The Paleo Diet
THOUGH IT’S BEEN 16 YEARS since Loren Cordain published paleo’s eponymous tome The Paleo Diet, this style of eating continues to be a favorite among yogis and Americans in general. Paleo is about getting back to the basics, and the accepted rule of thumb goes something like this: If a caveman ate it, it’s fair game. This means foods like beans, peanuts, and dairy are off limits, but many meats and plant foods can be enjoyed without fretting over calorie consumption. Fresh, whole-food ingredients like colorful vegetables (both root and above ground); seasonal fruits; proteinpacked fish, meats, and eggs; and a hearty dose of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, and natural oils like olive and coconut) make this diet satiating and chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
While it’s widely accepted that eating red meat leads to heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses, recent studies suggest that significant health benefits come with a paleo lifestyle that focuses on lean meats and big-picture eating habits emphasizing fresh, whole foods. A 2014 study published in the journal Lipids in Health
and Disease found that eating paleo for two weeks improved several cardiovascular risk factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol, when compared with eating a low-fat diet rich in whole grains.
Naturally occurring, healthful fats have also been shown to support hormone production and promote cellular integrity and joint lubrication, says Kate Callaghan, a holistic nutritionist in New Zealand. Protein from organic, grass-fed, lean meats provide the amino acids that serve as the building blocks for a whole slew of important body functions (think growth and repair of muscles, skin, hair, nails, enzymes, and neurotransmitters that control mood).
Meanwhile, the absence of grains, legumes, dairy, and heavily processed oils (like vegetable, soy, and canola) promotes nutrient absorption, says Kelly Schmidt, RD, LDN, who’s been living with type 1 diabetes for the past 26 years and eating paleo since 2009. (A 2009 study published in the journal Cardiovascular Diabetology concluded that over a three-month period, a paleo diet, when compared with a standard diabetes diet, improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes.) Diets that are high in refined starches, sugar, and saturated and trans fats trigger inflammatory responses in the body, causing a chronic state of distress, but “a whole-food paleo diet offers a template for healing and reducing inflammation,” Schmidt says.
Variety is key when it comes to eating paleo the right way. “I’ve had a number of clients come to me who say they eat strict paleo, but their diet is lacking diversity,” Schmidt says, which means they may be lacking the vitamins, minerals, and fiber their bodies need. For example, general elimination of dairy and legumes can cause deficiencies in B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D, which can be detrimental to the effort you put in on your mat. Low B vitamins can disrupt energy, focus, and mood, says Callaghan, while low calcium can be problematic for bone health. Boost B vitamins by incorporating organic meats, nutritional yeast flakes, or shellfish a few times per week. “Just 50 grams of liver per day contains more than 50 percent of all of your daily vitamin and mineral requirements,” says Callaghan— and get plenty of calcium by eating lots of sesame seeds, almonds, and broccoli.
While everyone can benefit from a good multivitamin, it may be even more important for paleos: One study in the journal Nutrients found that paleo dieters’ long-term avoidance of certain carbohydrates—namely fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans—leads to a decrease in key nutrients iodine, sodium, and calcium, as well as “significant reductions” in thiamin, riboflavin, beta-carotene, folic acid, iron, and vitamins A, C, and E.