Occasionally someone will ask me, “Does the Paleo diet work?” And my answer is usually the same answer I give to any question of this nature: It depends on the person and the way the diet is implemented. I have several clients whose current approach to eating appears to come very close to what would be considered a Paleo or Paleo-type diet. So, I decided to try the diet out for myself, for a trial run, and share a review of my experience.
What Exactly Is the Paleo diet?
I guess there are two answers to that question. There is the concept of the diet, where you basically match your eating habits to that of someone who would have lived in Paleolithic times. Then, there is the diet itself from a nutrition science point of view.
Eat like a Paleolithic person? Like, chomp down on big wooly mammoth legs wearing a leopard skin smock? Well, yes, but not exactly. The idea is that our bodies are actually genetically designed to eat a diet that comes directly from the earth, not cultivated. In his bestselling book The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, Ph.D. points out that, “the agricultural revolution began 10,000 years ago– just a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.5 million years that human beings have lived on earth.” In other words, Dr. Cordain believes that our bodies are simply not designed to use any of the foods that started appearing on our plates as a result of the agricultural revolution. So that would include grains, processed flours, processed foods, manufactured foods, and it extends to dairy products as well. That basically leaves anything that you could “hunt and gather” as a Paleolithic person would. So the ideal Paleo diet would consist of fairly large amounts of meat, poultry, and fish, along with an abundance of fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and a sprinkle of tree nuts and seeds here and there.
From a nutrition standpoint, you could almost call this a low-carb diet, where you lower your supply of carbs to your body so it will turn to burning fat as energy, like other low-carb, high fat diets. But Dr. Cordain devotes an entire chapter in his book pointing out that the Paleo diet is not like any of the other “low-carb fad diets.” With the Paleo diet, you are actually just consolidating your sources of carbohydrates to primarily fruits and vegetables, by eliminating grains, legumes, and refined sugars and other processed simple carbohydrates. He says that this still gives you plenty of carbs, from sources that are also more nutrient dense, and what your body is naturally craving from a couple million years of genetic programming. Dr. Cordain references a range in macronutrient ratios on a Paleo diet: 19-35% protein, 22-40% carbohydrate, and 28-58% fat. And overall, he emphasizes the importance of following a diet that is based on millions of years of nutritional facts.
Oh Boy! I Get to Eat All That Meat!
Not so fast! If you recently witnessed a friend on Facebook posting a plate full of bacon and bragging about their Paleo lifestyle, you may want to send them this blog article. Although the Paleo diet would be considered high in protein compared to the typical U.S. diet, and it does encourage eating an abundance of animal protein, there are specific, pretty strict guidelines as to the kind of protein you should eat. The meat has to be clean, basically organically raised, and fed the same foods that fish and mammals ate in Paleolithic times. So, you basically want your beef, poultry, fish, and game to also be on a Paleo diet! That leaves out conveniently going for a bacon cheeseburger at the nearby fast food joint, even if you order it “protein style.”
The other caveat to all the meat is that you must eat more than the average U.S. diet of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. If you approach the diet as just a happy carnivore who has finally found a valid excuse to nom-nom down on steak and lobster, but you leave out the fruit and vegetables in the proper ratios, the diet won’t work, and it could have adverse affects on your health.
How Does the Paleo Diet Work? The 7 Keys of the Paleo Diet
To explain the basics just a bit further, Dr. Cordain uses seven key elements when presenting the Paleo diet:
- Eat a relatively high amount of animal protein.
- Eat fewer carbohydrates that most modern diets, and make sure they are good carbs, from fruits and vegetables, not from grains, starchy tubers, and refined sugars.
- Eat a large amount of fiber from non starchy fruits and vegetables.
- Eat a moderate amount of fat, with more good fats than bad fats, and a proper ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats.
- Eat foods that are high in potassium and low in sodium.
- Eat a diet with a net alkaline load.
- Eat food rich in plant phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, or in other words, nutrient dense foods.
What Are the Benefits?
Dr. Cordain and other Paleo enthusiasts like Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, the Original Human Diet present a well studied, evidence-based explanation of the benefits of the Paleo Diet, including, but not limited to: weight loss, healing leaky gut, helping to reverse autoimmune disorders, lowering insulin resistance to help fight diabetes, supporting heart health (even in spite of all the meat), and supporting healthier metabolism. You would need to read the book or hire a nutritionist to get an in-depth explanation of how this all works, but it seems like the diet has laid a good foundation in modern nutrition and the list of resources and products that support a Paleo lifestyle continues to grow. If you see Paleo products making the shelves at supermarkets, that is a good indication that the diet has been around long enough, and is proven enough for food manufacturers to invest in bringing products to market. The irony about that is ,once you start running to “Paleo-friendly” processed foods at the store, you are defeating the original purpose of the diet. In that vain, I believe someone could reasonably expect some benefits as long as they follow the diet’s core principles.
So, Does the Paleo Diet Work? Here is My Review…
I am already in good health for the most part. So whenever I test a diet I know I can’t expect dramatic results, but I am always open to seeing how I can improve on the ways I fuel my body. In general, I advocate for getting a lot of plant-based nutrition, but I am not a vegan. There is a difference between “keeping things more vegan” and “being a vegan.” I followed the Paleo diet to the letter, with exception to a protein shake in the morning that has some sprouted grains and fermented rice protein. In spite of this, my macronutrient ratios stayed in line with what is presented as a good Paleo ratio.
