For as long as weight loss propaganda and tips of how to lose body fat have circulated the Internet, the paleo diet has forever stood as the first point of call when wanting to shed unwanted kilos. The concept behind this phenomenon came to fruition from justifications that as humans we should draw from practices of primal existence to eat for survival with food from the earth and animals in their natural form.
A paleo diet is a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet with no dairy products or grains. Given the consumption of lots of nutrient-dense foods and the fat loss successes that have come from adherence to a paleo diet, it has made the method a questionable success. So at what cost does adhering to these methods come at? Is paleo ‘good’ or ‘bad’... and if you ‘went paleo’, would it be possible to sustain it?
Our Equalution client Sarah, down 6kgs with a complete change in body composition. This was achieved through a science-based and flexible diet including burgers, ice-cream and chocolate in among a balance of lean meats and vegetables.
Where does the paleo diet come from?
The Palaeolithic period is a period of human history extending from approximately 2.5 million to approximately 10,000 years ago. Early in this period, people ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, insects, roots, and meat, which varied depending on season and availability. There was not ONE paleo diet given the variances between location, social hierarchy and seasons. Scavenging and gathering food eventually lead to hunting larger animals.
Depending on where the Palaeolithic humans were located, meat consumption varied in frequency and quantity. The diet tended to be higher in protein, high in fat with high essential fatty acids, and was lower in sodium and higher in fibre. However, it is not entirely correct to suggest that the carbohydrate content was very low. Instead, carbohydrates came from other food sources and there was a wide range in the level of consumption which was based on location and season.
What can you eat on a paleo diet?
Over time, with the clean eating phenomenon intertwining with a paleo diet, the do’s and don’t’s of paleo eating have gradually adapted and become a somewhat ‘grey’ area.
So here’s typically what you CAN eat on a paleo diet and as you can see, balance is questionable:
- Grass-fed meats
- Fruit (limited)
- Oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut
What can’t you eat on a paleo diet?
The general ‘can’t eat’ list on a paleo diet is inclusive of many more foods than the inclusions and generally excludes large categories of food groups. These include:
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- Anything processed or not in its natural state inclusive of candy and ‘junk’ foods
- Overly salty foods
- Refined vegetable oils
Why has there been some weight loss success with paleo dieting?
The heard of successes of paleo dieting aren’t due to the ‘food quality’ as such but rather the quantity from a caloric perspective. When each and every meal is made up of lean meats, fruits and vegetables and adhered to on a consistent basis without blowouts or out of control deviations, a calorie deficit is likely to eventuate.
When eating less than expenditure in ANY case, fat loss will occur. Take the Twinkie Diet Study for instance. Professor Mark Haub ate in a calorie deficit for 10 weeks consuming his daily protein requirement from whey protein shakes, taking daily multivitamins for micronutrient needs and filling the rest of his caloric requirement with sugary cereals, soft drinks and predominantly Twinkies. The result: Professor Haub lost 27 pounds and reduced his BMI from 29 to 25, reducing his bad cholesterol by 20% and reduced the level of triglycerides, which are a form of fat, by 39%(1).
Fat loss occurs due to energy balance, the laws of thermodynamics, so while body composition may not be ideal if macronutrient requirements aren’t met - in ANY given case where the individual is consuming less than their Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) fat loss will occur no matter what food is consumed(2).
Bottom line.. A CALORIE deficit is responsible for fat loss on a paleo diet NOT the restrictive food choice.
A 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined longer-term dieting, and asked what was more important for losing weight, was it the composition of the diet (that is, the proportions of fat vs. protein vs. carbohydrate) or the caloric intake. What the researchers found after testing 811 males and females is that reaching your weight-loss goals is primarily influenced by the amount of calories consumed vs. the amount of calories burned and not what those calories are made of; regardless of which diet the subjects were on, their weight loss and decreases in waist circumference were the same for all 4 groups(3).
What can we take from and kick to the curb of the Paleo diet for fat loss?
