I wanted to know more about the Paleo proposition, so I decided to investigate further. Get ready for Paleo Diets Exposed…
This is the first of a two-article series on the protein-heavy/low-carbohydrate Paleolithic Diet (also known as the “paleo diet”, “caveman diet”, “Stone Age diet”, “pre-agricultural” or “hunter-gatherer” diet).
The History of Paleo Diets
This diet, true to its name, features the exclusive consumption of meats, fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and leafy greens, while avoiding starches, alcohol, dairy, and most importantly, processed foods–basically the diet that prehistoric/pre-agricultural man supposedly ate–and those foods only.
The resurgence of the Paleo Diet is not a new trend. It actually dates back to the 1970s, courtesy of gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlinwhen.
It started garnering more and more public notice through the 1980s, and then again since the late 1990s, when quite a few nutritionists and doctors began again lauding the benefits and raising awareness of the regimen. Since then, it’s gained even more momentum and grown in popularity over the past five to seven years.
I’ve researched both the pros and cons of all things Paleo, and overall, I would have to agree more with those on the con side, that the diet’s benefits may have been overblown, to say nothing of the fact that the eating regimen itself is ridiculously, well… rigid.
Though I will still have to admit that those in the pro camp are at least “on to something,” and that the benefits of reducing processed carbohydrates and sugars in one’s diet can’t be totally ignored or dismissed.
As in many instances, the truth lies somewhere in between the two camps, so let’s figure this out. I’m very interested in your feedback.
This first of the two articles will explain the diet in more detail and lay out its benefits, while the second will explain some of the diet’s potential pitfalls.
The Paleo Diet Exposed
The Paleo diet, as mentioned, involves a specific and narrow eating regimen, coupled with reasonable, consistent exercise and mindful lifestyle changes in order to help the dieter lose body fat and feel healthier overall.
It eliminates things from our modern diet such as trans fats, refined sugars, and processed foods that have been shown to drive degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, infertility, depression, and anxiety. It can help the dieter slim down, sleep better, and feel an increase in energy.
What’s bad about all that, right?!
The Paleo diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, seafood, lean meats, nuts and seeds, and other healthy fats, while avoiding all dairy, grain, starches, legumes, processed foods/sugars, and of course, alcohol.
And don’t forget the exercise part!
The Argument For Paleo Diets
Proponents of the diet say that scientific and specifically epidemiological research indicates that any diet heavy with Omega-3 and Monounsaturated fats will dramatically reduce conditions in the human body that have been shown to lead to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.
More specifically, the diet has also been attributed to weight loss, improved blood lipids, and reduced aches and pains.
Other peripheral benefits attributed to the Paleo diet include improved sleep, healthier-looking skin, stable blood sugar, reduced allergies, increased and more balanced energy throughout the day, stronger teeth and hair, and overall anti-inflammatory properties.
“Paleo” people, even in the face of criticism, tenaciously defend their diet of choice.
Advocates of Paleo Diets
Nutritional clinician Kellyann Petrucci, also the author of three well-received “Dummies” books on the Paleo diet (“Living Paleo,” “Paleo Cookbook,” and “Paleo Workouts”), praises the diet and uses her own positive life-changing experience with the diet as what she considers to be a textbook example of how well it actually works.
“I became interested in Paleo because when I hit 40 a few years back, I crashed and burned,” Petrucci says. “I was gaining weight like crazy…my skin looked lifeless, my hair started thinning and I had no energy. When I followed the Paleo template, it was clear to me that something was happening on a deep cellular level. Not only did I get myself back, but a healthier, more vibrant version.”
Another adamant supporter of the Paleo diet, and author of the book, “Your Personal Paleo Code,” which provides a very detailed layout of the diet/regimen/lifestyle, is integrative/functional medicine practitioner Chris Kresser from Berkeley, California.
Kresser enthusiastically attributes the restoration of his own health directly to the Paleo Diet after he struggled for years with a painful digestive malady.
“There is broad consensus among scientists that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed primarily meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and starchy tubers,” Kresser argues, roundly rejecting the claim that following the diet itself is far too difficult for most average people, or that it’s too difficult to find the actual ingredients of this ancient diet, by listing any number of Paleo-friendly restaurants and newer snack foods like kale chips, gluten/sugar/soy-free beef jerky, grain-free crackers and even Paleo-friendly desserts.
He goes on to say that, “Many people experience a profound transformation in their health after switching to Paleo and they’re excited to share that with others. This has created a powerful, grassroots, word-of-mouth movement of people eager to spread the word.”
Further Evidence of Paleo Diet Benefits
Dr. Kim Hill, an anthropology professor from Arizona State University, has extensively worked with, studied, and is a renowned expert on the Hiwi, an indigenous, somewhat primitive tribe of hunter-gatherers native to the jungles and hills of Colombia and Venezuela.
Says Hill, “A few quick observations since the work of my wife and I on the Hiwi are extensively cited (as is our demographic documentation of hunter-gatherer lifespans).”
“First, the Hiwi, like the other hunter-gatherers that we have worked with and visited, are much healthier in general than are Americans.”
Hill does note that the Hiwi suffer from maladies that we can cure with modern medicine (infections, parasites), as well as a high mortality rate due to inter-tribal warfare and violence.
“[However], they are lean and fit,” Hill continues. “Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay are even more fit than the Hiwi. They eat more and have extremely high exercise loads…the point is that if hunter-gatherers are lean and fit (they look much more like serious athletes than do modern people), why?”
Queries Hill, “If not their diet and exercise regime, then what does make them lean and fit compared to modern people? Logic suggests that diet is part of the solution (exercise seems downplayed by everyone).”
“So the discussion here should be focused on what we can learn from hunter-gatherers to improve our own health. How do “paleofantasy” critiques contribute to that discussion? I’m not sure, I haven’t read [that] book.”
“Yes, there is significant genetic evolution in recent times. Yes, dietary variation in human foragers around the world suggests no single optimal diet, but still, what can be extracted by acknowledging that they are lean and fit?”
“The paleodiet discussion has been very important for advancing our understanding of human nutrition — a field which has been dominated by the search for “minimal requirements” rather than “optimality.” But the bottom line is that the paleodiet critics need to contribute rather than just critique.”
Hill goes on to note that both he and his wife have been “eating a paleo diet” (by accident because of fieldwork) for more than 30 years, “…because we grew accustomed to that diet (long before the fad).”
Hill continues, “Meats, and unprocessed plant foods are a simple generalized ancestral diet and appear to produce better health than the current standard modern diet. As anyone who knows us can affirm, Hurtado and I are a lot leaner and fitter than most Americans in our age cohort (near 60). Why?“
Perhaps the proof really is in the pudding, or in this case, the Paleo-friendly sugar/gluten free pudding, and in the positive tangible results achieved by so many people who have stuck it out and been disciplined to follow the diet.
In my follow-up article, I will discuss more about the scientific research that minimizes the cure-all claims made by Paleo diet advocates.