Is this Paleo?
Margaux Neveu, MS, RD, CSG, CSR, CDE
Greetings CFPB! I thought I would start out the new Nutrition Blog with a bang. Why not tackle one of the hottest topics in Nutrition today - the Paleo diet. If only I had a nickel for every time I was asked for my thoughts on this diet!
What is Paleo?
The Paleolithic (Paleo) diet, also known as the "Caveman" diet, is a diet craze growing in popularity, especially in the CrossFit community. The Paleo diet is founded on the notion that if we eat like our hunter-gather ancestors who roamed the earth 10,000 years ago, we will be thinner, healthier and minimize the risk of chronic disease. Sounds pretty good, right?
The general premise of the diet is that if the caveman didn’t eat it, neither should a modern human. With this idea in mind, followers can eat foods that are hunted, fished or gathered. Meals include grass-produced meat, poultry, wild-caught fish or shellfish, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds and certain oils. Say “goodbye” to dairy, legumes (peanuts, beans or peas), grains, sugar, and salt (Cordian, 2014). The masterminds of this diet believe that our bodies are genetically adapted to follow this specific type of diet, faulting the agricultural revolution for the arrival of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
The first issue I find with this fad diet, is the general premise. Supposedly the diet mimics the food groups that pre-agricultural, hunter-gather peoples consumed, however it just doesn’t seem to align with what scientists are learning about the caveman’s diet. Recent studies of the European Paleolithic diet show that Paleolithic peoples actually used stone grinding tools, similar to mortars and pestles. This suggests vegetal food processing and the production of flour from starch grains. This was a common practice of Paleolithic peoples across Europe at least 30,000 years ago, (Revedin, 2010), nearly 20,000 years before agriculture. In addition, scientists have also examined the fossilized teeth of Neanderthals and found remnants of starch from barley and legumes, including peas and beans. Moreover, these foods showed signs that they were cooked (Sample 2010, Henry 2011)! So if you follow the premise of the Paleo diet and eat only what cavemen ate, then you should be able to eat grains and legumes. Furthermore, the foods that are included in the lists from the masterminds of the Paleo diet include foods that are actually domesticated animals or plants, not the natural foods the caveman consumed. The items you and I purchase in the store are typically not caught or gathered in the wild. Our foods have been engineered to have a better texture, taste and increased size. (Have you seen apples lately? They were not that big when I was a kid!) Finally, the foods that might be included in a typical Paleo meal are collected from around the world. When you go to grab berries at the store in the winter, they probably came from Mexico; your olive oil from Italy; and the eggs might be from China. It would have been impossible for a caveman to eat such a geographically and seasonally diverse meal each day. If this all doesn’t make you think a little harder about the concept, maybe just think about the fact that the caveman is extinct. The idea of a caveman diet seems rather a stretch, at best. I will stop there since I am not an anthropologist or archaeologist, but I believe these concepts are important to think about when deciding to follow a diet. I am a dietitian so I will move on to the nutritional fundamentals of a Paleolithic-style diet. J
Is this diet healthy? On a positive note, this diet craze encourages breaking our increasing dependency on over-processed foods that have inundated our grocery stores and dinner tables. Instead the diet encourages including whole foods like fruits and vegetables, while cutting out added sugar and sodium. This is something everyone should aim to do, Paleo-following or not. The foods included in the diet are rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, omega-3s, monounsaturated fats and have a lower glycemic index. Eliminating processed foods while adding lean protein and plant-based foods can help control blood sugar, improve blood pressure, and contribute to weight loss. The idea of removing processed foods and focusing on whole foods is a true strength of the Paleo diet (and any other meal plan that encompasses the same premise, of which there are many).
