in fact, they've lost muscle, which is undesirable. We need our muscle. You might not understand why the body does this, but I will cover it in a future post.

So back to the desired fuel source, the Inuit's reason for eating lots of fat was to burn it for fuel. They needed all the energy they could get. This makes sense if you compare it to the animal kingdom. Take, for example, a killer whale or a polar bear that has to eat meat to survive; you will find that these animals prefer eating fatty animals. Killer whales will prey on blubbery grey whales for example, while polar bears prey on fatty walruses. Why do they do this?

Let's look at the caloric value of eating fat vs. protein vs. carbs. See below how the caloric value of fat is more dense than that of both protein and carbs. Fat contains more than twice the energy per gram than protein or carbs. (Keep in mind that 1 gram of protein is not 1 gram of "meat." It's the amount of protein found in a certain amount of meat.)

Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories

So, it follows that the fattier the food they ate, the more energy they would have, and isn't that what we all want? Energy; energy to get off the couch to exercise and energy to do other activities, especially so you don't have to say "I'm so tired" all the time.

Breakdown or Portions


With all that said, you might still wonder if there is a "preferred breakdown" when consuming these three fuels. To reiterate, there isn't only one way, as the various groups of hunter-gatherers have shown us. Nevertheless, it's a good question because there are some guidelines to follow. A healthy balance of fuel sources must exist to keep things working properly in our bodies, and there are varied approaches to manage these three fuel sources.

One approach keeps the three fuel sources balanced by adopting the "all things in moderation" method. In this approach, approximate your daily food portions by dividing your caloric intake by three. (If you don't know what your daily caloric intake should be, you can calculate it here). So this breakdown brings us to 1/3 of each fuel source per day, so roughly 33% of your caloric intake of each: fat, protein, and carbs (avoiding refined or starchy). Keep in mind that these calculations are merely for estimating purposes. You're not meant to eat exactly 33% of your calories from each fuel source. Our ancestors didn't calorie count, and we don't have to either. We are calculating this number to arrive at an approximate target.

So let's take for example an intake of 1800 calories per day. Divided by 3, that brings us to 600 calories for each fuel source. Now let's use the information above to calculate the number of grams per fuel source. For fat, 9 calories is 1 gram. If we have 600 calories and we divide by 9, we get approximately 67 grams of fat. For protein and carbs, 600 divided by 4 is 150 grams. We can then estimate that we can keep things well balanced if we eat approximately 67 grams of fat, 150 grams of protein, and 150 grams of non-starchy carbs per day.

Now, having just said all that, some of you might be skeptical and point out that a high-protein diet can cause liver problems, and it can, but by maintaining a healthy balance of the three fuels, you avoid such problems. To ensure this, while you're on a high-protein diet, make sure you eat enough fat; the general guideline is to eat at least 30% of your daily caloric intake as fat. When you include enough fat (and, if you want, good carbs), you ensure your body is receiving the fuel it needs to process all that protein. Balancing your protein with fat (and good carbs) keeps you from starving your body of fuel and of developing something called "rabbit starvation syndrome," which can lead to death.

Another approach, which I'm sure was the "Paleo" approach (since they didn't sit around calculating their calories and grams), is the "eat till you're satisfied" method, and then eat only when you're hungry. In this approach you eat meat, fat and non-starchy vegetables until you feel full, and believe me, you will know when you're full. The reason you can do this is that your body feels satisfied sooner than if you eat copious amounts of empty carbohydrates. Remember the "you can't have just one" chip commercials? Think about it, you can probably eat larger portions of rice or bread than you can, say meat or cheese. Why? When you eat protein and fat (in that cheese for example), your body more quickly triggers you to be satiated (full) and you know when to stop eating. On the other hand, quick and easy carbohydrates cause your brain to trigger a response to crave more carbohydrates. That's why "once you pop, you can't stop"—chips, cookies, soda, you name it. After you've eaten a carb-rich meal, you will feel hungry a couple of hours later, whereas if you eat a fat/protein-rich meal, you may not get hungry till four or more hours later. Fat and meat trigger satiety and you stay full longer, and all of this happens for a reason.

Recent research has shown that grazing all day long makes us fat (I'll explain more in a future post). Sadly, over the years doctors and nutritionists have been telling us to snack all day long, eating small meals. Our Western diet, full of empty carbs, was making us hungry every couple of hours, and that somehow made it ok to snack all day long. Unfortunately, this is the wrong approach. The best approach is to eat only when you're hungry so that you give yourself those breaks in between meals. It's in those breaks that your body is actually burning fat stored in your fat cells. That is why it is also important to get a good night's sleep too because while you're "hibernating" at night, your body is literally burning the midnight oil. It burns the fat stored in your fat cells and keeps you alive during those hours when you're not eating. If you did not give yourself any breaks, and you ate all day and all night long, you wouldn't dip into your fat stores. However, I am beginning to digress. There's plenty more to say, but I will have to explain in future posts.

What to Avoid


So I've mentioned before some of the things that we should avoid in our diets, but I don't know that I've been clear. I promise to spell it out clearly very soon, but I will hint by saying that we have a great enemy in this world, and it's super imperative that people become aware of it. Research has proven that this enemy is what causes heart disease and a myriad of other maladies, and contrary to popular belief, the enemy is not meat and fat.

So what is this enemy? I guess you'll just have to wait and see.

Stay tuned...

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