“Mediating the Dispute: Is Paleo a Fad Diet?” by Paul Nobles

“Mediating the Dispute: Is Paleo a Fad Diet?” by Paul Nobles

“Us vs. them” is a story as old as time.  Since it became popular, the Paleo diet has received a ton of criticism from people who regard it as a fad diet.  Likewise, advocates have stepped up to defend an approach that may have helped them lose weight and improve their health dramatically…An approach they may have a lot of personal investment in.  Both sides get pretty entrenched in their own arguments AND both sides believe they have the science on their side.  So I thought I might break down the argument with the way we think of meats and veggies.

Paleo or “eating clean” is basically adhering to a list of meats and veggies; that is the heart of the diet.  It’s a high protein, high fat, fairly low carbohydrate (Although some advocates would argue against the fact) way of eating because the majority of recommended sources are high fiber, low starch so the carbs net out to a very low amount as a general rule.

It’s fine if you feel the need to argue the low carb point but just remember, this is my opinion.  I welcome your opinion but realize that whatever argument or side you choose, you have to be respectful and speak like an adult.  I say this because these type of articles – articles that off constructive analysis of a diet or lifestyle – tend to bring out extremists that really have no interest in facts.  They basically want to spit their point of view.  That is fine.  Get your own page and rally your supporters.  This is OUR page, this is what WE believe.

There are some basic TRUTHs to this idea.  If you aren’t fueling your day with carbs, you are reliant mostly on fats.  Also meats and veggies don’t really add up to all that many calories unless you are really trying hard (bacon is a condiment, it’s not really meat).  When I say meat, I mean steak, pork chops, chicken, fish, etc. otherwise known as “grown up” food.  If you want to call whole foods Paleo, I am cool with that because it means you are probably moving from a lifestyle of mostly processed foods.  Not only is that a good thing, but…

It happens to the main mechanism by which Paleo works in the beginning.

So let’s talk about that a bit.  I have heard many times that Paleo, Weight Watchers, The Zone or really any number of diets have worked for people.  When I ask these folks if they were over eating before they started, they typically look at me and stare like “Duh, seriously?”

I would argue that point is debatable but let’s assume they are right; let’s assume they are in fact over eating and now they’re restricting calories.  Isn’t THAT the real mechanism for why any diet works?  What we will often hear is “I mostly ate like shit and then I started eating Paleo and I lost a lot of weight/fat.”  So eating like shit played a role in the equation.  That subtle detail is lost on a lot of people but it’s important.

If you want to divide your foods into a “naughty” and “nice” list I would ask you to make one subtle change.  Make it a “mostly do” list.  If we view Paleo as a “mostly do” list then great, I think that is a good thing.  If we view it as a “naughty” list, that ultimately ends with a lot of people feeling shame and guilt.  To me, that’s unacceptable.  Constant resets of 7 days and 30 days based on someone’s opinion of food is ridiculous.

Own your journey, make informed decisions and ignore the zealots.  Frankly, they are just looking for people exactly like them anyway.  Misery loves company and making food a joyless experience shouldn’t be allowed, no matter how you choose to eat.

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Paleos Evolution and Where We Are Now

Initially Paleo was focused on mostly lean meats and vegetables.  The problem with that is it had a limited time frame.  You pretty much go from 0 to “this sucks” in a very short period of time.  As things evolved some of the primary movers (authors) began to focus on fats as the primary fuel source.  Basically, if you aren’t choosing glucose any longer you have to choose fats.  Like I said, for short periods of time you can get away with both but that isn’t sustainable.

The other idea is that eating Paleo is a way of addressing food allergy issues.  Essentially you are taking out most of the foods that you would be sensitive to and many people do report back that they feel better.  Of course it might not be the “Paleo” that is completely responsible for the alleviation of the symptom, but if you were eating in a relatively irresponsible way it seems somewhat logical you would feel better.WHATEVER YOU CALL THAT!

The idea is that after a certain amount of time, you would gradually add in foods to figure out which foods you were sensitive too.  The other basic idea that was brought up in the original text is the 80/20 rule.  Once you figure out which foods do and don’t work for you, the hypothesis is that if you eat 80% meats and veggies but allow some leniency 20% of the time, you’d wind up with a great formula for life.

