Unless you’ve been living in a cave or under a rock, you have probably heard ad nauseam about how wonderful the paleo diet is.
While there are many benefits to eating natural. whole, unprocessed foods which do not contain added preservatives, colorings, chemicals or pesticides, your body needs a healthy combination of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and water to produce all the amino acids for cell growth and for providing sustained energy for physical activity and maintenance of the immune system.
Once that ratio is out of balance, it will start to put a burden on your body, often causing you to breakdown muscle tissue or bone to provide for the missing nutrients.
Before you put your head in a vise and worry that you do not possibly have the scientific knowledge to decide what foods are good for you and what foods are bad and in what combinations they should be consumed, chances are, if you are eating a variety of foods from a number of natural food sources and steering clear of sweets and highly processed foods, you are probably on the right track.
In general, the adult human needs about half their calories to be in the form of carbohydrates. That amount can be as low as 40 percent to as high as 65 percent and remember not all carbohydrates are created equal. Doughnuts and apples, baked potatoes and pop corn are all considered carbohydrates, but the nutrients vary greatly.
Protein levels can be as low as ten percent or as high as 35 percent and 20 to 35 percent of your calories should be from fats.
If you think the fat calories are high, remember again that fats come in different packages. If you eat nuts, drink milk, eat cheese or eat any fried foods, you are probably already getting enough fat in your diet
Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products, not just in bread and sweets. They provide glucose to fuel the body and the brain and are essential in the diet, though table sugar, syrup, white bread and sweet treats are not essential!
Fat not only insulates you in winter, it also helps transport nutrients and is a structural component of cells and blood vessels, helping to keep your nervous system functioning and padding vital organs to protect them from shock. Fat serves as a fuel source as well, but is designed more as a back up to carbohydrate fueled glucose. Excess glucose is stored as fat the body.
Fiber is also important in the diet and is not found in meat. It is actually a carbohydrate which cannot be digested, so acts to sweep out your system and helps regulate digestion and excretion to keep your bowels healthy.
Protein is necessary to help muscles grow and provide the building blocks for cells. Protein can be found in plants as well as animals and many grains contain as much protein as meat and milk. While it is important to get enough protein, most people get too much and if your diet is mainly meat based, you may find that taking in too much animal based protein may lead to more disease rather than less over time.
The main beef with the paleo diet is that it is lacking in carbohydrates and can add too much animal fat and protein, not enough fiber and can restrict nutrients found in a wide variety of plant based foods which have been proven to lead to good health and should not be eliminated simply because the Neanderthals might not have had access to them.
According to recent studies on healthy eating, the Mediterranean and Flextarian (mostly vegetarian or vegan with occasional meat) topped out the list of natural health sustainable diets, while the Paleo, Atkins and Acid/Alkaline landed in the worst categories; with the Paleo receiving a 1.9 out of 5 ranking for healthy living by The US News and World Report.
Paleontologists themselves scoff a bit at the claims of today’s diets actually being paleo and since the average “caveman” was lucky to live past thirty, the diet isn’t one to choose if you want to live a long and healthy life.
Research from different sites shows that Neanderthals, while mostly eating a diet in large game animals, also consumed foods native to their region which included tubers, wild greens, fish and shell fish when they were available. In other words, our late ancestors were opportunistic eaters, consuming whatever they could find to sustain them.
Kale and spinach and quinoa were probably unheard of as well, so the modern paleo diet is viewed as somewhat subjective, though dietitians agree that it is not a bad idea to limit your intake of sugary sweets and highly processed goods made from flour and chemical additives that have little to no nutrient value.
In studies of athletes, a strict paleo diet with no grain or starchy vegetable based carbohydrates was found to provide inadequate energy to working muscles as well, with most long distance runners stating that they had to cheat on the diet before a big race or they were unable to sustain energy levels in the later part of the run.
Others reported feeling sluggish and resorted to carbohydrate laden gels to get them through, though some resorted to cookies made from ground nuts and fruit and found this an adequate carbohydrate replacer. All reported needing more carbs to sustain their body’s fuel requirements and maintain energy levels.
The research for athletes and those who work demanding physical jobs shows that long term high protein/low carbohydrate diets do not provide adequate energy.
In the short term, high protein diets have not been shown to be entirely detrimental and have been shown to improve cardiovascular health (when eating lean proteins) and reduce girth circumference. But many who went on high protein diets reported numerous problems from constipation to loss of energy.
The paleo diet is a less harsh version of Atkins which prohibits most vegetables and fruits as well, but it still restricts grains and legumes which are a healthy alternative to meat and often cost less to produce and consume.
Carbohydrate rich plant foods generally tend to have high levels of nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B, D, E, K and more. The fiber in plants also keeps the intestinal tract clean and helps maintain good bacteria in the gut and many beans and nuts provide as much protein as meats.
The average high meat based diet can provide as few as two grams of fiber per day. Research suggests that 28 grams is about the minimum you want to take in each day. Since fiber helps sweep out the intestines, you can see where having food sit in your intestines for long periods of time, might not be the best option.
