Diets fads certainly come and go and it would be easy to consider the Paleo diet another one such ‘fad’ diet. I often hear people argue that ‘everything is healthy in moderation’ and ‘eliminating whole groups of foods is never a good idea.’
Whereas the name ‘Paleo’ may be new, the diet is anything but a fad. I like to think of it as ‘optimum human nutrition;’ it’s the diet our bodies adapted to eating a million years ago. We like to think that cavemen lived ‘short, brutish lives,’ but if the lifestyles of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are any indication, our ancestors enjoyed vibrate health; had lean, strong bodies (this is true according to anthropological data); and enjoyed plenty of leisure time, spending the equivalent of 15-20 hours a week hunting or gathering for their basic needs.
Rhetoric aside, I started recommending a Paleo diet to my patients after seeing the research- indications of how modern foods were eroding way our health and leading to chronic disease. At first, I didn’t know it even had a name, let alone a following. It was just the best foods to eat to facilitate health. When I first read about the Paleo diet, it all ‘clicked’ together and now I had a direction to send my patients in for recipes, meal sharing ideas, and community. More specifically though, here’s my list of the top 7 reasons I recommend a Paleo diet for my patients.
- It’s gluten-free, without all the junk. Before discovering Paleo, I prescribed a gluten-free diet for many of my patients. The problem was, they would eat the same foods, just gluten-free versions of them. Instead of swapping breads & pastas for more nutrient dense veggies and animal foods, they would simply fill up on gluten-free breads and pastas. Worse still, several thought that being ‘gluten-free’ made certain junk foods somehow healthier. Not only are these foods often even more heavily processed then their wheat-containing counterparts, it was missing the whole point of the gluten-free diet AND it was much more expensive for them. Paleo has been useful in teaching my patients to eat a more whole-foods diet.
- It eliminates cross-reactive foods. I’ve had several patients with Celiac disease who definitely felt better after going gluten-free, but still weren’t 100%, even after years on a strict gluten-free diet. Since other grains can cause gluten cross-reactivity, these folks found that they did much better not just eliminating gluten, but all grain products.
- It’s the ultimate elimination diet. When it comes to food allergies, the gold standard for testing is still an elimination diet. I hope one day we have easier & more convenient testing, but at the moment, this is not the case. One thing the food allergy testing via blood doesn’t take into account is that if your immune system is not functioning properly, you may or may not make the antibodies that will show up on the blood test. Some people are over-reactive. When I see an allergy test that has someone reacting to a lot of ‘normal’ foods like green beans or blueberries, I often suspect a leaky gut situation where the immune system is reacting to everything because the gut is not working properly as a barrier system. The Paleo diet eliminates all the common foods that would lead to a leaky gut, thereby facilitating gut healing. Since the gut lining will replace itself in 21 days (in a fairly healthy person), after a month of Paleo, we can reintroduce certain foods and usually get a pretty clear indication of which ones a person has an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity too.
- It can help balance blood sugar. Some people think Paleo is the same as low carb or Atkin’s. It’s not. You can do carbs on Paleo, the key is to find the right amount for you based on your health history and activity level. That being said, because carbs on the Paleo diet come from minimally processed, whole foods sources, its much harder to eat the same amount of carb contained in the S.A.D (Standard American Diet). A S.A.D., following the USDA food pyramid guidelines of 8-11 servings of ‘whole-grains’ a day, will have upwards of 300g of carb a day. Unless you are a marathon runner, this is probably way too much carbohydrate for you, especially if you have a job that has you seated most of the day. Conversely, a typical Paleo eater will take in an average of 75-100g of carb a day without paying too much attention to it. By lowering carbohydrate levels, the need for insulin and the dramatic swings in blood sugar are reduced. This helps most people have even energy throughout the day, without the typical after lunch food coma or the need for excessive amounts of coffee and caffeine to keep you going. Lowering carbohydrate intake and getting carbohydrate from whole food, vegetable sources can also reverse insulin resistance and even Type 2 diabetes, especially when coupled with appropriate exercise.
- It’s nutrient dense. We’ve all heard of people who have done crazy diets like an all Twinkie diet or all McDonald’s food diet and lost weight, but at what cost? These foods contain very little in the way of micronutrients and even if the body isn’t starving for calories, it will be starving for these missing nutrients. Since a Paleo diet focuses on eating the most nutrient dense of whole foods, many people easily meet their body’s need for micronutrients in far fewer calories then with a diet based on processed foods.
- It doesn’t require a bunch of fancy or hard to find super foods. ‘Superfoods’ have become quite the fad lately and many of us seem to think that adding some acai or goji berry to our daily smoothie will forgive a multitude of nutritional ‘sins.’ Variety is key however, especially when it comes to plant foods. It is also helpful to remember that antioxidants, especially those in so called ‘super foods,’ follow a dose-response curve- too little isn’t good for you, but neither is too much. Overloading on super foods not only hurts you by luring you into a false sense of security about the quality of your diet, but also potentially hurts your wallet as you pay more for the marketing and fancy package then actual nutrition. It’s best to stick with nature’s original ‘super foods,’ grass fed butter or ghee and organ meats from grass fed animals.
- It’s easier to stick to then a starvation diet. I encourage my patients to eat!!! If it’s a whole food, eat as much as you want. You have to feed your metabolism, both for healing and for fat loss. The main reason typical ‘diets’ (such as calorie-restricted, starvation type diets) fail is that the body’s response to calorie-restriction is to slow metabolism down, ensuring that while you may lose weight temporarily, this effect won’t last. Aside from yo-yoing numbers on the scale, this is not the way to build true health. By feeding the body nutrient dense, whole foods, not only does it keep metabolism humming along, but it gives you freedom- freedom from counting calories, obsessing over food grams and the like.
In the end, I have yet to have a patient who gave it an honest go tell me, “Doc, this Paleo diet thing sucks. I’m quitting.” More often then not, my patients tell me “I feel fantastic! I wish I would have listened to you before and started this Paleo gig sooner!” Which I guess could be reason #8 why I recommend a Paleo diet to my patients- it works!
If you’re local to the Hudson Valley and already a Paleo enthusiast, I’ve started a Paleo Meet-up group just for you! Come join us over here!