Some of what we know about the human body and how it processes food relates to our understanding of the evolution of man as a hunter, who gathered his food for sustenance. When prehistoric humans during the Paleolithic Age – roughly about 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago – needed to "fix" breakfast, lunch or dinner, obviously there were no supermarkets or fast-food restaurants. If they ate, they fished or hunted wild game, or foraged for plants and vegetables.
“Paleolithic" means “old age of the stone” in Greek, or the Stone Age. The modern-day Paleo Diet attempts to align humans with their “cavemen” roots, rejecting foods like grains, beans, refined sugar, refined salt, chemically-processed vegetable and seed oils, and dairy – all foods associated with the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic period following the Stone Age. Paleo Diet supporters link the rise of diabetes and many diseases associated with obesity with the worldwide spread of industrialized foods. The Paleo Diet rests upon the philosophy that if the caveman ate it, you can, too.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the Paleo Diet isn’t about consuming sticks and twigs. Paleo Diet foods are "clean" and non-processed – a major benefit of the diet. It includes a range of foods from the three major calorie-producing nutrient groups: proteins (beef, pork chicken, turkey, fish), fats (nuts and seeds) and carbohydrates (a variety of vegetables and fruits). (For a full list of Paleo foods, click here.) Under the Paleo Diet, food preparation is as simple as the food. Meat is cooked without processed vegetable oils (frying) and veggies steamed. The caveman didn’t have creamy sauces or fancy sautés, and you shouldn’t either.
The diet’s rejection of processed foods, refined sugars and added salt makes perfect sense in helping the United States grapple with the reality that one-third of its people are obese. It emphasizes the elimination of added salt, and research shows the average American gets too much salt. The American Heart Association, for example, recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, but the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams. Even better, the Paleo Diet rejects refined sugar.
The Devil in the Details
The problem, though, is that with the Paleo Diet, the devil is in the details. A downside of the diet is that it eliminates categories of food recommended by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, such as grains, beans, legumes and fat-free or low-fat dairy. It also is out of alignment with USDA recommendations on the percentage of carbohydrates, proteins and fats an individual should consume daily. For example, a sample Paleo Diet has a higher threshold for fat consumption than USDA guidelines – a major criticism of the diet. USDA dietary guidelines recommend that 20-35 percent of daily caloric intake comes from fat. The Paleo Diet exceeds that, with about a 39 percent from fat, according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranked the diet relative to other modern-day eating plans.
The Paleo Diet is tough on carbs – a benefit of the program. It recommends 23 percent of calories from carbohydrates, according to the U.S. News and World Report analysis, far below the USDA recommended 45 to 65 percent. Another controversial recommendation in the diet is that it eliminates whole grains, as well as legumes and beans, which straddle the carbohydrate and protein categories in many diets. Dairy is not included either, even though the USDA recommends low-fat dairy, whole grains and beans as part of a balanced diet.
Another major benefit of a hunter-gatherer diet – philosophically – is that the Paleo Diet isn't myopically focused on “calories in, calories out.” Instead it focuses on the quality of calories consumed by asking whether the food is "clean" and non-processed. So when the average male takes in his 2,600 calories a day (1,900 for women), the Paleo Diet assumes that not all calories are created equal. Consuming 2,600 calories of fast-food, such as hamburgers, pizza and snack cakes, obviously doesn’t pack the nutritional punch of 2,600 calories of fish and vegetables.
Cavemen in Motion
Finally, a benefit of the Paleo Diet is that advocates don’t say “just eat your way to a lean healthy body.” Proponents of the diet also focus on exercise. Hunter-gatherers couldn’t drive to the neighborhood fast-food joint for a meal. They had to expend calories hunting, fishing, climbing, running, carrying and foraging for food. Cavemen had to move, and you should, too. Today, many fitness professionals understand the inseparable relationship between weight loss, exercise and good food choices. Back in the Saddle to Fit: 10 Steps to Reclaiming Athletic Fitness for the Busy Professional, for example, calls it a “60-40 proposition,” where 60 percent of our attention should be focused on making good food choices when embarking on a body improvement plan, with the rest spent on exercise pursuit. Lean bodies are made first at the dinner table.
In short, the Paleo Diet’s focus on clean, unprocessed food without refined sugar and added salt is an excellent philosophy for those striving for a lean, healthy physique. However, the high daily fat allowances and the elimination of certain foods that are recommended by the USDA for a healthy diet suggests that the Paleo Diet deserves a good look, with some modifications, such as adding low-glycemic whole grains and low-fat dairy to the mix. Diabetics will want to modify the diet by limiting their consumption of sugary fruits. People who struggle with portion control might want to reduce or eliminate the consumption of high-fat nuts or seeds to prevent weight gain. Being a full-throttle, all-in, card-carrying hunter-gather may not be the best first step, but a modified Paleo Diet can provide the philosophical framework and food choices to a lean, healthy body.