January 16, 2014
Is the Paleo Diet a Good Idea?
The Paleo diet has been getting quite a bit of attention in the last several years, and a survey of 500 dietitians about food trends in 2014 promises continued interest in the diet.
What is the Paleo diet?
This diet stems from the idea that humans have not evolved as quickly as our food has been industrialized, so our bodies will be better off eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors before the agricultural revolution. If the cavemen didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. According to www.thepaleodiet.com here is a list of foods to eat and to avoid:
- Grass-produced meats
- Fresh fruits and veggies
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthful oils (Olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils
Why are we eating like our ancestors?
This diet is based on the idea of eating like our pre-agricultural ancestors; however, what our ancestors actually ate is hotly debated and was certainly varied across regions. An analysis of the plaque on the teeth of Neanderthal remains suggests that Neanderthals ate grains and some cooked vegetables. Also, we have evolved to eat dairy, so why is dairy still shunned for the reason of being maladapted? These facts definitely question the whole foundation of the diet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t analyze its healthfulness or lack thereof.
There are some very positive sides to the Paleo diet. It cuts out processed foods, refined sugars, and most of the salt from the average American diet. These things can contribute to heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It is high in fiber and potassium thanks to all the veggies and fruit. Fiber keeps us satiated, our cholesterol in check, and our digestive system healthy. Potassium keeps our blood vessels “loose” and healthy. The Paleo diet also has a low-glycemic load, meaning it affects our blood sugar and insulin production minimally, which may help prevent type 2 diabetes. The Paleo diet also emphasizes healthy oils like olive, walnut, and avocado oil which are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat. The meat that the Paleo diet recommends is grass-fed which is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meat, which is heart healthy and brain healthy. Although meat has a higher carbon footprint than plant-based food, grass-fed meat has a smaller footprint than its grain-fed equivalent. Lastly, its emphasis on whole foods requires you to prepare your own meals, and home cooked meals tend to be healthier than restaurant-prepared foods.
There is a small amount of preliminary research directly comparing the health effects of a Paleo diet to other diets, specifically the Mediterranean diet and the average American diet. Although the results are positive, they are not yet very meaningful, since they have been short term and with small sample sizes. However, a couple studies are suggesting a reduction in LDL cholesterol, reduced blo
od pressure, and increased insulin sensitivity after a few weeks on the Paleo diet.
But there are some tragic facts about the Paleo diet. For one, a couple of very healthy foods groups are not allowed.
- Grains—even whole grains are shunned and although they seem to be losing their popularity with the public, much research has shown great health benefits to grains including possible lower risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and improved digestive health.
- Legumes (!)– also known as beans, are extremely beneficial to our health. ½ cup of black beans has 8 grams of protein and 7.5 grams of fiber. Along with a good dose of iron, folate, and calcium, you just can’t beat legumes.
- Dairy—our early ancestors did not have the enzyme to digest the lactose in dairy beyond the age of weaning, but many of us today have evolved to produce lactase and digest dairy very well. Dairy, especially milk and yogurt have valuable nutrients including protein, calcium, and potassium. Yogurt’s live cultures can help support healthy bacteria in the gut.
A less-than-healthful food that is encouraged in the modern Paleo diet is coconut oil. Coconut oil is often touted as a healthy fat, but 90% of this fat is saturated, which was only found in very low levels in the diets of the Neanderthals. The authenticity of coconut oil in the Paleo diet aside, 60% of saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids, which does not have a harmful effect on our cholesterol levels. However, that still leaves 40% of the saturated to be harmful. Coconut oil may be part of a healthy diet, but I do not recommend it as a source of healthy fat.
Another unfortunate thing about this diet is that it is quite restrictive, which may be difficult for some individuals to follow. Being able to stick to a diet is one of the most important attributes of a healthy diet. A 2-year study compared weight loss of three different diets with different fat, protein, and carbohydrate ratios. They ranged from 10-40% fat, 15-25% protein, and 35-65% carbohydrates. All diets had similar positive effects on weight loss, lipid-reduction, and blood sugar. Those who attended the support meetings had the best outcomes. These results illustrate that the macronutrients composition of your diet is less important than being able to stick to your diet (though I don’t think I’d recommend a diet with only 10% fat).
The Paleo diet requires attention to detail. I have met many Paleo dieters who believe bacon and sausage are fair game since they are meat; however, if you read closely, only grass-fed, lean meat keeps you in compliance. And a diet high in grass-fed meat can get costly very quickly, which may be another barrier to this diet.
Is the Paleo diet for you?
The bottom line is that the Paleo diet may be a healthy way of eating. However, its restrictive nature seems unnecessary, if not problematic. I believe it’s possible to cut out the processed foods, refined sugars and flours, and the excessive salt without “going Paleo.” There’s a mountain of research supporting whole-food, plant-based diets so why shun wholesome whole grains and beans? People who eat yogurt tend to have a higher quality diet, so why cut out dairy (if you tolerate it)?
I look forward to what future research tells us, but for now I’d suggest “going whole” with fruits, vegetables (even the starchy kind), legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy, seafood, and lean grass-fed meat. This less restrictive diet may help you stick to it!
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