Yes It’s A Lot of Meat: I tend to keep more vegan, and do consume specific kinds of meats, fish, and poultry on a very moderate basis, compared to a typical U.S. diet. So, my first big adjustment was adding so many creatures to my weekly trip to the market. As a chef, I delighted in the idea of cooking with grass fed bison and wild caught coho salmon, but the more practical, sustainability-minded side of me felt awkward and a little uncomfortable purchasing so much animal protein. It did seem like a lot.
Cost: It is expensive buying grass fed beef, organic poultry, and wild caught fish. But my grocery bill came out about the same because I was cutting back on a lot of other ingredients that are not allowed on the diet.
Implementation and Time Commitment: I found that in a pinch, if I just followed the guidelines in my shopping, by purchasing only specific kinds of meats, and whole, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, that then preparation was extremely easy. It boils down to just some meat and some vegetables on a plate at many meals. Most nights it was as simple as throwing a piece of something on the grill or into a pan, and steaming some vegetables with a drizzle of healthy fats. By eliminating the extra steps required to prepare rice, pasta, or some other side dish that is perceived to be necessary, dinner making becomes profoundly simplified. So I really loved that, and I look forward to demonstrating to my clients this positive spin on the diet.
Satiation-Deprivation Ratio: I believe it is very important to never feel deprived on a diet or nutrition lifestyle commitment, ever, unless you are doing a cleanse for a limited time with an end date in sight. The Paleo diet, with its high level of protein, did leave me more satiated in between meals. Did I miss my brown rice, quinoa, toast in the morning, and rice cakes? Well, actually, not really. I can credit this to the fact that I was prepared at all times with Paleo-approved foods, so I didn’t ever find myself facing hunger with only the wrong foods as an option. Having said that, there were a couple mild incidents where I was sitting at a business lunch looking at the cheeseburger and fries sitting in front of the person next to me. But again these were mild distractions, and I wouldn’t call them feelings of deprivation. So, overall, I give this diet high marks on leaving you satiated and not feeling deprived. And, Dr. Cordain recommends having a few flexible meals a week so you don’t actually have to miss out on the foods you love that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed on the Paleo diet.
My Personal Results: I did the diet for three weeks. It was a very busy time for me with desk projects, and client appointments, and besides my occasional bicycle commute to a client or my nutrition office, I didn’t get a lot of exercise during my Paleo Diet trial. I did manage to lose 3 pounds over the 3 week period. Not dramatic, but positive, when you factor in everything about me, my body, and my activity level.
The most notable change I noticed was increased clarity of mind, and also an increase in energy. I attribute this to a more vibrant metabolism from the diet, and also possibly less “grain brain” from the absence of grains in my diet. But that is just my guess.
Another notable change was my tolerance of sugar, or lack thereof. I completely lost any cravings for sugars, or even carbohydrates while doing the Paleo diet. And, when I did put a little raw honey or jaggery in my tea or coffee, I really noticed how less tolerant I was to the sweetness. I found this quite exciting when you consider how hard it is for many people to overcome their sugar cravings and addictions.
Many people asked if I was going to get constipated from all the meat. But due to eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables on the Paleo diet, my digestion worked like a charm. I didn’t encounter any digestive issues, and if anything, I would have to say the Paleo diet improved my digestion, or at least made a healthy contribution to my body’s digestive process.
And, this is more an observation than a result, but I loved the way the Paleo diet fit into my already existing philosophy of eating whole, minimally processed, clean foods. The only thing that didn’t fit my existing diet was that I tend to eat a lot more plant based foods. But it was an easy adjustment for me personally.
The Bottom Line
I think the Paleo Diet makes a lot of sense in many ways, but I am not personally convinced that it is necessary to eat all that meat, unless you have a particular directive from your doctor, specialist, or an RD, that would require you to do so. For example, there are autoimmune protocols that use a Paleo approach and rely on specific nutrients, healthy fats, and protein from animals to help address the issue. Having said that, if you can see yourself eating meat, fish, or poultry at just about every meal, even snacks in some cases, you can probably have some success with the Paleo diet if you do it right. Yet, I would be inclined to get some information from the pro-plant doctors, to gain a well balanced perspective, before devoting an entire lifestyle to the Paleo diet.
As a matter of fact, this brilliant RD, Brenda Davis did a nutritional anthropology study on the Paleolithic people, to see what their actual dietary nutrient makeup looked like. Based on her findings, a plant based or vegan diet actually comes closer to achieving a true paleo nutritional profile. Apparently the real cavemen ate more than 80g of fiber daily. In the modern Paleo diet, one wouldn’t even come close to that. The comparison is quite interesting. Check out her blog.
I think when looking at whether to take on any diet, it is important to consider the individual person, their needs, their life, and the actual nutrition facts surrounding a diet, and whether that diet is going to deliver what the body needs nutritionally, without hurting the body at the same time.
What I did get from the Paleo Diet that I would definitely pass on to my clients, is the importance of eating more natural, whole, minimally processed, and organic foods, that includes lots of fruits and vegetables! No matter what diet I am studying the biggest common denominator always comes down to more vegetables and many times also more fruit! Funny how that works!
If you are thinking of trying the Paleo diet, be sure to get informed. Get help with your meal planning, recipes, and logistics out in your daily life, where it matters most! Proper implementation of a good diet can pay off with years of good, sustainable, balanced health and lifestyle choices, so be sure to invest in the proper implementation of your diet. If you have enjoyed reading my review of the Paleo diet, perhaps I can help you do it right, with meal planning ideas, tools, and coaching, customized to fit the right Paleo approach to your personal needs and schedule. I’d be happy to provide you with a complimentary 45-minute nutrition coaching consultation in person at your location, my office at Vibrant Living Wellness Center in Sierra Madre, Ca., or by phone or Skype. You can request an appointment here!