I was asked to give a quick review of the Paleo diet for the Sports, Nutrition & Supplement Guide, a great new up & coming site dedicated to giving info on health, fitness, coaching & training! Check it out by clicking on the banner on the Dietitian Dan T home page.
I have many good things to say about the Paleo diet. It was eating in this manner & following blogs & listening to podcasts from many of the top Paleo people including Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson & Abel James that rekindled my passion for nutrition, that had mostly been drained by towing an out of date company line in a Hospital setting. Also, it was the Paleo-sphere that combined with my own practical experience led me to re-design my nutrition strategies for clients in my clinical practice. In particular, the work of Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, & Gary Taubes made me re-evaluate all I’d been taught on Clinical Nutrition at the University level. I discussed my revelations on this topic in a prior post earlier in my journey towards Eating Real Food, if you’re interested you can check that out here. Additionally, listening to & reading the debates regarding various topics & additional critical observations of the literature (particularly Taubes, Wolf & Kresser) really introduced me to a different way of thinking & questioning that flew in the face of much of what I was taught in University in Nutritional Science. However, it made much more sense logically & wasn’t based entirely on the work of predecessors without questioning whether their line of reasoning was even valid or not. I discussed these a bit in my previous post on what I believe is missing from modern health sciences & medicine. You can see that post here.
I’ve seen this approach (Paleo) work very well for probably about 95% of clients who actually work the plan. Additionally, it seems to work longer than when someone works calories in/calories out plan, which tells me that it’s a more effective method of burning fat & sustaining that fat burning! Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or in a cave) you probably have heard of the Paleo diet, but let’s briefly discuss it to bring everyone up to speed.
– The bulk of our evolution occurred during the Paleolithic era, a period that spanned 2.5 million years of our evolution and the more recent Neolithic era has been only the last 10,000 years. Therefore our genome has evolved for specific lifestyle habits including foods & activity levels, etc… that would have been more prevalent during the Paleolithic era.
– Another side thought of this concept is that one of the reasons for the abundance of chronic (preventable) metabolic diseases is that we are living far differently from our Paleolithic genes are designed to and subsequently attempting to live more in line with that genome would help to prevent or correct these metabolic complications.
– Neolithic foods including Sugar, Grains, Legumes & Dairy are too new for our genes to be able to deal with them properly & therefore we should avoid these and eat foods that we are better adapted to.
There is also consideration given to our daily lifestyles including:
a) Lift heavy things; b) Move around slowly A LOT; c) Once a week move as fast as you can.
Spend a lot of time with community & establish strong relationships with these people.
a) Get adequate good quality sleep; b) Go to bed earlier in the winter months (shorter days) vs. the Summer.
There are more concepts covered as well including Sun exposure, Using your brain & not making stupid mistakes, etc… All of these concepts are expanding constantly & scientific evidence is proving some of them to be valid. Interestingly, as with all diets & lifestyles there are different camps emerging out there with variations on the original.
What started with a handful of books on the subject in 2009 has risen now to be thousands of books, ebooks & online publications on the topic. Many of which have their own “angle” on the Paleo concept. Right or wrong it can confuse people. Mark Sisson made a huge impact & now has the most followed Paleo/Primal Blog on the planet. He created a less restrictive but still quite effective set of principles known as the Primal Laws vs. the traditional Paleo lifestyle; there’s a lot of overlap, but the main difference is Mark’s inclusion of dairy (often raw) and more focus on the exercise, play, community & sleep.
Interestingly, when we look at the foods to avoid list it reads like this: No sugars, No grain products, No legumes, No dairy products & No industrial seed oils. Obviously, eliminating all of these foods would leave primarily vegetables (low carb & starchy), fruits, meat, poultry, fish & healthy fats (unprocessed oils). These food choices would significantly lower the processed foods and in particular would lower the refined carbs & the industrial seed oils that one would consume daily. These are believed to be major players in metabolic disturbances including type 2 diabetes, obesity and leaky gut linked autoimmune conditions. This diet is NOT necessarily a ketogenic diet, but it would be lower in carbohydrate content. When you examine the literature it becomes clear that the Standard Western Diet contains a high carbohydrate load, with people consuming between 250-500 g daily, using supposedly healthy grain products & the rest and evolutionary biology suggests that we evolved to intake closer to 75-150 g of total carbohydrates per day most from low carb veggies!! This significant difference could account for the Overweight/Obesity epidemic that the Westernized countries are facing currently and the metabolic syndrome we see indicates that our lifestyle habits are definitely out of line with the way we evolved and are leading to expression of unhealthy genes vs. healthy ones.
