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With each fad diet that comes along — seemingly every few months these days — there is an initial burst of hype, with media outlets all over the author and numerous stories that are trumpeting, “finally, we found the diet to address all of our health woes.” Though this is never true. Yet, some of the trendy diets do provide some sound advice; that advice though can be mixed in with countless ideas, which seem to have been generated to build excitement for new markets.
One of the latest crazes to hit the diet circuit is the Paleolithic movement — a diet that focuses on eating “how our ancestors ate.” It tries to emulate what early humans ate in the period before agriculture and the domestication of animals. That basically means a diet of meat and veggies — avoiding dairy, grains, legumes, processes oils, and refined sugar. The claim is that these modern, processed and selectively bred foods are partly responsible for the rise of modern-day health problems, like heart disease and obesity. The Paleo diet gained traction nationally around 2009, when it was championed by the growing workout campaign of CrossFit, which peaked in popularity around 2013.
“Some of the perceived benefits of the Paleo diet are weight loss, increased energy levels, and feeling better overall, likely from fewer junk foods,” says Torey Jones Armul, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The best part about going caveman is the focus on fresh, natural, and unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables, lean meats, healthy oils, and nuts and seeds. “Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber that supports gut health,” says Jones Armul. “Healthy oils and nuts and seeds also contain omega-3 fats, which are good for our hearts and bodies.”
Foods holding no nutritional value – empty calories – like crackers, chips, cookies, and simple carbohydrates contribute to excess weight and health problems; these foods are eliminated from the Paleo diet. When it comes to the Paleo diet, the emphasis is on protein and fat-containing foods that can help manage our appetite.
Ultimately, to get the full affect of the Paleo diet, you need to pair it with a rigorous workout routine. Most hardcore proponents of the diet suggest that training should not be the sole focus, instead, getting your body moving in natural ways in outside environments. This helps to stimulate the real world strains and stresses that our ancient ancestors went through to survive and stay healthy. The reality though is that it’s not a sustainable or achievable workout regime for most people. Completing CrossFit-type workouts that are focused on generic routines that use bodyweight and Olympic lifting are able to closely mimic the types of full body workouts that say, “taking down a mastodon.” Typical gym workouts of parking yourself on the treadmill for an hour or busting out some bench presses and leg presses are not encouraged. “In general though, simply creating an exercise plan that combines heart-healthy cardiovascular exercise with strength training for 30-60 minutes most days of the week, is all you need to see results,” says Jones Armul.
So, what’s the downside? Well, first off, many paleontologists have agreed that there was no specific “Paleo diet” that our caveman brethren followed. They probably just ate whatever was available to them — tough roots, lean animals, and thin grasses. “Society, food sources, and life spans have all changed dramatically over the past few centuries,” says Jones Armul. He adds that, “We must adapt and make choices now that support a healthy and balanced lifestyle.” The Paleo diet isn’t sustainable for everyone because it’s fairly restrictive and doesn’t allow for a lot of food flexibility, which is important for long-term, sustainable weight loss. A healthy eating lifestyle that focuses on plenty of real, whole foods with occasional indulgences is what most dietitians recommend.
“The greatest con of the Paleo diet is the exclusion of some extremely healthy foods like beans, whole grains, and low-fat dairy,” says Jones Armul. “All three of these foods are rich sources of many nutrients that can contribute to good health and long-term weight loss and weight management.” Choosing to follow a strict Paleo diet will leave you at a disadvantage of whole grains, beans, legumes, and dairy products — all of which are an excellent source of fiber, calcium, protein, and vitamins and minerals. “Another strike against the diet is that it can be very expensive, especially if you’re buying grass-fed meats or shopping in specialty stores,” says Jones Armul.
In the long run, an overly restrictive diet can be difficult to follow. Sustainability and adherence is key — can you stick with this eating style forever, especially in various social and eating scenarios? Research has shown that the greatest predictor of successful long-term weight loss isn’t the diet itself, but rather the ability of people to maintain the lifestyle. “The Paleo diet does have its merits and may show quick results, but I encourage my clients to follow an overall healthy lifestyle, which allows for greater food flexibility, a balanced relationship with food over the long-term, and incorporates foods that aren’t considered Paleo,” says Jones Armul.
Here’s a Paleo-inspired meal plan that mixes the best parts of caveman eating with modern world reality. Try to limit processed and packaged foods like chips, cookies, sodas, and white bread. “Simple carbs may be an efficient fuel source before or during a workout, since they provide short, quick energy,” says Jones Armul, “but this is also the reason they should be limited outside of workouts. Simple carbs don’t provide long-term energy or fill you up for long.”
Based on someone’s current weight, goal weight and exercise regimen, the recommended macronutrient ranges are 45-60 percent of total calories from carbohydrates (ideally half of which comes from fruits and veggies), 10-35 percent from protein, and 20-35 percent from fat.