The “Paleo Diet” – Facts & Fictions

J-195Featured Reader Question:

Hey Jamila! I was going to start CrossFit and was reading they push the paleo diet. What’s your opinion on the paleo diet??” – Drew, Connecticut

First of all – kudos to you for wanting to do CrossFit! It will definitely challenge you physically, so what you eat is important too.

Back to your question.

What is the paleo diet?
Put simply, it is a way of eating that is supposed to mimic how our paleolithic ancestors ate. Essentially, what a “caveman” would eat – only those foods that could be hunted and gathered. Though this way of eating has been proposed for decades, it wasn’t until the publication of a book entitled “The Paleo Diet” in 2002 that it started to become mainstream. According to the main website (www.thepaleodiet.com), this way of eating is “the world’s healthiest diet” and may benefit you in many ways including weight loss, improved athletic performance, better sleep and energy, living longer and so on and so on.

To make it more feasible in the modern world, the diet also includes an 85/15 rule, suggesting you consume at least 85% paleo foods with the remaining 15% toward non-paleo foods (such as during vacation or special occasions).

What does the paleo diet include?

Meat (beef, pork, poultry), fish and seafood, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and oils

What does the paleo diet exclude?

Grains, legumes (e.g. beans, peas, lentils, peanuts), dairy, potatoes, and any refined/processed product including added sugars and salt

Before going further, I must also share with you the opposing view of this diet. Opponents suggest…

  • What our ancestors actually ate varied substantially from where they were located and what tools they had available to them at the time. Some ate more meat or seafood and others ate more produce. And many did not live nearly as long as we are living today.
  • To say that we did not consume grains is not necessarily accurate. Scientists have discovered tools that they believe were used to process grains as well as evidence found from analysis of dental calculus suggesting intake of starches and grains
  • When it comes to fruits and vegetables, if we were really to eat the way they did, most of the fruits and vegetables you know today would technically not be allowed on the diet. Why? Because they simply did not exist then. Broccoli, for example, has only been around for a few thousand years and is a result of farmers selectively breeding their cabbage plants. This is true for many other fruits and vegetables.
  • Several ‘paleo’ products are abundant such as coconut flour, paleo waffles, paleo cereals, etc. Many of these contain ingredients that were not available to our ancestors, if only because of processing equipment. Examples? Potassium bicarbonate (a leavening agent) and sunflower lecithin (commonly used as an emulsifier). This is not to say these products are not great products. In fact, coconut flour is one of my personal favorite ingredients. The point is that – are they truly “paleo”?

Individuals on both sides of the story could go back and forth on semantics forever. At the end of the day what really matters is the nutritional adequacy, considering it is a way of eating that many people follow. Here is what I think based on current research and experience.

What I like:

  • It’s premise is based on a return to whole foods found in nature. We could all use more of these.
  • There is a big emphasis on increasing intake of vegetables and fruits to get essential nutrients and adequate fiber.
  • Healthy fats from oils, nuts, and seeds are recommended
  • Reducing sugar and salt is emphasized

What I dislike:

  • The idea that we all need to cut out entire food groups, including grains, legumes, and dairy and that these food groups offer no nutritional value and/or could be detrimental to our health.
  • Proteins are not really discriminated between other than meat should be “grass-fed”, leaving the door open for someone to consume only proteins high in saturated fats and in large quantities.
  • Proteins and fats are high and carbs are quite low (even though fruits and vegetables are allowed). Similar to other “low carb” diets, this presents the opportunity for your body to go into ketosis. We’re still learning more about this and whether it truly is detrimental. Regardless, it will give you some pretty nasty breath.
  • You may not get the necessary nutrients you need, particularly fiber, calcium, vitamin D. Without whole grains in particular, you may also be missing out on good-for-you phytonutrients.

Now that I have given you information and both views on the topic, back to what you’re really concerned about – should a paleo diet be followed and is it healthy?

You may or may not like my answer. As with any most diets, they can be done well or they can be done poorly. You can have a balanced nutritious diet by following paleo guidelines and get great results like the things they suggest in the book and on the site. Many people have lost weight and felt better by following this way of eating. That said, you may not get those results, you’ll likely be spending more money (all that protein can get expensive), and you may still be lacking in certain nutrients and need to take supplements.

Whether this diet is right for you is really, up to you.

I don’t think there is a one-diet-fits-all scenario as the paleo diet implies. As several researchers have pointed out, our ancestors had different diets (some even including grains) depending on their geographic location and available tools. Yet, various communities and cultures still thrived. Not to mention, we all have very different nutritional needs and food preferences. This would be a very difficult diet for an endurance athlete to follow, as carbs are necessary (and typically the bulk of the diet) for cyclists and distance runners. Yet, this diet could work very well for someone who has more difficulty metabolizing carbohydrates or for a bodybuilding athlete who has increased protein needs. It really depends on so many factors.

The bottom line, don’t follow it just to be part of a ‘trend’. Do your research and see if it’s something you truly can initiate and maintain and what it would take to make sure your diet is balanced. If you do choose to follow a paleo diet, contact a local dietitian to help you out.
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