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“Does the Paleo Diet Work?”

Whenever it’s announced in the media that “earth hour” is going to be observed, I’m one of those people who’s baffled by the whole idea. Mankind has gone from living in caves and eking out a brutal existence of nomadically hunting down food – to creating incredible achievements that not only lengthen life, but make the living of it vastly more comfortable, fun, and interesting. The earth hour observance is like a slap in the face of humans for their accomplishments – asking us to turn out the lights in some sort of shame for the power that prevents us from having to light a fire just to stay alive.

Sometimes I wonder if a tinge of the same misanthropic undercurrent is at work with the recent popularity of ‘the Paleo Diet.’ On the one hand, I won’t deny that there are some people with allergic reactions to gluten who are better off staying away from grains. On the other hand, there are individuals who seem attracted to the diet simply because it implies mankind made a wrong turn in becoming agricultural; that technological advancements allowing humans to grow and store food instead of scavenging for it were somehow “bad.”

So before I even address the question “does the Paleo Diet Work”, I’ll admit upfront to having a bias for agriculture; I love grain, I love oats and bread, I love the barley in the occasional beer I’ll drink. And I love the advancements by our predecessors that make it possible to pick food up from the store rather than spending most of each day hunting it down.

With that said, let’s discuss the issue ‘does the Paleo Diet work.’

‘Does the Paleo Diet Work?’ First… “What is The Paleo Diet?”

Basically, the Paleo Diet, or “caveman diet”, is one that eliminates foods that can be grown on a farm in favor of only those that would be hunted or gathered from the wild. It transports adherents back to a presumably primitive diet – confined to meats, seafood, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts. Eliminated from their menus are rice, cereal grains, potatoes, corn, legumes, vegetable oils, milk, and… of course… refined sugar and processed foods.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? HiRes

Okay… my bias (and sarcasm) is coming through. Back on topic: The theory behind Paleo eating is that our bodies are designed for it through two and a half million years of evolutionary accustoming; only about 11,000 years ago did someone get an idea to plant a seed; that’s the estimated date of remnants from the earliest farms. I guess we’re to buy into the idea that a few thousand years isn’t enough time for bodily adaptation to man-grown food? Okay… maybe.

The Paleo Diet is so named for the Paleolithic period which occurred between about 2.6 million BC and 10,000 BC. The 12,000 years or so since that time is referred to as the Neolithic period; we’re thus said to now engage in “Neolithic eating.” And though it’s pretty hard to know for certain of all that humans were eating during the Paleolithic time, proponents of the “caveman diet” seem pretty sure of what prehistoric man was NOT eating, and that includes such healthy foods as 100% whole grains and oats. Even such nutritious staples as sweet potatoes are banned from the list of the most orthodox of Paleo Diet enthusiasts.

So what are the allowable foods in this eating plan? Here’s an abbreviated list:

  • Lean meats (including game meat and organ meat)
  • Skinless poultry
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs (in moderation)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds

The following is a basic list of what’s completely avoided on the diet:

  • Cereal grains: wheat, oats, and barley
  • Corn and rice
  • Grain-like seeds: amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa
  • Legumes
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Milk (all dairy products)

… And the following are foods that can be consumed in moderation:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Wine
  • Dried Fruits
  • Oils (olive, avocado, walnut, flaxseed)

The items that are allowed on the diet can be grilled, roasted, sautéed, or cooked in any other “healthful manner” (I guess that leaves out micro-waving? :- )

As you can see, the parameters of this eating plan are pretty basic and understandable. ‘But does the Paleo Diet work?’

And where’d the idea come from, anyway?

“Does the Paleo Diet Work”; as always… “Work” needs to be defined

So ‘does the Paleo Diet work?’

That depends on what a person’s objective is in adopting it. Obviously, if someone’s allergic to grain (gluten sensitivity), they have a lot of well-being to gain by implementing a Paleo-type diet. But the portion of population that suffers from this allergy is estimated by some doctors to be only around 6 to 7%. For those who fall in this category, elimination of grains would provide digestive relief similar to that of lactose intolerant individuals who dump their milk consumption.

 

Caveman_Diet 
'Caveman Diet': Does it "work" long-term or will it eventually just have you craving some grains?

 

But ‘does the Paleo Diet work’ for losing body fat and “getting ripped?”

