When I walked into the gym I currently go to, I had heard the Paleo Diet mentioned only one other time in passing. When my fellow gym members started asking how I lost over 60 pounds in about a year, I said “Honestly, I eat mostly meats and veggies.” They said “That sounds like Paleo.”
I had no problem with them having that opinion because in my previous life, I relied on overly-processed convenience foods that didn’t provide me with adequate nutrition. Call it what you will – Paleo, clean eating, whole foods – it’s all good to me.
With all that said, let’s get into the history of the Paleo Diet a bit because similar to Paleolithic man, it has evolved.
Dr. Loren Cordain’s book “The Paleo Diet” popularized the concept of ancestral nutrition. Cordain and others before him hypothesized that many modern ailments – obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer – are linked to our diets, which have become increasingly dependent upon foods that were not available to our paleolithic ancestors. Specifically, the Paleo Diet removes grains, legumes, dairy, and most processed foods in an effort to improve overall health. “Paleo friendly” foods include protein sources like lean meats and seafood, with most of your carbohydrates coming from fibrous vegetables.
Many critics suggest that Paleo has become a fad diet, and there is a lot of evidence their criticisms are supported (I will talk more about that later). Whether you agree or disagree with the premise, it’s hard to argue that eating real food isn’t good for you.
So let’s break this down: when your diet consists of mostly meat and veggies, it’s probably very nutritious and provides your body with plenty of protein and essential fats. In the end however, there aren’t a lot of Calories there (I’ll talk more about that later as well).
Like the Atkins Diet, the goal of the Paleo Diet was some level of restriction followed by an eventual re-introduction of previously off-limits foods. He mentions an 80-20 way of eating from a maintenance perspective (80 being mostly meats and veggies, 20 eating more liberally).
It wouldn’t be long before the “lean meats” thing came under fire. The problem was that when you eat a high protein, low fat, low carb diet, you’re essentially relying too heavily on stored body fat for energy. This works if you’re carrying excess body fat, but it fails people who’re leaner. Many of the current iterations of Paleo rely heavily on fats from animals and certain oils (i.e. coconut oil) as an energy source. This allowed the Diet to be more sustainable for relatively sedentary people.
The next big step was making adjustments for athletes. Dr. Cordain wrote a follow-up book called “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” and made some very non-Paleo recommendations, even going so far as to suggest that athletes drink Gatorade.
Next, Mark Sisson’s “Primal Blueprint” opened people up to a few ideas that significantly altered the course of the movement. Mainly, the inclusion of occasional dairy, (assuming it wasn’t an issue) as well as supplements like protein powders, vitamins, and digestive enzymes made Sisson’s version of the diet more accessible. In addition, starchy carbs like potatoes and even white rice were added to the list of acceptable foods for Paleo athletes. That was a BIG change that brought us to where we are today.
Let Me Introduce You To Paleo 3.0
One of the main appeals of Paleo is that you can eat intuitively and lose weight if (notice I didn’t say lose fat) you were coming from a mostly processed way of eating. I mentioned earlier that Paleo has received many criticisms. One of the most egregious offenses to point out is that people started drinking buttered coffee with 500 calories of fat and oils in an effort to keep their fat high and their carbs low. To some, this is evidence that Paleo has completely jumped the shark. I look at it as a misapplication.
Recently I saw a food log where half of the persons daily calories came from butter/MCT oil coffee (MCT oil is Medium Chain Triglycerides, mostly derived from coconut oil in her instance). She couldn’t understand why her body fat was still going up but she was keeping insulin repressed by cutting carbs. Well, as it turns out, your body can store fat if you’re in a Calorie surplus! That is a great example of intuitive eating gone bad – it’s really no better than binging on McDoubles and Coca Cola.
When we work with clients coming from a “Paleo” background, we don’t try to convert them from the way they have chosen to eat. Our role is to enlighten them on how they can make their choices better. The story usually goes like this: intuitive eating has left them under eating protein, their carbs are unreasonably low for the amount of activity they get, and in many cases they have traded their overly processed carbohydrates for a way of eating that’s overly reliant on fats.
In that case, there are some rules to follow that don’t break the Paleo framework.
Here Are The New Rules
1. If you aren’t interested in specific results, you can’t complain that Paleo isn’t working for you. Clean eating as an example isn’t a plan it’s the absence of one.
2. Eat with a purpose. If you ARE looking for specific results, you need to know how much protein, carbs, and fat you’re supposed to eat. You need to know how many Calories your body needs to function properly. Luckily, we have a calculator to help you figure those numbers out for yourself.
3. Log your food (occasionally). If you are looking for specific results, YOU HAVE TO LOG YOUR FOOD at least occasionally. Otherwise you’re just guessing at how much you’re eating. For instance, if you upped your protein and it helped you lean out, wouldn’t you want to know that? Without logging your food on occasion, you’ll end up very confused.
4. Eat at maintenance and don’t be too strict. You have to move to an “80/20” style of eating and up your calories to maintenance, otherwise you’re just painting yourself into a low Calorie, low carb corner. You’ll obviously get results in the short term by being super strict and eating almost nothing, but you WILL plateau. You have to take long diet breaks, maintain your body composition, and expand your work capacity as a result before you get back to the fat loss.
5. If you’re an athlete, you have to eat starches. Carbohydrates are your best friend if you want to improve performance. FOR ATHLETES who want to lean out, I lower the fats first. The reason is simple: athletic endeavors tear down muscle fiber and protein and carbs are more important to the recovery process than fat is at the moment. For a lot of athletes I don’t recommend dieting for more than 8-10 weeks. The goal is typically very specific – one pound of weight loss a week. This formula works well for most people and also gets you out of the Paleo Challenge “rinse and repeat” cycles were people get too aggressive in too short of a time period and end up losing muscle and sometimes gaining fat as a result.
6. Eat intuitively. Since you won’t be dieting, the majority of the time you won’t be looking for a specific result, so moving to more of an intuitive way of eating is not only suggested but encouraged. That brings me to my last suggestion.
7. Weigh yourself. It doesn’t have to be every day but when you’re making changes to the way you eat, you need to know if those changes are working. Without some real hard data, you won’t know. Basically, if the scale goes up, the formula is relatively simple. When you’re eating at maintenance, lower your carbs on rest days to keep fat and inflammation in check.
Don’t go crazy here – don’t drop your carbs to zero. As an example, if you are eating 250g of carbs and resting two days a week, lowering those days to 125g of carbs on your rest days is a good palce to start.
If all of this sounds very “un-Paleo” too bad. Most people who started Paleo did so to see results. Real results take time and patience. So rather than jumping into yet another rinse and repeat Paleo Challenge that lands you in roughly the same spot incorporate these concepts and I am sure you will figure out some major pitfalls in your previous approach.