Is the Paleo Diet Really the Solution for a Better Body?

Carbavores divided on returning to a grain-free Paleo diet, said to yield results more than skin deep.

Imagine a life without any sort of grains – rejecting that nurturing warm basket of sourdough, the doughy Noah’s bagel with smear on Sunday mornings, the tortilla enveloping the rice, beans and meat and the sesame seed bun that makes a hamburger something more satisfying than a lonely patty on a plate.

Psychologically, we have come to embrace our corn, wheat and flour. But physiologically, the new school of thought is that they are the enemies in the ongoing American battle against obesity and degenerative diseases.

Enter The Paleo SolutionThe Original Human Diet, a New York Times Best Seller mapped by former research biochemist and amateur kick boxer Robb Wolf.

His program, also referred to as a caveman diet, calls for a simple shift away from foods he claims are at odds with our health (grains, legumes and dairy) and an increase in the natural unprocessed foods of our nomadic ancestors along with supplemental vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

So what do followers eat? Lean proteins that support strong muscles, healthy bones and optimal immune function; fruits and veggies rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that combat cancer, and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, fish oil and grass-fed meat. No crispy cereal. No milk. And yes, the meat sandwiched with iceberg lettuce in place of that dense, beastly yeast – the seductress of all seductresses.

“This Paleo diet concept works, and it’s not a fad, ” argues Wolf, who operates a website with podcasts and forums. “It works with our genetics in synchronicity with the way we are supposed to live instead of antagonistically with the way we are supposed to live. It limits certain foods and that may be a heartache for some people but that’s the way it is. We’ve set out an intervention and make recommendations that are livable.”

Hiker and biker Edwin Bradley reports improved health benefits from the Paleo Solution

So livable, that it’s catching on, especially in experimental California where many will quickly step to the plate and try anything rumored to make you drop ten pounds in a hurry. But for 54-year-old San Francisco lawyer Edwin Bradley, an avid hiker and biker, the weight loss was not a motive but an added benefit along with visible improvements in his skin after a couple of months of following the plan.

“My psoriasis lesions don’t scale as much and my skin is smoother and more pliable and I’m getting unsolicited feedback from people who ask if I’m doing Botox because my skin looks so good,” he reports. “I’ve had the condition for 30 years and I don’t expect it to go away in two months but I’m satisfied it will continue to improve drastically over time.”

Not only that, he has found sticking to the diet has significantly boosted his energy. “In a practical performance matter, I ride my bike long distances and no longer have the blood sugar drop off I used to get,” he explains. “My energy descends very gradually and I think it’s because grain energy is kind of a sugar energy that comes on quickly and goes away quickly and when you are getting your carbs from vegetables and proteins, you don’t have that drop off. I can be feeling hungry and still be able to ride for two to three hours without getting the shakes or the feeling I need an emergency food fix.”

Bradley, like many Bay Area foodies who opted for organic and grass-fed back in the day when Alice Waters burst on the scene, has recommended the book to colleagues and friends, sharing the philosophy that our digestive systems are designed for the way we ate before the age of agriculture: wild game, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.

“I stumbled upon the book and it was the first time I saw someone make the connection between modern grains and chronic low level and auto immune diseases such as Crones, psoriasis, diabetes and arthritis,” he says. “If you understand the basic Paleo tenants, you will understand that what makes cows sick from eating corn is what makes humans sick from grains, which we’ve been consuming for only about 8,000 years. We were hunters and gatherers long before that, and look at the lean bodies of our ancestors who never had the same sicknesses.”

Sarah J. says Paleo improved her Celiac symptoms and curbed addiction to sugar and starches

Testimonials on the Paleo Solution website validate both the weight loss and health improvements from Colitis to Fibromyalgia to Type I Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Celiac Disease and female hormonal imbalance. Among those testifying, Sarah J., who says she suffered for years from Celiac Disease and finally her joint and throat pain is gone and she can now lift her kids with renewed strength.

