In our last post we introduced what is maybe the “hottest” diet of the moment, the paleo or Paleolithic diet, which advocates imitating the diet of our ancestors from 10,000 or more years ago. Today we look at the pros and cons of this diet.
- Often gives significant weight loss
Likely due to cutting out refined sugars and processed foods, and eating lots of vegetables and fruits and drinking lots of water; all of which are part of the diet.
- Better glucose and blood pressure control
A result of cutting out simple sugars and salt, and from the high fiber content of fruits and vegetable in the diet. All this slows carbohydrate absorption and makes our insulin more efficient.
- Eliminates processed foods
This is a huge benefit if you were eating lots of processed foods and then cut them out in a paleo diet. Processed foods are raw foods that have added chemicals and preservatives (and often trans fats), which add flavor, prolongs shelf life, improves appearance; but these chemicals may trigger a higher risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Examples of processed foods are white bread, potato chips, cold cuts, packaged cereals and snacks, and artificial cheeses.
- Good if you have gluten or lactose sensitivity
Many adults have a deficiency of the enzymes needed to metabolize the lactose in dairy, and a growing number of peoples’ intestines are sensitive to the gluten found in grains. The paleo diet is a big help as it eliminates dairy and grains.
- May be based on flawed science
Anthropologists are not sure what exactly Paleolithic man ate—was it lots of meat; or mostly vegetables and fruits, with only occasional meat? Further, the vegetable and fruits from 10,000 years ago were much different than they are now. Through centuries of cultivation, growers have gradually (artificially) modified tomatoes, for example, from little berries full of seeds to the lush fruit we have today, and this is also true for many fruits. And, the idea that our intestines have been unable to adapt sufficiently over the past 10,000 years is controversial. Perhaps only true for some people from certain geographies and ancestries.
- Risks from lots of red meat
Adherents to the paleo diet can eat red meats without restriction, and some people may have no problem with this, while others will experience a sharp rise in their cholesterol levels. Heavy red meat consumption has also been linked to a higher cancer risk. However, this again is a complex issue, because if the paleo dieter eats lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and has cut out processed foods, these positive factors may cancel out the bad effects of the increased red meats. It’s complicated and no one knows the answer.
- It’s expensive and bad for the environment
Meats tend to be the most expensive part of a diet, and the most costly way to obtain protein. Further, if you think about the cost to the environment, raising animals for food is a bad deal. Not only do livestock contribute significantly to greenhouse gases, but also require lots of other resources. For the equivalent amount of weight, beef production requires at least 10x as much water as wheat production, and nearly 20x as much energy per calorie.
- It may take away too much pleasure and eliminates many healthy foods
If you follow the paleo diet strictly, you can’t have any ice cream, corn, whole wheat bread, pasta, and many other nice foods. Is the diet worth it? Sometimes when a diet restricts you too much, you end up eventually binging, and revert to even worse eating habits. Besides, cutting out foods such as dairy may limit your calcium intake, and cutting out grains and beans may deprive you of valuable, and less expensive, fiber and protein sources.
The bottom line
Balance all these factors and consider your health situation. For example, if you have sugar levels that are hard to control, the paleo diet could help a lot, but probably if you cut out sugars and increase your fiber intake, you would get the same result. Paleo could be good for lactose or gluten intolerant people, but cutting out dairy or grains would likely help just as much. If you do adopt the paleo diet, tell your doctor so he can keep a closer eye on certain blood markers, such as your lipid levels.
We think the best aspects of the paleo diet are that it prohibits processed foods, and cuts out simple sugars and added salt. Maybe the best compromise is to adopt a “modified paleo” diet— follow the best aspects of the paleo diet, and avoid the potential negative effects to your body and to the environment from unlimited meat consumption.
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