The Paleo Diet: Benefits and Concerns

Dr. Loren developed the paleo diet based on the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He hypothesized that our genetics haven't adapted to coping with the Western diet and lifestyle, which has only been around for a couple of hundred years.

Key takeaways:
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    The Paleo diet encourages eating lean meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. It also recommends avoiding or, at least, limiting grains, dairy, processed foods, refined oils, and sugars.
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    Some studies have shown the beneficial effects of the paleo diet on weight loss, waist circumference, and blood glucose. However, the results are controversial; thus, more research is needed.
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    Gluten and dairy restrictions are the most significant disadvantages of the paleo diet. Therefore, nutrient deficiency is a concern. Additionally, some people following a paleo diet develop calcium deficiency.

The paleo diet includes lean meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. At the same time, it eliminates grains, dairy, processed foods, refined oils, and sugars. Paleo even recommends avoiding coffee. In this article, you’ll learn how the paleo diet affects health.

What is a paleo diet?

The paleolithic diet is also known as the Stone Age diet. The diet claims human genetics couldn't keep up with rapid agricultural developments. Therefore, humans are not meant to be eating the Western diet, which is generally low in fiber and high in refined sugars and unhealthy fats. Instead, the paleo diet recommends eating lean meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables while eliminating grains, dairy, processed foods, and sugars.

Researchers know that refined sugars and processed, low-fiber foods are not good for health. However, that doesn't mean a person needs to eliminate grains and dairy from their diet too. First, let's look at paleo, non-paleo, and in-between foods. Then we'll discuss the potential benefits and concerns of the paleo diet.

Paleo foods

The Paleo diet recommends eating:

  • Leafy vegetables.
  • Root vegetables.
  • Fresh fruits.
  • Seafood.
  • Grass-fed meat.
  • Free-range poultry and eggs.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Oils, including olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut.
  • Herbs.
  • Herbal tea.

Non-paleo foods

  • Grains — wheat, rice, oat, barley, cornmeal, bread, pasta, cereal.
  • Dairy products.
  • Legumes and pulses — beans, lentils, peas, soy, peanuts.
  • Potatoes.
  • Sweet potatoes.
  • Processed foods.
  • Refined vegetable oils.
  • Added salt (sodium).
  • Added sugar.

Foods that are neither paleo nor eliminated

Paleo allows these foods in small amounts:

  • Natural sweeteners — honey, molasses, dates.
  • Coffee.
  • Beer and wine.
  • Baking replacements such as almond and coconut flour.

Does the paleo diet help with weight loss?

Some short-term studies investigated the paleo diet's weight loss effects. In a clinical trial, the weight loss effects of the paleo diet versus the Mediterranean diet were evaluated over 12 weeks. Participants had ischaemic heart disease with either glucose intolerance or type 2 diabetes.

The results showed no weight difference. However, patients eating a paleo diet showed decreased waist circumference and improved glucose sensitivity.

In another study, healthy volunteers eating a paleo diet lost 2.3 kg and 0.5 cm off of their waist circumference. In conclusion, scientific data on paleo weight loss effects are limited and polarized. More studies are needed to determine its weight loss effects.

Keep in mind that gradual weight loss achieved by a healthy and balanced diet with physical activity is still the most established way for healthy weight loss. It is best to consult a doctor and dietitian for the best weight loss nutrition plan.

Possible paleo diet benefits

A limited amount of research has been done on the effects of the paleo diet. Even though researchers proposed the diet’s beneficial effects, there’s too little, inconclusive evidence. Now, let’s dive into the research behind the claims.

Blood glucose levels

The paleo diet promises to decrease obesity and chronic diseases. In a clinical trial published in the British Journal of Nutrition, scientists compared the short-term effects of a paleolithic diet to a reference meal created based on WHO guidelines. The paleo meals included fish and various vegetables. The paleo and reference meals incorporated an identical number of calories, macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Meals were given to healthy male participants on separate occasions. However, researchers found no significant differences in glucose and insulin responses between the reference and paleo meals.

Increased fiber intake

Paleo diets encourage eating fiber-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Adults should consume around 30 g of fiber daily for a healthy and balanced diet. Fiber helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and improves heart health, healthy microbiota, and digestion.

Some other fiber-rich foods include whole grains, legumes, and oats. However, the paleo diet discourages their consumption. Furthermore, a person can get enough daily fiber by eating five portions of fruits and vegetables and by adding whole grains, legumes, and beans to their diet.

Paleo diet health concerns

Low calcium intake

Calcium is found in bones, teeth, the circulatory system, and tissues. It plays an important role in healthy skeletal structure, muscle function, nerve transmission, and hormonal secretion. Healthy adults need to consume 1000-1200 mg of calcium daily. Therefore, calcium deficiency is one of the biggest concerns on the paleo diet because the diet excludes dairy products.

Studies show that people following a paleo diet for three weeks only met 50% of calcium of their daily recommended calcium intake.

Milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain calcium. Let’s look at the difference in calcium amount found in dairy versus green leafy vegetables.

An 8-ounce serving of plain low-fat yogurt contains 415 mg of calcium, approximately 32% of the daily value. On the other hand, ½ cup of boiled spinach contains 123 mg of calcium, 9% of the daily value.

The studies clearly show that dairy contains more calcium than green leafy vegetables. As a result, people following a paleo diet should be much more careful because the diet limits dairy products.

Food intolerances

Exclusion or dramatic reduction of specific foods or food groups can produce food intolerances. ‘For example, in the paleo diet, gluten and dairy products are eliminated, which may result in gluten and lactose intolerances.

Sustainability

Sustainability is a crucial part of a healthy nutrition plan. Most people find it challenging to follow restrictive diets because of limited food options.

If you're not prescribed a specific diet by your healthcare professional, restrictive diets may increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies.

People with diagnosed intolerances or allergies to specific nutritional ingredients benefit from eliminating foods that trigger symptoms. The paleo diet offers some health benefits and may suit some people fine. However, the research surrounding the health benefits of a paleo diet is inconclusive. Therefore, before making drastic changes to one’s diet, it’s best to speak to a nutritional expert.

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