News segments are just that: a brief segment of a much bigger story.
A couple of months ago I was honored to be interviewed by Kim Fischer of ABC4 for a look into the “Diet Trend” of “Paleo.” I was very pleased overall with how the story came together, and any exposure to a real, whole foods approach to eating is a plus in my book! Yet, as to be expected, there were many thoughts darting through my head after watching the three-minute news clip that I wanted to express. I am passionate about this unconventional approach to food and it’s a passion that can’t be conveyed in a few minutes. So, here’s a quick rant with a few more points to follow up on the segment, which can be seen HERE.
I, too, used to be influenced by the food guide pyramid and held the belief that whole grains, beans, and dairy were essential for good health. Early in my nutrition education I was taught such concepts. Why wouldn’t I believe them? However, in my postgraduate work (at Tufts University) I was encouraged to skeptically look at research, study design and how data can be interpreted. After this exposure and stepping back to question, “why our society is so unhealthy,” I was unconvinced that conventional nutrition advice was optimal.
Self-experimentation, case studies and thumbing through the work of others who question our current Standard American Diet, led me to “paleo.”
First off, “paleo” is not a “diet trend” or quick weight loss solution. Sure, it can be used that way, but if followed and understood appropriately, it’s a lifestyle and a method for improving HEALTH. As a nutritionist, it’s important to me to convey to people that the way we eat should be sustainable over a lifetime. Of course, there are going to be adjustments and modifications made along the way, but in general your food should provide you the nutrients and satiety you need to keep you healthy and happy long-term. A paleo way of eating can do just that for many people.
It was mentioned in the news segment that it is dangerous to eliminate food groups, thus a “paleo diet” is not recommended by many dietitians. But, I ask you to consider where the “food group” concept came from and why it was established. Over 100 years ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began publishing nutrition recommendations to encourage “variety, proportionality and moderation.” Sounds good, right? Between then and now, the nutrition guides have morphed and changed to reflect the current “scientific information.” (Check out this PDF showing the various guides HERE). But, what scientific information are they looking at? What makes the “food groups” an end-all-be-all? What makes those food groups “right”?
My own belief on what is important is that we consume all the nutrients our cells need to flourish. Our cells don’t distinguish what food groups those nutrients come from, so if you can get them from plants, animals and natural fats (often in more concentrated doses) than what makes grains, legumes and dairy essential? Don’t forget that “food” is a BIG business and organizations/corporations often have self-interest in mind. Are the guidelines laid out by the USDA heavily influenced by the agricultural industry subsidized by the government? (That’s a whole other article in itself).
And what about carbohydrates, people often ask. A common criticism of “paleo” is that you just don’t get enough. But what’s the definition of “enough”? Consider the flip side: does the Standard American Diet provide too many carbohydrates? There’s evidence that insulin resistance, obesity, high triglyceride levels and systemic inflammation are a result of the overconsumption of sugars. “Paleo” is a lower-carb approach, but it does not completely eliminate carbohydrate. There are many plant foods that provide substantial carbohydrates – roots, tubers and squash to name a few. Fruits and vegetables offer concentrated nutrients, antioxidants, fiber and carbohydrates as well. One can adjust their intake of these foods to meet their individual needs depending on health status, activity level and performance goals. “Paleo” should not be represented by a plate full of meat, people. And quite frankly, most paleo enthusiasts recommend moderate (not high) protein intakes, more natural fats and a plethora of colorful produce.
Weight Loss vs. Health:
Individuals that adopt a paleo approach often do experience weight loss and improved body composition. However, in my opinion, this is an added benefit to what’s happening at a deeper level. Hormonal balance, reduced systemic inflammation, GI integrity, and cellular health are the improvements made that in turn help the body eliminate excess fat. There are many techniques for weight loss, but finding one that taps into the root of the problem and allows you to maintain an ideal body composition should be the ultimate goal. If healing needs to occur at a deeper level, it may take more time for weight loss to be seen.
While weight loss is often a welcomed benefit, the reported improvements in overall health are far more miraculous. Paleo has helped countless individuals reverse metabolic syndrome, recover from IBS, manage auto-immune conditions, alleviate asthma and arthritis, decrease blood pressure and improve their quality of sleep to name a few. How many “diets” (as we think of a “diet”) can do this? Why may this be? Because we are talking about real food, and wholesome food is nature’s best medicine.
Lastly, a primal approach to food connects people to their roots, naturally promotes an appreciation for traditional foods, sustainability and a greater concern for protecting our environment. My request is that people keep an open mind, rather than jumping to conclusions. “Paleo” has certainly become a buzzword to many, but consider what the framework is built on. Think for yourself, ask questions, and take a proactive approach to your own health.
Thanks again to Kim for initiating this story and putting together a fun news clip to further expose “paleo” to the community!