Although some info out there ONLY discusses the diet itself (Paleo or Primal), most will discuss the whole lifestyle. This is absolutely key, because the whole lifestyle change approach increases your odds of success much more than just change one aspect of your lifestyle (i.e. just diet or just exercise). And the more that’s discovered about epigenomics, which is the way in which our genes are expressed and how our daily habits influence the expression of genes both directly & indirectly, the more we know that our daily habits determine which genes are expressed and how they are expressed. And these habits & subsequently our gene expression is absolutely under our control. This could be the most important lesson that we can learn from the Paleo diet & its advocates.
So, what’s my bottom line opinion on the subject.
My Opinion on Paleo/Primal:
1) I think that the Paleo/Primal lifestyle is a great idea! It’s definitely NOT cheap to maintain, especially if you are feeding a whole family, but if you can sustain it, then by all mean GO FOR IT! You will definitely benefit from it. However, as with all “diets” it has developed an almost religious following & that means that small sects of separation from the original intent of the philosophy will start to crop up & eventually distort the original benefits. Certainly, eating or baking paleo treats once in a while as a TREAT is probably fine & still prevent exposure to non paleo items (like grains), however, these SHOULD NOT be a regular part of your diet otherwise, you are still eating processed junk foods, which will keep you fat!
2) I believe the science is strong that resistant starch can be a part of a healthy diet, whether this is in the form of legumes, potato starch or an engineered product like UCAN. These resistant starches have been shown to be good fuel for healthy gut bacteria. However, if a person struggles with IBS (an idiopathic diagnosis usually) then they should try a low FODMAPS protocol, which would eliminate many of these resistant starches, because in some individuals these FODMAPS lead to bloating, cramping & other symptoms of IBS likely due to the bacterial species content of their lower gut.
3) More and more research is unfolding to support a Paleo/Primal lifestyle for maximizing health & longevity. This is likely due to the fact that people who live with these principles in mind are avoiding some of the pitfalls from big food that increase the risk for us to over eat, and express unhealthy genes. Limiting or avoiding processed foods is definitely a good thing.
4) Often among the fundamentalist, many of the concepts will become perverted & abused by those individuals and in this world of instant sharing via the interweb, it’s key that we question what we read and verify references, or at least trial something for a limited time to see how it works for us. However, if we look at the overall effect on a person’s daily lifestyle habits of choosing to live a Paleo/Primal lifestyle we see that there is a large upside to improving health & longevity and little downside, other than perhaps cost.
Specifically, people following a Paleo/Primal lifestyle will: a) follow the diet protocols outline before (either Paleo or Primal) – this increases low sugar vegetable & fruit intake & limits exposure to food chemicals & harmful compounds found in grain products & industrial seed oils; b) sleep more & with better quality – following natural day/night patterns more closely; c) exercise regularly – i) high amounts of low intensity walking/locomotion; ii) 2-4 x/week resistance training – pulling, pushing, lifting movements; iii) 1-2 x/week HIIT – like wind sprints with 10-30 s work: 45 s – 1.5 min rest – repeated 5-10 times as sole workout for that day. Every one of these changes has been associated with increases in gene expression associated with fat burning, improvement of gut bacteria population favoring fat burning/leanness; lengthened life span; decreased cancer & heart disease risk, improvement of cognitive function & preservation of cognition over the long run.
The other element to this whole Paleo/Primal thing is the sustainability of the food system. This is a huge topic and definitely for another time, although I touch on this in a previous post here. That should wet your appetite a bit, however, I think a lot of the economic & political background was covered very well by Denise Minger in her book “Death by Food Pyramid”. It’s a great read, but it will aggravate you! And for my fellow Canadians, don’t be naiive & think this only happens in the USA, because the book could easily be re-titled “Death by 4 food groups” and it would still be pretty accurate.
Let’s quickly review the Big picture: if you are following a Paleo/Primal template then you will be: a) eating more vegetables, good quality fats, lean source protein; b) at the same time you will avoid many substances that are now known to damage our gut, stimulate over eating and generally worsen health & shorten our lives; c) exercising in a way that is more natural & sustainable for us and has been shown to burn fat & express healthy genes; d) Improving sleep quality & amount and avoiding exposure to artificial lights for extended periods of time, which has been shown to increase risk for cancers & obesity. So, I don’t see a downside per se. Getting started can be confusing & overwhelming with all of the new blogs & site popping up, some are great & authentic, while others are just capitalizing on the trends. I would recommend Chris Kresser’s new book Your Personal Paleo Code. I find his information the most well-researched & when you sign up for his newsletter, which is great by the way, you get a ton of free information, all well-researched!! I would also give honorable mention to Robb Wolf’s site, Mark Sisson site & Loren Cordain’s site, all of which contain great resources both free & paid.
Well, that’s my take on things. I hope you find this post useful! Please leave your comments & questions via the comment feature.
Have an AWESOME day!