The Paleo diet has been making waves for quite some time now, and has grown in fame with its ever growing number of celebrity endorsements, online think pieces and the plethora of literature published on the food philosophy. But it’s not without its criticisms.
Today we’re going to debunk a few myths, let you know what the diet is good for, what it’s bad for, and (with the help of some of some special guests) tell you the Paleo diet basics in order to make it part of your own approach to eating. But first….
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet is based around the premise of eating like our caveman hunter/gatherer ancestors did. Just like them.
The ‘paleo’ in Paleo Diet comes from Paleolithic, which was the prehistoric era in which these ancestors lived. The golden rule is that if the cavemen didn’t eat it, then you’re not allowed to either.
This means a whole lot of simple, one-ingredient foods, such as meat and vegetables, and no to junk food, grains and dairy. Full stop.
That sounds tough. Why would we want to copy their diet?
Our Paleolithic ancestors were lean, fit humans, who didn’t suffer from the influence of our modern fatty diets. They weren’t susceptible to today’s Western diseases, nor by today’s grain and sugar-heavy diets. The Paleo Diet therefore acts as a means for those of us who struggle with weight loss and low energy to take more control over our general health, and in a bid to boost our fitness, body shape and cognition.
From the outset this might seem like an overly primitive approach to dieting, but the appeal of the diet lies in its sheer simplicity; Paleo doesn’t make you count calories, nor does it try to strictly regulate the size of your meals. In fact, it openly encourages you to eat when hungry and stop when full.
Exactly my kind of attitude when it comes to eating.
And it’s this easy-to-follow approach that has made it enormously popular. There are a plethora of success stories from people who have transformed their physical appearance to be in much better shape, both female and male. Its benefits are not just aesthetic though. Beyond losing weight, its effects have been linked to increases in fertility, sex drive, and clear skin, as well as helping to reduce risks of depression and strokes.
All of this sounds promising. So what is in the Paleo Diet?
The basic premise behind the diet is: “If it doesn’t swim, run, fly, or isn’t green and grow in the ground, then don’t eat it” ….and can be defined by six fundamental characteristics:
- High protein intake
- Low carb intake and a lower glycemic index
- High intake of fibrous vegetables
- Moderate to higher fat intake
- High potassium
- Higher intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
Perhaps what needs to be paid most attention to is what it DOESN’T allow. You can say goodbye to all dairy and grains, as well as any junk food or sugar-based snacks. As well as aiming to eliminate certain foods, the Paleo Diet also looks to include servings of nutritional heavyweights. Consuming superfoods like blueberries, kale and pasture-raised eggs is richly encouraged. So generally speaking the food rules break down to… Allowed: Meat Red meat and poultry are encouraged, as long as they form a maximum of 25 per cent of your diet. Fish is not limited. Nuts and seeds Loaded with fats, but high in protein. Fruit and vegetables Fruit is not prohibited, but the lower in sugar, the better (e.g. apples and pears). Generally any quantity of vegetables can be eaten, except for potatoes, which are high on the glycaemic index (GI) and cause spikes in insulin levels. However sweet potatoes are ok, due to their low GI. Banned: Sugar Causes blood-sugar spikes and energy crashes. Grains and legumes Believed to contain sticky, sugar-binding proteins that wreak havoc on the gut. The gluten in grains is blamed for causing inflammation of the gut and even the brain. Dairy Said to cause constipation and other gut issues. Paleos believe only about 40 per cent of people continue to produce lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose, in adulthood.
What’s the thinking behind it?
The diet is seen as great for weight loss. Its levels of protein and fat that come from meat and nuts mean that we are generally less hungry between meals, therefore reducing our calorie intake. When compared to most modern Western diets, the Paleo Diet has an obvious lack of carbohydrates, owing largely to its ban on grains. However, back in the time of our ancestors, grains just weren’t part of our diet. Grains are composed of carbohydrates, and those carbs are turned into glucose (a type of sugar) in our system to be used for energy. But any glucose that isn’t used as energy is soon stored as fat. Additionally, most grains contain gluten and lectins. But why is this a big deal? A seemingly growing proportion of us are now gluten-intolerant (some claim as many as 40 per cent of us). This intolerance can manifest itself in a range of ways, from depression to autism, as well as reproductive issues in women, while lectins can cause intestinal damage and gut flora, which can encourage the growth of harmful stomach bacteria. While many would argue that it’s dangerous to drastically cut down on an entire food group, Paleo supporters counter this by claiming that our bodies are designed to operate on less carbs than we’re used to consuming, and once we start to reduce this then our our body will start to burn fat as its energy source. Giving up bread and pasta is tough, but with big rewards. Dropping grains can reduce the risk of a whole host of modern diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and osteoporosis. This however is by no means to say that all carbs are evil and should be avoided, but what should be paid special attention to is the source. While typical carb sources come from grains, they can also be obtained from vegetables, sweet potatoes and fruit. What’s great about using vegetables as a carb source is that the calorie content of large servings of vegetables is incredibly light when compared to the same serving size of pasta. The Paleo Diet also relies heavily on fat making up a large percentage of your intake. Hang on: Eating fat to lose fat? True, this might sound counterintuitive but this isn’t necessarily as strange as it sounds. For all of our fears of fat, it actually plays an incredibly important role in our diets. It is an essential energy source and aids the body in absorbing key nutrients and vitamins. There is an awful lot of research out there that suggests that eating the right types of fat can help lower the risk of diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol. The Paleo Diet also looks to eliminate sugar. For all its quick energy potential, sugar causes you to crash and turns to fat if not burned immediately. It’s one of the main culprits behind weight gain, and incredibly addictive. Crucially in women, fat cells produce estrogen, which can cause symptoms like PMS and mood swings. Furthermore, sugar can prompt testosterone production in the ovaries, which can decrease fertility and labido, while possibly resulting in hair loss and acne. Finally, research into the health of hunter/gathers has found an absence of heart disease or diabetes, while modern trials have shown weight loss and drops in blood pressure among participants.
