A nice chap on Twitter challenged my thoughts and opinions on the Paleo Diet. Am I a lover or a hater?
It could be considered standard practice for a health professional to dismiss the Paleo Diet as nothing but a fad, a diet that is BAD, and just a bit mad. However, I am of the opinion that most ‘diets’ have their pros and cons, work for some people and not for others. As I always say, what works for you and what you are happy with is your business. If you feel the need to change and want to change, that’s terrific too.
Here is a bullet point overview of the paleo diet. I could witter on forever about it, but I’ll try to keep it brief!
What is the Paleo Diet?
- short for paleolithic, also known as hunter-gatherer or caveman diet.
- consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts
- excludes grains (including wheat & rice), legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils
- based on the premise that humans have not evolved to digest and metabolise the excluded foods
- seen as a lifestyle, rather than a ‘diet’ one ‘goes on’
- based on wholesome, unprocessed foods, high in vitamins and minerals (except calcium), antioxidants, and essential fatty acids
- elimination of processed foods
- no specialist ‘diet foods’
- eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat if you’re not
- when strictly followed, will probably result in weight loss due to a reduction in calories
- no calorie counting required – a massive plate of veg with a portion of meat should fill you up
- many people do have a gluten/lactose intolerance, the diet can help identify these
- restrictive, can result in feeling deprived leading to rebellion and over eating
- requires careful planning and a lot of will power
- eating out and as a guest at other people’s houses can be very difficult
- expensive to buy pasture raised meat, wild fish (£10 per salmon fillet anyone?) etc.
- there is the opinion that the whole philosophy is based on speculation about what our ancestors ate
- humans have not stopped evolving, an example being the evolution of lactose tolerance in Europeans
What about for athletes?
Having witnessed first hand the implementation of the Paleo Diet with professional athletes, I’m more skeptical about it’s application for sports people. The leading expert on all things Paleo, Loren Cordain, followed his original book with one on the diet for athletes. Just one of the aspects which I find tricky is the use of carbohydrate. He fully acknowledges the need for adapting the diet for very active individuals, advocating that 50% calories should come from carbohydrate, including the introduction of potato, sweet potato, dried fruits and fruit juice. In the book ‘The Paleo Diet for Athletes’ he writes:
“of course, this carbohydrate should primarily come from fruit and vegetables, so calories aren’t wasted by eating food lacking micro nutrients”.
He follows with an example diet for a 10 stone athlete training 15 hours/week requiring 3000kcal/day. I analysed the nutrients…… Dr Cordain only managed to get 30% calories carbohydrate (fruit/veg), and this seemed to be mainly from fruit juice. I therefore question how athletes requiring large calorie intakes can realistically follow his regimen.
Due to the impossible task of getting 50% of calories from fruit and veg, I have witnessed first hand the reduction in training performance (feeling weak and dizzy), constant hunger, poorer body compostition, and difficulty in socialising (as a dinner guest or in restaurants).
For people who have a high intake of processed food, are over weight or who want to try to improve their health, a relaxed version of the Paleo Diet may be worth a try! There is no doubt that wholesome, unprocessed
foods: fish, meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts are of benefit. Adopt a common sense approach to including grains and dairy eg. swap Frosties for oats, chips for basmati/brown rice.
Athletes, be careful not to sacrifice your performance in training and in competition for an ideological diet that is not meeting your nutritional needs. The basic principles can be adapted to meet your training goals and to achieve optimal performance.
- “You can’t out run your fork” for optimal health, diet is paramount
- Eat wholesome real foods, eat food that goes off before it goes off!
- Load your plate up with vegetables, a handful of grains and a portion of protein
- Make small changes over a period of time so that it becomes a lifestyle, not a fad diet that you follow for a few weeks