The Paleo Diet: Is it Right for You?
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What is the Paleo Diet?
Many of you may have heard of the Paleo diet, I’m sure. I rarely get on Facebook these days without seeing photographs of several of my friends’ artistically created Paleo meals. So what is the science behind this diet? What would draw someone to this way of eating?
Paleo is actually an abbreviation of the word Paleolithic. The Paleolithic diet is also referred to as the Stone Age diet, hunter-gatherer diet, and caveman diet. It is a modern diet, based on the nutrition of various hominid species, consumed during the Paleolithic era, which is a period of time starting about 2.5 million years ago and ending 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. This Paleolithic diet consisted largely of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts, and excluded grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils, obviously because they were unavailable, or did not exist.
Photo credit: jaymiek
The paleo diet is a ketogenic diet in nature, which means that because it is a high-fat, adequate protein, LOW carbohydrate diet, it mimics aspects of starvation by forcing the body to turn to fats for fuel rather than carbohydrates. Normally carbohydrates are converted to glucose and transported around the body serving as our primary source of energy, and of particular importance, fueling brain function. With very little carbohydrate consumed, the liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies, which become the primary energy source for the body. Ketone bodies are able to pass the blood brain barrier and therefore replace carbohydrates as the energy source for the brain. Ketogenic diets were originally used as a way to help limit seizures in epileptic patients.
Paleolithic nutrition vs. Nutrition of the Agricultural Revolution
According to Loren Cordain, Ph.D, the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets, the Paleo plan encourages people to get back to their roots as hunters and gatherers-eating the natural foods that our ancestors hunted, fished, and gathered since the beginning of time. In our day, this would mean lean cuts of meat, preferably wild game meats and grass-fed beef, which is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and free of additives (compared with grain produced meats), as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil. The claim is that our bodies did not have sufficient time to evolve over the past 10,000 years to be able to handle the agricultural diet and the genetic adaptations necessary. Therefore, this has supposedly led to many maladaptations which wreak havoc on our bodies and contribute to several “diseases of civilization” such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, etc.
The agricultural revolution did bring about a big change as humans began consuming significant amounts of beans, cereals, dairy products, salt, and alcohol. And then, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the industrial revolution led to major development of mechanized food processing, and rigorous livestock farming methods. This facilitated the production of refined foods such as cereals, sugars, vegetable oils, as well as fattier meats which have become a huge part of our Western Diet.
Paleo Diet Basics-What are the Paleo Diet Rules and Guidelines?
1. As a general rule, the Paleo diet should be high in fat, moderate in animal protein, and low to moderate in carbohydrates (which should be “non-toxic” carbs such as yams and sweet potatoes).
2. Food to be consumed includes a generous amount of lean proteins, (ideally grass-fed meat, free range fowl, and wild caught fish), seasonal fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil).
3. Cut out ALL cereal, grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables from your diet as well as all dairy products (other than butter).
4. Eliminate sugar, soft drinks, and all processed foods.
5. Eat when you’re hungry
6. Get a sufficient amount of sleep (7.5-9 hours)
Is the Paleo Diet Healthy?
According to proponents of the Paleo diet lifestyle, through Paleo diet research, this type of eating is effective in facilitating fat loss and preventing several degenerative diseases, and possibly even reversing affects of these diseases. One study, published in “Diabetologia” in 2007, suggested that a Paleolithic diet can improve blood sugar and facilitate fat loss. During a study lasting 12 weeks, 29 subjects with type 2 diabetes, glucose intolerance, or heart disease consumed either a Paleolithic based diet or a Mediterranean-style diet (whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, oils, vegetables, fruits). At the conclusion of the study, participants on the Paleolithic diet had a 26 % decrease in blood sugar compared to 7% in the other group. The Paleolithic diet group also exhibited greater weight loss. It has also been said that people following the Paleo diet have improved blood lipids as well as less pain from autoimmune problems.
Other Paleo diet benefits include the health advantages that go along with eliminating processed food, sugar, and refined grains. The elimination of these things alone has HUGE benefits to our health as they are a major source of sugar, salt, and fat in our diets. Studies have proven over the years that these things contribute largely to obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Also, the major difference in sodium intake in the typical American diet over potassium negatively affects cardiovascular function and contributes heavily to strokes and heart attacks, which people of the Paleolithic era would not have had.
Paleo Diet Criticism
In reading several Paleo diet reviews, the main criticisms seem to lie in the fact that some really great, healthy foods have been eliminated that have proven to provide vast benefits to the health of a person. Just because these foods were not around for the caveman diet does not make them bad to incorporate today, and the majority of people have “adapted” to them just fine. Namely, dairy products, whole grains, and legumes.
Dairy products are a great source of bone-building calcium and are very affordable and easily obtainable. Even though calcium can be consumed through vegetables, it is much harder to consume a sufficient amount. Not to mention, the fitness industry swears by whey protein as being one of the best, highest quality, muscle building proteins you can get.
To eliminate all grains is a bit steep as these provide heart healthy fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Brown rice, for example, has been a staple in Asian cultures for centuries, and these people are well known for their level of health and how long they live, and legumes have been a big part of the Mediterranean diet. Both examples prove that people have not only survived but thrived on these foods. For people who are already relatively lean and who maintain an active lifestyle, totally eliminating carbohydrate and legume consumption seems quite unreasonable.