TAKE: Eat lean meats and vegetables
DROP: Excluding foods and food groups
The most practical and beneficial move modern-day humans can make is to predominate their diet with whole foods, namely lean meats and vegetables, while moderating the ‘naughty’ stuff but not at all excluding it. This makes for a practical and sustainable way of eating, something you can keep up long term. There are some really nutrient-dense benefits of paleo dieting yet for what the human body requires for attainment of goals and a balanced practice for mental wellbeing, it makes the extremity of the paleo end of the spectrum unnecessary.
TAKE: Make your diet dominant in wholesome foods
DROP: Don’t eat processed foods
There are a number of benefits you reap from nutrient-dense lean meats and vegetables but avoiding processed and ‘flexible foods’ will be problematic to stick to, won’t be possible to keep up and not much fun.
TAKE: Control your diet and make the right choices
DROP: Ignore caloric and macronutrient intake
Not that paleo dieting requires you to ignore calorie counting altogether, but most paleo dieters won’t track their intake nor even know what their body requires in order to be in a calorie deficit and instead just rely on eating from the ‘okay list’. With paleo foods being mostly high protein, low carb and high fat it can mean those on the paleo diet won't get the macronutrients they need and may miss the mark in terms of caloric intake which will achieve fat loss results.
What are the CONS of Paleo Dieting?
1. The Rules and Lack of Flexibility: With so many rules - and more pertaining to don’ts than do’s - complications arising from day to day living, social situations and long term sustainability affect the success of adherence to a paleo diet. There are some life moments that inevitably involve food - like having dessert at a wedding, Grandma’s meatballs and pasta or pavlova at Christmas; these situations shouldn’t be a cause of anxiety, miss out or leave one no choice but go balls to the wall with their nutrition and lose control. These are all dramatic responses to fairly reasonable and prevalent lifestyle situations yet a paleo diet leaves little room to not respond dramatically in these ‘out of routine’ situations.
2. The Facilitation of Eating Disorders and Poor Relationship with Food: Anyone who can tolerate a particular food, and truly enjoys it, will not benefit from forced avoidance for the sake of adherence to grey area principles. This rigid, all-or-nothing approach to dieting is a major cause for disordered eating in susceptible individuals. While there are some people who have no thought process or emotional connection with food and merely eat to live, for the vast majority of people this isn’t the case and whether emotional eaters, foodies or simply individuals who like to enjoy what is on their plate paleo dieting can fail these types of people and cause a problematic relationship with food. When you put a ban or restriction on an individual against their natural instinct or preference, naturally this is either going to create adverse mental battles in constantly fighting urges of deviation, lifestyle anxieties or even bringing urges to a head and causing major blowouts or binges. Even the most diligent and rigid paleo eaters who may be seen as highly disciplined avid dieters will have some sort of blow out and/or uncontrolled deviation given the restrictive nature of the practice together with human nature. No matter what the guilty pleasure whether it is paleo-approved or not, this sort of control issue and deviation requirement is not an example of a healthy relationship with food. So bingeing on nuts despite getting the paleo tick of approval is a demonstration of the flawed practice in that the most successful type of nutrition practice for fat loss purposes is one that is balanced, reflective of the individual’s lifestyle and most importantly facilitates consistent adherence. Not to mention the increased risk of outweighing a calorie deficit therefore resulting in lack of progress the more blowouts occur.
3. The Lack of Conventional Eating: Some of the most significant technological breakthroughs for improving individual and societal health as well as preventing and treating disease occurred in around about the last century. Not to mention the significant development all industries have made in today’s day and age shaping the lifestyle of the individuals of today’s society. As a result of societal development, lifestyle choices exist that weren't apparent in the Palaeolithic period, so choosing to align nutritional principles from a time period that is fundamentally different from the context of today seems illogical and unrealistic. Throughout this stone age period, early man had no choice but to feed himself by hunting animals and birds with weapons, fishing and gathering wild fruits, nuts and berries. In today’s day and age ‘hunting and gathering’ food is done in the form of grocery shopping and dining out. It’s clear that the 21st century is vastly different in context, options and choices are extremely different which demonstrates the lack of realism in mirroring the nutritional habits of the stone age with ignorance to other cultural foods and lifestyle availabilities today.
