The Paleo Diet: What is it anyway?

Over the last few years, several of our patients have come to us with questions about the Paleo diet, having heard or read about its presumed health benefits. In fact, many of these patients were considering trying this diet or had, in fact, already started it, under the mistaken belief that it’s consistent with the dietary recommendations we make to our patients. It’s time to clear up the confusion!

The Paleo diet is designed to mimic the diet of our pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer ancestors. The thinking goes that the diet that we evolved on works best with our genetics and thus, makes the most nutritional sense. While recommendations may vary slightly from version to version, the “modernized” version of the Paleo diet includes: red meat (grass-fed is suggested), fish, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. It excludes salt, refined sugar, processed oils, legumes and dairy products. Like most diets, there are aspects of it that have some value, but we believe that many of the core recommendations are problematic, and this is particularly true for cancer patients.
Let’s start with red meat. Anyone familiar with Life Over Cancer knows that Dr. Block recommends that our patients significantly reduce, or better still, eliminate, red meat from their diet. Red meat is high in saturated fats. Saturated fats are used by the body to make steroid hormones such as estrogen, and are specifically a concern for patients with estrogen-receptor positive ovarian or breast cancer. An additional concern of a diet higher in saturated fats is the potential for promoting insulin resistance. And while organically raised, grass fed animals may have better fatty acid profiles and lower amounts of fat hormones, they are still animal food and tend to contain inflammatory precursors, hormones and growth factors that could promote the growth of disease. Also, Omega 6’s, found in most animal fats (as well as in some vegetable oils, such as corn and safflower oils), harbor high levels of arachidonic acid, a chemical that promotes inflammation, which we know can drive the progression of cancer. Grass-fed and grain-fed beef contain similar amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, although grass-fed does have a better omega-3 content. In addition, the iron content of red meat is a trigger for oxidative stress in the body, which contributes to DNA abnormalities such as those that stimulate both the incidence of cancer, as well as cancer progression.

Now let’s take a look at the 3 other primary food recommendations: fish, fruits and vegetables. Cold water fish (such as salmon) is high in Omega 3’s and one of our core dietary recommendations. As are fruits and vegetables, particularly berries and crucifers. As to the recommendation to eliminate dairy products, refined grains and sugars, and unhealthful processed oils? We are completely on board! However, the suggestion to eliminate grains and gluten? Unless there is a proven sensitivity to gluten, eliminating grains deprives cancer patients of crucial sources of nutrients and fiber. More about this below, where we will detail and explain the Life Over Cancer dietary recommendations.

Our Dietary Recommendations
At the Block Center, we recommend a diet that is low in saturated fats and high in fiber, plant-based sources of protein, cold water fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, fruits and berries rich in antioxidants, and nuts, seeds and cruciferous vegetables. The inclusion of whole grains and legumes – a significant difference between the Paleo diet and the Life Over Cancer diet – is consistent with the basic eating pattern for many traditional societies in which the major cancers that afflict the US are practically non-existent. One of the many benefits of eating whole grains and legumes is their fiber content. Soluble and insoluble whole grain fibers are, among other things, excellent for the health of the intestines. Cells lining the colon, for instance, need fiber and carbohydrates for some of their basic nutrients, such as butyrate. And with the negative effect of many cancer treatments on the gastrointestinal tract, these cells need all the support they can get! The soluble fiber of whole grains and beans also evens out fluctuations in insulin levels – and since our diet recommends the exclusion of refined sugar and flour sources – insulin spikes should be less problematic to begin with. High fiber diets have also been shown to lower inflammation – a cancer promoter, as previously mentioned.

The Life Over Cancer Diet is tailored to each patient’s individual needs, with the goal of addressing any abnormalities in a patient’s “biochemical terrain” (for example, disrupted immune function). In addition, our dietitians counsel and educate patients on adapting the diet to any food allergies or sensitivities. The vast majority of patients tell us they are pleasantly surprised to find that the shift to the Life Over Cancer diet is far easier – and far more delicious – than they could have imagined!

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