Can the Paleo Diet Help Your Arthritis?

For most people, it makes sense to eat what our ancestors ate-meat, fish, nuts, vegetables, fruits and roots-and most of us do eat some or all of these foods on a regular basis. But while we eat the same types of foods, we rarely eat them in the same form, and proponents of a diet that mimics Paleolithic eating styles say that is exactly what is wrong with our modern food supply.

We no longer hunt and gather food as our ancestors did; instead, we shop for it. And more often than not, we shop for convenience in the form of canned, frozen, boxed, and otherwise processed foods. For the most part, we do not buy wild meats and most of the meat sold in supermarkets comes from animals that are fed grain and corn, rather than grass, as they were in ancient times.

So, what does this have to do with your painful joints? According to Loren Cordain, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet, possibly a lot. One of the most well accepted theories about the relationship between nutrition and inflammatory disease is that our modern diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids and too low in omega-3 fatty acids. To stay healthy, we need to get both of these fats in our diets, but the ratio is off, and this may lead to inflammation.

Cordain and his fellow researchers at Purdue University analyzed and compared the types of wild game eaten 10,000 years ago to both grass-fed and grain-fed beef available today. They found that wild meat and grass fed beef contain a much healthier balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.

The researchers theorize that this imbalance of fats in today's grain-fed meat, and in the overall modern American diet that includes so many processed foods, is associated with immune dysfunction. This results in chronic inflammation, which in turn causes the pain, stiffness, and decline in health associated with rheumatoid arthritis and other medical conditions.

But according to Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, there are several problems with a diet based strictly on Paleolithic eating patterns.

"In today's world, we don't have that same food supply," she says. "We've learned a lot about Paleolithic eating patterns through anthropological research, but the theories behind the diet just aren't applicable to modern times.

Although Giancoli agrees it is important to fix that ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3's, she says it's not necessary to do it Paleolithic-style. It's not the magic answer, nor is it practical in today's world because our lifestyles are vastly different from our Paleolithic ancestors.

"When we were hunters and gatherers, we were involved in a lot more physical activity," she points out. "It's too simplistic to compare the ratios of different fats in meat back then and now, because our eating and exercise patterns have changed so much; we didn't have access to a steady supply of meat (or calories, for that matter) when we had to go out and hunt for it."

Giancoli recommends eating more seafood, especially fatty fish, and walnuts and flaxseeds to bump up the omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. She also says the majority of your diet should come from plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes, as well as whole grains, which are not included in a Paleolithic diet but which are known to be very healthy foods. The more fresh, whole foods you include in your diet, the less room there is for the processed foods behind the nutritional imbalance that may be contributing to inflammation.



Cordain, L. et al; "Modulation of Immune Function by Dietary Lectins in Rheumatoid Arthritis." British Journal of Nutrition. 2000 Mar;83(3):207-17

Bosma-den Boer, M. et al; "Chronic Inflammatory Diseases are Stimulated by Current Lifestyle: How Diet, Stress Levels and Medication Prevent Our Body from Recovering. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2012;9:32.

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