The landscape of the diet world is constantly changing, with new research and new fads popping up what seems like daily. Since this topic is one that I get asked about frequently, I decided that it would be good to explore some of the more popular diets and trends. In this series it is my hope to explore diets and trends in depth to discover their effectiveness for the fitness-minded individual. This month we will explore the Paleo diet: what it is, why people choose to eat this way, and whether or not it is possible to be a Paleo athlete.
Recently, the Paleo eating style has gained a lot of traction in the health, fitness, and diet world. The name is now pretty well recognized in the mainstream. Part of the reason that this method of eating has gained popularity is that it has become the bible of eating for the exercise regime called CrossFit. With the increase in the popularity of CrossFit and the number of CrossFit gyms spreading throughout the world, it is no wonder that Paleo has started to seep into the mainstream. You don’t need to be a CrossFit devotee to adopt the Paleo diet. However, not everyone has a clear idea of what the Paleo diet is (and is not).
Let’s first point out that Paleo is not just the new form of the low-carb, high meat, and protein diet we all know as the Atkins diet. There is much more to the diet than this reductionist idea. The foundation of the Paleo diet is that we as eaters have swung too far from the way that we were evolutionarily built to eat. We have moved to a diet and lifestyle that became the norm due to the advent of modern agriculture, which some see as less than healthful. The main idea is that we should return to eating in the way of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and forgo the modern practice of consuming a diet full of salt, refined carbohydrates, and dairy at the exclusion of fruits and vegetables.
Unlike raw or vegan diets, there are no hard and fast rules to calling an eating pattern Paleo. While some folks who are Paleo eaters do eat some dairy products, such as grass-fed butter and yogurt, others swear that the diet has to be free from dairy. Those who eat some dairy are sometimes referred to as “Paleo,” and those who do not are sometimes referred to as “Primal” eaters. No matter what you call it, there are some guidelines around the diet. In general, this diet avoids grains, legumes, soy, refined sugar, and processed foods. Paleo eating is focused on fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, and fats, including coconut oil and animal fats.
Dr. Loren Cordain is credited with being the leading expert on the Paleo diet and is called the founder of the Paleo movement. A professor at Colorado State University, he has published numerous books and scientific research papers on the subject of the evolutionary nature of diet and disease. His research suggests that by eating the way that our ancestors ate, we can avoid many chronic Western diseases. Dr. Cordain argues that the agricultural revolution was a tipping point for the degradation of the American diet and the health of our nation.
Dr. Cordain discusses in his writings that being Paleo is not about switching to a meat-centric diet. He encourages the swapping of dairy, grains, and legumes for fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are alkaline in the body, which is more health promoting. He argues that acid-producing foods such as refined grains create a harmful environment in the body, causing disease. Dr. Cordain states that “the highest acid-producing foods are hard cheeses, cereal grains, salted foods, meats, and legumes, whereas the only alkaline, base-producing foods are fruits and vegetables. Because the average American diet is overloaded with grains, cheeses, salted processed foods, and fatty meats at the expense of fruits and vegetables, it produces a net acid load,” which can cause harm. Outside of Dr. Cordain’s research, there is little scientific study of the Paleo diet. However, as the diet becomes increasingly popular, soon more researchers will begin to study its effects. Recent published research agrees that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with decreased instances of disease. However, most of the studies showing this relationship have been done with vegan and vegetarian populations—the correlation was that the more vegan the diet, the more health promoting.
It is indeed possible to be both a Paleo eater and an athlete. As with most eating patterns, it is very important that the diet be in good balance. First, you need to be sure that you are taking in enough calories for your body’s needs. Second, you need to also ensure that meat is not the default food to be eaten. To be properly Paleo, fruits and vegetables should make up the majority of the diet—up to about 75 percent. Finally, it is also very important for the athlete to be taking in enough carbohydrates. When cutting out most of the “easy” sources of carbohydrates—sugars, grains, and legumes—it is important to make sure intake does not dip below need. Our brain and red blood cells use carbohydrates as their main fuel source, and it is very important to keep them well fed. Indeed, it is possible to be an athlete, and many find that they can thrive on a well-balanced Paleo diet.
As with most diets and eating patterns, it is a great idea to check in with your doctor and get your biometric lab work done in order to determine levels of triglycerides, cholesterol, blood sugar, and electrolyte balance. A registered dietitian (R.D.) can also come in handy when you are starting a Paleo diet. An R.D. can outline an eating pattern to make sure you are getting the optimal amount of calories, macronutrients—fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—and micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
The Paleo way of eating is not just an excuse to eat more meat. It is a more mindful approach to eating. Followers must think about the foods they are going to consume rather than just saying yes to what is in front of them. It’s well known that there is a benefit to reducing our intake of added sugar and highly processed food, and a Paleo diet is one of the many eating patterns that directly addresses this issue with the standard American fare. However, be aware that some Paleo-friendly foods, such as “breads,” are much higher in fats than their grain-based counterparts. Many of the flour substitutes are nut and coconut based, increasing both the calorie density of the food as well as total and saturated fat levels. As noted with a vegan diet, just because something is Paleo doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy.
As Paleo eating becomes even more popular, be on the lookout for more Paleo-friendly and focused food trucks, trailers, and venues, as well as more convenience foods (such as bars and frozen meals) that cater to this lifestyle. What’s great is that Paleo eating is a call to action to eliminate highly processed nutrient poor foods. It is a framework by which we can begin to evaluate and truly examine our choices for fueling our body.
Next month, I will explore the concept of juicing—just in time for January and our new healthy living intentions.