Sun, Jun-03-12, 04:24
Paleo diet followers love eating like cavemen, but health experts wary
Paleo diet followers love eating like cavemen, but health experts wary
You can forget about that bowl of Total cereal with cold milk. Don't think about crunching on Triscuits either.
Want some brown rice with your veggies? Nope. Feel like a little slow-churned ice cream? Sorry, not allowed on the Paleo diet.
If cavemen in the Paleolithic period of more than 10,000 years ago didn't eat it, then you're not supposed to either under this diet. They hunted and gathered their food. That pretty much limited them to animal protein and plants.
Can -- and should -- we duplicate that diet now?
Local Paleo diet followers boast about the great success they've had -- weight loss, leaner bodies, better athletic performance and overall good feeling. The diet's growing and devoted following say it's a lifestyle to follow permanently.
"I started the diet two months ago, and I've lost 31 pounds," said Cris Thompson, 36, Avon, who works for Hewlett-Packard.
"I'm seeing and feeling very positive results," he said. "My doctor reduced my high blood pressure medication. Fatigue doesn't linger as long as it used to when I go to the gym or run. For me, the results have been worth any sacrifice."
Yet some health experts are skeptical. A panel ranked the Paleo diet last among 25 evaluated for U.S. News & World Report magazine.
A big health benefit is the diet's lack of junk food, processed food, alcohol and refined sugars -- all of which are too big a part of most modern-day diets. We can all do without doughnuts, cookies and candy, right? Giving up canned soups, jarred pasta sauce and frozen diet meals may be tougher.
"The hardest part was saying no to beer," said Mindy Schelling, who professed a love for craft brews.
Paleo followers eat a high-protein, low-carb diet rich in lean meat (ideally from grass-fed animals). Again, foods that could be hunted or gathered: seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
The Paleo diet shuns dairy, legumes and grains. That's not just whole milk, white bread, white rice and high-fat cheese. The diet also excludes healthier counterparts -- skim milk, brown rice, quinoa, beans and whole-wheat pasta and bread.
The diet is popular with those who practice CrossFit, an intense training program in bare-bones gyms in Indianapolis and worldwide. Few people followed Paleo diets until CrossFitters began championing them in the past five years.
"Paleo changed my life. It gave me back confidence in myself," said Schelling, 30, while working up a sweat at the CrossFit Naptown gym in Downtown Indianapolis. "I failed at Weight Watchers, Atkins and others for two years. For the first time in 10 years, I've lost weight.
"I feel as good as I did in the military nine years ago," she said.
Schelling has lost 10 pounds in about five weeks and is just getting started. She eats a lot of vegetables, chicken, buffalo and 10 eggs per week. She snacks on grapes, cantaloupe and carrots. When she works out, she treats herself to a Lara all-natural, fruit-nut bar.
Schelling had been a vegetarian since junior high school, but had a hard time keeping off weight. Eliminating refined sugars and cutting back carbohydrates has done the trick, along with exercising more. When she reaches her weight goal, she may cut back to following a Paleo diet 80 percent of the time.
Operators of CrossFit gyms often recommend the Paleo diet and have weight-loss challenges. Their routines feature weight lifting, pull-ups, push-ups, short runs and other muscle-building practices.
Health benefits debated
Supporters of the Paleo diet say it can be maintained -- either strictly or with exceptions, throughout life.
The diet is based on the work of Loren Cordain, a leading expert on the diet of Paleolithic societies and author of "The Paleo Diet," published in 2002. Cordain, a Colorado State University health and exercise science professor, found that people who ate diets rich in meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds had fewer diseases and health problems than Western contemporaries.
Paleo diets haven't been widely researched, so that makes it harder to evaluate their long-term viability and health impact.
Some local dietitians say cutting out two major food groups -- grains and dairy -- from your diet isn't a good idea and could lead to a lack of calcium and vitamin D. They also say risk for heart problems may increase if you're not careful about making lean-meat choices.
