- Food Culture -

Pondering Paleo: Fad or For Real?

Tom Nikkola on the Paleo diet.

I always get a good laugh out of the Geico commercials and their slogan: “So easy a caveman can do it.” When it comes to nutrition, making it as simple as a caveman isn’t that much of a stretch. In fact, the “Caveman Diet,” also known as the Paleolithic diet, has continued to grow in popularity. Considered more of a lifestyle than an actual “diet,” there are some real potential health benefits with this Paleo way of living. In fact, you may be getting steered toward a Paleo diet without even knowing it. We’ll take a look at what it is, why it’s becoming so popular, and whether it’s something worth looking into.

The Original Human Diet?

Humans have been around for a LONG time; about 2 million years. For perspective, if a new generation was born every 25 years, that would be 80,000 generations! Although average lifespans were often shorter, it wasn’t because of heart disease, diabetes or other diseases we face today. Death was due to living in a much more dangerous environment. In fact, assuming humans could stay out of danger, their lifespans were long and their level of health was much better than we face today. If someone is still highly active and healthy in their 70s and 80ss today, we look at them as anomalies. Paleolithic experts say that wouldn’t be a surprise for our Paleolithic ancestors.

From what the evidence seems to suggest, our Paleolithic relatives ate a very different diet than we do today. However, we can learn a lot by avoiding some of the foods they didn’t eat. What does a Paleo diet look like? Not that different than what some of you may have read in Life Time Fitness’s Eat Well. Live Well. e-book. Foods focus on plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, some fruit and some starchy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds. Research indicates that grains were not a significant part of the diet. In fact, they didn’t appear in the diet until somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 years ago.[i] Interestingly, the human brain began to shrink shortly after our diets focused more on grains. Of course, the grains eaten back then were far different than the highly processed, sometimes genetically modified versions we eat today. Gluten was not a part of the diet, and it appears that dairy wasn’t either.

Why Is the Paleo Diet so Popular?

Is Paleo becoming popular because of its simplicity? Is it because it’s something different than many of the diets that rely on prepackaged foods and calorie counting? Is it because so many people notice they function and feel better on the plan? There’s probably a variety of reasons it’s gained so much popularity. Maybe the momentum was created because of its countercultural approach. Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt it’s gaining steam. Recently, Robb Wolf released his book called The Paleo Solution and Art De Vany released The New Evolution Diet. There’s also a cookbook written by Loren Cordain, one of the leading experts in Paleolithic nutrition, and triathlete Nell Stephenson now available, called The Paleo Diet Cookbook. A couple of other books our nutrition team often recommends are The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain and The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel.

Another appeal of the Paleo diet might be the fact that many people who follow a Paleo plan also seek out food sources that are more sustainable, more natural. As we’ve talked about in many previous articles, there are health and environmental benefits to eating grass-fed and/or pasture-raised meats and eggs, seeking out organically raised vegetables, wild-caught fish and other naturally raised foods. These types of foods are the cornerstone to the Paleo diet.

Does the Paleo Diet Really Work?

In the short term, a Paleolithic diet has been shown to improve blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles while decreasing insulin sensitivity. These changes take place even without a change in body weight.[ii] A smaller study recently showed a Paleo diet can have a positive impact on controlling hunger as well. It showed those who followed a Paleo diet had increased feelings of fullness and had a greater decrease in the hormone leptin when compared to the Mediterranean diet. Both groups were allowed to eat as much as they chose, but the Paleo group ate significantly fewer calories. Two groups were compared, one following a Paleo diet and the other following a Mediterranean diet. The Paleo group ate significantly fewer calories but expressed better feelings of satiety (fullness). Here’s the kicker: Both groups were able to eat as much as they chose from their allowed foods, yet the Paleo group ate a lot less and felt more satisfied![iii]

Whether the health, fitness and performance benefits of the Paleo lifestyle come directly from the Paleo foods remains to be seen. In general, people tend to eat a little more protein and fat, and less carbohydrate. The shift in macronutrients could contribute to the improved feelings of fullness, reduced calorie intake and the weight management benefits many people notice. It’s also possible that removing the gluten and dairy from people’s diets contributes to the benefits they see. Or, maybe it’s the shift away from relying on processed foods. Likely, any and all of the differences help improve health and wellness when compared to the standard American diet.

There’s a difference between going on a diet and making a diet part of one’s lifestyle. At the beginning of each New Year, countless numbers of diet books make the best-sellers list. Many of them focus on getting the weight off quickly or allowing people to eat whatever they want so long as they keep their calories or points low enough. A different approach is to stay away from certain foods that aren’t necessary in the diet and eat as much of the recommended foods as a person wants. It becomes more about the quality of the food instead of the quantity. There is a lot of evidence to show the Caveman diet might be the simple and smart approach we need to regain the health we were intended to have. After all, if people were to focus on working toward optimal health, keeping the weight off would most times be pretty easy. So easy, in fact, that cavemen actually did it!

[i] Karen Hopkins. Humans Made Flour 30,000 Years Ago. Scientific American podcast. October 19, 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=humans-made-flour-30000-years-ago-10-10-19

[ii] Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC Jr., Sebastian A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009;63(8):947-55

[iii] Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahren B, Lindeberg S. A Paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2010;7:85

Tom Nikkola is the Director of Nutrition and Weight Management at Life Time Fitness.

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