Since the body relies on glucose from carbohydrates as a quick energy source, people who eat high levels of proteins and low levels of carbs tend to have less sustained energy and may feel dizzy or nauseated after exercising as well.
If levels of carbohydrates are too low, the body will burn fat as fuel, which is why the Paleo diet is so popular. Who doesn’t want to get rid of a that excess poundage that wiggles and jiggles and makes you feel like Jabba the Hutt?
Unfortunately you also tend to break down muscle tissue and ketones (by products of fat burning which can poison your blood and mess with your ability to utilize glucose in the case of diabetics). Putting the body in a state of ketosis can lead to bad breath and funny smelling urine as well, which while not inherently harmful, can lead to what has been termed “brain fog” which can lead to loss of balance and an inability to concentrate.
You need about forty grams of carbohydrates a day to prevent from going into ketosis and you can easily achieve this through the addition of vegetables and fruits, so again, what makes the paleo diet bad?
Part of the problem is long term intake of high protein/low carbohydrates. High levels of proteins have been associated with gout, kidney stones, infections, reduced kidney output
Harvard researchers found that high-protein diets were associated with a significant decline in kidney function, based on observations of 1,624 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study. The damage was found only in those who already had reduced kidney function to begin with, even though most were unaware that they had an issue.
The study estimated that 40 percent of adults over age 40 in the United States already have reduced kidney function and that if those 40 percent were to go on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet, they would cause greater harm to themselves that may lead to irreparable kidney damage.
The American Academy of Family Physicians confirms that high animal protein intake is the main cause of kidney stones in the U.S and elsewhere and recommends that people restrict protein to prevent recurrent kidney stones.
Protein ingestion increases renal acid secretion and calcium resorption from bone and reduces renal calcium resorption as well, which could lead to early onset osteoporosis.
Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, atrial fibrillation, coronary arteriosclerosis, and high serum cholesterol have all been reported by people on long term diets high in animal protein, though studies of short term intake of high animal protein have not found a relation to heart disease and instead have found a decrease in cardiovascular issues, possibly because the high intake of meat is preventing other poor food choices from taxing the system. Few of the studies involving high meat consumption and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease looked at participants beyond a three month period.
The paleo diet encourages eating grass fed beef and low fat animal protein, which also may aid in reduction of heart disease, yet numerous studies have looked into the effects of whole grains in helping prevent heart disease and much of them deserve merit.
The potentially adverse effects of low-carbohydrate diets have been long been studied by scientists and most whole grains contain vital nutrients and oils which aid in dietary health and provide fiber and sustained energy levels, though a balance of carbs, fats and proteins are advised to ensure proper nutrition and a balance of minerals and blood ph. While few people need to go on an acid/alkaline diet, there is the real possibility of creating a heart arrhtymia due to low blood mineral levels which are negatively impacted by ketosis.
As if heart and bone problems were not enough, high levels of protein have also been associated with gallbladder disease including gallstones. Gout is also associated with high protein diets and can lead to joint swelling and pain.
So, let’s recap. A high protein diet with carbohydrate restrictions, over time, can lead to ketosis, osteoporosis, lack of energy, constipation, colon cancer, heart disease, heart arrythmias, gallstones, kidney stones and renal impairment, especially in individuals with diabetes.
There is nothing wrong with eating a balanced diet and cutting out heavily processed foods which have been stripped of all nutrient value, but there is a big difference between eating a doughnut or piece of cake and eating a bowl of oatmeal or a sweet potato. Though eliminating protein and fats from the diet can be just as harmful as eliminating carbohydrates.
If cavemen did not eat lemons or oranges, it was probably because they did not have them readily available to eat. It does not mean that they are unhealthy!
It is definitely wise to eat organically grown local plant based foods when available and avoid low nutrient processed grains and grain by-products, but unless you are gluten intolerant or allergic to a certain grain, there is no need to eliminate them from the diet because our meat eating ancestors may not have had access to them.
Suffice it to say that eating high protein diets over the long term is not a wise decision and could lead to long term negative consequences. If you are allergic to gluten or cannot control a lust for cookies, pies and cakes, then eating more naturally and cutting out wheat may benefit you more than harm you, but there is nothing inherently evil about eating grains, beans, peas or root vegetables.
Despite media accounts of dramatic weight loss by cutting out carbs, high protein diet effects on body weight is similar to that of other weight-reduction diets.
Studies at Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Medical Center suggest that an average of 20 pounds is lost on high protein diets during the first six months of the diet. Similar weight loss diets based on vegetarian diets have produced the same results with no animal protein.
After comparing different weight loss diets over a year, there was no significant benefits of one diet over another and cutting calories seemed to be the best indicator of weight loss no matter what foods were restricted.
So bottom line, if you are looking to get healthy, have sustained energy and lose weight, your best bet is a well balanced diet of whole foods that you prepare yourself from fresh or fresh frozen ingredients.
If you have had negative or positive results on the paleo diet, please feel free to share your results and how long you have been on the diet and if you have cheated on it or stayed true to the program.