Eating Like a Caveman: A Look at the Paleo Diet

One of the new diet trends gaining popularity is the Paleolithic diet which also goes by Caveman, Primal, Paleo or the Stone Age diet. It first became popular in the mid 1970’s with Walter Voegtlin’s book “The Stone Age Diet.” The basic philosophy is that caveman ate more naturally than society does today. The Paleo diet includes foods that can be hunted, fished and gathered. This is because caveman had no large scale production, agriculture, grocery stores or storage facilities. The foods allowed in the Paleo diet include: meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruits, and berries. The foods that are not recommended include: dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, potatoes, processed oils, and any foods that were grown after the agricultural revolution. You have the option to also skip salt and alcohol, even though they were consumed prior to the revolution. Fluid intake is limited to water, coconut water and organic herbal teas. Sweetness can be found in the form of honey, palm sugar, and dark chocolate, but only in limited quantities.

According to the Paleo diet, our bodies are not designed to handle the foods of the post agricultural revolution and consumption of these foods leads to a diet heavy in starch (grains, legumes and potatoes), salt, sugar, animal byproducts, preservatives, nitrates, artificial flavors and colors, etc. The Paleo diet suggests chronic illness’s such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and obesity are potentially the result of consumption of these post agriculture revolution foods. Choosing foods rich in lean protein, healthy fats, and plant fibers, while consuming minimal liquid calories, provides you with a diet that will fill you up, manage blood sugar levels, and prevent weight gain. All in which will help reduce your risk for the before mentioned chronic diseases. (It’s no surprise that these are similar recommendation to those of dietitians.)

For years dietitians have encouraged a diet based on whole foods, vegetables, lean meats, fruits, and less sugar, sodium, and processed foods. (Maybe if we come up with catchy name, instead of healthy diet people will buy into the idea more!) However, we also encourage low-fat dairy, legumes, and whole grains based on the large body of evidence that supports the role these foods have in a healthy well-balanced diet.

Food choices

Currently there are many different variations to the Paleo diet; some followers encourage organic, grass-fed beef, while others just encourage lean protein. Some say absolutely no dairy, while others eat high fat yogurt and cheeses. There are others that disagree as to which fruits and vegetables are allowed. These variations can make the diet difficult to follow.
To say the Paleo diet is healthier than other diets may not be true, in fact there is very little scientific evidence to support the Paleo diet. However, there is a large amount of evidence that demonstrates highly processed, high-glycemic foods are unhealthy. For instance, historically people in China followed a predominantly vegetarian diet, rich in beans, legumes, vegetables, fish, rice and noodles. Diabetes was rare in China until people began to eat foods of the modern Western diet. For centuries, people in China ate grains without health problems and it was not until the introduction of refined sugars and processed foods that the incidence of chronic disease’s increased.

My experience

Since I participate in the world of Crossfit, I often get asked about the Paleo diet; therefore I decided to try it out for 30 days. In order to increase my success rate and fully understand the diet as a whole, I sought out someone who would coach me through it and to make sure I was doing it properly. I agreed to the variation of Paleo which included no dairy or grains. I also learned that I would need to take calcium, vitamin D, and Omega 3 fish oil supplements. In our first meeting we reviewed the basic macronutrients involved in the diet, which are: protein, fat and carbohydrates (carbs). To determine which category a food item belongs to, you have to determine what macronutrient the item is mostly composed of. For instance, a common breakfast I would have is ½ a chicken apple Spolumbo® sausage (protein), an apple (carb) and 2 tbsp of almond butter (fat). I learned how important it is to include a protein, fat and carb at every meal to succeed with the Paleo diet. I find people will try to cut out the fat in order to cut calories, but you need a little bit at each meal otherwise you will be consuming a very low calorie diet. As an athlete this will sabotage your strength gains because your body will use muscle as a fuel source because you are not providing enough fuel (calories) through your diet.
When I read some of the statements people made about the transformations the Paleo diet made in their lives such as: improved energy, better sleep and multiple health benefits, I honestly thought to myself that they probably came from eating a better diet in general…maybe not necessarily just the Paleo diet. For myself, the results of following the Paleo diet were not as dramatic, however this was most likely due to the fact that as a dietitian, my lifestyle already included plenty of exercise and a balanced diet. I will admit the first two weeks were hard and I felt like I was running out of energy early on in my workouts, but my body did adjust and I began to feel strong again. As a bonus, the 3 pound weight loss I experienced did help to improve my pull ups and muscle ups!

