The Paleo Diet has gained immense popularity over the past year with the support of celebrities and health experts alike. Enthusiasts praise the Paleo Diet — popularized and trademarked by exercise physiologist Loren Cordain — for its supposed ability to increase energy, support weight loss and improve sleep. Its growing popularity has led several of my patients to ask what the diet consists of, if it is right for them and if there are any health risks associated with it.
The premise of the Paleo Diet is simple: Eat like a caveman — supposedly like our ancestors from 10,000 years ago. The diet’s eating plan focuses on organic fruits and vegetables, free-range, grass-fed animal proteins, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. The Paleo Diet has strict rules about avoiding processed foods, alcohol, dairy, sugars, sweets, gluten, grain and starchy vegetables.
While this diet aligns with the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, it exceeds the daily recommended amounts for fat and protein and lacks in substantial fiber and carbohydrates. The diet aims to cut out processed and refined foods (which is an excellent goal for your health), but it needlessly cuts out major food groups that provide good sources of calcium, protein and fiber.
While the Paleo Diet may be able to support weight loss and help improve some health concerns, it eliminates several food groups, the absence of which may not be sustainable for long-term health due to potential micronutrient deficiencies. In particular cutting out legumes, whole grains and dairy remove good sources of fiber, protein, calcium and vitamin D. Therefore, I recommend that you instead create a healthy eating plan that may include aspects of the Paleo Diet without being so restrictive. Here are a few other things to consider if you are thinking about starting the Paleo or a modified Paleo Diet.
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Ensure you have the time to prepare all of your meals. Due to the restrictive nature of the Paleo Diet and the elimination of processed foods, you will need to prepare most if not all of your foods at home, which can be difficult to do with a busy schedule. It can also be stressful if you prepare a Paleo meal for yourself, but need to prepare another type of meal for your family. Following the diet at restaurants can also be challenging as you need to ensure that the food you order is not made with sauces or dressings that are excluded in the diet.
The Paleo Diet can be expensive. Since it is based on organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats — all of which are some of the highest priced items in the grocery store — it can be difficult to budget. Especially during the winter months, when some fruits and vegetables are out of season, the diet can become extremely costly.
The Paleo Diet is restrictive. The more restrictive a diet, the harder it is to stick to it. Many people will drop a diet after only a few weeks if it is unrealistic. The best way to lose weight and keep it off is to identify a healthy eating plan that is sustainable for you. Furthermore, any overly restrictive diet may contribute to nutrient deficiency.
The good news is that certain elements of the Paleo Diet are healthy and, as supported by strong evidence, would benefit a majority of people. I recommend that you incorporate these aspects of the diet into your eating plan:
•Dramatically reduce or avoid all processed foods and refined sugars and sweeteners.
•Focus on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.
•When choosing animal products, look for lean cuts of meat and preferably free-range, wild, organic and grass-fed varieties.
Most successful, long-term, healthful eating plans are those that are not extremely restrictive. Opt for a realistic plan that will allow you to eat foods you enjoy while aligning with your overall health goals. If you don’t know where to start, visit a registered dietitian who can provide tips on creating an eating plan that’s right for you.
Kristal Lowe is a registered dietitian at Pacific Medical Centers and practices at the Canyon Park, Lynnwood, Northgate and Totem Lake clinics. Pacific Medical Centers is a private, not-for-profit, multispecialty health care network of nine clinics in Beacon Hill, Canyon Park, Federal Way, First Hill, Lynnwood, Northgate, Puyallup, Renton and Totem Lake (www.PacMed.org or 206-505-1300).