So why the criticism?
As with every diet movement, the Paleo diet has attracted its fair share of criticism, with some labeling it nothing more than a ‘fad’ that doesn’t promote good health. What’s the argument behind this? Its demand that you exclude food groups essential to health such as dairy, grains and legumes could leave people seriously deficient in essential vitamins and calcium, not to mention constipated from the lack of dietary fiber. As I mentioned, the diet gets a lot of criticism for its ban on grains. As well as being an energy source, whole grains have been shown to improve cognition and reduce the risk of a memory-damaging stroke. The diet promotes an incredible amount of protein intake and, for all its benefits, there is such a thing as too much. Protein has a stimulating effect on mammalian target of rapamycin, a pathway heavily linked to the pathology seen in cancer growth.
I want to go Paleo. What else do I need to know?
Before starting, it’s important to give yourself a full 30 days before passing judgment. Your body has to adjust from fueling itself on carbs and sugar to burning your stored fat for energy, which can take a few weeks. It’s perfectly understandable that being 100% on the Paleo wagon is tough. You can just try to adapt Paleo principles to suit your own tastes and needs. Perhaps you run a lot and therefore need a high carbohydrate intake, or maybe you just can’t live without the crazy delicious tastes of cheese and chocolate. Begin by simply reducing non-Paleo foods from your diet and then go from there. Of course the closer you do follow the diet then the sooner you’ll see results, but there’s no point in making yourself weak and miserable. As I said, the beauty of the diet is its simplicity, so always bear that in mind. Aim to include a good portion of protein with each meal, with vegetables. Throw in mixes of healthy fats such as avocado or almonds. That’s essentially it. To help motivate you, aim to take a picture of yourself and get your blood tested before you start and then 30 days later do the same. As long as you stick to the diet, the differences will amaze you.
What do other people say?
Heather Wharram, explorationproject.org I took up the Paleo Diet because I started having some serious gastrointestinal issues, including bloating and severe cramping. I started out on the strict Paleo diet for a month, and have been on a modified version of it, which allows a little bit of rice and cheese, since then. Soon after starting the diet, all of my pain and inflammation disappeared, and on top of that I lost ten pounds. What’s been difficult is fueling my workouts, as I would keep crashing. However now I’ve learned to include more sweet potatoes into my diet. The diet does also require you to spend more time cooking, but I think that’s positive from a health perspective. To anyone new to the diet I’d say try it for a month and see how you feel. You might be surprised how good it makes you feel!
Jason BurchaskiI learned about Paleo when I was diagnosed with diabetes and have now been living Paleo for about a year now. I wanted something that would eliminate sugar, and limit carbs. My goal was to get off any and all diabetes medications. I needed something that was proven effective and sustainable for the long haul. There are unlimited options of what you can do when you choose a Paleo lifestyle. The main thing is whole foods, lean proteins, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit. I eat a healthy breakfast; eggs, bacon some mixed fruit. Lunch is usually a salad with 4 ounces of lean protein and a vinegar based dressing. For dinner it’s game on, usually 6 ounces of protein and various vegetables. For snacks, usually some nut butter, an Epic Bar or a handful of nuts. I lost 60 pounds, and my blood sugar is now at a normal enough level that I no longer require any medications. I was full blown Type 2 with my sugar that would skyrocket to 400 levels. That is saying a lot about the benefits of living Paleo. To anyone thinking about going Paleo, I say just do it. It’s not hard and you can get the hang of it in 30 days. Your body will thank you.
Natalie Purcel, wee-eats.com I chose to go Paleo for 30 days because i felt super gross and needed a shift in my diet. The hardest part was not having any sugar (which is whole30 specific, not necessarily paleo) and having to plan/cook every single meal. I did notice that it was harder to obtain all of my daily calories since there were no carbs/sugars/dairy. I felt great – I didn’t feel bloated at all, my skin looked 1000x better, I never felt over-stuffed, and had less of an appetite. To give it a try – it’s not “easy” but it’s definitely doable and you will feel great doing it. Your body will thank you!
Martin Hackberry, lagorcerocks.com I’ve been on the diet for three years and counting. The original shift was tough – sugar cravings, stomach cramps – and then the peak around 2 years, when it was clear that more starches had to be phased back in. Many, everything. Weight/fat loss. Energy, mood, general health, capacity to deal with illness (which occurs much much less). To people thinking of taking up the diet: Do it, and do it your own way. I am on a high-carb diet, I just don’t eat grains. I love my sugars and eat a lot of local honey, drink a lot of rapadura-based water kefir, and enjoy chestnut pancakes with cacao. For me Paleo is about instincts and discovering your own body and digestion. Try to steer clear of the echo chamber mentality that surrounds the celebrities and the supplement pushers and keep researching. Realize that sugar comes in many guises, such as raw/whole honey, and that there are great and possibly even essential health benefits associated with resistant starches and other fibrous matters. Too much in the “paleo scene” relies on outdated science and is to tied to a simplistic, reductionistic conception of science. A good dose of philosophy of science really is useful to understand and be able to organise scientific “facts”.
Over to you…
I want to hear about your experiences on the Paleo diet. How did you find it? What was tough? What differences did you notice? Let me know in the comments below!