The Paleo Diet: What is it and How Does it Work - Exceed Nutrition

The Paleo Diet: What is it and How Does it Work

The Paleo Diet, or hunter-gatherer diet is based on foods Palaeolithic humans would have eaten. 

This type of eating is also known as primal or caveman.

The Paleo diet consists of real, whole foods so it focuses primarily on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. It therefore eliminates a whole range of processed or man-made foods that contain preservatives, hidden sugars, sodium, additives, colouring, and artificial flavourings.

Despite the Paleo diet being based on the presumed diet of the Palaeolithic humans, it is a modern nutritional plan that has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last number of years, mainly due to the amount of success stories achieved by those following it.

It is based on the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the Agricultural Revolution (also called the Neolithic Revolution) some 10,000 years ago, therefore modern humans are adaptable to the diet or diets of the Palaeolithic period.

It has become a ‘go to’ nutrition protocol for many, with some believing it is how everyone should be eating.

As a result the Paleo diet has become a controversial topic in the nutrition world and it is therefore important for us as nutrition coaches to have an unbiased understanding of this nutrition protocol. 

In this article you will learn the history of the Paleo diet, best practices, the benefits and who it is for. 

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History of The Paleo diet

Gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin first popularised the Paleo diet back in the mid 1970’s. He was among one of the first to suggest that a person could greatly improve their health by following a diet similar to that of the Paleolithic era.

He self published the Stone Age Diet that highlighted that Paleolithic people were carnivores who ate mostly protein and fats, with small amounts of carbohydrates. Furthermore, based on his own medical practices of the time, he discovered some of the associated health benefits by following it.

It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that we saw any further publications on this diet, and in 1988, Eaton, Konner and Shostak published another book on this nutritional approach.

In this book it was suggested that we should be achieving the same proportions of macro and micronutrients as were present in the diets of the late Paleolithic people. It did not include foods that were not available before the development of agriculture.

In 1989, Steffan Lindeberg conducted a scientific study known as the Kitava Study. This looked at the non-Westernised populations of Kitava in Papua New Guinea, which highlighted a correlation between diet and Western diseases.

This is because the population of Kitava did not suffer from the same medical diseases as seen in those eating a Western type diet.

Since the 1990’s we have therefore seen an increasing popularity for the return to a so called Paleolithic diet by many medical practitioners and nutritionists.

Today there are countless books, websites and campaigns devoted to promoting such a diet. There are numerous variations of the Paleo diet, but for the most part they are rooted in the similar principles. 

The Basic Practice

The underlying key practices of the Paleo diet are rather simple: eat the same food sources that were available in any of the ecological niches of Paleolithic humans.

In the modern world this means following a diet from cultivated plants and domesticated animals’ meat. It consists of foods that can be fished and hunted, such as seafood and meat; foods that can be gathered, such as, eggs, fruit, herbs, insects, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, spices and vegetables.

Also, the typical recommendations for meat consumption is that they are free-range or grass-fed, as they will contain less toxins and higher nutrient profiles compared to grain-fed domestic meats.

For foods that can be gathered, it is suggested these are organic and locally grown, again to reduce pollution and potential toxicity issues.

Certain foods and food groups that were rarely or never consumed by humans before the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution are excluded from the diet, mainly dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils, refined sugar and salt.

For fluids, water is the main source, with man-made drinks, alcohol and coffee being eliminated. Some natural teas may be permitted. 

To Summarise This Information

Allowed:

  • Poultry, fish, red meats (purists prefer organic/grass-fed)
  • Eggs
  • Fruit (purists stick to berries)
  • Vegetables (except nightshades like tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants)
  • Nuts (except peanuts)
  • Seeds (sparingly)

Not Allowed:

  • Grains and legumes
  • Milk and milk products
  • Refined/added sugars
  • High omega 6, refined or hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant
  • Added salt
  • Coffee or alcohol

Health Benefits Of The Paleo Diet

The rise of popularity of the Paleo diet is due to a number of benefits that people can experience from following it consistently.

