I read a recent article in a magazine from a personal training certifying body here in Canada. You cannot access it on-line unless you are a member; however, it was written by Dr. John Whyte and Aric Sudicky. The article was simply indicating that paleo is a very specific and strict type of diet for which there is no scientific evidence supporting that it is any better than other diets (ie. a conventional diabetic protocol) and in fact, it might be detrimental for you. I really have to pull myself together when I read this stuff because these types of articles are simply ignorant. I cannot understand if these authors truly do not research the topic prior to writing their piece, or if they are mainly trying to create controversy and attention by not including fully accurate information. Ultimately, it’s probably a bit of personal bias with lack of research. For instance, the article mentioned above references 3 studies that did not prove paleo to be beneficial, yet it did not mention the many more studies that support a paleo approach as very beneficial both therapeutically and for healthy people.
So, the purpose of this article is to:
- Truly outline what a paleo approach to diet includes, along with some descriptions of fringe “paleo” diets by what I call the paleo fanatics…not fantastics 🙂
- Outline the scientific literature supporting an ancestral paleo type diet as beneficial.
Classifying a Paleo Diet
First of all, diet is a terrible word for paleo. Most people see the word diet as a temporary thing that is not sustainable for a long period of time because it is too extreme or simply does not provide sufficient nourishment from a macronutrient (protein, carbs. fat) and micronutrient (vitamins/minerals) perspective. However, this idea of diet is not true paleo, at it’s fundamental level, paleo is meant to be a sustainable, individualized approach to diet and lifestyle, not a temporary fad diet. But before we get into that let’s talk a bit about the “types” of paleo diets out there. As with most things, you will see that in some of the below examples, people just take things way too far sometimes.
Raw Paleo (aka. Fire Scares Me Paleo)
Just as the name implies. These people eat everything, and I mean everything, raw, including meat. To be blunt, this type of extreme is down right ignorant. The development of fire and eventually it’s use to cook food was a significant evolutionary advantage and even suggested as the reason why our brains are much bigger than other primates. Um, looks like we are human because we cook our food. Cooking food basically predigests it and allows us to better absorb macronutrients and micronutrients (ie. calories, vitamins, and minerals). If we didn’t cook our food, we would not absorb the required amounts of vitamins and minerals required by our bodies and brains. Raw food does have it’s benefits (enzyme content for instance), but a fully raw food diet is not healthy, striving for a balance between raw and cooked food is best.
No Salt Paleo (aka. I Hate Food That Tastes Good Paleo)
This is another misguided version of paleo since it is well known that the human body needs a certain amount of sodium to simply stay alive. Actually, salt restriction has some pretty serious health consequences and there is no well documented benefit of sodium restriction below 2300 mg/day (1). In fact, sodium intake between 2500 and 6000 mg/day has been associated with most ideal health (2).
Vegetarian Paleo (aka. Not Paleo and just plain difficult)
These people are not Paleo…period. Without eating meat, they absolutely must eat non-paleo foods to get anything close to an adequate amount of protein. Such foods include beans, soy products, and more nuts than what would normally be recommended. I would also not recommend this if you are only doing it for believed health reasons. Animal rights beliefs are another story on their own.
Hardcore Caveman (aka. I, Caveman)
These are the people that hunt and gather their own wild and/or gardened food and water and shun modern aspects of society (possibly). While this may be ideal, it is not achievable, nor sustainable, for everyone in our modern world. Good for these people but we are not all like this.
Mexican Paleo (aka. I Love Tacos Paleo)
Basically, these people eat a standard paleo diet but eat corn and well cooked beans in varying amounts. Preferably organic non-GMO in the form of tacos, burritos, or fajitas 🙂 FYI, real traditional Mexican food is awesome! I also may have made this classification up?
Lacto-Paleo (aka. Swiss Paleo)
This one is pretty straight forward. These individuals eat mostly paleo foods except they also eat whole milk, and traditional dairy products such as raw milk, kefir, yogurt, aged cheeses, etc.
Fermented/Soaked Grain/Bean Paleo (aka. Weston A. Price…but paleo people don’t know what that means)
Hop on over to the Weston A. Price website and take a look around. This is an evolutionary/ancestral approach to diet and lifestyle similar to Paleo except they include soaked/fermented grain/bean foods as well as whole raw milk foods. Not too shabby if you ask me, but who has the time to soak and ferment this stuff?
Ketogenic Paleo (aka. Carbs Kill You Paleo)
This is one of the more popular versions of a paleo diet and you have most likely heard of a ketogenic diet before. In this diet people strive to eat below about 50 grams of carbs/day, and on a ketogenic paleo diet, the food is just paleo foods (meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds). While this approach may be misguided for some people, it can actually be very therapeutic in certain instances (ex. neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, metabolic syndrome/obesity); however, it still may not be healthy as a long term intervention depending on the medical condition and goals of the individual. Some healthy people do really well on very low carb diets and some do not. The takeaway here is that not everyone who is “paleo” is ketogenic or ever low carb for the matter.
Primal (aka. Grok On)
A great diet and lifestyle approach started by Mark Sisson over at http://www.marksdailyapple.com/. Great approach and honestly, once you get into the nitty gritty of it all, almost identical to paleo with the inclusion of a very small amount of dairy (ie. cream).
Autoimmune Paleo (aka. I have a Legitimate Autoimmune Condition)
This is a very specific form of strict paleo, noted below, in which paleo type foods known to irritate the immune system are excluded. These foods include: nightshades (peppers, eggplant, potato, tomato. etc), eggs, nuts, seeds, and alcohol. This can be super helpful for some people with actual autoimmune conditions, but pretty restrictive, and probably not necessary, for those that don’t have an autoimmune condition. Autoimmune Protocol.
