Paleo dieting


Fad diets come and go, but with the Paleo diet being modeled on the eating habits of our ancestors, could it be more than just a popular trend, asks Jack Walsh

Students are constantly informed and reminded about the importance of having a varied and healthy diet to not only ensure physical wellbeing, but to keep mental fatigue and imbalances in check. For those students who choose an alternative diet, the idea of a traditional diet is almost always vilified, with an almost fanatical debate from each side, and it can be difficult to gain a proper understanding of the school of thought.


The Paleo diet is an attempt to strip back nutrition and eating to its essentials, primarily eating unprocessed meat, fruits and vegetables, along with nuts, seeds, roots and tubers. All gains from the agrarian revolution, dairy, legumes, salt and sugars are therefore not permitted. Nutrition is said to be 70% about maintaining a strong body and metabolism, so it is of the utmost importance that critical analysis be given to what we are putting into our bodies.

Grains emerge as the first point of discussion of the diet. As Jeff S. Volek, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut  explains: “Lowering total and saturated fat only had a small effect on circulating inflammatory markers whereas reducing carbohydrate led to considerably greater reductions in a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules. These data implicate dietary carbohydrate rather than fat as a more significant nutritional factor contributing to inflammatory processes.”

Some, such as Dr Keith Ayoob, a Paediatric Nutritionist at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, whilst not criticising the diet, criticises the idea of removing food groups, and suggests the idea of an important balance: “The problem with the American diet is excess. Do I want to see people eating a huge plate of pasta and nothing else? No,” he said. “I want to see a reasonable portion with some lean meat and vegetables.” Ayoob cites “the rice bowl” as an ideal meal: one cup of rice, two cups of vegetables and three ounces of lean meat in one bowl.

“The real importance of diets that lower carbohydrate content is that they are grounded in mechanism, carbohydrates stimulate insulin secretion which biases fat metabolism towards storage rather than oxidation. The inflammation results open a new aspect of the problem. From a practical standpoint, continued demonstrations that carbohydrate restriction is more beneficial than low fat could be good news to those wishing to forestall or manage the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome,” as described by Dr Richard Feinman, Professor of Biochemistry at SUNY Downstate Medical Centre.

These inflammatory processes, as explained by Robb Wolf, author of the “The Paleo Solution”  are one the primary reasons to attempt Paleo: “For instance, chronic pain sufferers who attempt to combat symptoms without addressing underlying omega-3 versus omega-6 imbalances from over reliance on grains and lack of animal sources of DHA and EPA, are fighting an uphill battle. The same can be said for foods with high glycemic indices that also have a pro-inflammatory effect.”

The primary concern with those interested in the diet is the often high fat content, yet as Dr Loren Cordain describes saturated fatty acids “most frequently occur in higher concentrations in animal foods such as fatty meats; however, there are certain exceptions to this rule, and plant-derived fats such as coconut and palm oils are also extremely high in saturated fatty acids. In fatty foods, the most common saturated fatty acids are lauric acid (12:0), myristic acid (14:0), palmitic acid (16:0) and stearic acid (18:0). Excessive consumption of 12:0, 14:0 and 16:0 elevate blood concentrations of total and LDL cholesterol but recent meta analyses (combined large population studies) demonstrate they don’t increase your risk for heart disease. Stearic acid (18:0) is neutral and neither raises nor lowers blood cholesterol.”

“Nutrient rich” is a topic that is discussed in criticising the Paleo diet: “People who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and there are mountains of research about the health benefits of diets that include, not exclude, these foods,” says Ayoob.

The Paleo Diet is the first step in the primal communities message of healthy living, that to create a long term sustainable way of living, an exercise programme that is focused on strength training, cutting out long cardio session and replacing them with short, high intensity interval sessions. The American Centres for disease control lists inactivity as the third leading cause of preventable diseases in the United States, including cancer, neuro-degeneration and diabetes. Along with this, a full pattern of sleep should be maintained, in order to, as Wolf states: “Just one night of missed or inadequate sleep is sufficient to make you as insulin resistant as a type 2 diabetic.”

A final element to Paleo culture is the idea of “intermittent fasting”, a process by which mimics the idea that our ancestors would not have access to the abundance we have now. Krista A. Varady and Marc K. Hellerstein, writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ascertain its benefits as “decreases in blood pressure, reduction in oxidative damage to lipids, protein and DNA, improvement in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake, as well as decreases in fat mass”. This practice is mostly untested, and effective uses of the diet and following a proper exercise programme should take precedence.

Overall, what can be gleamed from the debate of the efficiency of the Paleo diet is the importance of clean, unprocessed meat and vegetables, along with an intelligent approach to exercise, along with allowing your body to rest for a sufficient amount of time.