Have you heard…a very old diet, the Paleolithic diet, is regaining some popularity. It’s been covered by Shape Magazine, The New York Times, and ESPN Page 2, just to name a few. The first articles on this diet were published in the mid 1970’s in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet. It’s been widely popularized by the CrossFit community and bloggers around the world. This post will explain the Paleo diet, discuss some of the research, and go over the pros and cons.
The Paleo diet - also known as the “caveman diet” – is a way of eating inspired by the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, the men and women who lived 2.5 million years ago, before the agricultural revolution began about 10,000 years ago and provided mankind with a steady supply of grains, corn, dairy, and domestic meat. The theory behind Paleo eating is that our bodies are genetically programmed to eat certain foods, and that many modern health problems like obesity result from the introduction of grains, dairy, and other processed foods, which wreak havoc on our metabolic systems. The diet, and it’s “allowed” and “restricted” foods, are based on anthropological research providing insight into what pre-agricultural humans ate.
Foods allowed on a strict Paleolithic diet include lean meats and seafood, eggs, fruits and non-starchy vegetables, nuts (except peanuts), seeds, and plant-based oils such as olive, coconut, avocado, walnut, or grapeseed. Restricted foods include processed meats (like salami), dairy, grains such as rice, pasta, wheat, and corn, starchy vegetables like potatoes, soy products, legumes like beans and peanuts, alcohol, and refined sugar. Following a Paleo diet does not require minding of portion sizes or food measurement. The recommendation is to eat Paleo approved foods when you are hungry and stop when you are full. The idea is that it’s fairly hard to eat too many calories when they are coming from protein sources and high fiber, filling sides like vegetables, fruits, or healthy fats. The Paleo diet can be followed strictly or modified to meet your individual needs. For instance, some follow an “80/20” rule, eating Paleo about 80% of the time and allowing room for leniency with other foods or cheat days. Others follow a strict Paleo diet but include dairy, butter, or both.
The Research on the Paleo diet, while promising, is fairly limited. Several small studies have shown a Paleolithic diet may help improve markers of health in both healthy people and those with chronic disease. For example, one study showed that a Paleolithic diet resulted in lower mean glycated hemoglobin (a measure of blood sugar control over time) values, diastolic blood pressure, and waist circumference, and higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) when compared to a standard diabetes diet. Among healthy adults, a small metabolically controlled study (meaning what participants ate was strictly controlled) found improvements in blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol without weight loss over a 10-day period.
In addition, while the evidence for the Paleo diet specifically, especially in athletes, is not prolific, research has shown high-protein, low-carbohydrate type diets to be effective for fat loss in a number of studies. Recently, a study appearing in Nutrition & Metabolism found that Paleo dieters not only felt more satisfied in terms of appetite, but also had lower levels of circulating leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite, food consumption, and body fat storage.
Why Eating Paleo is Awesome…
- It eliminates the crap – eating whole foods and avoiding food products with refined sugars, preservatives, harmful additives, high levels of sodium, and added fats has numerous benefits in terms of weight management, health, and athletic performance.
- More vitamins and minerals – because you eat more fruits and veggies on a Paleo diet, you are getting much more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than on a typical Western Diet. Vitamins can help, but 90% of the nutrients in a typical multivitamin tablet are not absorbed but are excreted (meaning you pee them out). Studies have shown that eating more fruits and vegetables reduces cancer risk, but when researchers attempted to isolate and supplement specific vitamins common in produce, the effect wasn’t replicated.
- Less “bad” fat and more “good” fat – the Paleo diet typically consists of more omega-3 and unsaturated fats via increased intake of foods like almonds, walnuts, and avocados and reduction in saturated fats by eliminating high fat meats and processed foods like chips and desserts. Unsaturated fats may reduce inflammation, which is good for everyone, especially athletes.
- Health Benefits – although the research is limited, the Paleo diet has been associated with greater weight loss success, greater satiety, and improvements in markers of chronic disease. There are numerous anecdotes of people having found success eating this way.
Why it’s not so awesome...
- It takes more planning – it’s easy to get enough carbohydrates and calcium on a standard American diet. It’s also easy to grab lunch at the office if you forgot to pack it. So while it’s possible to meet all your nutritional needs on a Paleo diet while enjoying good food, it requires more planning and, often times, ahead of time meal preparation. If you’re not used to packing your lunch or cooking nearly all of your meals, it will take an adjustment.
- $$$ – I don’t subscribe to the belief that it is more expensive to eat a healthy diet, but following a strict Paleo diet will up your grocery bill, at least a little bit, due to increased purchasing of meat and vegetables. This increase will be greater if you switch completely to organic and grass-fed products. On the flip side, if you give up junk food and soda and eat out less, this will probably even out.
- Does it make sense? – Dr. Cordain argues that our bodies are genetically adapted to a Paleo diet, and the influence of grains and processed foods has led to our current health problems. But people started eating bread 10,000 years ago, and the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease is at best a 30 year old problem. So is bread and dairy the devil? Or is an increasingly sedentary lifestyle combined with more people eating out more often and ever growing portion sizes the real culprit?
- Carbohydrates – for most people the moderate carbohydrate levels in a Paleo diet are enough to support normal functioning and maintain glucose and glycogen stores. However, people with higher carbohydrate needs, like endurance athletes, or rowers doing multiple workouts per day, may have a hard time meeting them on a Paleo diet. The Paleo Diet for Athletes, written by Dr. Cordain and endurance coach Joe Friel, actually recommends following a Paleo diet for most of the time while supplementing other foods, such as sports drinks, around workouts to get adequate carbohydrates.
- Difficulty – A US News Report rated the Paleo diet one of the worst diets for 2011 and difficulty was a factor. For some people, eliminating 3 major food categories (grains, dairy, legumes) may just be too much to stick with over an extended period. Going on a drastic diet that you won’t be able to maintain could result in frustration, stress, and ultimately giving up and just “eating whatever” for a while, which will be a weight loss and/or goal setback and just leads to more stress.
So what should you do?
As far as I’m concerned, there is no “perfect diet” for all people. That being said, I think there is merit to the principles behind the Paleo diet and at the very least I would consider it a good framework for building a healthy, maintainable diet. Ideally, you do want to eliminate processed foods (like Spam, Cheetos, fast food, etc) and focus on more “Paleo foods” like meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and oils. However having the occasional whole grain (that’s wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal etc), dairy product, or legume isn’t going to kill you (unless you have a food allergy).
Here are some good guidelines to follow:
- Load up on lean meats, veggies, and fruits first. They contain those essential nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Eat a healthy diet that works for you and doesn’t drive you nuts. You want to follow a healthful nutrition plan, but you don’t want to set yourself up for failure either.
- Avoid processed crap. It’s that simple. If the ingredients list is longer than your entire grocery list and you find yourself trying to decide if it’s healthy, just put it back on the shelf. It’s probably not that great for you.
- Avoid added sugars and sodium. That includes canned stuff, “pre-made” meals, sugary beverages, junk snacks, and many breakfast cereals.
- Limit the booze. It’s empty calories and makes you feel not awesome the next day, which can increase cravings for less healthy foods and limit your desire and/or ability to work out.
- Disregard all of the above and have a cheat day every now and then. It can be good for you. Check out why here.