Strict Paleo (aka. 30 Day Elimination)
This is the traditionally thought of version of paleo, eating only meat, fish, vegetables (yes, including root vegetables), fruits, nuts, seeds, and some really dark chocolate (75% cocao or higher). This is a whole food, nutrient dense diet that eliminates foods that are toxic or irritating at some level for the majority of people (rancid seed oils, excess Omega 6, conventionally prepared grains, wheat/gluten, dairy, beans, soy, added sugars, chemical food additives, industrial processed foods, etc). Some people will stick to this 100 percent of the time into the foreseeable future and some may not. The original idea (of Robb Wolf that is), was to have this strict 30 day elimination protocol, followed by reintroducing certain foods into your diet to see if you can tolerate them. Foods like dairy, beans, and non-gluten containing grains. The idea was to eventually settle on a whole, real food diet that fits with your individuality while still continuing to eliminate those foods we really know are bad for everyone (industrial seed oils, trans fats, added sugar, gluten, chemical food additives, conventionally prepared grains, etc.).
Individual Paleo (aka. Holy Grail Paleo)
This should be the final diet step in the quest for health. As noted above, it is always suggested that paleo starts with the above “strict paleo” elimination period, otherwise your body will not be able to reach a baseline to then compare against when foods are reintroduced. Once you slowly begin to reintroduce certain foods, you can then determine what a healthy whole foods diet is for you. Maybe you resemble lacto-paleo, or mexican paleo, or primal, or Weston A. Price, or ketogenic paleo, or autoimmune paleo. Ultimately, the above approaches (minus the not healthy paleo versions) should usually assist the majority of people in reaching close to, if not, ideal health. Some people need more tweaks to really get things right and that’s when the assistance of a reliable medical practitioner may be needed.
To conclude this section, the paleo classification of a diet comes in many shapes and sizes depending on the person’s knowledge of ancestral diet and health, but here are some pretty common threads in the healthy paleo classifications:
- Wheat free
- Gluten free
- Industrial seed oil free
- Synthetic trans fat free
- Low Omega 6:3 ratio
- Chemical food additive free
- Soy free
- Mainly added sugar free (some honey and maple syrup)
- Mainly grain free
- Mainly bean free
- Mainly dairy free (unless it’s raw or fermented)
Basically it’s a whole food, nutrient dense diet that can come in many shapes and styles, particularly with regards to carbohydrate content and the type of real, whole foods eaten. Also, as alluded to above, the goal is not a temporary change in diet, but rather to settle on a sustainable, individualized “paleo” diet that is right for your biochemical individuality. It is not a diet, it is a lifestyle change.
Scientific Evidence for A Paleo Diet
Funny thing about people thinking paleo is just a fad diet is that the scientific evidence is really just beginning to surface. I mean there is plenty of irrefutable evidence available for specific parts of paleo. For instance, evidence for why gluten is bad for you, why a high Omega 6:3 ratio is bad for you, why synthetic trans fat is bad for you, why chemical food additives are bad for you, why some dairy products can be bad for some, why nutrient dense food is healthy, why saturated fat is healthy, why cholesterol is healthy, why meat consumption is healthy, why vegetable consumption is healthy, etc., etc. Unfortunately, there is not a huge amount of research looking at the paleo diet as a whole picture in comparison with biomarkers of health. However, over the past few years more studies are being published. So let’s Look at some of the available evidence in humans.
One 2013 study (3) looked at 13 participants that followed a paleo type diet and a conventional diabetic diet for 3 months. Following the 3 month period the participants completed forms regarding their experience with either diet. Survey’s revealed that the paleo diet scored higher for satiety, weight loss, and blood sugar control.
A study from 2014 (4) looked at a participant population of over 500 when comparing a mediterranean and paleo diet to the occurrence of colorectal polyps. Findings indicate that adherence to either of these diets reduces risk and incidence of colorectal polyps.
A study (5) on 13 diabetic patients from 2009 provided evidence that a paleo diet was superior to a diabetic diet in improving the following health biomarkers: Hemoglobin A1C (marker of blood glucose over a 3 month period), blood pressure, weight, waist circumference, blood triglycerides, BMI, and C-reactive protein (a marker of systemic inflammation). The study did note an increase in LDL cholesterol; however, we now know this is not an accurate marker of heart disease risk, and with the other benefits seen, disease risk would have been significantly reduced with the paleo intervention.
Another study from 2009 (6) looked at 11 healthy participants following a paleo diet for only 3 weeks and found significant improvements in the following health biomarkers: blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, blood lipids (including LDL), and all this improvement was in the absence of weight loss. Meaning that the positive effects seen on a paleo diet are not simply due to weight loss, there are other factors at play.
Aside from the above noted clinical trials utilizing a paleo diet, there are a few literature review articles (7, 8, 9) outlining the evolutionary and scientific reasons as to why a paleo diet may be ideal for optimal health as well as citing some of the clinical studies supporting this opinion. Furthermore, these review articles explain that there is no scientifically supported risk associated with adherence to a paleo type diet, and with all the possible benefits it is very likely a good choice.
Is The Paleo Diet A Fad?
Well, the answer to this question is NO! And actually, some version of a true paleo or ancestral diet (like Weston A Price) is likely our best bet for ideal health. Each individual’s diet will look different based on what works for them, but an ancestral diet framework is the ideal starting place. Does this mean that paleo is the solution to all chronic health problems?…no, but it can be a huge step in the right direction for many people.
So, next time you read some ignorant article about how paleo is a fad, or unhealthy, or not supported with any science, you will now understand that the author did not do their research and had significant bias. Clearly I have a bias too :-), but I have also done my research and am not blindly following this lifestyle without evidence to support it.
The Barefoot Golfer