The Paleo Diet has been one of the hottest trends in dieting for the past few years.
If you haven’t heard of it, the basic idea is that agriculture was on the whole a negative development for the human diet, and that we were all healthier and more fit with the pre-agriculture hunter-gatherer diet that our species was adapted to for most of its time on Earth. So your optimal diet is heavy on grass-fed meat, fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts, and you aim to completely eliminate grains and sugars that don’t come from fruit.
Unlike many fad diets, this core premise isn’t just an assumption pulled out of the butt of a self-proclaimed “fitness guru.” It’s largely based on the work of Dr. Loren Cordain, a tenured nutrition researcher at Colorado State University who has focused his career on researching human diets during the Paleolithic period. Some similar preceding work was also done by Dr. Walter Voegtlin, who published a book called “The Stone Age Diet” in the 1970s.
Paleo Diet Principles
There are seven core components to the diet:
High protein intake
Paleo dieters take in as much as 35% of their daily calories in protein, as compared to a more standard 15%.
This alone is a primary factor in the successes of paleo diets, as we’ll discuss below.
Low carb intake
Paleo is effectively a low-carb diet with no more than 40% of daily caloric intake coming from carbs, and the ideal is closer to 25%. Carbs from the water-filled, non-starchy fruits and veggies are also emphasized.
High healthy fat intake
Fat intake here is “high” relative to standard nutritional advice, which generally emphasizes minimizing all types of fat. Paleo encourages the consumption of fats rich in omega-3 acids and low in omega-6. This can go up to nearly 50% of daily caloric intake, to compensate for the lack of carbs in the diet.
High fiber intake
This basically occurs as a result of taking in a third or more of daily calories from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Improved micronutrient intake through fruits and vegetables
As with fiber consumption, this is a natural offshoot of the focus on fruits and vegetables.
High potassium and low sodium
The diet emphasizes that potassium intake should be at least double that of sodium. In a diet that makes frequent use of processed foods, that ratio is likely reversed.
Emphasis on pH balance
Higher intake of meat and fish will naturally lead to more acidity, which is why the diet emphasizes getting enough vegetables and fruits regularly to counterbalance with an alkalizing effect.
Paleo Approved Foods
The Paleo Diet is very strict about what you can have — no cheat days allowed — this is a lifestyle, not a “diet”!
- Meat, poultry and general seafood of any kind are fine, so long as they are not processed, and the beef or fowl are grass-fed or pastured.
- Eggs, nuts and seeds are encouraged, but not legumes (such as peanuts).
- Fruits and vegetables should ideally be organic. Healthy oils are also allowed: olive, flax seed and coconut among them.
You can go bananas with the items on that list, but pretty much anything else is disallowed:
What you can’t eat:
- No grains.
- No refined sugars.
- No “franken-fats” like canola oil or trans fats.
- No dairy.
- No starchy veggies with complex carbs like potatoes (this can be debated – sweet potatoes and yams are good for bulking though).
- Nothing processed in any way.
- And no adding salt to anything!
Benefits And Skepticism
Dr. Cordain claims that the diet is basically a miracle tonic. It reduces the chance of chronic diseases, aids in fat burning, improves sleep, even boosts libido and clears up your skin!
However, most of the evidence he cites for this is his own work. There isn’t much work prior to his personal studies that corroborates his claims, and a number of prominent nutritionists have come out against the diet, saying that it’s needlessly restrictive and even potentially dangerous.
Cordain is also profiting off a number of books he’s written about the diet plus merchandising tie-ins for certain food products to use the name.
There’s a number of potential points of criticism, but here’s a quick summary of the major ones:
It’s based on a period before recorded history
We don’t actually know for certain what paleo peoples ate or how healthy they tended to be, we can only make inferences from limited archaeological findings.
The Paleo Diet also presents itself as if there was one standard paleolithic diet in which everyone was running around all day hunting down animals and stopping to gather nuts and berries once in a while. It’s more likely that diets were very different and diverse depending upon the region of the world that the people lived in.
Naturally, no one was eating Twinkies back then, but very likely a lot of people got significant calories from starchy veggies and forms of sugar like maple sap.
Food has evolved with people
Some of the foods we eat today, like bananas and carrots, are nothing like they were in the Stone Age thanks to thousands of years of selective breeding. Again, the diet is just guessing or making inferences about food composition of the time. And some of the foods it OKs — like chicken, and therefore eggs — weren’t widely available in the world until well after the recorded periods of ancient history began.
It’s Too Idealistic and expensive
Even if you completely buy into the theory, good luck following it successfully unless you’re financially well-off and have a lot of idle time to go shopping. Grass-fed meats, free-range eggs and organic vegetables are expensive. So are the healthy oils and nuts. With no legume or grain filler and having to shop at the higher-end groceries and farmer’s markets, the food bill can get astronomical real quick.
A lot of points that the paleo diet advocates are supported by unrelated studies, like eating more protein and avoiding processed foods and refined carbs and sugar.
The diet is so new, however, that there’s little in the way of direct scientific study of it (that isn’t published by Cordain himself). There are five studies at present that lend support to the paleo diet helping with fat loss and improving cardiovascular health, but most of them didn’t have control groups, so it’s hard to say whether it was actually the paleo diet that caused those things and not simple caloric restriction.
The diet seems safe for the most part, as long as you really stay on top of your macronutrients. The only point we have any concern about is completely cutting complex carbs and making overall carb intake only 25% of your diet, especially if you’re doing resistance training. If you’re going to give the diet a crack it might actually be better to err toward the 40% side of allowable carbs.
Is Protein the actual reason for success?
It could also be argued that the success of the diet is simply due to increased protein consumption over the alternatives. No matter what you’re doing, high protein and high fruit/vegetable intake leads to success – so long as you balance the rest of your calories appropriately.
The Grain Debate
The biggest point of contention with this diet is the idea that Grains = The Devil. In terms of scientific support this is the weakest link. Enriched refined white breads that are stripped of all their nutrients are obviously not good for you, but it’s much harder to make the case against whole grains, especially sourdough and rye.
Have you given the paleo diet a try? Leave a comment below and tell us how it went for you if you have!
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