"I've heard some friends talk about the Paleo Diet. What's it all about? Is it a healthy option?"
The Paleo Diet is a dietary approach founded on two concepts: first, we should we should eat in a way that our Paleolithic bodyies are designed to eat, and second, the Industrial Revolution, among many other factors, changed the food supply drastically in ways that the human body was not designed to handle. This dietary approach has been around for many years and was popularized by Loren Cordain, PhD and more recently Robb Wolf.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
Whether or not there is archeological evidence of a Paleo diet is an intellectual conversation that could be hotly debated at great length, yet when one focuses on the foods included and excluded on the diet, one may begin to appreciate the similarities between the Paleo diet and other accepted nutritional concepts. First and foremost a Paleo Diet emphasizes unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, which is a grounding principal of the dietary approach. Vegetables, starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, wild fish and shellfish, and consciously considered poultry, beef, bison, pork and lamb are all included on the Paleo Diet. Processed foods, refined oils, grains, sugars, legumes, dairy and alcohol are excluded. To follow the Paleo Diet an element of mindfulness is required, as is preparing homemade foods. These are essential skills that everyone should develop.
Is the Paleo Diet a Healthy Option?
Yes, it is a healthy option, as is any dietary approach that is founded on these principals:
- Ample amounts of vegetables and fruit
- Nuts and seeds
- Wild fish
- Consciously considered animal foods
- Unprocessed foods
- Nutrient dense foods
- Mindful eating
- Cooking and preparing foods at home
It is the inclusion of these foods that makes the Paleo diet a healthy option. The Paleo diet also advocates heavily for inclusion of essential fatty acids and does not demonize fats and oils, which are key nutrients often lost with other health-conscious dietary approaches.
Not everything on a Paleo Diet is healthy. Like any dietary approach one must continue to eat mindfully and responsibly without extremes. For example, bacon is a food often touted as the reason why a Paleo Diet is not healthy. It’s an “allowed” food! How can the Paleo Diet be healthy if bacon is allowed??!! Thoughts like these are signs of a diet mentality, which is not healthy for anyone. Strict adherence to any diet or finding ways to eat low quality foods that still “fit” on the diet are sure signs of dysfunctional eating. If you find yourself stuck in a “diet mentality”, it’s time to check in with a dietitian/nutritionist that can help you sort through the heaps of nutrition information coming at you and help you find your way to balanced life.
Is the Exclusion of Certain Foods Important?
The exclusion of grain-based foods, refined sugars, refined oils and processed food is significant. In the US, the majority of grain-based foods consumed are processed breads, cereals, snacks and baked goods, which are heavily processed and typically contain added refined oils and sugars. Eliminating these foods is a shared concept among many dietary approaches and will move anyone into a nutrient-dense eating pattern.
The need for the exclusion of legumes, which can be incredibly nutrient dense, is debatable and should be discussed with a dietitian/nutritionist that could individualize a diet to one’s body and genetics.
Intolerances to dairy, gluten, soy and/or corn are very common, so elimination of these categories of foods will make many people healthier and happier. Additionally, these foods are nearly always consumed in processed foods. However, when these foods are consumed in their whole, intact forms, nutrient density is higher than in processed foods, so an individualized approach is best.
Who Does Well With A Paleo Diet? Who Does Not?
The Paleo diet treats many different common conditions and imbalances within the body. A generalized Paleo approach works well to support disturbances in the gut, food intolerances, imbalanced hormones, autoimmunity and disordered eating. However, when the Paleo Diet is treating these types of conditions, it must be considered a therapeutic diet meaning that the root cause of these imbalances needs to be identified and addressed for long-term benefit.
To do well with a Paleo Diet you must be open to eating organic foods, especially animal products, and be willing to think about what you eat and prepare your own foods.
It is difficult to maintain a Paleo Diet that is also vegetarian. However, the underlying premise of the Paleo Diet that emphasizes unprocessed foods could be applied to a vegetarian diet. In this case you could limit sugar and processed foods and allow unprocessed, intact grains such as brown rice and quinoa, along with unprocessed legumes such as beans, lentils, and whole soy products. Again, personalization is key to match food philosophy with physiology and genetics.
Can A Runner Get Enough Carbs On the Paleo Diet?
Yes. Root vegetables and tubers, such as yams, turnips, parsnips, and even white potatoes along with fruit are carbohydrate-dense foods that support the nutrient needs of runners. What is important to remember is the concept of unprocessed foods, so while roasted potatoes with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs fits nicely with the essence of a Paleo Diet, French fries and potato chips do not.
The spirit of unprocessed, whole foods is the string that ties many competing concepts together and provides a foundation upon which food choices are made. This is unique because it allows for inclusion of foods that at first glance are considered “off’ the diet. For example, over time many people develop their own set of guidelines, and I have worked with many people following a Paleo Diet who decide to include brown rice and quinoa in their “Paleo Diet”. Again, the foundation of a Paleo Diet is unprocessed foods, and while at the start the exclusions are severe, over time, when one fully appreciates the importance of unprocessed foods, a wider range of foods may be consumed.
Bottom Line: Does It Work?
In my experience, yes, the Paleo Diet “works”. Those who follow the spirit of the approach learn mindfulness, meal planning and cooking skills that are essential to healthy, balanced living. The intake of all vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other nutrient dense foods like avocado, olives, wild fish, grass-fed meats and whole eggs, tend to go up while the intake of processed grains and sugars goes down. Following the Paleo Diet or not, I find that people who make these types of adjustments to their diets experience an increase in energy, less joint/muscle pain, improved exercise performance, greatly improved digestion, reduced bloating, reduced cravings, and weight loss.
Hana A. Feeney, MS, RD is an open-minded, progressive dietitian that blends evidence based nutritional science with intuitive eating and cutting-edge functional medicine. Hana specializes in sport nutrition, digestive health, fertility, hormonal health and eating disorders. Visit http://www.NourishingResults.com to explore, read, cook and reach out! Contact Hana directly by phone at 520-429-3418 or via email at Hana@NourishingResults.com.
Please remember that the information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical or nutritional advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this article.