First, a bit about myself:
As a person who has always struggled with losing weight, I have tried many diets and read many diet books. My initial struggles with weight-loss stemmed from having a poor body image, but that aspect has been getting better in the past few years. I am not, and never was, an Adonis, but a 190lb, 6 foot tall male should not think he is overweight. My weight fluctuated from 165lbs up to 275lbs in the past 8 years, and now down to about 225 (to keep it rounded). This kind of change is quite unhealthy and was mainly due to psychological issues and a poor diet. I got over the psychological issues, but my eating habits left a lot to be desired.
This brings us to the diet books and nutritional mis-information that are rife in our society. One day fruit is good for you, next day you have to avoid it like the plague; red meat can kill you, but don’t forget about iron deficiency; fish is full of mercury, but you need omega-3s. This kind of yo-yoing by the diet gurus is quite confusing, especially to someone who is trying to lose the weight. Sure, the right information is out there, but it’s not very easy to disseminate and understand unless you have a scientific background.
The first “real food” diet that I tried was the “Raw Food Detox” diet from the book by the same name, written by Natalia Rose. This detox diet, like all other cleansing diets, was very effective in the short term. It has enough variety – you are allowed to eat from all food groups – and the results are pretty much instantaneous. The catch is that food must be consumed in combinations, and meat is to be kept to a minimum, with fish being the preferred source of animal protein. The diet calls for consumption of brown or wild rice, whole grains, any quantity of legumes, nuts, nut butters, some dairy, fruit and vegetables. The combination part is that one must eat carbohydrates with fats or fats with protein, but never carbohydrates with protein at the same meal. Also, meals should be had in 4 hour intervals because it is thought that this is how long it takes a meal to exit the stomach if food is eaten in the right combination.
This way of eating is pretty cumbersome because you must always have food on hand and you must always allow 4 hours for the stomach contents to be pushed through before putting anything else in there. The latter part gets hard due to inevitable blood sugar drop and subsequent hunger pangs. The detox part comes after a few days and it takes the form of some weird intestinal bug. It doesn’t last long and the feeling that follows is one of being clean on the inside, which is not at all bad. I would recommend this way of eating for someone who is just starting their weight loss journey in order to clean out the organism of all the crap that has been put into it over the years. I would not recommend that anyone follow this diet for more than a month. This is mainly due to the impossibility of keeping the food combinations rule, especially when going out to eat. Once you fall off the wagon, you think you failed and go back to the old ways of eating. I’ve tried eating this way three separate time over the years and it never lasted more than 3 months, not because I’m lazy or lack determination, but because I could not keep the food combination rule and I would revert to an unhealthy way of eating right after cheating once or twice.
Another point that raw food advocates make is that cooking food destroys the nutrients/enzymes and food therefore loses its nutritional value. This is simply not the case, as outline in this blog post at Coach Calorie.
The last word I’ll say about this diet is that it is very high in omega-6 fatty acids which have been shown to cause inflammation, and very low in omega-3 fatty acids, which usually combat the effects of omega-6s. The proper ratio range of omega-3 to omega-6 is from 3:1 to 1:4, with the ideal being 1:1. The raw food detox diet book does recommend taking fish oil supplements, or the veg*an alternative, but this only serves to neutralize the excess omega-6s. Ideally, the perfect diet should provide the 1:1 ratio without the need for supplementation. It is important to understand that systemic inflammation is the cause of many modern ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Eating to much omega-6 fatty acids can only lead down the path of systemic inflammation and premature degeneration.
This brings us to the Primal way of eating, also know as Paleolithic or Archaic. As the name suggests, this diet is based on the way people used to eat during the pre-agricultural period. There are many authors that write about Paleo lifestyles, but I’ve only read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis and The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. There are countless others that have written about this topic including Drs. Mary and Michael Eades, Gary Taubes, J. Stanton, and many more. There are even documentaries, my favorites being Fat Head by Tom Naughton and Food Inc.
