Is the Paleo Diet Really Healthy?

In a world of fad diets, detoxes and cleanses, it's hard not to find info on the Paleo Diet popping up everywhere. But what really is the Paleo Diet? And what is all the hype about? As a naturopathic doctor, nutrition is extremely important to me, not only for maintaining health, but for preventing illness and I make it a point to discuss nutrition with my patients at every visit. You really are what you eat and I just want to make sure my patients and my readers are getting the best information out there. 

What is the Paleo Diet? 

The Paleo Diet is not necessarily a weight-loss "diet", but a complete lifestyle change. This is not something you are supposed to do for a few weeks to get into your wedding dress, then go back to eating fast food and corn chips. This is, however, a way to change your diet and therefore your health where weight loss is usually a welcome side effect. The Paleo or Paleolithic way of life refers back to our caveman ancestors and what they ate - fresh meats, nuts and seeds, good fats, fruits and veggies - while avoiding the more processed items that have come into our world since - processed foods, dairy, refined sugar and oils, salt, legumes, grains (including corn) and potatoes. The idea is that our bodies weren't meant to digest a lot of the "food" that is present today and works better on the basic diet that our neanderthal cousins grew strong with. 

 You Can't Possibly Tell Me This Isn't Healthy!  Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

You Can't Possibly Tell Me This Isn't Healthy!

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

Sounds logical right? Many of you who are my patients are probably looking at your Anti-Inflammatory Guide that I give everyone and are thinking...hmmm, am I Paleo? Well, sort of. Eating unprocessed, healthy foods decreases inflammation and since all chronic disease is due to inflammation, anti-inflammatory food choices can significantly change your health. Only in my playbook, legumes (beans) are allowed with the exception of peanuts, as are some of the less inflammatory grains (amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, teff). 

So What Are the Criticisms of Paleo? 

Most of the critics tout that both we and our food sources have significantly evolved since the Paleolithic era and that eating grains and processed foods in moderation is fine. Also, there are still a lot of fat-phobic critics out there who don't understand that coconut oil is healthier than genetically modified canola oil. There are also a lot of pseudo-Paleos out there who eat basically like the old Atkins diet - lots of processed meat and cheese (which is NOT Paleo), occasional veggies and no bread - and they wonder why they suffer from chronic constipation...Similar to the "vegetarians" I hung out with in college, whom I now call "carbo-dari-tarians" in my practice - the elusive, mostly college kids who piously claim to be vegetarian but get most of their meat-free meals from Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (and who then wondered why they were overweight, had acne and were anemic). 

Obviously, Paleo followers are aware of evolution. And the true Paleos are getting their meats and produce from sustainable, local sources, thus supporting the real/slow/locavore food movement and giving the big heave-ho to the evils of Monsanto. True Paleos are also enjoying the wondrous variety of fruits and vegetables and using them in very creative ways, thus getting the proper amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Have you tried cutting your favorite veggies into noodles with a spiral cutter? This is my new addiction...

My Personal Criticisms are the Same with Each Structured Diet Plan

My number one criticism isn't with the idea but with the people who are not fully committed as I mentioned above with the Atkins remark. I ran into a former patient at the grocery store recently and he remarked that he was "full Paleo" when his cart had more packages in it than produce. That is missing the whole point and in my opinion is not healthy at all.  I don't need to quote a bunch of studies to prove that a local slab of bacon from pigs that were treated well and allowed to forage has far more nutritional benefit and far less a carbon footprint than a discount package of "deli ham" injected with nitrates, flavorings, preservatives and processed sugar and salt that traveled a thousand miles to get here. 

My second criticism has been with my general moderation theory. I'm a big fan of moderation. I've met some Paleos who literally never eat salt. We need salt. Our adrenal glands, the rulers of our stress hormone, cortisol, crave salt when we are under stress. Our bodies run on osmolarity - constantly changing the salt concentrations of our cells to achieve balance. I've also met Paleos who literally eat sweet potatoes at each meal to "keep them full." Eating anything at every meal isn't a good idea and if you are not satiated after eating a nutritious meal, your ratios are likely off (should be roughly 30% fat, 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate). I also believe that for some people, avoiding beans just isn't necessary and from a fiber point of view, they can really be missing out. We need fiber. It's the balance that helps us cleanse our bodies of impurities...which is a nicer way of saying it makes us poop more effectively. Some people with more mild palates aren't ready to make the commitment to making zucchini noodles or trying new fruits and veggies and therefore eat more meat and fat than fruits and veggies, again, missing the point and getting their ratios off balance. I also worry about the ever rampant orthorexia, which can develop with any structured, healthy eating plan, where people can get a bit too obsessed with their healthy diets. 

My third criticism isn't really a criticism, but just stating the obvious that it's not a viable choice for those who choose to be vegetarian. Grains and legumes are both needed to make complete proteins (providing all essential amino acids) so it simply isn't an option for them.

The Bottom Line

Yes, the Paleo Diet is extremely healthy for many people when done correctly. Just as with everything else, Paleo can completely change lives, but not necessarily with everyone. I know many people who have completely changed their health by becoming Paleo. I also know people who have done the same becoming vegetarian. You have to find what is right for you and most importantly, what you can sustain in a healthy way and continue to get inspired by. These are lifestyles, not weight loss gimmicks. Anything that inspires you to eat real food and avoid anything packaged, I'm all for! I have to say, I have loved the Paleo craze as it's brought so many delicious recipes of REAL FOOD that I can recommend to my patients. I myself am completely addicted to the pumpkin spice latte from Caveman Feast even though it's a little early! And to be honest...I just love bacon. Any lifestyle change that embraces bacon is good with me.