Diet fads come and go, and most of them are a bunch of unhealthy hoohaw. Once in awhile, though, a newly popularized food plan is worth a closer examination. I think the so-called "Paleo diet" is an example.
Let's take a look first at what it means to eat "Paleo." There are lots of variations, but in general the "Paleo" diet excludes grains, dairy, sugar, legumes, processed oils, and high-glycemic starchy vegetables (such as white potatoes). Instead, the focus is on high-quality meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries.
Dr. Loren Cordain, who has a PhD in health, is the author of "The Paleo Diet" and is self-described on his website as "the world's leading expert on Paleolithic diets and founder of the Paleo movement." According to him, the idea of eating Paleo is "based upon eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age." He and others believe that the evolution of our digestive system has not kept pace with modern food groups, and that we should be eating more like our caveman ancestors.
Personally I think this is the part that falls in the "hoohaw" category. The Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, ranges from approximately 2.5 million years ago to about 20,000 years ago. I think most scientists would agree that knowledge about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate is spotty and highly hypothetical at best.
Also, even if we knew, for example, that cavemen ate broccoli, any broccoli-like plants commonly available to hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago were likely nutritionally very different than the varieties of broccoli farmers and gardeners raise now. Odds are, too, that Paleo vegetables were more like today's weeds than today's broccoli.
However, it's not the historical (or prehistorical) aspects of "Paleo" eating that interest me. The reason I'm attracted to the "Paleo" eating lifestyle is that the diet rules out:
- most processed foods
- most foods known to cause inflammation in the human body
- foods most likely to be genetically engineered (GMOs)
- transfats (the manmade additives that virtually everyone, except food corporations, agree are bad for you)
- refined sugar and corn syrup, both associated with a higher likelihood of diabetes and obesity
In short, while the "Paleo" food plan may have little to do with actual Paleolithic eating, the reality is that it's a far more healthy nutritional approach than the way the average modern American eats (informally known as the Standard American Diet, or SAD). That's why I think it deserves serious consideration.
If you look at the official recommended Dietary Guidelines, a typical Paleo meal plan is high in fat, a high in protein, and low in carbohydrates. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines identified five "nutrients of concern," nutrients Americans tend to eat in insufficient quantities: vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, potassium, and fiber. A Paleo diet will usually deliver enough of all of these except Vitamin D and calcium.
Popularity of the Paleo diet is recent enough that few scientific studies have been done yet. However, early results suggest that this style of eating can be effective for weight loss, diabetes prevention and control, and improvements in factors related to risk of cardiovascular disease.
Let me be clear. I'm not a nutritional expert by any means, but I do have a science background. I've been learning a lot about diet and nutrition for some years now, and I try to apply a critical eye to both research studies and marketing claims made for various diet plans. Paleo diet guidelines appear to me to fit nicely with most of what I've been learning about healthy eating.
Is Paleo perfect? You know the answer to that. Of course not. The elimination of dairy products is probably the most controversial of the Paleo food restrictions. I'm also skeptical of anything that asks me to eliminate whole food groups. That said, I think the Paleo diet moves eating habits in a positive direction, and I've been gradually adjusting my family meal plans in that direction.
I think it's unfortunate that the guidelines are stuck with the "Paleo" label, but perhaps a hook like that was necessary to capture people's attention. I believe American food and diet is in a state of crisis, so quibbling about the Paleo rationale seems less important than supporting ideas which encourage a substantially healthier lifestyle.
Fortunately, eating Paleo is not very difficult using locally grown foods. Some Paleo cooks rely heavily on coconut oil and coconut milk, but ghee (clarified butter) and lard (rendered pork fat) are Paleo-friendly local alternatives. (Yes, most nutrition gurus now believe butter and lard can be good for you.) You can find multitudes of delicious Paleo recipes in bookstores and online.
SAVORY SQUASH SOUP
1 Tbsp butter (homemade with cream from Silver Springs Creamery, Lynden)
1 small onion, diced (Hopewell Farm, Everson)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, finely minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 tsp dried sage (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
4 cups roasted squash (I used Sweet Meat squash from a friend's garden, Lummi Island)
2 cups chicken stock (homemade, chicken from Cedarville Farm, Everson)
2 carrots, diced (Hopewell Farm, Everson)
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup cream (Silver Springs Creamer, Lynden)
In a stockpot or large sauce pan with a heavy bottom, melt the butter. Add the diced onion, and sauté over medium high heat until onion is translucent.
Add the minced garlic and sauté for another minute.
Add the rosemary, sage, and smoked pepper and mix well.
Add the chicken stock, squash, carrots and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove pot from the heat. Use a stick blender (or work in very small batches in a regular blender-carefully!) until the soup texture is creamy.
Add the cream and stir in well. Serve warm.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Co-op, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.