Paleo Diet

I hear a lot of buzz about the Paleo diet especially being around the Crossfit environment.  Some of the things I hear are “I can eat this and cannot eat that,” “I feel great and my workouts have improved!” and “Well, I follow Paleo but I eat/drink this….” Many don’t mention or ask what is the science behind it all and is it really for me? 

I think there are many aspects of Paleo worth following however, people need to remember that it is still a diet and you are eliminating food groups.  Anytime we eliminate food groups the potential for being undernourished in micronutrients (vit/minerals) is there.  People definitely feel tighter and leaner on the diet but are also eliminating most carbohydrate sources (processed and non) and this is usually a result.  The question is, is this a sustainable lifestyle for you or are you setting yourself up for another failed diet plan?  Solution: Practicing a healthy lifestyle that incorporates parts of Paleo is still a success. (find a list of encouraged and discouraged foods here)

The reason I bring this subject up today is, one I had a client come to me claiming that a “trainer” following a Paleo type diet (at a non CF gym) instructed her that her kids should not eat carrots.  Hey, I would much rather them eating carrots than Cheetos!  According to the list above carrots are actually ok on Cordain’s Paleo Diet.  Hmmm, perhaps they were going off the glycemic index, well carrots are rated low and again, have no reason to be avoided. Two, on my sports dietetics listserve I came across a great post from a respected dietitian, Jeff Novick MS, RD:

Cordain’s work is interesting and deserves some consideration but it is mostly all anecdotal and theoretical, which, while of some value, is not the same level of credibility of the many l/t studies we have that are based on outcome data. There was one recently that came out comparing a PALEO to a MED style diet but they only looked at satiety.  A more recent one that concluded, “the diet does fall short of meeting the daily recommended intakes for certain micronutrients. A 9.3% increase in income is needed to consume a Paleolithic diet that meets all daily recommended intakes except for calcium.”

While it is true that there was less chronic disease back then, their lifespans were also much shorter and many lifestyle related chronic diseases to not show up till later in life. Several small isolated groups alive today who still follow a Paleo style diet also have much shorter lifespans.

The rationale that some foods were not available at one time, is again, interesting theoretically, but not always applicable. There are many things in today’s world that were not available then (ie the computers we are on and the internet), then are regular parts of our lives and all enhance our lives. So, should we give those up because they were not available back then either?

From an evolutionary perspective, something in the diet fueled the growth of the brain and besides the advent of fire and cooking, there are basically two camps out there with one saying it is was animal protein and the other saying it was roots, tubers, grains and starches. My guess is, it is a combination of both as both were a richer source of available calories which helped but I tend to think the roots, tubers, grains and starches played a bigger roles as after all, that is what is the primary fuel for the brain and muscles. Humans have been consuming roots, tubers, grains and starches for at least 30K yrs and several recent studies have shown that grains were part of the diet during the paleo time and that humans are well adapted to consuming them. In fact, the evidence for the benefit of including legumes and intact whole grains is tremendous.

The focus of the Paleo diet on removing processed and refined foods is excellent and should be heeded. About 75% of the American diet now comes from processed foods with the majority of those calories coming from added sugars, refined flours and fats. I  personally also agree with the elimination of dairy products as they are one of the leading contributors of calories, saturated fat and sodium to the American diet.
(this point I do not 100% agree on as I believe lowfat diary can have a healthy place in ones diet, plus Greek yogurt rocks!)

As we can see, what is being recommended as the Paleo diet is much healthier than what is being consumed by most Americans, including many of those who believe they are following a healthy diet. Even those who follow what they believe to be a “healthy” higher carbohydrate diet, are often consuming way to many processed and refined carbs. Remember, as I have posted here several times, 90% of Americans say they follow a heart healthy diet yet analysis shows that less than 5% follow a heart healthy lifestyle and less than 1% follow a heart healthy diet. So, there is a huge disconnect about what is healthy even amongst those who strongly believe they are following a “healthy” diet. As a result most anyone who changes their diet to something better, will report feeling better. Therefore, in and of itself, feeling better is not a good criteria to judge a diet by.

Also, we have to remember that while there is a relationship between being active/fit and achieving a high level of health, there is not always a relationship between high fitness/sport performance and a high level of health. In order to achieve high level peak performance, many athletes engage in behaviors that may also compromise their health. In fact, as a former marathon runner, I know of no evidence linking high performance to l/t health outcomes.

In addition, when we look at the diets of successful endurance athletes and long lived healthy populations around the world,  we see some common denominators in their diets. They all consume a high carb, low fat diet but their carb intake, which can make up 70-90% of their diet, is based on unrefined unprocessed “as grown in nature” carbs and not the carbs common here in America, even the ones most people consider to be healthy.

My favorite part of the Paleo world is their focus on evolutionary fitness, which has led to the growth of the cross-fit movement and the body-weight movement, of which I am a big fan of. I think it is safer, healthier and gives a more balanced approach to fitness as it uses many ancillary muscles that get missed in modern exercise, especially with machines. It is also great for developing and strengthening the core as you can’t do proper body weight exercise without developing and/or having a strong core.

So, the good news is that many of the changes the Paleo diet recommends are healthy and have strong evidence behind them. I would recommend you keep these changes, which include:

– cut out all the processed foods including all the processed fats, oils, carbohydrates/grains, sugars/sweeteners.

– dramatically reduce and/or cut out dairy products and if included use only the fat free versions in limited amounts. (again, my view is to keep the lowfat/no sugar versions in to help meet calcium needs)

– dramatically reduce and/or cut out all the refined processed carbohydrates/grains and sugars/sweeteners

– focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables

– when choosing animal products, choose free range, wild, and completely grass fed varieties.  Check out Wallace Farms!

However, the recommendation to eliminate intact whole grains, legumes and unrefined unprocessed starchy vegetables is misguided.
In Health
Thanks Jeff for your perspective!

See how the Paleo Diet Challenged fared with fellow dietitian Julie Upton!
See how the Paleo Diet stacked up against other popular diets!

Until next time…
look good