Another major concern with this diet is its sustainability. This is not a cheap way to live. Buying grass fed, organic meat and eggs in the quantities required as well as a wide variety of vegetables and fruits can really add up fast. Also, having such a limited list of food to choose from makes it harder to stick with long term. However, Paleo proponents have gone out of their way to produce ready-made menus, shopping lists, buying guides, and other helpful tools to get individuals started and to keep them on track.
Paleo Diet Side Effects
• “Low-Carb Flu”: Often times with low carb diets, side effects such as lethargy, shakiness, fatigue, and irritability manifest themselves until the person fully adapts to a more ketogenic state. Eliminating carbs slowly rather than cold turkey may be the best way to avoid this.
• Ketogenic Breath: Acetone is a byproduct of ketosis and often carries a distinct odor that can be smelt on the breath.
• Kidney Stones/Gout: High protein diets can increase the risk of developing kidney stones and gout, which is a type of arthritis that is associated with increased levels of uric acid.
• Constipation: Not consuming enough fiber in the plant foods and nuts allowed through the Paleo diet, could lead to constipation and other digestive disturbances.
• Hypothyroidism: sluggishness, fatigue, and sensitivity are some hypothyroid symptoms people may experience when on long-term low-carb diets. The body is essentially sent into starvation mode and down-plays thyroid function to save energy. Eating larger quantities of Paleo permitted vegetables will help in keeping carbohydrate levels up.
• Diseases Linked to High Saturated Fat: Diets high in protein increase the risk of consuming too much saturated fat. Though the Paleo diet encourages grass-fed and/or wild meat which is much more lean, consumers would need to be careful with their selections as meats high in saturated fat can lead to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
A Sample Meal Plan under the Paleolithic Diet Plan (from Robb Wolf’s: The Paleo Solution)
Shrimp scramble with basil and steamed spinach. ¼ C blueberries. Espresso.
Chicken salad with red onions, romaine lettuce, artichoke hearts, and mixed bell peppers. Dressing: Lemon/Olive Oil with a hint of garlic. Green tea with lemon.
Grilled shrimp and veggies with a handful of macadamias.
Baked halibut, large artichoke. Garlic-pistachio “pesto” for the halibut and as a dipping sauce for the artichoke.
Does the Paleo Diet Work?
I think the answer to this question can only be determined on a person to person basis, but in general, I believe this diet can work. However, my reasoning why has much less to do with the diet itself as it does with the initiative behind it all. First of all, any time a person commits to eliminating all sugar, refined carbs, soda pop, anything processed, alcohol, etc., and focuses more on natural meats and foods, especially fruits and vegetables that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, there is bound to be a great health benefit, and noticeable ones too. The fact that the Paleo Diet stresses natural foods, and cuts of meat that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and aims at eliminating dairy, whole grain, and other food products, virtually takes all the temptations away in those food groups that always seem to get us into trouble.
Another point worth making is that in the Paleolithic era there was a lot less sitting around and a lot more doing. The benefit of physical activity cannot be overshadowed by diet alone. If we were to revert back to the caveman’s way of life, eliminating all behind the desk jobs, getting rid of all our TVs and computers, and actually get out and move, raise our heart rate a little, and force those sedentary muscles to genuinely contract a little bit, we would also see many of these same health benefits and health condition reversals, no doubt. Because of the way of life, people of the Paleolithic era rarely had to worry about the energy imbalances we worry about today. Basically they burned off everything they ate. Not the case for us, with the sedentary lifestyles many people live today.
In my opinion, we can take many great things from the Paleo Diet. In some ways, this way of thinking is right on track. However, each person needs to evaluate their own situation and then possibly modify the diet to suit their needs best, preferably with the help of a physician. I don’t believe there is a clear cut diet that everyone can follow without exception. What I do believe is that no matter how hard society tries to down play it, you have to work on staying physically fit. Eating natural, healthy foods and keeping our energy balance in check as far as calories consumed to calories expended will go a long way in getting us back to our caveman roots!
Binnendyk, Christine. (July 22, 2011). Side Effects of the Paleo Diet. Retrieved on January 20, 2012 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/370406-side-effects-of-the-paleo-diet/
Expert Q&A: Is the Paleo Diet Healthy? (Last updated September 9, 2011). Retrieved on January 19, 2011 from http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/expert.q.a/09/09/paleo.diet.jampolis/index.html
McLaughlin, August. (March 28, 2011). Is the Paleo Diet Healthy? Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/361447-is-the-paleo-diet-healthy/
Paleo Diet Lifestyle: Paleo 101. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://paleodietlifestyle.com/paleo-101/
Paleolithic Diet. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_diet#History
Roizman, Tracy. (August 11, 2011). Paleo Diet Criticism. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/408322-paleo-diet-criticism/
Venuto, Tom. (2011). 1 Flaw of the Paleo Diet. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://www.burnthefat.com/paleo_diet.html
Wolf, Robb. Revolutionary Solutions to Modern Life: Paleo Overview. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://robbwolf.com/faq/