The Paleo Diet, also referred to as the Caveman diet, is based on the presumed ancient diet that humans consumed during the Paleolithic era, a period from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. This typically means foods that can be hunted, fished, or gathered. Foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on. This includes leans meats, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, veggies, roots, fruits, and berries. No grains, no dairy, no legumes (beans or peas), no sugar, no salt.
Supporters of the Paleo diet hold the agricultural revolution and the introduction of grains, legumes, and dairy responsible for the onset of many of the chronic diseases that exist today in our society. It is based on the premise that our bodies have never actually adapted to these foods which are claimed to cause inflammation and promote disease. Some experts will say that eating Paleo is simply how our bodies were designed to eat so why change it?
The recent and widespread popularity of the Paleo diet can be attributed to professor and researcher Loren Cordain, PhD who has published many studies on the physiological effects of a paleolithic lifestyle. He has shown through clinical trials that the Paleo diet can lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, inflammation, promote weight loss and optimal health. The Paleo diet however is not without controversy.
On one hand, this way of eating promotes consumption of many fruits and vegetables, omits processed foods and added sugars but on the other hand, it surpasses the Dietary Guideline’s recommendations for daily fat and protein and falls short on carbohydrate recommendations. In this article I will attempt to explain the potential positives of the Paleo diet as well as potential concerns in hopes to figure out the best way to implement a Paleo lifestyle if one so chooses.
Positives of Paleo
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the diet is it’s focus on whole and natural foods. It attempts to eliminate highly processed foods that contain additives, preservatives, and chemicals that can affect our health. The idea of a cleaner diet based on whole foods, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, less sugar and sodium is what registered dietitians and nutrition professionals have been recommending since the overabundance of processed and fast foods became available and obesity rates began to rise. They are the basis of any healthy diet that is recommended and aligns with the current 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Because most Americans tend to overeat in carbohydrates and fats, carbohydrate options are limited to fruits and vegetables in the Paleo diet. With just these options, it makes it fairly easy to prevent carb overload. This also promotes a diet higher than the average in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients which can all have positive health benefits. Trans fats, higher fat, and heavily processed meats are also generally avoided which promotes a diet that is reasonable low in saturated fats and high in unsaturated fats. Alcohol consumption is also limited.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Paleo diet can provide some weight control benefits which has driven its popularity recently. There have been a number of studies to show that the high protein and low carbohydrate restrictions have shown to effectively lead to fat loss. Although some would debate that restricting foods such as carbohydrates, high fat foods, and highly processed foods will naturally lead to an overall decrease in calories thus contributing to weight loss. Also, since the diet typically provides about twice the amount of protein of a typical diet, the extra protein may help to keep hunger at bay.
There are also many concerns when it come to the Paleo diet. Some question the presumption that our bodies have not physiologically adapted over time. Some argue that our societies health began to decline only about 25 years ago, with the introduction of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and processed foods. Not 10,000 years ago when we started eating grains, dairy, and legumes. Some who begin to follow a Paleo diet may remove these foods from their diet but don’t replace those nutrients with other foods substitutes.
When you remove an entire food group or overly restrict one, you run a very high risk of missing some vital nutrients. When eliminating or restricting dairy products and grains you may not be consuming enough amounts of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, fiber, and some B-vitamins all needed for optimal health.
The Paleo diet exceeds the Dietary Guideline’s recommendations for protein. Diets high in animal protein have been shown to cause inflammation due to arachidonic acid that is present in meat. This can lead to an increased acid load. This coupled with inadequate calcium intake, since dairy is a major source of calcium in the United States, can lead to calcium being leached from the bones putting someone at risk for osteoporosis and stress fractures.
On the flip side, some studies are showing that cultures that consume a lot dairy, such as the United States, actually develop more osteoporosis rather than less.Therefore an adequate intake of calcium through other sources or even supplementation is important.
Vitamin D is also a legitimate concern. Since most diary is fortified with vitamin D, if you do not consume enough dairy, you will likely not be consuming enough vitamin D. An adequate vitamin D level is imperative for calcium uptake. An inadequate level of vitamin D has been linked to many cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic fatigue to name a few. You can get some vitamin D through fatty fish and even through the sun however because most of us live and work indoors and wear sunblock you are likely not getting the recommended amounts. Consider getting your vitamin D level checked to assess the need for extra supplementation.
The overall lower carbohydrate content of the diet can also mean an inadequate supply. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discuss that eliminating whole grains is not the answer to ending chronic disease and promoting weight loss. Not only does this limit important vitamins and minerals needed but can also cause depleted glycogen stores. This can particularly concerning for athletes that want to follow a Paleo diet as it can lead to overall lower energy levels and less than optimal performances.
A true Paleo diet is going to be very hard to sustain. We live in a society where it is just not possible for us to eat exactly like our ancestors ate. Meats like wild game are not as readily available to us as most of our meat consumption has been domesticated. Our plant food has been processed rather than grown in the wild, and purchasing wild caught fish, grass fed meat and organic fruits and vegetables can become very costly. At best, one can only follow a modified version of the original “caveman” diet.
Another concern is, could we have it all wrong? Some experts that have studied our ancestor’s hunter-gather diets are now saying that they actually followed a more plant-based diet rather than animal based. Meat was a rare treat therefore they thrived mostly on fruit, vegetables, nuts, and berries.
While the Paleo diet has some great aspects, it also has some concerning limitations that make it yet another diet that make it hard to sustain as well as can lead to a risk of several nutrient deficiencies if not properly and adequately supplemented.
By Alyssa Werner, MS, RD, CDE, LD