Going through the process really helped me learn more about food, its composition and processing. It also helped me become a more efficient label reader. I am more aware of where extra sugar crept into my diet without me noticing it. If it was in my coffee, tea, or a chocolate someone had brought into work. In general, I was able to become more mindful of what I was eating, instead of just running on auto pilot.

One thing I learned very quickly from the Paleo diet is that you needed to plan ahead! It is easier if someone gives you a menu plan, grocery list, and recipes, but you still need to look at your schedule and figure out when you have time to cook. A downside to the diet was that it was the first time I started to have a negative association with food, this was interesting to me because my career is focused on food. I felt my whole life became about, shopping for food, preparing food and cooking food. For myself, I had to devote at least 2 days a week to cooking and shopping, this included going to multiple markets for my food (farmers markets, grass fed butchers and Planet Organic). There was also time spent budgeting, as my food costs went up from $60 to $130 a week!

One tip I have for anyone who plans to try the Paleo diet is to always carry food with you! Food courts and restaurants rarely offer food choices which are suitable for the diet therefore, if you find yourself hungry and away from home you will have two choices: go home to eat or “cheat” on your diet. I found this out the hard way. Not wanting to “cheat” I had to drive all the way back home just to grab a snack…not great when you are trying to tackle your to-do list! This is also true when you are invited for a night out with friends. You will need to know which restaurant you are going to in order to determine if there are any meal choices you can have, this can be tough if the ingredients are not listed on-line or at the restaurant.

What I eat now

The Paleo Diet does have some good aspects, but the limitations make it another diet that people go on but are not able to sustain. Most people I talk with follow it for 3-4 weeks (as I did) then find it too difficult to continue. One Athlete I spoke with committed to the diet for 3-4 years, but then started to suffer from adrenal fatigue and was instructed to include gains in her diet again. The Paleo diet can be hard to follow because of the lack of variety, restrictions, cost and potential nutrient deficiencies. I still follow a lot of the principals of paleo but I have modified it to make it more sustainable for myself. I am a firm believer on eating less processed foods and I keep variety in my diet by trying at least one new recipe a week. I include yogurt and cheese, and occasionally a latte. I am mindful of the amount calcium I include in my diet and supplement on the days when I don’t meet my requirements through diet. I do include grains/starches in my diet but I try for quality and not quantity therefore, I include a small amount at meals, balanced with lean protein, and lots of vegetables. The grains I use regularly include: quinoa, brown rice, steel-cut oats, barley, sweet potatoes, and small baby potatoes. I continue to eat lots of vegetables. Most importantly I check in with myself every day to acknowledge my energy levels, my feelings towards the food I ate and if I felt satisfied. I continue to evolve my diet so it is one that I am happy with, and provides my body with what I need. As I dietitian and an athlete, I understand that what works for me now may not work for me next year, therefore my diet is constantly evolving.

If you want to try Paleo or Caveman diet, talk to a professional to help you plan it out, understand how to balance your meals, as well as what supplements you might need. My experience as a private practice dietitian is that no diet is the same, what works for one person may not work for another. I know for myself, being of Italian descent, asking me to never eat pasta again….well that might be my own version of hell, but now I experiment with making my own pasta and sauce so I know the ingredients.

Maybe the lesson we can learn from the Paleo diet is if you have to read an ingredient list, you should question that food item. My rule is “if I can’t pronounce an ingredient or visualize what the ingredient looks likes, I put it down”. At the end of the day it’s my body and I expect a lot of it, therefore I have to be smart about the fuel I choose to run on for now and for long term.

January 22, 2012
Revive Wellness