“One of the biggest things so far in terms of my quality of life is that for the last three months I have been more emotionally stable than I have been for a long, long time, and I don’t feel so depressed,” she says, adding she now craves salad and has been weened off of sugar. “My tastes have actually changed and I’m listening to what my body really wants instead of what my cravings demand. And I’m not hungry all of the time. I actually feel full.”

Critics Dismissing it as a Fad

While health experts readily link our industrial food era diet and lifestyles to modern cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and hypertension, the American Dietetic Association, many food writers and anthropologists have dismissed the Paleolithic path as just another fad diet.

They argue even if cave dwellers did exist without processed cereals, dairy products, refined sugars, oil and alcohol, that doesn’t mean modern humans are genetically adapted to follow the same rigid course. And in terms of converting to healthier grass fed meats, even California’s premier steak houses and restaurants are clinging to flavorful marbleized prime arguing it’s what’s for dinner because customers still demand it.

Consuming grains and grain-fed meat are habits proving hard to break after 8,000 years – at least without more compelling evidence. Some diet bloggers have even voiced out that breaking the habit can also be expensive since free range, grass-fed and organic produce often cost more than less healthy foods.

The Problem With Too Much Protein and the Exclusion of Carbs

A high protein diet can run the risk of placing undue stress on the kidneys which filter waste products from the breakdown of protein and this is why you are urged to get your kidney function tested before doing such a high protein diet.

Recent Harvard University research shows the popular low-carb, high protein approach may promote rapid weight loss but significantly increase atherosclerosis, a build up of plaque in the heart and a leading cause of heart attack and stroke. Feeding mice such a diet also resulted in an impaired ability to form new blood vessels in the tissues deprived of blood flow, which might occur in a heart attack.

In addition, giving up carbs entirely can be a problem for big fuel burners such as athletes and cultures incorporating certain grains and boasting longevity: Asians eat rice as a staple and legumes and grains are features of the highly emulated Mediterranean diet.

And despite Bradley’s experience of a lower blood sugar drop, studies show beans and grains in their whole and unprocessed form and a lower glycemic index than most fruit – perhaps the banana being an exception. The American Diabetes Association calls for a diet of 50 percent veggies, 25 percent proteins and 25 percent grains or starches to manage blood sugar levels, along with increasing exercise – arguably the real solution to modern chronic health issues even more than counting calories.

Senior author of the study, Anthony Rosenzweig, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, notes that doctors need to consider such rigid diet effects in counteracting vascular disease when advising their patients. “This issue is particularly important given the epidemic of obesity and its adverse consequences,” he says. “For now, it appears  that a moderate and balanced diet, coupled with regular exercise, is probably best for most people.”

Even Bradley admits to emerging from his cave from time to time and succumbing to an urge.

“I eat ice cream and candy and occasionally a small amount of baked things like a chocolate hazelnut croissant,” he confesses, “But I’m consistent about not including grains in my formal nutrition and have ordered sandwiches on the golf course where I ate everything and threw the bread away. I have a naughty splurge but I don’t cook for it or shop or plan for it.”

Naughty perhaps by Paleo standards but less harmful than most splurges. He says it’s important to remember that even if he strays it is still with real food: ice cream and not imitation ice milk; real baked goods with pure butter, sugar and chocolate; a bit of real soda at the movies rather than diet drinks with Splenda or synthetic sweeteners containing  the same molecules as embalming fluid. According to Bradley, you would be hard pressed to find Paleo followers who haven’t eliminated the proven poisons from their diets.

Wolf  stresses how these poisons have become highly addictive since processed sweet and salty, crunchy and doughy goodies are more accessible than his prescribed nutritional fare. His Paleo Solution informs us it is normal for man to be seduced by momentary pleasure over what might promote longevity. As he sees it, we are only human, and a few things haven’t changed.

Images: ispeakpaleo

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.