Why Paleo? It’s a good question after all. If you are considering a dietary change there is a good chance you have a reason and are trying to determine if out of the myriad dietary options out there, is the Paleo Diet the right one for you? Is the Paleo diet the right diet for anyone or is it just another fad that someone has dreamt up to sell a couple of books?
Well, as I said, it’s a good question so to help you answer it, let me wind back two and a half years and tell you about the events that set me on my journey into the Paleo / Primal lifestyle.
27th December, 2010. I am at home with my wife Emma, and our two Children who would have been 5 and 6 at the time along with several of our friends having a bit of a Post Christmas shindig. Earlier that day, my wife had started to have some strange numbness in her feet. We did not make a big deal out of it, after all, Emma was prone to all kinds of weird sensations in her feet, the big one being burning hot feet at night in bed, it was just another one of Emma’s quirks that made her, well made her Emma.
As the day pressed on, the numbness got worse, and by the time everyone left, the numbness had risen to her chest. Let me just be clear, this was a complete lack of any sensation or feeling in her body from her chest down so it had us pretty spooked..
We left it a couple of days, there was not a lot we could after all, it was Christmas, but we started to get a increasingly worried and on January 4th we got the first doctors appointment we could.
January 4th, 2010
January 4th 2010, that is a day I am never going to forget, because that is the day the Doctor first said “Multiple Sclerosis”. The details are a bit sketchy, and I was not in the Doctor’s office, I had gone to work, first day back after the Christmas holiday and all, but the story goes a bit like this: Emma went into the doctor’s, detailed her symptoms, went over some other weird historical stuff, a period where she had vision problems in her one eye, a few periods of balance problems we put down to an ear infection and then the Doc dropped the MS bomb. It was not a diagnosis at that point, but it was the start of a fairly invasive diagnosis process that would go on for several months.
First thing I heard was a tearful phone call from Emma and I rushed off home whilst we digested this piece of information. Me being me, I dived into the documentation and tried to learn as much as I could from the Internet whilst keeping Emma reassured that this would not be MS and it would end up being something else entirely, something silly, I mean after all, how could she get ill? We were halfway through training for a marathon and ate a healthy diet, whole grain everything, low fat, olive oil, the best health oriented food advice out there, or so we thought.
Within hours of this phone I had hit the internet and I am not really sure what drove it, but I started looking for dietary strategies for Multiple Sclerosis and came across Direct MS and the Best Bet Diet. The owner of the site, Ashton Embry, a research scientist with 30 years experience, detailed an interesting story of his son’s diagnosis in 1995 with some quite severe symptoms and of his search through the scientific literature to to determine the most likely factors that cause MS and to develop a strategy for his son. The site further details how the diet he suggested has helped many people and that his son, Matt Embry, by now 15 years past the diagnosis, is in perfect health with no MS symptoms.
The diet was based on a heavy dose of science and was hinged around three main areas: leaky gut, molecular mimicry and paleolithic nutrition.
Back at the ranch
Things at home were pretty scary, we had two kids, a business, we were training for a marathon and were suddenly faced with the possible onset of a brutal and terrifying illness and an unsure future. One side, I was telling Emma that it would be okay, it was not MS, everything will be all right, but the numbness persisted. On the other side, I was diving into MS literature, and becoming more convinced, that the earlier balance and vision (optic neuritis) issues were typical, early onset MS symptoms. To make matters worse, another symptom developed and when Emma bent her head forward she would get a sudden shock like feeling typical to MS lesions in the spine known as L’Hermitte’s Sign.
Well, we did not mess around, whilst maintaining a stance that this was not MS and that it would get better, we started to follow the Best Bet Diet principles and I continued to read around the subject. The official, conventional wisdom stance, from our doctors, the neurologist, the MS nurse and such, was that diet had no bearing on MS symptoms or progression. Yet, there were just too many ‘MS diets’ to believe this. There is the MS Recovery Diet, the Swank Low Fat Diet, the Modified Swank Diet, the McDougal Vegan Diet, the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis Diet, the Best Bet Diet and there are MS and autoimmune protocols in something called the Paleo Diet although that did not seem MS specific so I left it alone.
I set to work reading as much as I could. I digested everything on the Direct MS site and then moved onto the Swank Diet. This was an old study, considered invalid by the mainstream due to the methods used to measure success, but Swank’s patients followed a low fat diet and he followed their progress for 50 years with staggering results. Most people that could stick with the regimen stayed well, fully ambulatory, and had only the smallest progression in symptoms over the full time period. In contrast, the study members who could not adhere all developed serious disability and many died.