It’s hard to argue those points because I think most critics would agree that is more of the answer than the problem.

So let’s break it down:

Don’t eat foods that disagree with you.

Rely mostly on fats for energy (fat adapted).

20% of the time, eat things you enjoy that aren’t on the “mostly do” list

Sounds good right?

Paleo Authors and The War On Moderation

Diet authors often start with a great premise, and eating mostly meats and veggies is a pretty rational, moderate one.  There are lots of variations now but one consistent theme is starting to emerge:  The 80/20 concept isn’t working for people.  So naturally, in an age of social media people go back to authors and say “This isn’t working.”  This is the problem with black and white thinking, so naturally very high profile authors in the Paleo world are pointing to “moderation” as the problem.  Paleo treats are another favorite target.

Critics are using this against the Paleo advocates pointing out that “fad diets” almost never work and you know what, on that point, they are dead on.  Diet authors tend to want to shame clients into believing that adherence or willpower is the issue.  After all, that shifts the blame from them and their method.  You are hearing much more diligence and posts regarding the over reliance on Paleo treats.

Meanwhile many authors are capitalizing on just that; most of the authors sell or endorse processed versions of Paleo foods.  The reason is simple:  for short periods of time people can strictly adhere to things, but almost everyone requires some level of convenience in their lives.  So it seems somewhat hypocritical to recommend mostly whole foods but then also sell Paleo bars and grass fed whey protein.  You don’t get to say on the one hand that you should avoid “energy-dense processed” foods and then provide a version of them on your website that is somehow OK.  It kills your credibility.

(Incidentally, we argue in favor of energy density for most of our clients so it’s not surprising at all that Paleo authors found a need and filled it.)

Which brings me back to the beginning

Quality of Food vs. Calorie Intake

If you were eating without regard for the quality of your food, and started to eat better, it should be logical that your health equation might improve.  The problem is that when you add things up, the real magic isn’t the mostly whole foods; it’s the fact that Paleo represents a way to eat at a deficit if you are coming from a mostly processed foods background.  If you aren’t tracking and seeing results, this seems like nirvana.  If you aren’t seeing results, the reason the “naughty” and “nice” list approach to food isn’t working for you isn’t because you had red wine on date night – it’s because you used your “low calorie” trump card and your body adjusted (and no, it didn’t put you in starvation mode, it’s normal for your body to adjust).

The simple fact is that whether you’re relying on either glucose (carbs) or mostly lipids (fats) for energy, your body becomes more inflexible as a result.  Paleo authors are wrong to declare war on moderation and suggest strict adherence because it leads to a cycle of endless dieting where the end-users are painted in a low calorie corner with seemingly few options.

The answer isn’t more rigidity and greater adherence!  The answer is to quit dieting all the damn time (and yes Paleo is a diet, it’s not a way of eating).  As you guys can probably tell, I sit in the middle of both sides but I can tell you that every time I hear a post about “Paleo Treats” or “moderation doesn’t work” I go farther and farther to the other side and so should you.  Eating a diet of mostly whole foods just makes you and adult and if you feel a need to convert everyone to your way of inflexible eating, I would like to ask you why you think that’s necessary.  Is it because you genuinely want to help others or because you are miserable and would like company?

I am not arguing against occasionally eating at a deficit but if you aren’t getting specific results eating Paleo, it isn’t because your lack of will or the fact that you had dark chocolate on Tuesday; it’s because your journey isn’t over.

For a lot of people, Paleo was a great tool to begin their journey with.  I can tell you though, as someone that works with people to develop effective nutritional approaches on a daily basis, that it’s very difficult to get a specific result with a non-specific approach.  When progress stalls – especially fat loss – most people default to eating fewer meats and veggies.  This just isn’t going to cut it when you’re already undereating.

In this case, you need a new tool – or at least a modified approach.  It’s akin to driving a nail into stainless steel sheet metal with a rock or trying to bake a cake in a microwave; yeah, you might make it work, but chances are it’s going to be unnecessarily painful and frustrating and the result won’t be what you’d expect.