The Paleo diet models its meals on those who inhabited the planet 10,000 years ago. Is there merit in this plan, or should you leave it in history?
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet, also known as the Paleolithic diet, Caveman Diet or stone-age diet, seeks to replicate the nutritional behavior of Paleolithic-era humans, who inhabited the Earth some 10,000 years ago.
It is believed that their diet revolved around ‘whole’ foods that were found hunting and gathering the landscape, such as meat, nuts, seeds, fruits, and some plants. Consequently, paleo restricts itself from food groups including legumes, dairy and grains found in more modern diets.
Paleo advocates such as scientist Loren Cordain hold that the age of agriculture and mankind’s move to dairy products and grain products brought about numerous health issues and chronic diseases that persist to this day.
Paleo Diet: The Pros
Real Food is Right
Regardless of whether you’re looking to pack on muscle mass, blast away body fat or train for a specific sport, basing your diet on whole, high-quality foods such as fresh protein, vegetables, and healthy mono/unsaturated fats can only be a good thing for your health. In addition, the Caveman diet is gluten free, appealing to those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
There is some research, namely a 2016 study conducted by The Endocrine Society, that suggests the Paleo Diet aids the body’s insulin sensitivity.
This refers to the efficiency with which you digest carbohydrate, and in those seriously overweight, a period of low-carb life can help you get lean.
Nailing the Nutrients
Eating paleo has been dubbed a fad diet, but its founding principles have much greater nutritional substance than others on the list.
Fresh cuts of pasture-raised grass fed meat, heaps of vegetables and healthy fats are a worthy inclusion in any meal plans. These foods are rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which can fend off disease, fight inflammation and aid recovery from exercise.
Generally, people are much less active nowadays than in centuries past, so for many, perhaps focusing nutrition away from high-carbohydrate foods is a positive pursuit.
The Pickle of Processing
There are processed foods which are ‘healthy’ and rich in both macro and micronutrients – such as whey protein, peanut butter, and coconut oil.
However, proponents of Paleo assert that you need to consider what is meant by 'processed'. All forms of cooking and preparing food involve processing. Roasting prey over fire is man’s earliest example of ‘processing’ cooked food, but this still preserved much of the nutrient content.
This approach would differ to the extent of processing involved in eating reformed meat out of a packet, for example. You lose the freshness and reduce some of the vitamins and minerals when preserving meat through such a method.
Paleo Diet: The Cons
Adherence is Key
The success of any diet depends on how easily you can adhere to it. A diet can promise the world, but if it’s too tricky to stick to then the likelihood of maintaining your results is going to be a challenge.
Despite appearing to be a very straight-forward diet plan, Paleo is extremely restrictive due to the sheer variety of foods in existence. Placing such vast limits on what can and can’t be consumed makes Paleo a difficult diet to maintain.
Adhering to a strictly organic diet can also prove to be quite costly, which may prove a further stumbling block to maintaining the plan.
Processing Holds Merit
It would be over-simplistic and downright wrong to suggest a food is unhealthy, simply because it is processed or not ‘raw’.
Whey protein, for instance, is highly-processed but is one of the most potent forms of protein available. Its high leucine content and rapid digestion make it the ideal pre or post-workout food.
Despite the demonization that Paleo places on carbohydrates, whole wheat grains provide high fiber and slow-release energy, both essential for general digestion and performance. Even coconut oil, a staple of the Paleo diet, is prepared via cold processing – which would not have been available thousands of years ago.
Causes of Weight Gain
You could argue Paleo’s proponents have misinterpreted the real causes of obesity. While mass-processed meals low in nutrients may contribute to some health problems, the real reason so many gain weight is a lack of activity. Desk jobs, TVs, and vehicles all contribute to the reduced physical activity.
Paleo-era humans had to remain active in order to catch prey and fend off territorial attacks – which may have contributed to low levels of obesity rather than the diet itself. Life expectancy in the Paleolithic era was also very low, generally falling between 30 and 40.
Who is to say that these people wouldn’t have encountered much greater health problems had they advanced beyond these years?
What is the overall verdict on the Paleo Diet?
The principle of Paleo is sound, but in practice carries its own challenges.
Consuming a diet rich in high-quality sources of protein can generally help you lose weight and get lean. However, it is a big jump to assume that the rest of the strict guidelines put forth provide any real benefit. Unnecessarily negating processed foods that do provide health benefits may lead you to fall off the wagon.
The low level of carbohydrates also has the potential to compromise your sport and training performance, if maintained in the long term. Even then, it is worth remembering that the people of the Paleolithic era simply had to eat that way due to their lack of travel or ability to store food.
As a baseline template, Paleo lays the ground rules – but as a complete dietary system, you should look beyond its limits.