In the wonderful world of nutrition, new diets come and go offering promises of weight loss, increased energy, longevity, and optimal health. Are these claims true? Is there science to back them up? I, like you, want to know the answers to these questions. There are so many new fad diets; it’s really hard to keep up! The most popular diet that my patients have been inquiring about lately is the Paleo Diet.
Where does “Paleo” come from?
The term Paleo is derived from “Paleolithic.” The Paleolitic Era is said to have lasted for 2.5 million years and ended 10,000 years ago. During this time humans hunted and gathered their food based on what was readily available. This was “eating local” and “in season” in the truest sense. Their diets consisted of wild game, fish, roots, nuts/seed, fruits and vegetables. Cooking methods involved grinding, pounding, and cooking over an open-fire. Due to the hunting of wild game, the diet tended to be high in protein, low in unhealthy fats and high in essential fatty acids (from naturally organic meat and wild caught fish). It was also naturally higher in fiber and potassium and lower in sodium. It was far lower in carbohydrates and contained significantly more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Scientists and medical professionals who advocate adopting a Paleo way of eating argue that “that our bodies are not biologically made for an agriculturally-based diet since modern humans have not genetically adapted to consume industrial-era foods.” They believe that our bodies are genetically predisposed to eat the way our Paleolitic ancestors ate. It is further argued that the onset of chronic disease (obesity, heart disease and diabetes) is due to the inclusion of grains, legumes, and dairy products that resulted after the agricultural revolution.
According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “novel foods” such as cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, salt, dairy productions and combinations of these foods became staples during the Neolithic and Industrial Eras. Dr. Loren Cordain believed that the inclusion of these foods fundamentally altered several key nutritional characteristics of our ancestor’s diets and had extremely negative effects on our overall health and well-being. This awareness sparked him to write the book, The Paleo Diet, to re-incorporate the principles of our ancestor’s diet. Cordain doesn’t expect the average person to go out and scavenge for their food. Instead, he encourages avoiding processed and packaged foods while eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and seafood.
Here is a full breakdown of the “allowed” and “avoid” foods as listed on The Paleo Diet website.
- Grass-produced meats
- Fresh fruits and veggies
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthful oils (Olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils
One benefit of adopting the Paleo Diet is that naturally, it encourages the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables while cutting out added sugar and sodium. Jim White, RDN, ACSM/HFS, and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that the combination of plant foods and a diet rich in protein can help control blood sugar, regulate blood pressure, contribute to weight loss and prevent Type 2 diabetes.
Versions of the Paleo Diet (some, more strict than others) have been adopted by medical professionals to help manage autoimmune disease and in some cases, improve symptoms.
- Dr. Terry Wahls, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa and a staff physician at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Hospital details her experiences in The Wahls Protocol. Despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she was able to re-gain mobility, energy, and overall vitality through dietary changes (versions of the Paleo Diet) and Functional Medicine. Her website states that she now is able to ride her bike 5 miles to work every day. This is a very informative book.
- Many Naturopathic and Functional Medicine Doctors use the Autoimmune Protocol, a more limited version of the Paleo Diet, to help decrease inflammation in autoimmune patients and restore health.
- Dr. Perlemutter, Board Certified neurologist, emphasizes the neurological benefits that he has seen in his patients through the exclusion of grains and the inclusion of healthy fats, proteins and vegetables. Read his book Grain Brain to find out more.
Some medical professionals argue that excluding whole grains, legumes and dairy might not be beneficial and could potentially lead to deficiencies in specific nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. Whole grains do have health benefits. They contain dietary fiber, which may help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and other health complications. Furthermore, some studies suggest that dairy may play a role in weight loss.
Others say that the strict adherence to the Paleo Diet isn’t realistic. Wild-game isn’t readily available to most individuals and even if our produce is fresh, it hasn’t been gathered in the wild.
The main principles of the diet are great in that they encourage consumption of nutrient- dense foods and advice avoiding processed and packaged foods. Countless studies show that the consumption of processed and packaged foods increases risk of chronic disease. However, it’s not necessary to completely eliminate entire food groups such as dairy and whole grains. When eating versions of those products that are closest to its natural state (whole rolled oats, beans/legumes, quinoa, plain-unsweetened organic dairy), you supply your body with additional nutrients (fiber, b-vitamins, calcium to name a few). Academy spokesperson, White, stated that, “the crux of the problem, with respect to grains and dairy, stem from over consumption, and, as with anything, excess quantities will become problematic.” I couldn’t agree more. Anything consumed in excess can have negative impacts on weight and overall health.
So what does this look like for you?
If you have medical reasons for adapting the full diet (such as autoimmune disease, dairy/gluten sensitivities, etc) read the Whals Protocol , Grain Brain, and/or and look up the Principles of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). I have experienced benefits from adapting modifications of the diet. I’m not completely grain-free; my body tolerates brown rice and quinoa just fine. Always discuss with a medical professional to determine if this might be right for you. If you don’t have a medical reason, don’t deprive your body of nutrients! Instead, incorporate a wide variety of proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.
Be mindful of portion and ditch the processed foods.