I have to admit that when I started writing this blog, I already had some pre-conceived notions about the Paleolithic diet. Over the past few months I’ve seen a number of patients who reported being on the Paleo Diet and who’s cholesterol levels were on the rise. When I did a little more digging about their diets, they were all eating large quantities of red meat including bacon and deli meats, few legumes and whole grains. I wanted to see just what the Paleo diet was all about- surely it couldn’t be recommending that you eat bacon and eggs all day long?!
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleolithic diet aims to mimic the diet of humans before the agricultural revolution. It replaces dairy and grains with unlimited quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables, and emphasizes lean meats and seafood. The Paleo diet emphasizes protein because it has a higher thermic effect than fats or carbs (Cordain, 2011). That is, protein boosts your metabolism and promotes fullness more than vegetables or fat. The Paleo diet permits unlimited servings of vegetables and low glycemic fruits like apples, berries, broccoli, celery and spinach.
What Does the Research Show?
The Paleo diet hasn’t been around long enough to be widely researched or to have long term evidence of its viability and health benefits, especially when compared to diets like the Mediterranean Diet. However, there is research showing that the Paleo diet improves blood pressure, glucose tolerance and lipid profiles in healthy sedentary humans (Frassetto, Schloetter, Mietus-Synder, Morris, & Sebastien, 2009) and improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in patients with Type 2 Diabetes (Jonsson, et al., 2009).
So far the Paleo Diet sounds pretty good, right? Especially when you consider that the average North American diet is overloaded with sugar, salt, trans and saturated fats and has too heavy a reliance on wheat and dairy products. So where did my patients go wrong?
Problems with Paleo
The biggest thing that stood out for me while researching the Paleolithic Diet was how open to interpretation it is. There are contradictions and disagreements between various authors, not to mention the liberties that many patients take with the recommendations. Some authors allow diet sodas, some promote bacon, others say no tubers (yams, sweet potatoes) while others say yes to yams. Can meat choices include hamburgers? Grain fed or non-organic meats? Deli meats? How much meat do I eat? It should also be noted that our Paleolithic ancestors had high calorie intake AND were high calorie burners. This is not the case for many people today as exercise levels tend to be low in the general population, while our calorie intake has simultaneously increased.
The Paleo Diet can be useful for the right person when done well. For certain disease conditions this diet may be helpful. However I cannot say that everyone across the board should be eliminating whole grains, legumes and dairy and increasing their saturated fat intake, as suggested in the Paleo Diet.
When discussing any nutritional changes with my patients there are two basic questions I consider: are these changes sustainable and are they individualized to support this patients’ specific case? My focus is on whole foods, cooking from scratch and identifying and limiting foods that are not supportive to that individual’s health (eg: food sensitivities, inflammatory foods, etc). I am more interested in adding healthy foods, rather than eliminating whole categories of foods from your diet.
My approach to nutrition is really quite simple: roughly 50% of your plate should be vegetables, 25% lean proteins and 25% whole grains. Proper hydration, experimenting with new foods, and allowing yourself a treat here and there are also key components. And last of all, burn more calories than you take in. There are modifications that must be made to accommodate individual needs, but in general this is all you need to know in order to start making healthy food choices.
Dr. Briana Peddle ND
Naturopathic Physician, Acupuncturist, Bowen Therapist
Cordain, L. (2011). The Paleo Diet. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons Inc.
Frassetto, L., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R., & Sebastien, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from sonsuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr , 63(8): 947-55.
Jonsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahren, B., Branell, U., Palsson, G., Hanssson, A., et al. (2009). Beneficial Effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a rancomized cross-over pilot study. Cariovasc Diabetol , Jul 16; 8:35.