Understanding the Paleo Diet
Last month we covered the Whole30 diet, which was born after its founders set out to try the paleo diet for 30 days but wanted to modify the diet even more. But what is the paleo diet, how does it work, is it effective long-term, and most of all, is it safe?
What It Is
The name for the paleo diet comes from the word “Paleolithic,” which describes the early phase of the Stone Age when foraging, hunting, and fishing were the primary means of obtaining food. This era in time is where the paleo diet borrows most of its foundation. In other words, the diet resembles what our early ancestors ate thousands of years ago.
“Paleo is often referred to other names that explain its basic concept such as the ‘caveman diet’ or ‘hunter-gatherer diet,’” says Kaylee Jacks, a sports nutritionist at Texas Health Sports Medicine. “This diet essentially consists of foods from the earth that are obtained from hunting and gathering such as animals (meats/seafood) and plants (fruits/vegetables/nuts/seeds).”
Before you have visions of roasting a Tomahawk steak over an open fire or scavenging the Katy Trail for edible berries, the diet has been modified to our modern conveniences. Here are the basics:
- Meat: Beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, pork and others.
- Fish and seafood: Salmon, trout, haddock, shrimp, shellfish, etc. Choose wild-caught if you can.
- Eggs: Choose free-range, pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, kale, peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, oranges, pears, avocados, strawberries, blueberries and more.
- Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and more.
- Healthy fats and oils: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and others.
- Salt and spices: Sea salt, garlic, turmeric, rosemary, etc.
Avoid: Processed foods, sugar, soft drinks, grains, most dairy products, legumes, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, margarine and trans fats.
While the diet emphasizes prioritizing grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic options, including meat, it’s not always the most economical option. Just make sure to always go for the least processed option.
Just like today, even our earliest ancestors had varied diets. Some ate a low-carb diet high in animal foods, while others followed a high-carb diet with lots of plants. That means the paleo diet can be adapted to your own personal needs and preferences, so long as you’re following the basic concept to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods.
A typical day’s menu may look like this:
- Breakfast – Hardboiled eggs with fruit.
- Lunch – Broiled salmon salad (mixed greens) with avocado slices and walnuts with olive oil dressing or lemon juice
- Dinner – Lean beef sirloin tip roast, steamed broccoli, salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, onions, almonds and lemon juice dressing), and strawberries for dessert.
- Snacks – An orange, carrot sticks or celery sticks, walnuts, an apple, or tuna wrapped in lettuce.
How Does It Work
The paleo diet is one of the lesser restrictive diets out there because you can really tailor it to your tastes and preferences. The idea is that if we align our diet as closely as we can with what our ancestors ate, our bodies will thrive because they don’t have to work as hard to process and digest “foreign” foods.
“The purpose really varies person to person but in general it is to align our diet with our evolution and fuel our bodies with what we are naturally made to digest and avoid foods that emerged with farming, ranching and manufacturing, such as dairy, grains, legumes and processed foods,” Jacks explains. “The belief is the genetic human body and its unnatural alignment with these aforementioned foods is not healthy.”
While the diet is still too young for there to be enough research to make specific factual health claims, Jacks notes that the purpose of the diet may be to prevent chronic illnesses that have become more prominent in our modern, convenient and highly processed diets. These illnesses include obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are directly linked to lifestyle and diet.
“Studies on the paleo diet today have shown some health benefits including lowered blood sugar and healthier weight,” she adds. “However, there needs to be more studies that look into genetics, exercise and other lifestyle factors that may have influenced the findings.”
While Whole30, a variation of paleo, emphasizes that you don’t necessarily need to work out while on the diet, Jacks says it’s a bit of a misnomer because unlike humans today, our ancestors didn’t need to head to the gym to get some physical activity in — their whole day was filled with physical activity. In fact, just the act of hunting and gathering was physically demanding. So while you may be eating like a caveman, if your day does not consist of a lot of physical activities, you will still need to prioritize working out in addition to eating well.
Is It Effective Long-Term?
Effectiveness, followed by longevity, is always a topic of discussion when it comes to diets. While the paleo diet is based on how our ancestors ate every single day, Jacks says the original diet may not be as convenient in modern times.
“Many restaurants are more concerned with the taste of foods rather than the health, so this diet would be inconvenient when eating out due to the limits in prep work (butter/salts/etc.) and types of meat (grain-fed or highly processed instead of organic/lean cuts,)” she explains. “Fast food or convenience eating would be challenging as well because this diet doesn’t allow processed foods which are typically more shelf-stable.”
That being said, the paleo diet has evolved over the years, allowing for several variations of the original, traditional diet. As we mentioned earlier, even our earliest ancestors’ diets varied largely on geographic region and needs, so many people now think of paleo as a template to base your diet on, not necessarily a strict set of rules you must follow. You can simply use the paleo diet as a starting point, then add in a few other healthy foods such as grass-fed butter and gluten-free grains. Even small amounts of red wine and dark chocolate are on the “allowed” list for many who follow paleo due to their beneficial nutrients.
Is It Safe?
The most important question is how safe it is. As with many elimination or highly strict diets, Jacks says there are some potential risks associated with paleo.
“Any diet that eliminates or limits a nutrient and/or food groups put you at risk of being under fueled (not enough overall calories) and/or malnourished (not obtaining adequate nutrients). My main concerns would be with cholesterol and saturated fat intake,” she explains. “Animal meats are a major part of this diet and can contribute to high saturated fat intake or increased cholesterol if you don’t choose lean cuts or moderate your intake. The diet does allow fruits and vegetables, which are rich in many vitamins and minerals but not all. Furthermore, paleo does not allow for dairy which is a major source of calcium and vitamin D — essential for bone health.”
Chronically low consumption of calcium and vitamin D may lead to osteoporosis, bone fractures or rickets. Calcium is also an electrolyte that contributes to hydration and a lack of calcium can lead to muscle cramping and abnormal heart rhythms in some cases.
To supplement calcium into your diet, Jacks suggests prioritizing fatty fish and green leafy vegetables, which are allowed in the paleo diet.
Jacks adds that because paleo is high in protein, it may not be best suited for someone susceptible to kidney stones or with kidney disease.
Paleo is designed to be a lifestyle change, requiring major commitment to maintain for the long-haul. If you’re just looking for a structured way to clean up your diet and cut out processed foods, paleo is a good jumping-off point, but the emphasis on organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised products isn’t always easy to manage outside your own kitchen.
“Food is a part of our culture,” Jacks explains. “Between holidays/gatherings/events and the fact that we live in a fast-paced world where you cannot always ‘hunt and gather’ plain organic grass-fed foods, means they’re not always easily accessible. Although, they weren’t easily accessible in the Paleolithic era either, the culture was to spend the whole day seeking these foods out, which isn’t happening nowadays.
“If someone were wanting to do this diet, I would recommend they first understand the commitment and nutrients to ensure they get enough (ex: calcium,)” she adds. “That being said, I would not recommend this diet as a whole. Instead, I would suggest parts of the concept such as limiting refined sugars and processed foods and incorporating more lean protein, fruits and vegetables into their diet. There is not a best ‘one size fits all’ for diets. A healthy balance or a variety of nutrients in adequate amounts that is specific to each individual is ideal.”
If you’re considering changing your diet, it’s recommended you consult with a registered dietitian or a health professional before starting. If you need help getting started, visit TexasHealth.org/Health-and-Wellness to learn more about nutrition counseling to set you on the right path.