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Coaching Corner: Weighing in on the Paleo Diet

In recent months I have been getting a lot of questions about the latest addition to the high protein diet trend – the Paleo diet.  I always prefer not to focus on any specific diet plan, as over the years it has been consistently proven that ‘diets’ don’t work.  Whenever I hear somebody tell me that they are going back on ‘X’ diet because ‘that’s the only one that ever worked for me’, I ask them to think about the fact that they have to go back on it again, implying that it only worked as long as they were on it.  The difference in our program at Hilton Head Health is that we encourage lifestyle change and management, implementing an awareness of high quality, lean foods and sensible portions, combined with a healthy dose of exercise and relaxation techniques to improve mood, lower stress and enhance overall happiness in ones life.  We facilitate a change from poor nutrition and fitness habits to sensible, reasonable and practical life-long objectives.

That being said, we can take a look at some features of the Paleo diet and where it (and other high protein diets) may or may not meet the needs you desire in an overall healthy lifestyle plan. Keep in mind that each of the high-protein diets emphasizes different focus foods, but for purposes of this article we will concentrate on the Paleo diet.

The Paleolithic diet, also popularly referred to as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet and hunter-gatherer diet, is a modern nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various hominid species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years which ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and grain-based diets. In common usage, such terms as “Paleolithic diet” also refer to the actual ancestral human diet.  Centered on commonly available modern foods, the contemporary “Paleolithic diet” consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.

The primary concern behind the Paleo diet is that it relies so heavily on things that are unproven.  In other words, the fundamentals of the diet are based on what historical experts believe our cavemen ancestors ate based on what little physical or documented evidence has been made available to us.  Essentially, the diet is based on a handful of historical studies of ancestral hunter-gatherer societies combined with conjectured theory.  The truth of the matter is that we do not truly have a fully comprehensive understanding of the caveman’s diet from where and how the food was collected, how it was prepared, and what specific foods were eaten and which ones were avoided.

There is really no way to pinpoint the exact “caveman diet”, since the individual diets of our caveman ancestors were no doubt highly dependent on their location and surroundings.  For example, it has been recorded that cavemen indigenous to European areas had diets that were dominated by meat and animal foods due to lack of plant availability.  Meanwhile, it has been noted that the diets of cavemen ancestors indigenous to African countries consisted of approximately 67% plant food and only 33% animal foods, which certainly differs from the diets of European cavemen.  Clearly, factors such as weather, animal life, plant life, and other external forces of different regions throughout the world influenced dietary patterns.  So, which do we follow?  How can we ascertain the “official” diet of a caveman?

Even if we could pinpoint the precise diet of our cavemen ancestors, there is no way that we can accurately replicate it.  Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced and cost-efficient society, we are at the mercy of modern food production mechanisms which are, to say the least, varied quite a bit from what cavemen would have consumed, or even have had access to.  Lets consider some of the most commonly purchased and consumed items from grocery stores: canned vegetables, canned soups, packaged butter, yogurt, and other dairy products, packaged pre-cooked meats, and scads of other items that are pre-prepared, pre-packaged, and loaded with chemicals, additives, preservatives, food colorings, and all sorts of other artificial ingredients that our ancestors had never even heard of.  Even many of the foods we think of as being “whole” foods are not always what they seem.  Our “farm-grown” mammals are raised on grass treated with artificial fertilizers, as well as a range of genetically modified corn and wheat products.  Plus, once the animals are killed, cut, and prepped for distribution to stores, additional hormones, salts, and other artificial flavorings are typically added.  This is often true even in the cases of meat that is labeled as “organic” or “free-range”.  Additionally, our “farm-grown” fruits and vegetables are commonly loaded with pesticides and other spray chemicals to help give them longer shelf lives in the stores, and several types of fruits and veggies are pumped with food colorings to make them look riper and more appetizing.  This is especially true for red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and strawberries.  None of our cavemen ancestors would have encountered these elements in their foods, which needless to say, makes the idea of replicating their diet moot.

The Paleo diet really pushes protein – in the form of meat, meat, and more meat.  While it promotes leaner, healthier meats like chicken and turkey, it promotes the intake of very high amounts, which is inconsistent with the typical recommended amount of protein that the average individual needs each day.  In fact, it is said that without even consciously trying, the average individual already likely meets the daily-recommended intake of protein, which is around 46 grams for women above age 19, and 56 grams for men above age 19.  That can be fulfilled through 1 cup of 2% milk (8 grams), 1 3-ounce piece of chicken (21 grams), 1 cup of dry beans (16 grams), and 1 8-ounce container of plain yogurt (11 grams).  Clearly, it doesn’t necessitate extreme efforts to meet, or even exceed, the daily-recommended amount of protein.  The other important factor to consider is the serious consequences of severely restricting carbohydrates while overloading on protein.  When these circumstances are present the kidneys and liver work overtime producing high quantities of ketone laced urine, while the adrenal glands are stressed to the max.  When you excrete ketones, they take sodium, potassium and magnesium with them, which are vital to heart, muscle and bone health.  Additionally, passing up legumes (ex. beans, lentils, peas, peanuts) and grains (ex. wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley) results in missing out on a whole range of nutrients that fight cancer and boost immunity.

The Paleo diet is regarded as a great muscle-building diet.  However, one of the most critical components of building muscle is sufficient carbohydrate intake.  This, of course, refers to whole, complex carbohydrates, not simple carbohydrates like doughnuts and tortilla chips.  The Paleo diet considers glycemic fruits to be sufficient enough in carbohydrates, but the body needs more than that.  The two main reasons why carbohydrates are critical to building muscle involve insulin and glycogen.  Firstly, insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the body, and its muscle-building effect comes from the fact that it inhibits muscular breakdown and it synthesizes proteins within the muscles.  Glycogen, the other byproduct of carbohydrate digestion, is stored in the muscles and liver, and provides the body with a readily available energy source.  Your ability to train intensely is directly proportional to the amount of glycogen that is stored in your body – and glycogen is something that can only be acquired from carbohydrates.

Cavemen were a group of individuals who had no choice but to eat whatever was available to them.  They certainly didn’t eat to be “fit” or “healthy” or “skinny”.  They simply ate to survive and sustain themselves sufficiently.   We must remember that our cavemen ancestors didn’t live very long.  In fact, the recorded average lifespan of an individual at that time was about 32 years old, and you were considered incredibly lucky if you lived to be 40 years of age.

The biggest silver lining of the Paleo diet, however, is that it strongly encourages that one avoid any and all processed foods, which of course is always a healthy decision.

The bottom line…

Our bodies, our food, our ways of living, as well as our ways of growing, raising, packaging, and consuming foods have all evolved over the years far beyond the ways of our cavemen ancestors.  Regardless, our bodies simply require a set of nutritional needs that our cavemen ancestors clearly were not able to meet, which largely explains their early deaths.  We need a balance of complex carbohydrates, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, healthy sugars, and healthy fats – many of which are overlooked by all high protein diets.  The takeaway message here is to eat more naturally.  Avoid processed foods and pursue as many truly “whole” foods as possible.  The key to success in fitness and weight loss is not just to eat some foods that are healthy, but also to eat enough of a variety of healthy foods that satiate all of the body’s nutritional requirements.    When it comes to following a specific diet, there are always pros and cons and plenty of opinions for and against.  When in doubt, do your research!

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