Paleo Diet – The Benefits and Risks you need to be aware of

Sumita Thomas

September 15, 2020

Our cavemen ancestors hunted and gathered food from their surroundings. We might not be following in their footsteps today, but we do our share of hunting for and gathering of food, only it’s from a supermarket now.

A fad diet that is currently trending, the Paleo Diet is inspired by food habits from the Stone Age. The Paleolithic Man was a food gatherer, depending for his subsistence, on hunting wild animals and birds, fishing, and collecting wild fruits, nuts and berries. The Paleo Diet, therefore, focuses primarily on fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and nuts. All processed foods — including salt, sugar, cream and oil — are a no-no as are milk and its products, grains, legumes, etc. Water, herbal teas, coconut water, freshly squeezed fruit or vegetable juice and red wine are permitted, while coconut or almond milk can replace regular dairy milk. Honey is preferred instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Deferring to modern times, the diet does not exclude cooked meat or vegetables. 

The Paleo Diet premise

Paleolithic diet

The idea of a Paleolithic diet was first introduced in a book by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin in 1975. But it gained popularity when Loren Cordain, PhD, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University, brought out the book The Paleo Diet in 2002.

The Paleo premise is simple. Evolving in a pre-modern food environment, our bodies were forced to adapt to inconsistent food supply. The body’s fat storage capacity, for instance, stems from an era when those reserves were necessary to tide over times of scarcity. Today, our food environment has changed, but our bodies haven’t. We’re adapted to food scarcity, but surrounded by overabundance and the constant struggle to limit our consumption. In this scenario, the Paleo Diet attempts to help people lose weight by re-creating the food environment that we evolved for.

As Cordain explains, the diet lessens the body’s glycemic load, has a healthy ratio of saturated-to-unsaturated fatty acids, increases vitamin and nutrient consumption, and contains an optimal balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates. (Paleolithic humans ate 35% of their calories from fat, 35% from carbohydrates and 30% from protein.) By eating according to the high fiber, high protein Paleolithic diet, Cordain claims you’ll lose weight and be less likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, cancer or other health problems.

Benefits of the Paleo Diet

weight loss

Do Cordain’s claims hold true? There’s very little scientific research to back the health claims. However, the diet can be beneficial for those with cardiovascular issues, and the fiber you get from fruits and even nuts (that are allowed) are good for everyone.

As far as weight loss goes, given its focus on proteins like lean meat and seafood, the Paleo Diet fills you up quickly which in turn helps reduce your calorie intake. Also, the benefits of cutting processed foods from your diet, thereby reducing sodium consumption, are huge.

But the risk are greater

Firstly, know that the Paleo Diet is not necessarily a balanced diet. Also, it isn’t really possible to eat the same food that our ancestors had, especially since many of the plants that existed back then have disappeared and meat isn’t as lean or nutrient-rich as it was back in the day.

Secondly, the diet cuts out major food groups – legumes, whole grains and dairy, that are all forbidden. Even though they contain essential nutrients that can help lower the risk of health ailments such as osteoporosis. There is also the risk of toxins from having too much fish.

Thirdly, consumption of excess protein is also a risk, as that can cause kidney damage. That’s why it’s essential that the Paleo Diet only be started after consulting with a doctor.  Calcium and Vitamin D supplements may have to be taken alongside, especially when you’re starting out. A doctor can guide you with that.

Lastly, because of the amount of planning that has to go into every meal, it’s a tough diet to follow. Going on and off of it can cause major weight swings.

While the Paleo Diet has many takers in the US, in a country like India it’s still to take off because cereals, salt and spices, grains and dairy products are a major part of the Indian diet. For those who want to give it a try, start with just about three meals a week and then increase it slowly.

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About the Author

For Sumita Thomas, good nutrition advice is less about what NOT to eat and all about HOW to eat. Armed with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition and dietetics from IGNOU, Sumita has worked with multi-specialty clinics and corporate clients, planning calorie-specific menus for their cafeterias. She’s also a certified diabetes educator, has worked in cardiac nutrition and is even a TUV-certified internal auditor for food safety management systems. Maybe that’s why she ensures her advice is always scientifically sound, which makes her a perfect fit for us at HealthifyMe. Of the belief that a healthy lifestyle can be achieved with the combination of a healthy mind, body and diet, Sumita recommends setting realistic goals – one health target a day – and gradually incorporating healthy ingredients to your daily diet. Does she practice what she preaches? For sure, and ensures all those around her do too. So get set, because that now includes you!

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