4. The Extreme Response to an Unsupported Intolerance Assumption: Paleo dieting is often a dramatic response that individuals make to a presumed dietary intolerance whether clinically supported or not. It’s not practical or even accurate to assume population-wide extreme intolerance to grains and legumes, namely gluten. The issue with grains inevitably comes down to some level of gluten intolerance while the most current estimates of celiac disease prevalence fall below 1% of the population(4). As for non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a very recent study(5) led by Daniel DiGiacomo of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University estimated that the national prevalence of NCGS is a slightly over 0.5%, which is about half the prevalence of celiac disease, therefore the gluten-tolerant fraction of the population is likely to be well over 90% - the vast majority of people. So, it makes no sense to view gluten-containing foods as universally ‘bad’, adding to the illogic of banning foods that are tolerable by the vast majority of the population. Interestingly, the traditional paleo diet doctrine selectively ignores the fact that ‘paleo-approved’ foods such as nuts, fish, and shellfish, have a combined higher prevalence of allergen comparable to - and by some estimates even greater than that of gluten-containing grains(6).
5. The Reliance on a Grey Concept: It’s illogical and a flawed assumption to presume that pre-agricultural times were optimal in terms of nutritional and general health circumstances. Moreover, as clean eating principles merge with the paleo rule book it's becoming more and more grey as to what constitutes ticking all the boxes when going paleo.
6. The Requirement of an End Date: Paleo dieting isn’t something that the vast majority of adherents partake in with the intention to make a lifestyle change and eat as such for life. As a result, adherence is only temporary in conjunction with a ‘quick fix’ mentality given the unrealistic nature of avoiding conventional ways of eating long term. This periodic adherence facilitates yo-yo dieting resulting in weight fluctuations.
7. Lack of Maintenance Skill Set: Eating paleo robs the individual of the skill set to maintain their intake having knowledge of their caloric and macronutrient requirements and how to realistically integrate their lifestyle into these needs without forgoing fat loss results. As well as this, paleo dieting lacks a strategy in line with the science of the body in that there is no transition into various phases according to goals such as from fat loss to reverse dieting. Focusing on ‘can and can’t have foods’ rather than caloric and macronutrient intake changes responsive to metabolic and goal changes ignore the fundamental science of how to change the body and achieve health and physique goals.
8. The Reaped Benefits of Excluded Food Groups: Every group of food has its own unique nutrient profile beyond essential vitamins and minerals and instead have a plethora of phytonutrients that may act individually or synergistically to promote health and/or inhibit disease. Eliminating groups of food that have greater or unique benefits potentially reap the individual of these benefits. Take dairy for example, let’s look at milk specifically. Research has revealed through analyses of food sources of calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and potassium that milk is the number 1 single food contributor of each of these bone-related nutrients with the exception of protein in all age groups of both sexes(7). This is just ONE food from ONE group that the paleo diet excludes, not to mention legumes and grains of which literature (in both observational and controlled studies) on the health benefits of consumption is substantial.
The bottom line
It can be hit and miss, by chance some paleo dieters may give their body what it needs in terms of protein, carbs and fat and to a consistent caloric intake AND able to stick to it; but the reality is most don’t and is why paleo dieting is the most failed dieting practice.
Conclusively, any diet with quite restrictive and confining rules and regulations tests long term sustainability and the individual’s success in adherence and lifestyle management is often what causes the diet to only be temporary. So while some benefits do come from this practice of eating for the most part these are outweighed by the cons of which the paleo diet is not supported by the extensive body of research that is currently available. The paleo movement is extreme and absolute when it comes to food avoidance despite a lack of supporting research evidence. Even a ‘primal model’ of being 80% paleo and 20% non-Paleo is fairly unnecessary. In the context of a 2500 calories diet, 20% of those calories coming from grains and dairy would constitute 500 calories - which is a bowl of icecream with topping. So, if a bowl of ice-cream a day equates to ‘primal’, then it sounds a lot like conventional and flexible so the 80% restriction should just be lifted and a focus on balance instead. Individuals have vastly different preferences, tolerances, and goals for the function of their eating habits so the labelling and rules need not be a necessary restriction. Instead, find out what your body needs in terms of calories, protein, fats and carbs for your goals and eat for your goals to your preferences.