The Paleo Diet, or Caveman Diet, is gaining momentum in the fitness world as a healthy way to lose weight. My trainer is all about the Paleo Diet — a meal plan based on the dietary habits of our Paleolithic, cave-dwelling ancestors. We're talking wild game, meat, and seafood, and vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts. What you won't find as part of the Paleo Diet are foods that developed during the agricultural and industrial eras like grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugars, and any other processed foods.
Given the Paleo Diet's low-carb leanings, it makes sense that it's gaining popularity as an effective way to lose weight. On the calorie meter, protein, vegetables, and fruit give a lot of bang for the buck, and the elimination of grains, refined sugars, and legumes can dramatically drop a person's daily calorie intake. The big question is whether or not the Paleo Diet is healthy and can be sustained for the long run.
Despite its growing popularity, the focus and underlying philosophy of the Paleo Diet is not weight loss. Developed in the '70s by a gastroenterologist, the Paleo Diet is touted for improving a person's general overall health. Paleo Diet proponents say the human body has not evolved to handle the foods developed since the rise of agriculture, and, because of this, we've become more susceptible to health problems, especially digestive (IBS, indigestion, and both gluten or lactose intolerance, to name a few). To curb these disorders, it's argued that we need to move back to our hunter-gatherer roots. Both nutritionists and those in the medical field are split on the validity of this argument, and making the merits of this back-to-nature diet fuzzier are numerous studies, which show support for both sides.
Evolutionary arguments aside, weight loss has been a common (and sometimes welcomed) side effect of those following the Paleo Diet. Let's be real, when's the last time you saw a cave painting of a fat Neanderthal? Studies continue to show that a diet high in protein and low in carbs is optimal for weight loss, and, unlike the bacon-fueled low-carb diets of the '90s, the Paleo Diet promotes a wide range of healthy proteins without being too meat-centric. Since hunting and fishing are not viable options for most of us, the emphasis is put on store-bought grass-fed meat, wild seafood, and organic eggs. Compared to factory-farmed meat, grass-fed is leaner, free of antibiotics and hormones, higher in omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids, and less likely to carry E. coli strains. While all fruits and veggies are allowed (unlike earlier versions of the Paleo Diet), it's encouraged to avoid fruits with a high glycemic index rating. Besides animal protein sources, fats in the Paleo Diet come from seed-, vegetable-, and nut-based oils and fruits like avocado and coconut. What the Paleo Diet does continue to exclude are dairy, grains and pseudograins (like quinoa), legumes, starchy vegetables, processed foods, fruit juice, refined sugars, and high-sodium foods. Beyond weight loss, the Paleo Diet may also be a good elimination diet to follow if you're looking to see if you have any sensitivities to gluten or dairy. (Make sure to reintroduce gluten and dairy slowly so you can see how it may or may not affect you.)
In terms of sustainability, I'm on the fence, mostly given the incredible benefits of whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy. There are some approaches to the Paleo Diet that allow for a small amount of grains, but, even in these instances, the diet is no dairy and very low grain. If you do embark on the Paleo Diet, be diligent about eating high-fibrous, calcium-rich fruits and veggies and taking a multivitamin to help supplement the RDAs for nutrients (like vitamin D) that you may fall short of on the diet. It's also important to make sure you are getting enough calories since it's likely that calorie counts are going to be much lower when your diet is composed mainly of lean protein and plants. Like any restrictive diet, the Paleo Diet will require a little more thought when it comes to dining out or meal planning.
Has anyone out there tried the Paleo Diet? What did you think of the results?