What’s up, Paleo?- Part 1

The Paleo diet is getting HUGE! Simply typing in the words “paleo diet” into a Google search yields just over 3.25 million search results!

Heck, on Amazon alone there are over 1500 different “paleo” books. Maybe they’re on to something here?

For the uninitiated, the paleo diet can be summed up here. Basically, it’s a trip in the way-back machine to how our Paleolithic ancestors probably used to eat. Instead of all the ultra-processed, genetically modified foods that make up a significant part of our diet here in ‘Merica there is a shift towards whole, natural, and organic foods.

Synonyms for the paleo diet include the caveman diet, primal diet, etc. Sounds kind of catchy, eh? In the blogosphere there are hundreds (if not thousands) of paleo pages including blogs on recipes, paleo tweaks, paleo principles, and probably support groups. Okay, I may have made that last one up but you’re getting the picture, paleo is getting big!

Paleo has even made it’s way into the mainstream media: see here, here, and here. Yahoo! health even put paleo as the number 20 in it’s top 20 weight loss diets (here) citing:

If weight loss is the goal, the Paleo diet will likely disappoint, in the judgment of our panel of experts. While they gave it slightly higher scores for short-term weight loss than for long-term, on the whole it was the least effective for weight loss of all 20 diets they reviewed.

To be fair, here is Dr. Loren Cordain’s response to this haterade here. Needless to say there’s quite a bit of angst when it comes to the paleo diet. Many health professionals are quick to denounce the paleo diet and it seems many fitness professionals are doing the same. Either it’s too extreme, too rigid, or not what they’ve been recommending so they write it off as just another fad diet.

Is dieting really this confusing?

On the other hand there are millions of people out there proclaiming paleo is the second (or maybe third) coming of Christ himself. “If you’re not paleo we don’t want you in our ranks!” This reeks of exclusivity. Everyone wants to be in the cool club. Five years ago paleo was underground and cool, whereas now paleo is going mainstream so all the “core” paleo folks are jumping ship so they can be part of the new cool club. This seems to be paleo + carbs, intermittent fasting, carb cycling or ketogenic dieting. Additionally, paleo is old-news so these bandwagoners need to hop on whatever is going to get their site more hits, something to pump up their clients, or spur their progress because “paleo didn’t work for me.”

The problem as I see it is that most people honestly have no idea what paleo really is and how it differs from conventional nutritional “wisdom”. To be frank, paleo is just a framework for how to choose high-quality foods that suit your current body composition, desired results, and palate – among other things. Paleo is NOT low-carb, by definition, nor is it a high-protein diet, high fat diet, or any other qualifying term you can conjure up unless it happens to be high-quality. Is paleo healthy? Well that all depends, on your choices of course, and how you define health.

What is a healthy diet to you? Phrased another way, what do you want to get out of a healthy diet? Is it important to you that your blood lipid panel measures are within normative ranges? Is it important that your A1C, blood sugar levels, or C-reactive protein levels improve? Do you simply just want to lose body fat? Do you have a chronic disease (autoimmune or similar) that you’d like to treat or manage via dietary intake?  What is it that you desire to achieve by changing your lifestyle in this regard?

I’d wager that most people would like to not only treat/manage their pathology (if they have one) but also lose body fat and this would be wonderful if they could do it from simply changing their diet. So what is this crazy paleo diet and is it a good idea? Are you ready for the sheer insanity of this diet’s recommendations? Can you handle it? Be prepared…..

You can't handle the truth!

The paleo diet recommends that instead of relying on fortified grains, dairy, and legumes that you shift to eating more organic/grass-fed meats, tubers, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and quality oils. I know, I know, this is just insanity! How could we possibly believe that eating organic sweet potatoes over synthetically fortified and processed wheat bread is a viable option? How can we rationalize that eating more fresh fruits and vegetables in conjunction with high quality cuts of meat (with improved omega 3 status and increased mineral/vitamin content) is possibly a healthy choice? How can the American public possibly be duped by the idea that cutting out processed carbohydrates, sugary foods, and chemically enhanced frankenfood and replacing them with tubers, raw nuts, and oils is worthwhile?

Oh wait…..

So paleo is recommending that we increase the quality of our food greatly and titrate the specific composition of the diet depending on our own goals and current status (body fat, hormonal, training, etc)? Sounds like the best thing I’ve heard in awhile. This freedom within the scope of high quality food raises the bar for 99.9% of most people’s nutrition, if you actually do it.

Here’s what paleo is NOT. Paleo is not making a bunch of “treats” with almond flour, coconut flour, agave nectar, and dark chocolate and being able to get away with it (body composition wise) by calling it paleo. That’s still a calorically dense, high energy meal and that probably won’t help you lose the body fat- although it will probably feel better on your gut than a tub of Ben N’ Jerry’s. Paleo is not bacon at every meal, almond butter four times a day, handfuls of nuts whenever you pass your desk during the day, or an excuse to devour 32oz grass-fed steaks for dinner every night. Nope, paleo is none of that. Paleo is merely at shift towards better food quality that you have to tweak to find the optimal air/fuel mixture to reach your goals. The cool thing about it is, however, that you can really do anything with the paleo diet that you want- and the even cooler thing is you can do it faster, easier, and with more support than any other way (hey- there’s a big blogosphere out there, you’ll find your niche).

You’ll most likely have to do some leg work (or ask us) to find the optimal blend of paleo foods to get you where you want to go but it’s honestly ridiculous that anyone with a modicum of education would “poo-poo” on the paleo diet because it replaces breads, pastas, and grains with tubers, veggies, and fruits. It would also be ridiculous to crucify the paleo diet for eschewing fortified milk and dairy products for other vitamin D rich foods like fish, eggs, meats and dare I say it- a bit of sun exposure. Finally, it just wouldn’t be accurate to call the paleo diet a “low carb”, “high fat”, or “high protein” diet because that’s just not the case. You can do the paleo diet and be skinny on the fat (lean meats + veggies/tubers/fruits), low or moderate in protein (more veggies/tubers/fruits + coconut/walnut/macadamian/olive oil), or even high carb (increased tuber, rice, and potato intake). Similarly, you can slice it any which way you want to suit your goals, all with really high quality, sustainable food. What’s to hate? In case you were wondering “Where will I get Vitamin X from in the paleo diet?” I’ll provide this link to Cordain’s research on vitamin, mineral, and nutritional content from a paleo eater versus a typical American diet. Hey it beats quoting 30 pages of nutritional biochemistry!

I haven’t even brought the best part of paleo to this argument though- the health benefits for those suffering from inflammatory and/or automimmune disease. I’ll save that for part two but you can cruise this page for more information on this aspect of the paleo diet….


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About thefitcoach

An aspiring physician, I've been involved in the strength and conditioning world for over 5 years now in a professional sense. I started this blog with some like-minded individuals to share our thoughts on training, nutrition, lifestyle, medicine, health, and everything in between.

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