From there I read the more fringe stuff, the MS Recovery diet that focussed on allergies, the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS – then known as Taking Control of Multiple Sclerosis) diet that was a modernised, tweaked version of swank that relied on published medical studies for its evidence based recommendations. I read the McDougal work and come across Dean Ornish and the Spectrum diet and slowly, it dawned on me that there was a problem. I even looked at real fringe aspects like yeast and candida problems and some more wacky theories of recovery. My intention at this point was I believe to learn, but ultimately to put together a super diet, one that took in parts from all the other diets but this proved problematic, as it seemed that the diets all had incompatibilities that would have left us eating green leaves and little else.
As time went on, I had, through a process of elimination, almost narrowed it down to the Best Bet Diet (BBD) and the Swank / Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis Low Fat Diet.The Best Bet Diet said no grains or gluten, Swank pushed bread and healthy carbs instead of meat. The Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis Diet (OMS) said no meat, but Best Bet Diet allowed lean meat. Both allowed fish. Both the BBD and OMS said no dairy and Emma had been a big milk drinker to this point. The Swank Diet allowed low fat dairy. Both the BBD and OMS diets suggested supplementation with Vitamin D3 and Omega 3. Additionally, there was the allergy aspects to consider, the OMS held no sway with food allergies yet we were beginning to see problems with certain foods causing a noticeable spike in symptoms. It was still proving tricky to know what to do.
Experimenting on ourselves
Throughout this time period, Emma was beginning to get better, it took maybe three months in total, throughout which we edged ever closer towards an official diagnosis whilst still telling ourselves it would not be MS. We were fortunate in that we used money left to us by a relative to speed up the process and used a private consultant to get ourselves seen and injected into the NHS a little quicker for the necessary MRI scans.
We continued to run, continued to train for the Marathon, and Emma’s symptoms slowly improved till she was left with just some itching and problems with her one hand and a patch of numbness under her rib cage. These would get worse during times of stress, during exercise and seemingly when we ate specific foods.
We started to eat a diet that was mostly grain free, very low in saturated fat, but this contrasted with our training. The Best Bet Diet had no real support network I could find and despite having a UK based sister site and my attempts at reaching out through the forum were mostly unanswered. Around this time, the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis diet had a re-launch to coincide with a new book. Professor Jelinek, diagnosed with MS 12 years before, had devised his own dietary strategy and published a book 10 years previous and this was a new, revised edition detailing his success at staying symptom free for the 12 years since the original attack.
The OMS site was also launched and this became a rich support environment. I held onto a strong belief that gluten was in some way related to our problems yet this held no sway at OMS and the suggestion that it may was frowned upon, ‘no evidence’ was the cry, despite, what I saw as lots of evidence to the contrary. Still, over time, we eased up on the gluten, and shifted towards a more low fat diet high in wholemeal carbohydrates vegetables and fish that was easier to follow and better suited our running although we continued to eat lean chicken breast despite the suggestion that all meat should be avoided.
Joining the dots
I was still conflicted so started to read further into the subject matter and reviewed all the literature and medical reports that underpinned the recommendations for both diets. The Best Bet Diet was essentially a Paleo diet, as detailed by Loren Cordain and the OMS diet was based, upon much available evidence from medical studies and the work of vegan authors such as Colin T. Campbell (The China Study) and Dean Ornish (The Spectrum) so I read everything these people had put out.
The newly published OMS diet book was a look at the dietary science around MS, that has so much in common with so many other health issues, that pitched itself as whole food plant based diet (China Study style) whilst adding on some additional features such as supplementation with omega 3, vitamin D3, meditation to control stress and regular exercise. Due to MS being strongly related to fat intake, the diet also allowed fish, which makes sense from an MS perspective, but not from a China Study no animal protein perspective, and this continued to trouble me.
As I read deeper into the health literature, it became impossible to miss the work of Gary Taubes and other critics of the conventional recommendations for a healthy diet. Everywhere I looked there was widespread criticism of the current thinking on cholesterol, saturated fat, whole grains and just about everything we were told was good for us, was, in at least someones perspective, not good for us at all.
Paleo vs Vegan
One thing was clear, when it came to the best diet for our health, conventional wisdom was way, way off track. The recommendations to reduce fat and eat more carbohydrates had seemingly done nothing but create a nation (or nations) of overweight diabetics with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and a whole host of other marvelous diseases of civilisation.
What remained was two broad dietary approaches that seemed to be helping people with a range of issues. The first and seemingly more obvious one was the vegan approach as promoted by Colin T. Campbell and John McDougal. Lots of healthy whole grains, lots of vegetables but no animal products. The other approach was the Paleo diet, a new dietary approach picking up some steam that focused on meat and vegetables and excluded grains, legumes and dairy.
