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A Dietitian’s Thoughts on the Paleo Diet.

One of the most popular diets as of late is the Paleo Diet.  Ever wonder what it’s all about?  Read on!!

Paleo Diet; The Basics.

The Paleo diet encourages the consumption of what our ancestors were believed to have eaten as hunters and gatherers, such as meat, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, etc.  The diet discourages the consumption of foods from a post-agricultural “westernized diet” or “SAD” diet (Standard American Diet,) such as milk, grains, refined sugars and legumes.  Promoters of the Paleo Diet believe that this has led to an increasingly overweight country, burdening us with an ever growing health care crisis.

Followers of the Paleo Diet state that by eating the foods we were developed to consume, we can lower our risks for developing chronic diseases while also improving digestive problems, eliminating acne, increasing energy levels, etc.  They further claim that we can lose excessive body weight, thanks to the fact that we’ll be eating the foods our bodies have been programmed to fully digest and absorb.

What do people following the Paleo Diet eat?

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits (in moderation)
  • Nuts and Seeds (in moderation)
  • Wild Meats (grass fed beef, chicken, venison, etc.)
  • Eggs
  • Coconut, grass-fed butter, avocado, etc.

What DON’T people following the Paleo Diet eat?

  • Refined, Processed Foods (chips, donuts, soda, cereals, candy bars, snack foods, etc.)
  • Refined sugars
  • Juices
  • Grains and breads (quinoa, oats, bread, barley, etc.)
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, soy, peanuts, etc.)
  • Dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese, etc.)

Nutritional Breakdown:

Those following the Paleo Diet are consuming their calories in different percentages than those following the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Here’s a glimpse of the average percentages:

Paleo Diet:

  • 30-40% Fat
  • 20-30% Carbohydrate
  • 35-45% Protein

…vs…

2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • 20-35% Fat
  • 45-65% Carbohydrate
  • 10-35% Protein

Behind The Research:

The research surrounding the Paleo Diet is still in its infancy stages.  While some research has pointed to low carb, paleo-style diets possibly improving blood insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and lipid profiles, we do not yet know the long term effects of following a diet that is so high in protein and fat.

As a side note, in an article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was found that refined grains such as white pasta, white breads, etc. have more of a negative effect on our arteries than does saturated fat.(1)  Whether or not we should be eating like a caveman, it’s important to realize that regular consumption of refined grains just isn’t good for our overall health.

The Paleo Diet’s Health Advantages:

  1. Excludes sugary and processed foods.
  2. Reduces sodium intake.
  3. Encourages produce consumption.
  4. Encourages appropriate weight loss.  By avoiding sugary, processed junk, you’ll inevitably shed some excess pounds.
  5. Focuses on real, whole foods.

The Diet’s Health DIS-advantages:

  1. May be difficult to maintain over a lifetime.
  2. No large studies done to analyze long term effects.
  3. Contradictory evidence.  We’ve known for quite some time, the health benefits of following a Mediterranean Diet which is full of fish, fruits, veggies, healthy fats and…YES…whole grains, legumes and some dairy!  Following a Paleo Diet is more restrictive than is necessary.
  4. Possible nutrient deficiencies, such as calcium.  Followers of the diet claim that we don’t need as much calcium as once thought.  However, there is no science to back up this claim, and it’s important that anyone going on the Paleo Diet be wise in choosing foods rich in calcium and other important nutrients.

The Bottom Line…

The Paleo Diet does offer some health benefits.  However, it also requires some professional guidance in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies.  In addition, it is unknown what health effects the diet has over a lifetime and it may be difficult for many to follow for long periods of time.

Also, foods such as quinoa, legumes, nuts, etc. offer fiber, protein and other important nutrients.  There is no science to back up the claims that these foods should be avoided or limited.  In fact, the Mediterranean Diet (which is considered the gold standard of healthy diets) is high in legumes, nuts, fish, whole grains, etc.

Finally, we need to remember the importance of making diet choices that will last for a lifetime, in a way that will feel balanced and satisfying.  Food is meant to be enjoyed and savored, not feared or admonished.  Any diet that tells you to restrict a specific food group all together is, in my opinion, one that is best left on the shelf.

  1. Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu F, et al.  Saturated Fat, Carbohydrate and Cardiovascular Disease.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  2010; 91(3):502-509.  doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26285

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