The Paleo Diet: a Review
The Paleolithic/Paleo diet may also be referred to as the caveman diet. It is a modern adaptation of the eating pattern thought to have been consumed by ‘Stone Age’ hunter-gatherers. The Paleolithic time period or era ended about 10,000 years ago. It preceded modern agriculture and covered a time period of nearly 2.5 million years. While a true Paleolithic-era based diet, in theory, would be healthy, emphasizing very lean, organic meats, root vegetables and wild plants, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate such a diet today. The modern offshoot of this diet is low in carbohydrates, averaging about 23 percent of calories from carbohydrates but higher in protein (19 to 35 percent of calories). The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for carbohydrate recommended according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) is 45 to 65% of total calories. Higher carbohydrate versions of the Paleo diet, more authentic versions, include consumption of root vegetables.
This diet first became popular in the mid-1970s. It was introduced to the public by a gastroenterologist named Walter Voegtlin. Since then it has been adapted and modified several times over. The premise of the Paleolithic diet (which is tied in with the concept of evolution) is that, because human genetics have not changed significantly since the beginning of the agricultural movement, it is an ideal diet for human health because it resembles that of our ancestors.
The current, modern, American or westernized diet is not in line with the diet of ‘cavemen,’ (centered around unprocessed, whole foods and lean meats) thus, the western diet is responsible for metabolic and physiological problems. These problems arise because the human body is unable to adapt, genetically, to contemporary, highly-processed foods. Paleolithic diet proponents claim that observational studies of certain populations (small-scale research) that subsist on a pre-agricultural traditional diet similar to those of the Paleolithic era suffer from fewer ‘diseases of affluence’ or ‘diseases of modern civilization’ and enjoy better health outcomes. There is very little by way of widely available and current scientific research that backs this philosophy.
Paleo Diet Food List
A “modernized” Paleolithic diet food list was essential as it had to include foods available to today’s consumers. This diet is composed mainly of fish, grass-fed meats, fruits and most vegetables, honey, eggs, roots and nuts. However, starchy tubers, such as potatoes, are not permitted because they require cooking. Paleo diet proponents strongly recommend consuming vegetables raw, uncooked. The reason the recommendations are to consume grass-fed versus grain-fed beef is because cows that are able to graze on pasture, a diet natural to them, yield meat that contains less total and saturated fat but has higher omega-3 fatty acid content. Thus, grass-fed beef is thought to be healthier. This is actually true regarding the fat composition of beef from grass- versus grain-fed cows.
This low-carbohydrate diet excludes grains, processed oils, salt and refined sugars but allows you to consume small amounts of legumes, whole grains, dairy products and some food additives, such as artificial sweeteners. Some versions of this diet encourage consuming organic foods. The problem with duplicating a true Paleolithic meal plan is that most foods consumed today were not available during that era. Opponents to the Paleolithic diet claim that some of the Paleo dietary recommendations and/or restrictions may harm health instead of benefit it and do not accurately reflect the features of true Paleolithic diets. In other words, it is a ‘fad’ diet.
Pros and Cons for Weight Loss
The Paleolithic diet was originally not designed to be a weight reduction diet. However, indirectly it may offer weight loss benefits as the higher protein content and allowed foods enhance satiety, or a feeling of fullness, according to a review of popular diets published in the Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition in 2005. According to the same source, the Paleo diet is similar in composition to other low-carbohydrate diets. You consume a higher percentage of calories from protein and, overall, take in fewer calories daily, particularly since so many foods are restricted. The average caloric intake on this diet is 1,450 calories, or between 1,200 and 1,700, at least a slight energy deficit for most individuals. Any calorie deficit is beneficial for weight loss over the long term. However, therein lies the problem. This restrictive and unusual diet composed of many raw foods and/or meals that require time to prepare is unrealistic for most Americans.
A US News & World Report from 2011, involving a panel of 22 experts, ranked the best diets for your overall health, ease of following and weight loss. Unfortunately, the Paleo diet ranked the lowest out of 20 diets evaluated. In a repeat survey this year (2012), the results were similar. The diet ranked in last place out of 24 diets. However, in all fairness, one of the panel experts pointed out that the ranking is for a modernized and modified Paleo diet. He stated that the modern Paleo diet is far from the true, authentic Paleo diet, which might be a very healthy and effective diet—composed of very lean, organic meats and wild plants. Duplicating this diet in today’s world is very difficult if not impossible.
- Bryngelsson S and Nils-Georg Asp. Popular diets, body weight and health: What is scientifically documented? Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition. 2005; 49 (1): 15-20. http://journals.sfu.ca/coaction/index.php/fnr/article/viewFile/1515/1383
- Cordain L PhD. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. Wiley; Revised Edition (December 7, 2010).
- U.S. News: Best Diets Overall (2011): http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-overall-diets