The Paleo Diet
I’m sure by now, anyone reading this article will have at least heard of the Paleo diet. There can be some confusion about what the diet entails as well as some controversy about whether the diet is healthy or unhealthy. It was only quite recently (2001) when Loren Cordain, published ‘The Paleo Diet’, that it began to grow in popularity in America. Slowly but surely the diet spread across the world and by 2013 it had become the most Googled diet on the internet.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is a nutrient dense whole foods diet based on emulating the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It promotes the inclusion of quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds which provide an abundance of macro and micronutrients the body requires for optimal health.
Health is further improved by the exclusion of processed and refined foods which are known to be a contributing factor in the role of major chronic diseases like Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes (1).
Contrary to popular belief, the Paleo diet is not a meat centric diet but instead focuses on mostly plant-based foods with the inclusion of good quality animal protein such as wild salmon or grass-fed beef. A huge variety and an abundance of vegetables is encouraged along with quality meats, fruit, eggs, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, probiotic and fermented foods, and herbs and spices.
All grains (including gluten free), most legumes, conventional dairy products (pasteurised non-organic), artificial sweeteners, industrial seed oils (e.g. Sunflower) and all processed foods are omitted as they can cause inflammation (2), hormone imbalances and digestion problems.
The Paleo diet is frequently scrutinized by certain media outlets as being a fad diet or unscientific when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps worse than this, is outdated information such as the alleged disease risk due its saturated fat and cholesterol content or the health risks tied to a lack of certain key nutrients (like calcium or carbohydrates). Fortunately, every Paleo principle is deeply rooted in the latest research and data and all these claims can be counterargued.
How can the Paleo diet improve health?
An increasing number of human trials of the Paleo diet are being conducted each year, yielding overwhelmingly positive results that demonstrate wide-ranging benefits, including improvements in cardiovascular disease risk factors, reduction in inflammatory markers, improvements in glucose tolerance, weight management and autoimmune disease (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
One large study showed that following a Paleo diet reduced all-cause mortality by 23 percent, comparable to the Mediterranean diet (8). Another study measuring glucose tolerance resulted in the Paleo diet outperforming the Mediterranean diet 26% v 7% (9). Every single study of the Paleo diet has shown benefits to health markers. And, there has not been a single adverse event reported among any human studies, including the 2-year long interventions (10) – this is ample time in nutrition studies for any adverse health events to occur.
The Paleo diet is fantastic for digestive health as it supports the growth of friendly bacteria using prebiotic foods that feed the good bacteria (starchy vegetables, artichokes, onions etc) and probiotic foods which contain good bacteria such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and kimchi. The avoidance of foods that are known to be potentially damaging or irritating to the gut (gluten, legumes) also benefit overall digestive health.
While the Paleo diet gleans its principles on the foods our early ancestors were eating, it is also backed up by the latest insight into biology, physiology, and biochemistry. The components that make up various foods, have thousands of scientific studies behind them which demonstrate their interaction with the human body and their potential for either causing us harm or promoting health. It is from these studies that the Paleo diet bases its core principles.
Unlike other diets, there is a certain amount of flexibility allowed depending on individual tolerances. For example, some people choose to include high quality dairy, white rice and potatoes as part of a Paleo diet, and ultimately it comes down to how a food makes you feel or how it reacts with your unique biochemistry.
Paleo isn’t a quick-fix fad diet, rather a way of life that encompasses physical activity, good sleep, and relaxation to promote overall health. The ethos of Paleo allows for some flexibility along the way by following the 80/20 rule, but most people following the Paleo diet aim to avoid the most inflammatory foods such as wheat, soy, peanuts, pasteurised dairy, and processed food.
I haven’t touched on weight loss yet as this isn’t the purpose of the Paleo diet. Unlike many other diets there isn’t an emphasis on calorie intake or counting specific macronutrients, yet many people still lose weight effortlessly by adopting a Paleo way of eating and this is mainly due to the positive effect the diet has on hormones. By consuming whole foods and reducing sugars and refined carbohydrates from the diet, insulin and leptin begin to normalise, resulting in less hunger, less food intake and natural weight loss. When people normalise their weight on Paleo, they can maintain it effortlessly even when veering off the diet occasionally.
Certain foods that are permissible within the Paleo diet may be problematic for individuals with chronic health issues like autoimmune diseases. This is where an adapted version of the Paleo diet called the AIP (Autoimmune Protocol) can be helpful in identifying problematic foods. Additionally, there are foods which fall into the ‘grey area’ (e.g. eggs) that may need to be excluded temporarily from the diet and then reintroduced to gauge how a person reacts to that particular food.
As a Nutritional Therapist who deals with digestive disorders and autoimmune conditions in my own clinic, the Paleo diet and AIP diet can be miraculous in reversing disease markers and greatly improving a person’s overall health. Although I believe the Paleo diet is the best overall diet for maintaining health, there isn’t any one diet that can be applied to a general population. For this reason, I always consider a client’s past and current health, as well as their goals, before recommending a tailored nutrition plan.
If you would like to work 1-1 with me to develop a personalised nutrition plan for you, please contact me using the link in my bio to the right of this blog.
- Monteiro, Carlos A. Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public Health Nutrition; Cambridge Vol. 12, Iss. 5, (May 2009): 729-31.
- De Punder K, Pruimboom L. The Dietary Intake of Wheat and other Cereal Grains and Their Role in Inflammation. Nutrients. 2013;5(3):771-787. doi:10.3390/nu5030771.
- Blomquist C, et al. “Attenuated Low-Grade Inflammation Following Long-Term Dietary Intervention in Postmenopausal Women with Obesity.” Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 May;25(5):892-900.
- Boers I, et al. “Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled pilot-study.” Lipids Health Dis. 2014 Oct 11;13:160.
- Bligh HF, et al. “Plant-rich mixed meals based on Palaeolithic diet principles have a dramatic impact on incretin, peptide YY and satiety response, but show little effect on glucose and insulin homeostasis: an acute-effects randomised study.” Br J Nutr. 2015 Feb 28;113(4):574-84.
- Bisht B, et al. “A multimodal intervention for patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis: feasibility and effect on fatigue.” J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):347-55.
- Jönsson T, et al. “Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study.” Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009 Jul 16;8:35.
- Whalen KA, et al. “Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in Adults.” J Nutr. 2017 Apr;147(4):612-620
- Lindeberg S, et al. “A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.” Diabetologia. 2007 Sep;50(9):1795-807. Epub 2007 Jun 22.
- Mellberg C, et al. “Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar;68(3):350-7.