We were sort of Vegan, but not and really, the more I read, I realised that we were actually more Paleo + grains than we were Vegan + meat. Also, I was noticing two worrying trends within veganism that was undermining its potential viability for me. The first of these was a tendency to argue the benefits of the diet from an ethical standpoint relating to the welfare of animals, which is clearly important, but I was coming at this from a pure health view trying to find the best diet for health. The second issue was the several splinter groups within veganism that were competing and disagreeing with each other. We had raw vegans, vegans who only eat sprouted grains, low carb vegans, gluten free vegans, the thrive vegan diet for athletes and a few other variations which meant putting a finger on what exactly a vegan diet constituted was becoming more and more difficult.
By this point, I was seeing a kind of tier in these diets and had formed a scale in my mind of the various diets ranging from awful to optimum that went something like this (from bad to good):
- junk food
- food pyramid diet
- vegan diet
- vegan diet + gluten free
- atkins type low carb diet
- vegan diet + gluten free + low carb
- vegan diet + gluten free + low carb + plant protein
- paleo with lean meats
- paleo with grass fed meat & wild caught fish
At this point we were still following the OMS diet + chicken breast, which was essentially a vegan diet + fish (+ chicken breast). It had now been around a year and a half at this point after following a gluten free paleo style diet (without knowing it) for around the first six months. We were doing well, no real problems with the MS, another baby on the way, life was good, we felt relatively secure, yet something was still not right with the diet, I was having increasing problems with my psoriasis which had initially got a lot better whilst we did a six months grain free diet (it waxed and waned) and I was getting more digestive issues, stomach pain, stomach acid and the like which I just put down to aging and stress.
At this point, our problem was this: I had a pretty good idea what a healthy diet looked like. It was relatively low carb, lots and lots of vegetables, greens, salad, fruit, oily fish, low in saturated fat, dairy free, no processed fats or oils and supplemented with vitamin D and Omega 3. The only real sticky points were whether we should eat meat and whether we should eat whole grains and making sure that we kept food allergies and the fat in check to keep the MS at bay.
It was also around this time, maybe tail end of Summer 2011 that I discovered two blogs that would important in helping me put all of this knowledge into order and make a final decision regarding the direction our diet would take for the rest of our lives.
The blogs in question are MarksDailyApple.com and RobbWolf.com. Robb Wolf is a Paleo guy, who had a life threatening digestive illness that conventional medicine could do nothing for and who put himself right by transitioning from a vegan to Paleo style diet. Marks Daily Apple is the blog of Mark Sisson, an advocate of the Primal Lifestyle which is a modified Paleo diet that allows raw dairy and has an 80/20 rule for adherence to make life easier.
These guys suddenly had what I was looking for. The science, the references, the progressive attitude removed from Dogma of a rigid paleo approach. The evolutionary model was there, primarily as a framework for thinking, but everything was backed up by science and there was a rich community around both of these sites of people being helped by these diets to overcome a range of illnesses, lose weight, get in shape, really good shape and generally lead a healthy life with a diet that was not a diet and was easy to follow.
A Sum of Parts
What I had seen was that the conclusions I had come to were mirrored by the these sites. That processed fats and seed oils, excessive carbohydrates, grains and legumes, vitamin D and the balance of omega 3 and 6 fats were the big issues. Saturated fat was not the demon it had been made out to be given that the diet was kept low in carbohydrate and even more so if the fat was from healthy, grass fed animals or wild caught fish.
The findings I came to even mirrored very closely the findings of the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis book but I could not find any reason for their avoidance of lean meat other than that the China Study said so, the avoidance of grass fed beef as it seemingly increases omega 3 in the body and the suggestion to include grains in the diet when there was so much evidence to the contrary and especially in autoimmune conditions. Beyond that, it was reassuring that the MS diet that we were following and the diet I had pieced together from my own research had so much in common.
A Mind Made Up
I am not a doctor, I am not a scientist and I am not in any way educated in these disciplines, but, the stakes could not be higher. When this diagnosis surfaced, we were training for a marathon, had two very young children and were considering another. We had our whole lives ahead of us and all of a sudden, it felt like that was pulled away from us.
I now know that we live in a blessed time, not blessed by any god, but blessed by the ability share and access information via the Internet. This allowed me to research and find people who were having success with dietary strategies to combat MS and allowed these people to group together to share success stories despite being in different cities, countries and time zones.
So now, we are three years in and looking at another Marathon. Not the best exercise from a health perspective but seeing as how we were not sure if we would be able to do the first one (which Emma did in 4 hours 5 minutes) we are now going to do the London Marathon for the Multiple Sclerosis Research Center charity that helps promote dietary strategies for Multiple Sclerosis.
Your doctor does not have time to study up on your specific illness but in the age of Google, you do, so search, see what you can find and who knows, maybe the Paleo diet may be able to help, what have you got to lose?