People following the Paleo diet may experience the following benefits:

  • Increased and more stable energy levels
  • Improved sleep
  • Cleaner skin and healthier looking hair
  • Mental clarity
  • Improved mood and attitude
  • Improvements in those suffering depression and anxiety
  • Less or no bloating, decreased gas
  • Sustained weight loss
  • Muscle growth, increased fitness
  • Lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer
  • Higher immune function and a general feeling of well being
  • Improved glucose tolerance; decreased insulin secretion and increased insulin sensitivity
  • Improved lipid profiles
  • Healthier gut flora
  • Better absorption of nutrients from foods
  • Reduced allergies
  • Improvements in those with respiratory problems, such as asthma

Going by the above list the Paleo diet has a lot to offer, so it’s important to understand why we may see such extensive benefits.

Weight Loss

When you stop eating high calorie, high carbohydrate foods like dairy, rice, oats and bread, you’ll be likely to experience weight loss.

The primary sources of carbohydrates in the Paleo diet are fruit and vegetables. By eliminating a particular food group from the diet we reduce our daily intake of calories which will lead to weight loss.

Also, studies have shown that a low carbohydrate diet produces greater weight loss than a conventional low fat, high carbohydrate diet. Plus, you’re likely to consume a higher amount of dietary fibre, which prolongs the feeling of fullness following meals and helps reduce how much you want to eat daily.

Lastly, eliminating all processed high calorie, low nutrient foods from the diet will lead to further calorie reduction and contribute to weight loss.

Heart Health

On the Paleo diet you consume higher amounts of quality meat and fish, which leads to an increased intake of Omega 3 fatty acids. Accordingly to the American Heart Association, increased Omega 3 consumption lowers your blood pressure, decreases triglyceride levels and reduces your risk of sudden cardiac death.

The increased fibre intake can also improve your cholesterol levels, which helps your heart health. 

Low Diabetes Risk

Eating a diet based around whole, single ingredient foods, including one high in fibre and low in carbohydrates, helps to control blood sugar levels.

This has a considerable effect on managing the risk for Type 2 diabetes, and even reversing the symptoms of it. 

Reduced Autoimmune Disorders

The immune system protects you from viruses, bacteria and parasites by attacking dangerous invaders. In autoimmunity, your immune system malfunctions and attacks your body instead of the invaders.

Health conditions linked to autoimmunity include coeliac disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Each of these conditions seems to share the common symptom of intestinal lining damage, also known as leaky gut.

With the Paleo diet, we are removing many common foods that cause inflammation in the gut and to which many people have intolerances, sensitivities or allergies.

This includes food groups like grains (gluten), dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds and nightshade vegetables. Such a diet may yield relief from leaky gut syndrome and thus autoimmune disorders. 

Who Is The Paleo Diet For?

Essentially, the Paleo diet is focused around quality meats, fish, and vegetables with some fruit and nuts.

It’s difficult to argue against the fact that this is a great ‘foundation’ diet for those seeking optimal body composition and health, and there are plenty of testimonials to back this up.

So a better question might be – Who is this diet not right for?

Despite the modern nutrition protocol being very simple, that does not mean it is easy to follow – have you ever tried to live on just meat and vegetables alone?

Due to the limited nature of the Paleo diet, many can find they are excluding too many food items at once, and fall off the wagon completely.

It is quite a restrictive diet protocol, and in today’s modern society where we are surrounded by non Paleo foods, it can feel very repetitive and dull.

Since we now understand the reasons why we might see so many benefits, it may be possible to achieve sufficient results without necessarily applying the full protocol. We can therefore extract the ‘good’ bits we need and apply them to our clients.

For example, if we have a client who is seeking fat loss, we know a diet low in refined carbohydrates and foods will reduce daily calorie intake without the need to count calories. By applying this principle to the client, we should therefore see some fat loss.

But do we really need to eliminate a food group (e.g. dairy) in this process, particularly if our client is not intolerant to it and shows no autoimmune diseases?

To answer this, the avoidance of any food (particularly grains, dairy and certain vegetables) should be done on the basis of an objectively diagnosed intolerance (allergy or personal preference).

Our goal should be to provide our clients with inclusive rather than exclusive diets as much as possible, and the Paleo diet does not provide this.

It does however serve as a ‘quick fix’ protocol and can be a fantastic foundation or starting point for many clients.

It is wise to reintroduce foods into the protocol as long as no adverse effects are seen and progress to their goals continues. This will create greater dieting compliance and form the basis of a successful long-term nutrition strategy.

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