Q&A Series: Paleo Unpacked

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Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of chatter amongst my friends about the Paleo diet. Naturally, I’ve been a little curious about it, so I thought I’d talk with my fabulous colleague, Megan Holt, Ph(c), MPH and Registered Dietician, to get the scoop on the science behind the Paleo diet and her thoughts on how to eat right and stay safe in our diet-obsessed culture. – Kayla

Kayla: Thanks for taking time to talk with me today, Megan! I have some questions about the Paleo diet.  It seems like half the people I know are on it. Can you talk a little about what the Paleo diet is?

Megan:  So there have been versions of the Paleo diet around for 30-40 years–the idea of eating like our ancestors first surfaced in the 1970’s. Today’s Paleo Diet was coined and popularized by a professor, Dr. Loren Cordain. The idea behind it is that our bodies can’t process some of the foods–grains, for example–that have become staples in our diets since the industrial revolution. So, we are better off eating like our ancestors, the cavemen, with a diet that consists primarily of meat & vegetables with no dairy, grains, or processed foods.

Kayla: Well, that sounds pretty good, in theory.

Megan:  With this diet, as with any of the other fad-type diets, like Zone or South Beach or Atkins, there are always a few really positive and helpful features. A favorable aspect of the Paleo diet, for example, is the suggestion that you take an 85/15 approach to food…that is, you should follow Paleo principles 85% of time and the other 15% of the time non-Paleo foods are allowed. I like the idea of that sort of flexibility, rather than having certain foods be “off limits.”

Kayla:  So, what are the drawbacks?

Megan:  Many of the Paleo principles are far from evidence-based. The cavemen, for example, didn’t suffer from the diseases that we suffer from in the western society like stroke, heart disease, or cancers, but their lifespans were very short. They didn’t tend to live long enough to experience these chronic diseases…so we’re unable to draw strong conclusions or make a fair comparison. Also, the emphasis on animal products like meat, beef, is problematic.

There is the idea that saturated fats aren’t inflammatory or linked with preventable diseases as we once thought they were. The large majority of research suggests otherwise–that saturated fat still is a risk factor for several chronic diseases. There have been some studies that suggest a more mild relationship, but we still have lots of research to support keeping saturated fat to a minimum in our diet. Additionally, quality of animal products and production methods are drastically different in today’s society, and can’t be fairly compared with meat that was consumed by our ancestors.

And the problem with eliminating grains is just that it’s not evidence-based.  There are loads of high quality studies that suggest that whole grains play a supportive role in our health. Paleo diet proponents have been able to cash in on other popular diet trends in our society, such low-carbohydrate diets, gluten-free diets and emphasis on foods with low glycemic index.

Kayla:  So, what’s the rationale for limiting carbohydrates and high-glycemic foods?

Megan:  Blood sugar control. The idea is that if we ingest foods on the lower end of the glycemic index, it helps us maintain energy levels and stabilize blood sugar. Some of that is evidence based–there’s some good in that. Limiting processed foods, added sugars, and high-fat dairy and encouraging vegetable intake is also helpful.

But a high intake of animal fats from meats, beef, sausage, bacon is absolutely not protective, nor is it environmentally responsible. Roughly 10-15 calories of grain is required to produce 1 calorie of meat, and ten times the amount of fossil fuel/energy is required to produce 1 calorie of meat versus 1 calorie of grains.

Kayla:  And what about limiting grains?

Megan:  We have decades of evidence in support of whole grains, unless someone has a legitimate gluten allergy or intolerance. Some really good things have come out from exploring the relationship between gluten intake and inflammation, but it is way overrepresented in our population. When we cut out a lot of processed foods and dairy and peanuts (not allowed on the Paleo diet), we have to remember that these are the most likely culprits of food allergies/intolerances.

So, it makes sense that when someone with an undiagnosed intolerance or allergy removes these foods from the diet, they will tend to feel remarkably better. And when someone without allergies cuts down intake of processed foods and added sugars, and increases intake of fruits and vegetables, they will naturally feel better.

This is nothing new, and it is not unique to the Palo diet. Anytime we improve quality of diet and move away from foods with poor nutrient density, particularly those which are easy to passively over-consume (think milkshakes, frappuccinos, pastries), we will experience improvements in terms of health.

But with nutrition research, it’s hard to tease out which aspects of a diet are resulting in the change…Are we benefiting from the foods we’ve removed or from the foods we’ve reintroduced in place of them? For example, when we cut out gluten, we cut out all the processed grains and many grain-based desserts/pastries.