"I would describe it as a very low-carb diet and low in a lot of nutrients, vitamins and minerals," said Angie Scheetz, registered dietitian and wellness coordinator at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport. "It's not something I would recommend."
However, if the diet helps motivate people to make changes and lose weight, then the health community needs to pay attention to what works, said Margie Fougeron, registered dietitian with St. Vincent Medical Group.
Just as people with allergies to wheat, grain and dairy products make diet adjustments and use supplements, she said people on this diet need to be cautious in replacing nutrients.
Fougeron thinks it would be a hard diet to sustain. But she said adopting positive aspects of it and making healthy, small changes would be workable.
The panel of 22 health experts who evaluated diets for U.S. News & World Report in its Jan. 3 issue didn't think highly of the Paleo.
"Experts took issue with the diet on every measure," the issue reported. "Regardless of the goal -- weight loss, heart health or finding a diet that's easy to follow -- most experts concluded that it would be better for dieters to look elsewhere."
The experts noted the lack of large research studies to back up claims that the diet improves people's health. Cordain responded that five studies have found Paleo diets to be superior to Mediterranean, diabetic and typical Western diets regarding weight loss, cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors.
Elyse Merchant, 25, is an assistant coach at CrossFit Naptown. The Indianapolis woman doesn't need to see study results to know how the diet has helped her. She's followed it for 18 months, during which time she competed in the Muncie Half-Ironman in July.
Her body fat has gone from 23 percent to 16 percent. Her muscle tone has improved. Her blood pressure has gone from 120 over 80 to 107 over 68. And her resting heart rate is 54.
At first, she struggled with the diet because of its lack of carbohydrates. But she made adjustments by eating starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, more fruit like bananas and a lot of broccoli. She doesn't eat much red meat and drinks coconut milk to supplement her calcium.
"After awhile, you get your body used to using its own fat for energy," she said. "It's more of a sustained energy. You don't have the spikes in blood sugar. Once I upped my fat intake, I really started to notice an improvement, and I had more energy."
That's exactly what Kate Onuska lacked when she tried the diet for nearly a month. A petite, physically active 31-year-old, Onuska thought the diet would be a good way to eat "cleanly."
It wasn't for her.
"I noticed immediately I was hungry, which I was told would subside. But I was never full," she said. "I normally have the energy of an eternal cheerleader, but I felt really fatigued. At the end, I laid on the couch and couldn't get up."
She thinks the diet might not be good for a person who is the correct weight, eats well and has no health issues or food allergies, and it may even be harmful.
Frank Dennis, who owns QuantumFit on the Northeastside, follows the diet and recommends it to his clients. He says he's seen many successes with the diet. People who follow it have to make sure they're getting enough protein, and they need to replace sugar with healthy fats.
"There is a huge amount of energy missing because they haven't replaced the sugar with anything," he said. "If you follow this diet right, you are not missing anything nutritionally. It's certainly something that anyone can sustain."
Paleo participants speak out
"I haven't had a case of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) in four weeks. It's amazing. I've lost 3 1/2 inches off my waist, three inches off my hips and 2 1/2 off my thighs." Jonna Satterfield, 33, Indianapolis, medical marketing professional
"You're essentially giving your body premium food. The whole idea is clean eating. I've lost 47 pounds since I started Paleo." Christina Garten, 28, Indianapolis, owner of residential/commercial cleaning business
"I'm very motivated to stay healthy. There's heart disease and diabetes in my family. Honestly, I just physically feel better." Leslie Gardner, 26, Indianapolis, instructor of children with autism, Lovaas Institute
"I follow the diet about 85 to 90 percent of the time, but I also eat beans and drink milk. If you're going to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and meat from cage-free, grass-fed animals, it's a huge financial investment." Jared Cantrell, 29, Indianapolis, drug and alcohol abuse counselor, Wheeler Mission Industries
"At first, I felt like I was never full. After two weeks, my body decided to reconcile to the diet. I'm doing this for overall wellness. It's not meant to be temporary." Jamie Manuel, 26, Indianapolis, sales representative
"By eating Paleo and doing CrossFit I've lost 130 pounds in one year and my wife, Heather, has lost 35 pounds. My goal is another 45 pounds to get down to 200. My doctor told me my weight was affecting our ability to have children. That was my wake-up call." Josh Barkley, 32, Fort Wayne, construction business owner
"I did it to lose weight and to help the inflammation in my joints. Every time I would eat dairy or gluten, I would double over in pain in the evening. After two weeks on the diet, my stomach wasn't bothering me and my joints weren't swollen. When I realized how I felt, that was a bigger reason." Annie Hamilton, Carmel
Barb Berggoetz: Diet's doable despite no grains or dairy
The idea of trying a low-carb, high-protein diet didn't hold much appeal for me. But I figured I could handle about anything for a short period.
