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Nutritional anthropologist Dr. Cordain defines low-carb Paleo weight loss diet

Find out what's involved in the Paleo weight loss diet.
Find out what's involved in the Paleo weight loss diet.
Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

When it comes to diet trends, the low-carb Paleo weight loss plan is stronger than a caveman when it comes to its staying power. But how does it work, and what are the benefits for shedding pounds while boosting health? Where did it all begin? Specializing in nutritional anthropology, Paleo diet guru Loren Cordain, Ph.D., explained in a recent interview with the Coloradan. He's the best-selling author of "The Paleo Diet Revised: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat" (click for details) and "The Paleo Diet Cookbook: More Than 150 Recipes for Paleo Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks, and Beverages."

But before delving deep into the history cave, Dr. Cordain summarized the basics of the Paleo diet. "What we’re trying to do is to mimic the food groups that our ancestors ate: fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, nuts." And if you take a trip in time hundreds of years ago: "They didn't have cereal grains, they didn't have any refined sugars, and they had no processed foods. When you think about that, 70 percent of the calories in a typical U.S. diet come from four foods that hunter-gatherers never ate: refined sugars, refined grains, refined vegetable oil and dairy products."

And following the Paleo diet as intended, according to Dr. Cordain, means more than stepping away from the doughnuts and dairy. "Legumes are not part of (the paleo diet), and the reason for that is because legumes are inedible unless they’re cooked. We simply can’t assimilate the starch, because it has to be broken down ... also legumes have considerable toxic components, for instance raw red kidney beans will make you very, very ill," he cautioned.

As for those who want to have their bread and go Paleo too? Dr. Cordain emphasizes the warnings against wheat by talking about how celiac disease and gluten intolerance play into Paleo.

Now, we’re looking at a relative epidemic of people who don’t do well with wheat and gluten-containing grains. So why is that? Because we simply as a species have not had sufficient time evolutionarily to adapt to a non-traditional food. ... I think it lends support to the idea that we don’t have a (nutritional) wheat requirement. When you look at wheat or any grain and compare it to fresh fruits or vegetables or fish, it comes out almost at the bottom in the 13 vitamins and minerals that are most lacking in the U.S. diet. Why would you want to deliberately eat a food that dilutes the vitamin and mineral content of your diet?

But it's not just those with gluten intolerance or celiac who can benefit. Dr. Cordain has co-authored a book specifically targeted at athletes of all levels: "The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance" (click for details). And if your focus is on weight loss, he also has written a supercharged seven-day jump-start to success: "The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young."

Dr. Cordain credits his interest in Paleo nutrition to an article published by Dr. Boyd Eaton in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"He wrote that in 1985, and I got around to reading it in ’87, and I thought, this is just about the best idea I've seen on diet and health. (Before paleo), what we had thought about what was healthy eating came from humans, so “experts” who knew what we should and should not be eating ... that’s where the information had always come from. And humans are fallible."

The concept of the Paleo diet is based on our genes, says Dr. Cordain. "If you go backward in time, it’s kind of like peeling an onion, you get to a point where everything we eat now and consider normal didn’t exist. And if you can appreciate it on an evolutionary timescale, 10,000 years ago seems to be historically remote, but it’s only about 300 human generations ago. Once you go back 10,000 years, everybody on the planet was a hunter-gatherer and had been for 2.5 million years. Even though my name is associated with it, I didn’t invent this diet. What we did was simply uncover what was pre-existing."

As for the reason why the Paleo diet has soared in popularity? Dr. Cordain defines it as "a lifetime program of healthy eating to reduce your risk of chronic disease. That’s one reason why it’s gained so much traction, is that it works. I think it’s the 21st-century version of what we now believe to be one of the healthiest ways to eat. Back in the ’70s and ’80s when I was growing up, we thought it was a vegan/vegetarian diet. And I think there will never be agreement on what people should and should not eat ... but this is an idea whose time has come, and we now have experimental confirmation."

Want to try it but impatient for fast results? We recommend starting with Dr. Cordain's one-week diet, which also leads you into following it long-term: "The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young" (click for more information).

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