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Paleo expert defends high protein plans; Paleo athlete stays strong at 70

Are high protein diets safe?
Are high protein diets safe?
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The recent announcement that scientists discovered high protein diets such as the Paleo plan are as dangerous as cigarettes attracted more attention than Kim Kardashian's latest bikini selfie. Now Paleo diet expert Robb Wolf is battling back by slamming the science behind that new weight loss study in a March 17 column for Outside. Plus: Find out why a 70-year-old athlete credits the Paleo diet for helping him stay strong.

Robb is a research biochemist who turned his attention to how to use the Paleolithic diet for health and weight loss, detailing his findings in his book "The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet" (click for details). Although the research about the dangers of high protein diets came from the highly respected University of Southern California (USC) and director of the USC Longevity Institute, Robb faults the study because he contends it mistakes correlation for causation.

"In my firm opinion, the very dataset that this study is based on is, at best, deeply flawed. It is certainly not rigorous enough to make a sweeping, outrageous statement like animal proteins are as hazardous as smoking," he asserts.

In addition, Robb cautions about a conflict of interest that occurred during that research slamming high protein diets and lauding plant-based plans. Several of the authors are invested in a plant-based protein company called L-Nutra.

Thus, says Robb, it's important to look at the body of research showing the benefits of how eating enough protein reduces inflammation while improving body composition.

I worked with many individuals who have lost weight and cleared up chronic problems, ranging from autoimmunity to diabetes. I have worked with a local municipality that implemented a Paleo-type diet among its Police and Fire Departments.

A two-year pilot study indicated that the Paleo-based diet helped employees dramatically reduce the likelihood of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke (and saved the city a potential $22 million in health-care costs).

And then there's 70-year-old Joel Friel, a renowned athlete who says that by kicking those rules to the curb, he enhanced his fitness and health while whittling his waistline.

Joel authored "The Triathlete's Training Bible" (click for details). He talked with the Washington Post recently about how he decided to shift from the traditional carb-loading approach of athletes to a diet consisting of "lots of protein," based on Prof. Tim Noakes.

"Last year, Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town, South Africa..started tweeting about changing his diet to eating low carbs, high fat. He was losing weight. His running times were getting better. He’s been a runner for decades, as I had been. I thought I would try it," said Friel, who also authored "Going Long: Training for Triathlon's Ultimate Challenge" and "Your Best Triathlon."

Based on Noakes' experience, Joel transformed his own diet.

"I started to cut back on fruits and starch in my diet. I lost a bunch of weight also," he now says of the plan that made him a believer in low carb diets. (You can learn more about Noakes' approach by clicking here for "Challenging Beliefs: Memoirs of a Career.")

And now he's a believer.

"People think it’s a strict diet, but I enjoy what I eat. I am not depriving myself of anything. The research [I read] doesn’t support that fat causes heart disease or that cholesterol is the cause of heart disease," adds Friel.

His diet now resembles a Paleo plan, thanks to a friend.

"A friend of mine, a runner, kept telling me about a project he was working on, which he was calling the Paleo diet, short for Paleolithic. He kept telling me about it and the research on it," Friel recalls.

It took less than a month to make a difference.

"But after three weeks, I felt really good. My training started to come around really nicely. I went for four weeks, then five weeks. I was doing a triathlon at that time, and I would normally begin to experience upper-respiratory conditions: a sniffly nose, even a sore throat, which is quite common if I got my volume [of exercise] very high, depending on how many hours I trained in a week.

I felt fine. I didn’t have any sore throats or head colds. I wasn’t breaking down. I realized something was happening: My [Paleo] diet was changing my physiology."

As to what he eats on his high fat low carb Paleo diet: Friel focuses on "lots of fats. Bacon. Butter. Cheese. Really anything that is high-fat, saturated, not a trans fat. I eat a really high-fat diet," he proclaimed.

"Basically the only carbohydrate I get is fruit at breakfast: half of a piece of fruit, half a pear, or sometime during the day I might have another piece of fruit after a ride," he added.

"People think it’s a strict diet, but I enjoy what I eat. I am not depriving myself of anything. The research [I read] doesn’t support that fat causes heart disease or that cholesterol is the cause of heart disease."

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