The Paleo Diet: Modern Woman’s Idea of Hell on Earth?

by | Nov 7, 2012

It’s possible. It’s very possible. But it is also possible that this is as close as we might come to a perfect solution for a very broad variety of health issues. I have stated before- and I will always believe- that moderation in all things is the healthiest path for most of my patients. This diet first crossed my desk six years ago as an optimal lifestyle option for anyone with autoimmune disease- states of health in which the immune system is inflamed and attacks healthy tissue, creating a cascade of negative events in the body. As the years have progressed I am beginning to wonder if almost all of us have symptoms of inflammation- PMS, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, etc- and if most of us might benefit from this diet?

I hate the word “diet.” I think even for my patients who are extremely overweight, I still feel strongly that gradual, small changes lead to the most lasting difference for weight loss and lifestyle improvements. When I work with new patients I don’t like to immediately ask them to make major changes in what they do or eat because I know this is a recipe for failure. For this reason I have hesitated when I want to put people on the Paleo lifestyle immediately because I felt I was asking them to do SO MUCH that it would scare them off. And it is indeed a somewhat dramatic departure from the way most of us eat; it asks us to eliminate all grains from our diet, not to mention refined sugar, etc. Yes you read right: SUGAR. GRAINS. BREAD and PASTA. Even non-gluten containing grains such as quinoa and brown rice, which are often promoted as having many healthy effects are asked to be kept out of the diet.

The reasons for the elimination of grains is simple: of the 150,000 or so years that humans have walked the planet, only roughly 10,000 or so have been years in which we have cultivated grains intentionally. Our bodies are designed to produce insulin when our blood sugar is rapidly elevated, which basically means when we absorb glucose from the digestive system. Grains and refined foods are quicker to break down and therefore will raise our blood sugar more rapidly. If you try to think like a caveman or cavewoman, someone who would only occasionally eat a food that would quickly raise blood sugar, you might see that insulin is designed to tell the body that it is experiencing a surplus of calories and it should STORE those calories as fuel for future use. This means that often calories are stored as fat. Excessive blood glucose is what leads to diabetes over the long haul. It can also contribute to increased inflammation in the body via a variety of different pathways.

This is a major generalization but I am using it to illustrate the point that there is a difference between how our bodies respond to fats, refined carbs, and proteins. The goal of this diet is to see how you feel, and how your body operates, when running without a surplus of refined carbohydrates or even lots of complex carbohydrates. We can do just fine- and some would argue run optimally- without grains. We did it for thousands of years. The goal of this diet is to thrive on lean proteins, good-quality fats from nuts, seeds and vegetables, and a moderate amount of vegetables and fruit.

Many patients balk at the idea of this diet because they have been trained to count calories and still eat all the foods they like (i.e. Weight Watchers, which still allows chocolate brownies as long as you don’t go over your daily points!). I have seen success on these programs in that people lose weight, but I have very rarely seen people keep the weight off because they do not generally learn to think about different KINDS of foods, enjoy foods that are not oversweetened, and manage portions based on how they FEEL. The idea of adding good fats is really hard for people who do not want extra calories, but wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all enjoy what we eat, feel satisfied, have lots of energy and enjoy our lives a little more?

So here I am, now asking more patients to give this a try. I am becoming less shy because I am seeing improved energy and lessening of symptoms for many people who do it. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. I have yet to find someone who really hates this way of eating, with the exception of vegetarians and vegans for whom it is impossible. This “diet” is popular right now among the cross-fit folks so there are TONS of resources out there with amazing recipes if you search the internet. I am personally loving The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, mostly because it is a book that advocates a LIFESTYLE, not a diet. He is also realistic, as I am with my patients, in advocating shooting for 80% compliance, with the acknowledgement that we all might still crave sweets here and there, and allowing a small amount into your lifestyle does not mean the whole thing isn’t worth it or should be thrown out. As I always say to my patients, I NEVER get mad if you fall off the wagon, I just want you to always be willing to try to get back on again.

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