The Paleo Diet – The Pros and Cons of Eating Like a Caveman.
The Paleo diet has gained popularity in recent years, and many people have chosen to follow this particular approach. What does it entail? The philosophy behind the Paleo diet, consists of eating only foods which our ancient ancestors would eat, before farming was widespread. Yet, you may be curious about the long-term safety and sustainability of this method. If you’ve been tempted to give the Paleo diet a try, you likely want to learn more about the pros and cons of eating like a caveman first.
What Is It?
Before delving into the specific pros and cons of the Paleo diet, it is important to define this diet more fully. It is derived from the presumed diet of people in the Paleolithic Era, when farming did not yet exist, and the hunter gatherer approach was used. What does this mean?
The Paleo diet steers clear of farmed items like grains, dairy, legumes, processed oils and sugar. Instead, it relies upon foods which were hunted or gathered, like low-starch fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts, eggs and lean meat (1).
Pros of the Paleo Diet.
1. If you tend to be allergic, the Paleo diet may be worth a try, as it is dairy, gluten, soy and corn free (2).
2. You’ll increase your intake of vitamin B12, which is found in many animal-based foods and is essential for deriving energy from the food which you eat.
3. You’ll avoid alcohol, which is empty calories in your diet.
4. You may feel fuller and more satisfied between meals, due to eating more protein and fat (3).
5. If you tend to be anemic, the red meat on the Paleo diet’s menu, can provide your body with the iron it needs to manufacture red blood cells.
6. The Paleo diet has you avoid processed foods – which is a good thing. These tend to have unhealthy added chemicals to boost flavour and increase shelf-life (preservatives). Heavily processed foods often have high amounts of added salt and sugar as well, both of which are best avoided.
7. It provides a healthy ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats, which is linked to major health benefits. Chief among these is reducing systemic inflammation, which can contribute to disease processes in your body (4).
8. You may lose weight, with many people undergoing amazing transformations when following this diet.
Cons of the Paleo Diet.
1. Without dairy products, you must be knowledgeable enough to find alternate sources of high quality calcium (5).
2. If you do not get adequate amounts of calcium in your diet, your bone health and blood vessel and muscle function could suffer (6).
3. You’ll spend a lot more time preparing food, as most ready-to-eat food options aren’t allowed on the diet. Be ready to cook meat on a regular basis and to be more organized about your meals and snacks in general. Why? You can’t just visit the nearest vending machine when you’re feeling hungry.
4. It can be expensive to follow, as the Paleo diet requires you to eat a great deal of meat and nuts – both of which typically cost much more than staple foods like grains and beans.
5. Without complex carbohydrates in your diet you may feel sluggish, as these provide long-lasting energy.
6. The Paleo diet is difficult to follow for vegetarians, especially since you can’t eat beans – making sourcing whole protein from vegetables near impossible. Therefore, the Paleo diet is only possible for vegetarians who will eat eggs (ovo-vegetarians).
7. There is insufficient evidence for removing foods like beans and grains from your diet, because they contain so-called “anti-nutrients.” According to the Paleo diet, compounds like phytic acid interfere with absorption of beneficial nutrients, and foods which contain them should be avoided.
What’s the problem?
Not only do some foods allowed on the Paleo diet contain phytic acid, many experts say that the “anti-nutrient” content in many disallowed foods is dramatically lessened when these are cooked. Also, some of these compounds actually have health benefits, like providing antioxidant or cancer preventing action in the body (7).
What’s the Conclusion?
Extremely popular at the moment, there are some real benefits to commend the Paleo diet. Chief among these are the accounts of people who have lost weight (dramatic amounts in some cases), when adopting this way of eating. Also, scientific research has shown that there may be some remarkable health benefits to the Paleo diet as well. These include possibly lowering your cholesterol, reducing blood pressure and decreasing insulin release (8).
However, there are some issues with the Paleo diet as well, including its sustainability. Many experts question whether this pattern of eating can be followed permanently. In addition, a list created by surveying a panel of reputable experts such as nutritionists and doctors, ranked the Paleo diet last for the second consecutive year. According to the experts’ opinions, no matter what the goal was (to lose weight, improve cardiovascular health or ease of adherence), the Paleo diet was a poor choice (9).
Finally, a three year study recently completed by the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, concluded that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet (like the Paleo diet) led to a much shorter lifespan in mice. How much shorter?
Shockingly, mice which were fed a high carb, low protein diet (the opposite of the Paleo approach), lived up to 50% longer! In addition, they had improved health markers, like lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, less incidence of diabetes and improved glucose tolerance (10).
With seemingly conflicting scientific evidence regarding the Paleo diet, the best approach is to weigh the pros and cons for yourself. Your needs and situation may dictate whether this method is right for you, keeping in mind that every person is different. Some people feel better when following the Paleo diet, while others feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.
In addition, you may not be able to stick with this restrictive diet for the long-term, or you may find that it isn’t a challenge. The most important consideration is to choose an option that works best for your unique requirements – to help you maintain an appropriate weight and a healthy body.
If you’d like to explore if the Paleo Diet is right for you visit one of our Dieticians at our Sydney Clinic.
These studies were carried out with human participants, which may give them more weight.
This study was conducted using mice, which may give it less weight.