The main point from these resources is that people of those times ate what they hunted and gathered, which implies fruit and vegetables in season, animal protein and fat. The most prized animal parts were the fattier ones such as the brain, liver, and visceral/mesenteric fat. Fat was also preserved by primitive people by mashing it up with dried meat and sometimes berries in what is called pemmican, which can last for up to 6 months without going rancid. This would get primitive people through the lean months without starving.
The modern version of this diet is not about re-enactment – eating exactly what the primitive people ate; it’s more about recreating the same dietary components in similar ratios. Primitive people did not eat bread or chicken nuggets though, so those are out by default. They did eat meat, eggs, fish, root vegetables, fruit in season, random helpings of honey a few times per year, berries, and a few greens. There were no legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), cereal grains (wheat, barley, rye, rice), or dairy products. There is some flexibility with some of these things because we do have them, so why not use them in small quantities? I rarely eat legumes any more, but I wouldn’t turn down a bit of hummus or some lentils. I have eliminated all cereals, but I’ll eat a bit of rice once in a while in sushi rolls. I also eat a bit of dairy each day in the form of raw whole milk, whole cream, yoghurt, and butter. The milk and yoghurt can be a significant sources of sugar if consumed in large quantities, but they have their place if kept to 2 servings per day (1 of milk, 1 of yoghurt). Whole cream and butter are mainly fat, so they don’t really pose a problem. There is some casein and a little lactose, but not in significant quantities. The main point though is that these are all eaten in their raw, unpasteurized form. I have a theory that early people may have eaten the mammary glands of the animals they hunted, so they may have gotten some dairy in their diet, though less than we do today. They certainly did not raise animals for their milk.
The great thing about this way of eating is that I can eat to my heart’s content from those foods. It is very hard to overeat on this diet because the fat intake is large (over 50% of calories),which slows digestion, thereby inhibiting the insulin response. Blood sugar levels rise and fall more gradually, so I don’t get big cravings and hunger pangs. As a matter of fact, I routinely fast from dinner time (about 6-7pm) to lunch the next day (11am-12pm). This is neither uncomfortable nor burdensome.
Lastly, this diet has opened my eyes about how our bodies are supposed to function naturally. I don’t have cravings for junk food any more because I know for a fact my body will hate me if I put something in it that it isn’t supposed to digest. It has also helped me learn more about vitamin requirements and the consequences of nutrient deficiencies. For example, if your diet is made up of processed foods devoid of nutrients, your body will tell you to keep eating until it gets all the nutrients it needs. This is why people get fat yet are undernourished. Conversely, if you give your body what it needs in terms of energy (fat), minerals (calcium, magnesium, trace elements), and vitamins (A, B, C, D, E, K, etc), it will not ask for more food, thereby reducing hunger and keeping food intake at a normal level. It doesn’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything because I’m not. It just feels natural to eat when my body tells me to eat, not at prescribed intervals, and to give it things that it needs to stay alive, in optimal working condition.
As an aside about vitamins, I work in a cubicle with artificial lighting, while living in a northern climate, so I have added vitamin D – specifically D3 – to my diet. It comes in liquid form and I take about 6000 units (6mL) daily. Studies show that vitamin D has a big role in disease management, bone formation, muscle mass retention, fat storage, and many other processes. It is one of those essential things that primal people did not have to think about because it comes directly from the action of UV rays on our skin. We get enough in the summer, but there is a lack of vitamin D in the winter unless one eats copious amounts of pastured meats.
In conclusion, while the raw food diet may help some people for a short period, it is not sustainable in the long run, especially if one is following the food combinations prescription. The constant hunger leads to overeating and the need to cheat is always there. This is why this diet is best done for short periods at the start of a weight loss program or lifestyle change. The primal way of eating is quite sustainable over the long run, with no adverse effects. There is little incentive to cheat because one never feels really hungry. If you’re not hungry, you won’t want to chow down two pounds of chicken wings in one sitting. I think it is also the way nature intended us to eat.
“Eat like a predator, not like prey” - J. Stanton