It's one of the most popular 'diets' around at the moment, with special cook books filled with 'paleo-friendly' pancakes and brownies covering the recipe section of our book stores...but what is paleo? What's it about? Why do it? Who does it work for, and what we can learn from it?
In short, it's most commonly thought of as the 'caveman' diet; eating only REAL foods that were around in our ancestral, hunter-gatherer times. In reality, this means no processed foods, no dairy, no grains or legumes.
It does get a bit more technical. Going back to the original Paleo diet, popularised by Dr Loren Cordain in the US, the idea is that it uses "everyday, modern foods to mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors", with the aim to "optimize health, minimise chronic disease, and lose weight" through it's founding principles.
1. High Protein - A Paleo diet is around 20-35% protein, compared to a typical modern diet that tends to be around 15%. So far so good... Protein is the key macro-nutrient for optimising recovery, weight loss and metabolism (read all about why in this post on Nutrition Basics)
2. Lower Carb - The only carbs consumed on a Paleo diet come from non-starchy fruit and veg, to account for around 35-45% of total intake. Despite not consuming grains, fibre intake should remain high due to the amount of fruit and veg consumed.
3. Moderate to high fat intake - But not just any fats. The true Paleo way is to eat an optimal balance of omega 3+6 fatty acids, and primarily mono and poly-unsaturated fats to cut the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the modern day diet, most people consume far too much inflammatory omega 6 and not enough anti-inflammatory omega 6, which comes from oily fish and some nuts and seeds. Strictly speaking, produce should be organic, and meat grass-fed to ensure optimal omega-3 intake and cut out unnatural chemicals.
4. Overall alkaline balance - By consuming more alkaline foods such as fruit and veg, than acid causing foods such as dairy, grains, meat and legumes, you reduce the risk of health issues associated with acidity. These have been shown to include kidney stones, high blood pressure and loss of bone and muscle mass, and possibly even aggravating asthma.
5. An abundance of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals, by consuming a variety of whole foods, fruit and vegetables. Can't argue with that!
Any diet that advocates eating real, single ingredient, nutrient dense food is a positive thing. So many dietary and health problems of the modern world come from the highly processed food we are so used to eating, that's often high in caloric value but low in nutrient value. Eating a good balance of real food, learning how to cook with real ingredients and filling your body with all the nutrients it needs to perform at it's best and make you feel amazing is so key; not only to weight management but also being fit and healthy, inside and out.
The Paleo diet can also be a great basis for repairing a damaged gut, and the numerous health problems that we now understand to be linked to poor gut health - inflammatory bowl diseases (IBS, bloating, leaky gut...you get the picture), allergies, liver problems, obesity. Even mental health and psychological problems are increasingly being linked to gut health - Parkinson's, depression and anxiety to name a few. The modern lifestyle can lead to a lack of healthy microbiome (the "good bacteria" in your gut), through the use of anti-biotics, medicines, oral contraceptives and other such things. This can increase sensitivity to potentially irritating substances such as dairy and gluten, meaning consuming these is effectively throwing petrol on the fire. By cutting out many of the common problem-causing foods such as dairy, gluten, alcohol and sugar, it gives the gut a chance to heal and start functioning effectively again - absorbing the good stuff and keeping everything else moving along.
If you are looking for further information on gut health and how it can effect a multitude of health problems, I would suggest reading 'Gut' by Giulia Enders, and listening to this podcast with gut expert Dr Tom O'Bryan. On a side note, if you are worrried about any serious, chronic problems, it's always a good idea to see a doctor or specialist.
The other benefit to the Paleo diet is a high protein intake. The typical day of food is eggs for breakfast, salads with veg, nuts and meat for lunch, and more meat and veg for dinner. Snacks should be fruit, veg, nuts or trail mix. This will inevitably mean a higher protein intake if you're used to cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. This is important for many bodily functions including growth and repair (especially important when exercising), hormone function, and preventing the breakdown of metabolism-enhancing muscle tissue. Protein combined with a high fibre intake from veg should also help to keep you full which can so often be a problem when dieting to lose weight.
There is no accounting for calories on the paleo diet which, if you're looking at it for weight loss, may mean running into problems. Eating whole, healthy foods is a fantastic way to kick start fat loss, but will only get you so far. Once you're in the habit of eating good food, cooking meals from scratch, swapping your chocolate bar for some trail mix and the weight is starting to come off, you may find you need to start getting a bit more specific about your nutrition. You might find you're eating all the 'right stuff', but that your weight loss slows and plateaus, at which point we need to consider energy in vs energy out. Are you eating too much, or not enough? Are you getting sufficient protein? This is when tracking food intake, or at least looking at portion control can be a vital tool for lasting success. Ultimately, to lose weight and keep it off, you need to learn how much food your body needs.
In a similar way, another problem with the Paleo diet comes about when you start to bend the rules a bit. You're not eating dairy, grains or legumes so you can eat as much of everything else as you want right? Right. But if you're eating spoonfuls of coconut oil out the tub and getting through an entire bag of cashews for your mid-morning snack, you're going to start gaining weight simply due to increased calorie intake, no matter how 'healthy' it is,
My final issue with Paleo is the restrictive nature of it. I might sound like a broken record here, but any restrictive diet will ultimately fail because it's just not sustainable. It's difficult to stick to for the long term in the real world, and still live a normal, sociable life. Falling spectacularly off the bandwagon then leaves you feeling guilty and down about yourself, and so you punish yourself with more restriction; it's not a happy cycle to be in. Read more about why diets work but ultimately fail in this blog post.
Should I go Paleo?
With diets and nutrition concepts, there is always a need for trial and error. Some popular diets have some great ideas, and certain controversial nutrition concepts can be used as really valuable tools for sticking to a healthy nutrition plan. My method is to try things, keep what works and discard what doesn't, building your own optimal nutrition plan over time.
It will always depends from person to person as each body is unique, with differing needs. I can't argue with the main Paleo principle of eating whole, nutrient dense, real food, and would encourage everybody to do so. If you suffer from digestive issues it can also be a great way to find out what the root cause it, by removing potential irritants and then tracking what happens when you add them back in one by one.
What I don't agree with is cutting out food groups when there is no need, such as grains or dairy, and I certainly don't advocate forbidding yourself treats every now and again. Fab Giovanetti of the Health Bloggers Community says:
"I have tried various approaches since I became more conscious about my heath, and paleo was surely one of those. Probably the one I resonate with the most. However, I am never 100% anything. It can be because I am aware my body changes and craves different things, or also because I do not like dogmatism around food.
As most communities, the paleo community has its pros and cons. Ultimately, I like the focus on veg and meat, as long as it's sustainable and ethically sourced. This is what made it stand out for me."
Fab - fabgiovanti.com
Paleo may be good way to start getting into healthy habits and fuelling fat loss, but a strict Palaeolithic diet may be too big of a step if you're not used to eating that way at all. Perhaps a more 'relaxed' approach, aiming for a 80/20 balance might be a better option. Sadly, there's no one magic fix, but I hope that by learning the truth and concepts behind dieting concepts I can go some way to helping you find your optimal nutrition plan, to make you feel your best!