When we cut out these foods, we’re going to notice some sort of benefit or resulting weight loss. We may substitute our Cocoa Puffs for something much more protective and energizing, such as a greens smoothie.  Of course we’d feel better, but this doesn’t warrant demonizing grains.

There are many factors to consider. If we feel better after cutting out a food, what are we replacing the food with? What other lifestyle factors have changed? Has there been a shift in our activity level? Are we sure we can attribute feeling better to the elimination of a food, like gluten? More often than not, it’s unclear. Roughly 20-30% of people who identify themselves as sensitive to gluten actually are.

Kayla:  Those are good points. So, what is your advice for someone who wants to be healthy, to eat cleanly, and/or to lose weight in a healthy way? How would you advise her to go about making food choices?

Megan:  I support eating styles that are evidence-based and sustainable in terms of how well they support health and lower risk of preventable diseases. What that tends to look like is roughly half, if not 60%, of food intake coming from carbohydrates, mainly whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables. About 15% should derive from lean protein and fatty fish.

We get a lot more protein from plant-based sources than we think (whole, minimally processed grains, legumes, nuts, seeds), so we don’t need to rely on meat. The rest–roughly 30-35% of our calories should come from plant-based fats like olive oil, canola oil, avocado, or grapeseed oil, versus saturated or trans fats like butter/dairy fat or lard. A small amount of saturated/trans fats are OK, but they shouldn’t represent the bulk of our intake.

Many of my clients have a long history of dieting and weight cycling, and benefit from a more flexible approach to eating and meal planning. In such cases, we try to identify foods that they enjoy and are drawn to that will also be energizing and health-promoting.

If your morning ritual includes coffee and a donut, then we talk about breakfast staples that appeal that offer more in terms of nutrient density. Surely we can find something that is more energizing, such as oatmeal with almonds and fresh berries. We’re not demonizing donuts here, but we have to acknowledge them as the less supportive choice.  Enjoy them as treats, but perhaps not as a breakfast staple.

Kayla: When I am with my friends who are talking about their Paleo diet, or going gluten-free, how can I tell if what they’re talking about is just normative, fad diet stuff, or if it has crossed the line toward disordered eating?

Megan:  I tend to look for improvements in quality of life when one is following a particular diet.  If they’re feeling better, maintaining weight that is right for their body and showing signs of improved energy levels, then great.  However, if they have to take unreasonable measures to comply with the diet, such as isolating themselves from social engagements that involve food, that might raise a bit of concern. Excess weight loss, even if the person does not appear “underweight” by current standards, is also a red flag.

Kayla:  And for someone in recovery from disordered eating, how can she keep herself safe in the midst of this cultural obsession with dieting?

Megan:  I’d suggest she just voice her concerns as they apply to her and her friends openly & non-judgmentally. If she’s meeting friends for some purpose that doesn’t relate to dieting or exercise, consider setting a limit around food- and weight-related talk (so ask friends to refrain from revolving conversation around dieting/weight loss). Supportive friends will understand and will be able to respect this.

Living in Southern California makes it nearly impossible to avoid diet talk altogether, as at least 2/3 of peer groups, especially female, are going to be dieting or interested in dieting or preoccupied with thoughts of wanting to lose weight. Surrounding oneself with a safe and supportive group of peers is crucial. There are women out there who have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. 🙂

Avoid giving into the pressure of having to identify yourself by the dietary trend you follow (i.e. “vegan, paleo, etc”) as this often results in our feeling badly about our choices when we stray from the diet”s tenants.  Take a more flexible (and sustainable) approach and choose foods that you truly enjoy and make you feel well.

Given the buzz around Paleo, my clients in recovery are naturally curious about the diet:

  • What is with the Paleo diet?
  • Is it safe?
  • Why are so many people talking about it?
  • Would this be good for me?

I tell them, especially those who have been through proper treatment, that they know what foods are going to make them feel well and what their body needs in order to perform well in terms of sleep, hydration, nutrition–and they have to trust that.  I ask them to try to refrain from taking nutrient/diet advice from their peers, most of whom acquire knowledge from media sources without scientific merit.

I remind them, “Refer back to your own experience. You’ve been through numerous diets; you know where that’s taken you. Trust that you know how to meet your body’s needs.”

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We would love your thoughts on our conversation about the Paleo diet.  Post your thoughts and any additional questions for us in the comments section below. Also, let us know if there are any other diet or wellness trends you would like unpacked in future Q&A blog posts.
In good health – Megan and Kayla