This is where a bit more specificity in thinking should be applied. If a person cuts calorie intake simply by going on the Paleo Diet, they’ll obviously lose fat over time. And many people like the idea of losing fat by categorically eliminating certain food groups; it’s clear-cut and easier than constantly monitoring calories.  This was much of the reason for popularity of ‘The Atkins Diet’; “just show me the groups of food to stay away from and I can follow that.”

But the fact remains that fat loss can be accomplished by cutting calories without eliminating foods on the ‘banned list’ of the Paleo diet. In fact, one has to wonder just how much Paleo Diet success is attributable to simply banishing the most sugary and processed of foods – something done just as successfully by dieters who still eat such so-called “Neolithic foods” as oat meal, brown rice, and wheat bread.

Some people on the Paleo diet, however, will answer positively to the ‘does the Paleo Diet work’ question with nearly religious fervor. This fervent belief in the plan is shared by the person probably most credited with launching its current popularity with release of his nearly decade-old book.

‘How’d The Paleo Diet Start?’

The earliest book on Paleo eating is probably The Stone Age Diet by Walter L. Voegtlin. Its 1975 publishing marks the oldest release of an ancient diet (okay… bad play on words). The book introduced the idea that man is evolutionarily designed for carnivorous eating of mostly fat and protein with comparatively fewer carbohydrates. Voegtlin, a gastroenterologist, claimed to have treated a number of digestive problems in his patients by prescribing such a diet.

Since then, a number of papers and studies have been done on primitive-style eating. Some have garnered positive reviews and acclaim. But the release of ‘The Paleo Diet’: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat by Dr. Loren Cordain probably marks the beginning of its contemporary popularity. Dr. Cordain asserts that near-miraculous over-comings of auto-immune diseases, such as psoriasis, have occurred in some people who’ve strictly followed the Paleo eating protocol.

Another individual who’s popularized the primitive eating practice is Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy. In the book, along with his accompanying blog, Sisson claims Paleo eating as the answer to everything ailing us. He claims evidence that such a diet is biologically necessary for everything from achieving incredible fitness breakthroughs in less time to reducing risk of developing conditions like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

‘Does The Paleo Diet Work?’ My brief thoughts… with acclaim for Brown Rice and Oatmeal

Is all this a positive answer to the question “does the Paleo Diet work?”

While I’d say the sincerity and authenticity of such reports are anecdotally unarguable, I’d love to know the cause/effect relationship cited in these cases. If grain is so unhealthy, shouldn’t even the most anecdotal evidence be more pronounced and widespread? Instead, it appears relatively isolated and often reserved to Paleo Diet adopters who’d become insulin resistant from years of overindulgence in sugar-laden and processed foods. If this is accurate, there’s hardly compelling evidence that ‘the Paleo Diet works’ any more effectively than most other eating plans that reduce these type of unhealthy excess calories.

The best outcome of using ‘The Paleo Diet’ is the elimination of sugary and refined carbohydrates from one’s eating habits. That’s something for which I’ll give it top kudos. But avoidance of whole grain and rolled oat foods because they were spawned from agriculture seems unnecessary and, possibly, counterproductive. Absent of a grain allergy, foods like brown rice and oatmeal have been staples in many a healthy, lean, and energetic person for a long time.

In other words, the advent of agriculture was NOT inherently bad. Without it, you’d likely be staring at reflected firelight flickering on a cave wall rather than words on your computer screen.

That assertion will need to be analyzed from an economic/technologic evolutionary standpoint – not a biological one.

I welcome your opinions and experiences.

Comments

Clint

Grain Free for me

scott

Hi Jayne,

Thank you for visiting my blog and taking time to comment.

I find your take likewise "interesting." You attribute all the problems you've mentioned to grains? Funny... I've eaten two servings of grains today and my digestive tract feels fine. What's more, my energy levels typically put the levels of many people half my age to shame. I must say that I'm also in a terrific mood today... gut-full-of-grains and all.

Shouldn't you at least reserve your "grain blame" for the conditions you've mentioned for the small percentage of the population that's actually allergic to them?

... Or am I really just chronically sick but don't realize it because it's masked by feeling so terrific? :-)

Scott

Jayne

Hmm, an interesting take. Personally, I think all grains are bad. Most people just don't know it yet, and have gotten so used to feeling sick that they don't know what it's like to feel well e.g. good digestion, no constipation, great mood and energy.

Think of all the folks with chronic mild diseases or who have suffered for 20 years without relief from some health problem.

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