Paleo diet — you may have heard the term before. Amongst all the new health trends and eating fads, sometimes the latest and greatest diets get lost in the mix. The paleo diet, or “caveman diet”, is a unique and useful way to change your life.
The paleo diet is based solely on the foods that our ancient ancestors, the cavemen, would’ve eaten. This includes meats, nuts, and berries while excluding any foods cavemen would not have had access to, like dairy.
Today, we’ll be using the paleo diet lens to examine what is considered a diet taboo by many nutrition experts: sugar. Simply put, is sugar paleo?
First, let’s examine a basic question. What is sugar?
When most people think of sugar they imagine the white, fine table sugar that you pour into your coffee or sprinkle onto your french toast. Sugar itself, however, is much more than that.
Sugar comes in two different forms: single sugars and double sugars. Single sugars are essentially the building blocks of double sugars and include glucose (starches and fruit), fructose (only fruits), and galactose (dairy). Each single sugar is digested differently. Glucose can be sent directly to your muscles and other cells, giving you an immediate burst of energy. Fructose, on the other hand, has to be processed by the liver first. After processing it either becomes glucose or is turned into fat. Foods high in processed fructose (aka, junk food), can be straining on the liver.
Table sugar is an example of a double sugar, as it is a combination of glucose and fructose. Lactose is made up of glucose and galactose.
Sugar from natural sources, such as fruits, are typically not harmful to the body. It’s when sugar is processed and refined that it becomes harmful, and it’s also at this point that sugar becomes non-paleo.
Many specialists believe that sugar is the root cause of the majority of health problems today. Others argue that sugar itself is harmless, but rather it’s the tendency for sugar to increase caloric intake that causes harm. Because sugar is so tasty—to both our mouths and our brains—we are more likely to binge eat when consuming it. This is especially likely when dealing with processed and refined foods, which is where the main distinction lies between good sugars and bad sugars.
Bad sugars come from junk food. We are more likely to overeat when presented with sugar-laden junk food, whereas we’re more likely to be moderate when eating foods with natural sugars, such as fruit. Fruits also come with the added benefit of vitamins and minerals that refined and processed sugars don’t have. The phenomenon of binge eating due to sugar also comes from the fact that excess fructose interrupts our production of leptin, which is a hormone that signals to your body when you’re no longer hungry. We become incapable of knowing when we’re full, and thus experience weight gain and other detrimental health problems like insulin resistance, inflammation, and diabetes. In addition to this, consuming too much sugar leads to a condition called hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Many people refer to this as a “sugar crash,” which leaves us craving more sugar.
Diseases related to overeating caused by sugar, thus leading to excessive sugar intake, have risen exponentially over the past few decades. Sugar has addictive properties, so once we start consuming it in large amounts, it’s difficult to stop. Certain people don’t have to worry about sugar as much as others, but it all depends on our individual bodies. Those with fast metabolisms and/or active lifestyles can handle sugar much better than others and don’t need to be as moderate about their consumption. Consuming sugar in moderate quantities and from good sources can be beneficial for people of all lifestyles.
It is clear, after examination, that processed sugars, in particular, aren’t paleo. Processed foods high in sugar have tastes and textures much more intense that anything we could ever find in nature, and thus overstimulate our senses and confuse our natural appetites. This makes it harmful and is a perfect example as to why the primal diet is a way to go. Our natural dietary tendencies go back to the paleolithic times, and by eating foods that would’ve been found back then we are doing our bodies good. Artificial sweeteners, of course, aren’t paleo, as they are completely manufactured and would not have existed in cavemen times.
However, do not despair! A paleo diet is not a sugar-free diet. There are plenty of natural sugar alternatives which are paleo. These natural sugars include raw honey, molasses, maple syrup, organic Stevia, and organic chicory root. These all are present in nature and can be obtained for consumption without any processing or filtration, and contain beneficial vitamins and minerals.
Honey is easy to digest and is completely unprocessed, when raw. It has a long evolutionary history which makes it a perfect choice for a paleo diet. Maple syrup contains many beneficial minerals, such as potassium, calcium, iron, and manganese. Molasses is essentially table sugar with nutrients. It contains all the things that are stripped from table sugar when it is processed, including calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Naturally, the sugar found in fruits is paleo as well. Fruits are not processed and they contain many beneficial nutrients including fiber and antioxidants. Those living in paleolithic times were able to eat fruits, honey, maple syrup, and molasses, making them all great and healthy food alternatives to the refined and processed sugar we find in most of our foods today.