Paleo 101

Paleo 101: Foods that make you fat and sick, and how to avoid them

No one wants to be fat and sick, yet everyday we unwittingly consume foods that are having just that effect. And worse still, we’ve been duped into believing that many of them are good for us!

I’ve discussed Paleo-friendly eating at length, so today I’m flipping the coin and showing you how to identify the foods that cause weight gain and decimate your health.

Prehistoric humans had an intuitive sense of what not to put in their mouths; they had to, as getting sick often meant game over. We are just as susceptible to ingestible poisons as our ancestors were, so it’s imperative we steer clear of harmful foods that disrupt the normal, healthy function of the body.

Were it so easy…

In a world of diverse, abundant food, conflicting dietary information and mixed marketing messages, how do we even begin to discern the lethal from the innocuous?

Well, there are some obvious offenders like sugary sweets, soft drinks, and foods processed beyond recognition with added chemicals, preservatives and other nasties. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Far more insidious poisons lurk in our midst, masquerading as “healthy” foods. Learn about them now, and be on your guard:

Grains

You might want to sit down for this — our friend, the so-called “heart-healthy” grain, is actually something of a Trojan horse.

We’ve been led to believe that wheat, rice, corn, oats and cereals are the foundations of a healthy diet, offering precious vitamins, minerals, fibre and energy. Widely-accepted dietary guidelines recommend upwards of six servings a day, and we’re told to emphasise whole grains for maximum benefit.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

To start with, grains don’t want to be eaten. Their built-in defences include harmful toxins that are supposed to act as a deterrent to would be predators like you and I. Our ancestors probably found this out the hard way, so for a long time we steered clear of them as a species.

In fact, if you scale the entire history of human evolution down to a year, then we’ve only been eating grains for a little over two days. We simply haven’t had adequate time to adapt to heavy grain consumption, and we’re suffering as a result.

Here’s how:

They make you fat

Grains digest and are converted to glucose at differing rates depending on their carbohydrate structure. Whole grains are considered complex carbs, which take time to break down and release energy. Simple carbs (found in white bread, tortillas and other refined products) digest quickly, spiking glucose.

This distinction is the main reason whole grains are recommended for overall health and weight control. But this is deceptive; for all intents and purposes, the net carbohydrate load and insulin response are the same.

There’s simply no getting around the fact that grains are a carbohydrate-dense food, and lots of carbs = lots of insulin. As long as grains are a staple of your diet, losing weight will always be an uphill battle.

They’re toxic

Grains contain phytates which bind to minerals and prevent their absorption, contributing to a state of malnourishment and opening the door for autoimmune disease and a number of diet-related cancers. Malabsorption and nutrient deficiency have even been linked to neurological disorders including depression, narcolepsy, schizophrenia and autism.

But wait, there’s more.

Most grains contain foreign proteins — namely gluten and lectin — that wreak havoc on our immune system, disturb digestive function and promote inflammation. Anyone suffering from severe gluten intolerance (celiacs, for example) can attest to the nasty effects of these toxins, but we’re all allergic to some degree.

If you think whole grains are healthy, think again. They deliver even higher doses of these agents, and their high fibre content further damages the gut lining and hampers mineral absorption. In other words, they’re arguably worse.

Still not convinced?

Consider the fact that grains typically displace more nutritious foods like vegetables and fruit as the foundational component of most meals and snacks. Their nutritional value is negligible and they are certainly not essential to your diet, despite what you might have heard.

Any beneficial nutrients derived from grains can be obtained in abundance from Paleo-friendly foods, without the nasty side-effects.

“But what about fibre?” you ask.

Fair question. We are constantly reminded of the importance of fibre for improving digestive function and weight control, and we are told to meet our requirements by consuming plenty of whole grains.

In reality, you don’t need as much as you’ve been led to believe. A diet based around vegetables and fruits offers more than adequate fibre intake, and as I’ve already alluded to, excess fibre inhibits mineral absorption and gastrointestinal function, contributing to nutrient deficiency.

Eliminating wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, millet, rye, quinoa, cereals, breads, pasta, pancakes, pastries, tortillas, pizza and crackers from your diet may strike you as a monumental undertaking, and for some, it is. The key is to wean yourself off them slowly, one meal at a time, and find delicious, Paleo-friendly alternatives that you really enjoy.

It might seem like a sacrifice, but now that you know what you know, will you ever look at a bagel the same way again?

I hope not.

Fats: The Blacklist

Not all fats are created equal, and there are a few types you’ll want to steer well clear of — canola, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, safflower and soybean oil are all types of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which contribute to a variety of undesirable health conditions.

So what’s the problem with PUFAs?

These heavily-refined oils are composed of unstable, long-chain fatty acids that are quickly oxidised in your body, and they’re typically high in omega-6. In practical terms, this makes them highly inflammatory and threatening to the immune system, energy levels, metabolism and thyroid function.

PUFAs also contribute to obesity, heart disease and other conditions arising from systemic inflammation. Avoid them like the plague.

Trans fats are a chemically-altered abomination, created through a process called hydrogenation that hardens and extends the shelf-life of unsaturated fats. They are found in processed foods like biscuits, cakes and pastries, as well as the deep fat fryers of cheap restaurants worldwide.

Trans fats are widely accepted as the worst type of fat you can eat; they disturb cellular function, contribute to many cancers, accelerate ageing, and promote inflammation and oxidation, leading to cardiovascular disease.

I’m going to assume that you want to avoid a stroke or heart attack if at all possible, so here’s a simple rule of thumb: if you see the word “hydrogenated” on a food label, put it down and move on.

The rest

Eliminating grains and the harmful fats listed above should be the focus of your efforts. However, there are a few more foods worth mentioning that fall outside the compass of Paleo nutrition:

Legumes

Beans, peanuts, peas, lentils, alfalfa and other members of the legume family are not Paleo, and should be avoided. Though slightly more nutritious than grains, they’re fairly carb-dense and may contain harmful lectins.

Sugar

You know that sugar is bad for you, right?

Sucrose (the technical term for refined sugar) is calorie-dense but nutritionally void, and promotes inflammation and excessive insulin production, which has led some to describe it as a toxin. Limit sugary foods and avoid “empty calorie” beverages like energy drinks and sodas.

Junk Food

Most processed foods are nutritionally-barren, full of empty calories and can probably shoulder much of the blame for the current obesity epidemic and decline of human health. Avoid fast food, sweets, cookies, cakes, ice-cream, donuts, chocolate bars, potato chips and puffed snacks, and be wary of anything that comes packaged in a box or wrapper.

Summing up

At this point, you’re probably thinking that Paleo is just as restrictive as other diets. I’ll concede that I’ve used words like “avoid” and “eliminate” a lot, but only because I want to stress the hazardous nature of these foods.

I always stand by the philosophy of exercising moderation, and now that you know which foods are dangerous, you can make informed decisions about what you want to eat. To recap:

  • Grains contribute to weight gain and contain toxins that wreak havoc on the immune and digestive systems. Avoid wheat, rice, corn, oats, cereals, and all other grain-based foods.
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and trans fats contribute to inflammation, obesity and disease. Avoid grain-based oils and other PUFAs, margarine, and any other hydrogenated fats.
  • Other foods to avoid include legumes, refined sugar and all forms of heavily processed junk food.

In a future post, I’ll look at some of the foods I haven’t covered here (those that don’t fit neatly into the category of “good” or “bad”), so look out for that.

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David Carroll is a writer, entrepreneur and passionate advocate of the Paleo lifestyle. Having conquered his own weight issues, David has made it his mission to help others develop a balanced relationship with food and achieve their own weight loss goals.

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