On the other hand, a typical Paleo diet plan often exceeds recommendations for daily fat and protein intake, and sadly, falls short on recommended carbohydrate (carb) intake. While some might feel that packing in tons of protein and falling short on carbs is a good thing, I beg to differ, particularly if you are engaged in sports. First, the relationship between building muscle and the intake of protein is not direct. Synthesis (creation) of muscle will not endlessly continue as more protein is presented into the body. In other words, excess protein does not equal more muscle. Not to mention, if your protein sources aren’t lean, you could be setting yourself up for heart disease. Finally, there is a new body of evidence that suggests even lean red meat can contribute to atherosclerosis (disease process that leads to clogged arteries) (Keoth, 2013). More to come on this interesting new research reviewing lean meats and heart disease in future blogs.
In addition, a typical Paleo plan may contain as little as 23 percent of the daily calories from carbs, per a review conducted by US News and World Report (the Paleo diet website states 35-45 percent of calories from carbs). In either case, these amounts are simply inadequate for athletes and can significantly hinder exercise performance. Most recommendations suggest athletes benefit from at least 50 percent of energy intake from carbohydrates, and recommendations can increase depending on body weight and type of exercise. Carbs are essential to maintain adequate glycogen stores. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate in the muscle and liver, and is a great source of energy for sudden, strenuous activities like weight lifting or sprinting. Glycogen is also used in longer activities such as running. If glycogen stores are depleted due to inadequate intake, you will suffer from premature fatigue (not a good feeling mid-WOD). In addition, if you have insufficient carbohydrate or calorie intake, this will cause an increase in the oxidation of amino acids (think protein). To put it simply, all of that protein you packed in trying to make “gainz” will be used for energy instead being recruited to repair and build new tissues…i.e. MUSCLES! You can’t get swole like that! More to come on protein and carbs/glycogen for your workouts in future blogs.
The high fat/protein and low carb nature of the Paleo diet excludes affordable and nutritious whole grains, legumes and dairy, which can be beneficial. Foods like quinoa, beans, oats, lentils, and peanuts have a good deal of research supporting health benefits and their role in disease prevention. These foods are nutrient-rich and contain protein, carbs, fats, fiber and essential micronutrients including zinc, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium and vitamin D, to name a few (Venn 2012). Without these foods, supplementation is necessary (sooo not Paleo) or you risk the potential of certain deficiencies.
Will you lose weight following a Paleo diet? Swearing off whole grains, legumes and dairy is not necessarily the key to ensuring weight loss. The root of weight issues stem from the over consumption of any or all macronutrients, whether they be carbs, protein or fat. If you build a calorie deficit into any eating plan, including the Paleo diet, you will shed pounds. With this thought in mind, just remember there plenty of individuals that consume “forbidden” whole grains, legumes and dairy and manage to obtain/maintain a healthy weight and are free from chronic disease…in the end it’s about balance and moderation.
Finally the Paleo diet may also be hard to sustain. If your mind is constantly troubled with what you are going to eat or not eat, what you did eat or wish you could have eaten, then I encourage you to think about that. Have you become anti-social or feel like you can’t dine out with friends because you won’t be able to find anything to eat?
The key to a healthy diet is variety, balance and moderation. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to any fad diet, Paleo or otherwise. Remember that everyone is different and your needs for performance, weight loss, health and tastes are unique. There is no “one-size fits all” when it comes to nutrition. No matter what style of eating you decide is a good fit for you, if you are feeling restricted, you likely won’t stick to the diet in the long run. Your way of eating shouldn’t be a short term plan but rather a life-long journey. Find a way of eating that you enjoy, is sustainable, and includes whole foods. Bottom line-food is wonderful, exciting, and nourishing! Don’t let a trendy diet, or club swinging cavemen let you lose sight of that.
Cordain, L. (2014). The paleo diet. Retrieved from http://thepaleodiet.com/
Koeth R.A., Wang Z, Levison B.S., Buffa J.A., Org E, et al. (2013) Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med 19, 576–585.
Henry A.G., Brooks A.S., Piperno D.R. (2011) Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108(2): 486–491 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016868108.
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Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, et al. (2010) Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 107(44):18815–18819.
Sample, I. (2010, 12/27). Neanderthals may have feasted on meat and two veg diet. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/dec/27/neanderthals-cooked-diet-us-research
Venn B, Thies F, O'Neil C (2012) Whole Grains, Legumes, and Health. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 2012:1–2.