The typical Western diet is comprised of highly refined and processed foods. It’s common for many Western people to have digestive disorders. In fact two people in my own circle of friends have recently been diagnosed with diverticulitis. After talking with them about their diets, it became apparent that they ate plenty of processed foods but not very much fresh and whole food. These people may have avoided diverticulitis if they followed the principles of the Paleo Diet.
Before exploring how the Paleo Diet can help your digestive health, let’s look at some of the ways digestive health can be compromised. Lifestyle and poor nutritional choices weaken the digestive system and causes ailments to one third of western society.[i] The typical Western diet is high in saturated fat and low in fibre. Fibre aids the digestive process by helping to move food through the digestive tract. If food moves to slowly through the intestines, it can lead to constipation and the putrification of food inside the intestines. Too much saturated fat can cause indigestion and bloating in the gut as the stomach’s enzymes try to digest it. Lack of exercise is another facet in poor digestive health. Physical activity helps digestion because activity assists in the movement of food through the digestive system.
In my friends’ case, diverticulitis was a result of their diets. Diverticulitis is small, bulging sacs or pouches of the inner lining of the intestine (diverticulosis) that become inflamed or infected.[ii] According to the NIH, eating a low fibre diet is one of the most likely causes of this disease and that people who eat mostly processed food, do not get enough fibre in their diet. Processed foods include white rice, white bread, most breakfast cereals, crackers, and pretzels.
So how could the Paleo Diet help have helped my friends avoid getting diverticulitis and other digestive problems? First of all, a Palaeolithic diet doesn’t include processed food. Paleo Diet principles are based on the idea that for optimal health, people should eat a diet that is similar to what early hominids ate 2 million to 12,000 years ago. More information about the Paleo Diet can be found in What is the Paleo Diet. Paleo recipes don’t include grains such as rice and wheat thereby reducing a person’s exposure to food processing.
The Paleo Diet’s greatest benefit for my friends would be the addition of fibre to their diets. When eating like a caveman, it’s easy to consume more than the US Government’s recommendation of 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Plant foods are an excellent source of fibre, and fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of soluble fibre. Soluble fibre can absorb 15 times its mass in water, enabling it to soften stool.[iii]
If my friends had eaten like cavemen and followed the Paleo Diet principles, they would not have gotten diverticulitis. Diverticulitis sacs are believed to be caused when people strain while passing stools. The increased pressure in the colon or intestines during difficult bowel movements may cause these pouches to form[iv]. Eating 9 servings of fruit or vegetables per day would have provided enough soluble fibre for their constipation to be eliminated and stool easily passed.
While discussing constipation and digestive health may not be the sexiest way to discuss the merits of the Paleo Diet, the fact remains that had my friends not followed a diet rich in refined or processed foods, they probably would not have gotten diverticulitis. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is not a revolutionary concept. Rather, it’s very obvious. When you eat plenty of fruit and veggies, you feel better and your digestive system feels better. Our bodies are designed to eat fruits and vegetables and not refined or processed foods. Eat like your hominid ancestors. Your colon will thank you.
[i] Mark Kane, Boosting Your Digestive Health, Octopus Publishing Group, 2002, p. 19
[ii] National Institute of Health, Website, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001303/
[iii] Mark Kane, Boosting Your Digestive Health, Octopus Publishing Group, 2002, p. 76-77
[iv] National Institute of Health, Website, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001303/