What are the benefits of the Paleo diet? Is it a miracle diet or just a lot of hype?
Because the Paleo focus is on eating whole, natural and unprocessed foods with a particular emphasis on vegetables, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, seeds and fruit, it’s easy to see that it must have at least some positive effects on our health.
Here’s a list of reported health benefits of Paleo gathered from books, studies, various articles and from my own experience.
More than 2000 years ago Hippocrates said “All disease begins in the gut“. While this may be overstating the situation a bit, research in the last few years has demonstrated how important a healthy gut is to our overall health. The gut is home to trillions of good bacteria, or gut flora, which help to digest food, synthesise vitamins and enable absorption of dietary minerals. The Paleo diet removes foods which irritate the gut and replaces them with foods which restore its health thereby contributing to a healthier gut.
Although not primarily intended as a weight-loss diet, most people find that they lose excess weight when following a Paleo diet and keeping active. Many studies have shown that a high protein, low carb diet is more effective at achieving weight loss that traditional low-fat, high carb diets. Because the Paleo diet is high in protein and lower in carbohydrate and sugar, it helps to reduce appetite, increase metabolism and produce more weight regulating hormones, all of which are essential in achieving weight loss. On a personal note, since going Paleo both my partner and I have lost excess weight without feeling deprived or really even trying!
Many of those who turn to the Paleo diet are all too familiar with digestive disorders and their unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating and stomach cramps. Foods such as wheat, soy and milk have been shown in many studies to be problematic for many people. By eliminating some or all of these trigger foods, we tend to see an improvement for people suffering from digestive problems.
Research shows that chronic inflammation is linked to diseases such as heart disease and stroke. It may also cause increased sensitivity in the immune system, triggering allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. The Paleo diet eliminates sugar, gluten and dairy foods which are major inflammation triggers, and instead concentrates on eating foods which are anti-inflammatory.
Improved Sleep Quality
Getting sufficient quality sleep is a major problem for many people in our modern world. Lack of sleep can be caused by stress, artificial lighting, poor sleep habits and more. Without proper sleep your body cannot function at its best. Cavemen didn’t sleep in rooms with night lights, work on their computers or watch television late at night and neither should we.
Hunger Control and Fewer Cravings
You don’t need to worry about those mid-morning and mid-afternoon drops in blood sugar causing cravings for unhealthy snacks. Compared to the typical Western diet, Paleo meals have more protein and healthy fats which will leave you feeling satisfied for longer.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Excessive consumption of refined sugar and other processed grains and carbohydrates can cause insulin resistance. This can lead to the development of high blood sugar levels and increase the risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that while on the Paleo diet, subjects could maintain the same blood sugar levels with significantly less secretion of insulin. This increase in insulin sensitivity has been observed in both diabetic and non-diabetic people.
Better Mental Health
Sadly, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are on the rise world-wide. Chronic inflammation and poor gut health can adversely affect brain function. While there is no “magic bullet” for serious mental health issues, the Paleo lifestyle, with its emphasis on factors such as eating anti-inflammatory, whole foods, getting more exercise, exposure to sunshine and fresh air and improving quality of sleep, may help to alleviate the symptoms.
“Clean eating” has become a buzzword in the health community. It’s all about choosing foods which are as close as possible to their natural state and are rich in nutrients. Natural, minimally processed real foods will give you more of the essential nutrients you need. Foods such as legumes and grains, which are eliminated in the Paleo diet, contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid which reduce the absorption of minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc.
Not long after you eat sugary foods or foods which are high on the Glycaemic Index (GI) you normally experience a decrease in energy due to the sudden drop in blood sugar levels. On the Paleo diet you will be eating foods which are lower on the GI scale. The body will be re-trained to use fat stores and protein for sources of fuel instead of relying on simple carbs and sugars. This provides a more sustained energy level throughout the day.
Decreased Risk of Disease
Many of the chronic diseases which are so prevalent now did not exist in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, many cancers and autoimmune conditions are largely the result of the modern diet. The benefits of eating a nutrient-rich diet rather than one based on processed foods cannot be underestimated.
Increased Muscle Tone
The Paleo diet is high in protein and so it will help build lean, strong muscles. Paleo is also about getting plenty of exercise which leads to increased muscle mass and better health outcomes such as lowering stress levels and a general overall improved quality of life.
Reduction in Allergies
Diagnoses of food allergies, intolerances, reactions and sensitivities are on the rise around the world. Diets high in inflammatory foods such as grains, especially grains which contain gluten, soy, legumes, dairy and highly processed foods are most certainly contributing to this phenomenon. The Paleo diet avoids many of these foods, however some included foods such as eggs and nuts can cause allergies. Following an elimination diet for at least 30 days, then slowly re-introducing one food at a time may be the best way to identify food sensitivities.
Healthier Skin and Hair
The Paleo diet is based on foods high in healthy fats such as oily fish, eggs, avocado and coconut oil which help build collagen and promote healthier skin and hair. Many followers experience improvement in skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, more even skin tone and a general radiance to their skin and hair.
Improved Blood Lipids
A scientific study carried out in 2009 at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found that after 10 days of eating a Paleo diet, participants showed beneficial changes in cholesterol profiles as well as regulation of blood sugar and improvement in blood pressure. Results showed that the subjects’ LDL (low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol) was around 20 percent lower. This equates to a similar level of LDL cholesterol reduction that could be expected from six months of cholesterol-lowering statin treatment. Within a short time of going Paleo, both my partner and I experienced similar reductions in our cholesterol levels, even though neither of us had high levels to start with.
No Counting Calories
No need to keep count of calories, points, grams of carbs or other diet metrics! Unlike other diets, Paleo encourages eating as much natural, unprocessed food as you need to satisfy your hunger. Because you are eating food in its natural state, it’s not so easy to overeat!
Environmentally Friendly Lifestyle
Selecting fresh, seasonal, local and organic produce is the basis of the Paleo diet. Grass-fed and pasture-raised meat should be chosen wherever possible. Choosing food which is sustainably and ethically produced improves quality of life for the animals as well as providing better tasting and healthier food, and is better for the environment.
These are some of the more commonly reported benefits of the Paleo diet. I encourage you to try it for a month and see how your body reacts. At the beginning you may experience some symptoms such as headaches and fatigue as your body adjusts to this new chemical-free and toxin-free style of eating, but this normally passes quickly. Ultimately you can only decide if Paleo provides the health benefits you’re after by giving it a go.