Anything for a story, right?
Then when I learned the Paleo diet my editor asked me to try didn't allow any grains or dairy products, I had second thoughts.
Could I live without my favorite "healthy" snack, hummus and whole-wheat pita? My daily crackers at lunch? My Cheerios and whole-wheat toast for breakfast? I wasn't sure.
I couldn't even indulge in my occasional handful of dark chocolate chips or 60-calorie dark chocolate pudding cup. Dark chocolate is good for your heart, isn't it?
I figured my diet was pretty good and balanced, but not perfect. Perhaps I could learn something from this diet with some obvious benefits -- no processed foods or refined sugars. I learned it's hard to cut all processed foods and refined sugars out of your diet. I learned I can eat more vegetables and cut back on not-so-healthy carbohydrates and sugar even more than I have.
Until now, I have defended a fairly high carbohydrate intake because I run or bike every day and do strength training. But I probably don't get enough protein. I do enjoy pasta. And I have a bit of sweet tooth.
But I maintain a healthy weight. My key essential health barometers -- blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar -- are all good. So, I must be doing something right.
For nine days, I ate almost exclusively lean meats, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits and nuts. This wasn't enough time to really test the diet, but I got a sense of what it's like.
I had one "cheat" meal that was previously planned at a Mexican restaurant. Rice, beans and chicken tortillas were mostly off the diet. Other than that, I had two or three snacks (hummus, pudding) off the diet.
Breakfast was the hardest meal because I was used to mostly cereal, toast and fruit. I switched to two scrambled eggs and fruit, with a snack of nuts.
For lunch, I eliminated my daily low-fat yogurt and crackers, replacing them with a chicken breast and a bigger serving of raw vegetables and nuts or a Paleo-approved fruit/nut bar. That's in addition to two fruits.
Thankfully, dinner didn't change much since I often had salmon, turkey or chicken, salad and another vegetable and/or fruit. I missed having noodles, rice or pasta, although I had sweet potatoes -- allowed if you're not trying to lose weight.
I got hungrier than usual between meals. During the day, I relied on nuts and dried or fresh fruit for snacks.
One of this diet's goals is to eliminate insulin spikes due to carbohydrates quickly breaking down into sugar in your body.
Without as many carbohydrates and more foods naturally low in sugar, insulin is more slowly released into the body, allowing the body to recognize true hunger.
Some people get hungry and fatigued on this diet at first, while their bodies adjust to using fat for energy. I didn't notice unusual fatigue, but I probably had enough starchy vegetables and "cheats" to make up for it. It appears I lost 1 or 2 pounds.
Although the benefits of eliminating processed foods and refined sugars are clear, I would say just cutting back on them might be more practical for most of us.
Cutting out grains and dairy is a more serious step, with potential losses of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. But I think smart dieters could make up for those losses with other foods or supplements.
The Paleo diet isn't one I could sustain. However, I'm definitely going to kick up my vegetables and my protein. But I'm not giving up my hummus and pita -- or my dark chocolate.