nutrition

Understanding the Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet, also known as the Caveman diet, has been around awhile and is still popular among some dieters and athletes.  But, is it a healthy diet and is it one that is good for you?  As with any diet, it’s important to understand what the diet is, the foods it includes, the foods it avoids, the benefits, and risks or concerns of the diet.  It’s even more important to determine if this diet is right for you by speaking with your doctor and a registered dietitian. 

What is the Paleo Diet?

The paleo diet is based on what cavemen and cavewomen are presumed to have eaten thousands of years ago.  Why eat like a caveman you ask?  The premise is that our bodies are genetically programmed to eat as our stone age ancestors did.  True or not, let’s take a look at what foods they had access to back then.

Since our stone age ancestors existed before modern agriculture became a thing, the foods they ate would have been ones they hunted and gathered for.  Wild animals, fish, and uncultivated plants, such as fruits, berries, eggs, and roots, rounded out the diet.  As such, the diet was high in protein and fiber, and low in fat.

If a food did not exist back then, it would not be an authentic paleo food item.  In modern times, we have many more cultivated healthy food choices available.  Additionally, most meats and plants are domesticated, thus making a true paleo diet difficult to follow.  What this means is, at best, a modified version of the paleo diet that is organic and gluten free would be one that a dieter could follow.  But that doesn’t alone make it good either.

Foods of the Paleo Diet

While there are many versions of the Paleo diet, with some stricter than others, below is a list that most paleo diets are made up of.

·  Grass-feed meats and poultry (versus corn fed) as the nutritional quality would be closer to what our stone age ancestors would have had available.

·  Wild-caught fish and seafood (salmon, haddock, trout, shellfish, shrimp, etc.)

·  Low carb vegetables (such as leafy greens, peppers, celery, asparagus, broccoli, cucumbers)

·  Pasture-raised eggs

·  Fruits (sometimes)

·  Tree nuts (only in moderation)

·  Raw cacao (high in polyphenol antioxidants)

·  Coconut milk

·  Organic green tea

·  Cold pressed avocado, coconut and olive oil

Foods not included in the Paleo Diet

·  Legumes

·  Grains

·  Starches (potatoes, corn, refined cereal, etc.)

·  Dairy

·  Alcohol

·  Sugar

·  Processed foods

·  Processed oils

Potential Benefits of a Paleo Diet

·  Fast weight loss

·  Improved blood markers (cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin)

·  Lower blood pressure

·  Reduced risk of chronic diseases

·  May benefit patients with type 2 diabetes

Potential Risks/Concerns of a Paleo Diet

·  Lack of energy (from carbohydrate restriction)

·  Vitamin and Mineral deficiencies (from legume and grain restriction)

·  Calcium deficiencies (from legume restriction)

·  Increased risk of chronic diseases (from legume and grain restriction)

·  Mental fatigue (from carbohydrate restriction)

·  Muscle loss (from carbohydrate restriction)

What’s The bottom line?

A well-formulated paleo diet may be beneficial for weight loss and improving overall nutritional health.  A major drawback may be the restriction of healthy legumes and grains in the diet, as well as other nutrient rich items like many fruits and vegetables.  Always seek the advice of a doctor and registered dietitian to determine if a paleo diet is good for you. 

In the long term, having a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and unprocessed foods, is easier to maintain and provides needed nutrients for optimal health.

Maybe Grab That Dark Chocolate the Next Time

It’s been widely publicized that dark chocolate may have the health benefit of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation.  With so many chocolate lovers out there, this was some great news.  Justifying eating this wonderful treat because it’s actually healthy for you!

But, are there buts to it like anything else?  Thus, deflating you yet again and steering you away from something delicious?  Maybe, maybe not.

What’s Behind the Chocolate Hype

Chocolate is derived from the cocoa bean, which is rich in antioxidant flavonoids.  Foods with antioxidant properties are wonderful to hear about.  Talk about guilt free foods! 

Antioxidant is a very broad term that refers to hundreds of substances.  The ones of most notoriety are Vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, selenium, lutein, lycopene and polyphenols.  These are found in familiar foods such as berries, nuts, and beans.  Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.  Free radicals are both a natural byproduct of normal processes in our body’s cells, and from those environmental toxins we come into contact with such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet rays.  Our body’s cells naturally produce strong antioxidants, while the foods we eat supply others, such as those mentioned above.

Back to the Cocoa Bean

Remember, the cocoa bean was rich in flavonoids.  Flavonoids are a wonder of nature in that they are found only in plants, and help protect plants from those environmental toxins, fungi and microbes.  They also help the plant repair damage. 

Flavonoids have hit notoriety because of their possible medicinal use in fighting against certain types of cancers, atherosclerosis (build-up of plaque in the artery walls), and high cholesterol.  The main type of flavonoid in the cocoa bean are flavonols.  These flavonols contain antioxidant properties that may serve a role to improve blood flow and lower bad cholesterol (LDL).

Why Dark Chocolate over Milk Chocolate

Not all chocolate is created equally.  Cocoa is very pungent and bitter.  So, in order to make it taste good, most of the chocolates available on the U.S. grocery shelves are heavily processed.  The more heavily processed, the more flavonols are lost, and so it becomes just another unhealthy food to eat.

The silver lining is in the dark chocolate, and the darker the better.  It’s believed that more of the flavonols are retained during processing of dark chocolate than say, milk chocolate.  However, it all comes down to the manufacturing process, which we aren’t always privy to.  However, for now, dark chocolate appears to be the better health conscious choice.

So, when you feel you just have to treat yourself, a moderate amount of dark chocolate (one ounce) a few times a week may be a good choice.  This, along with those other flavonoid rich foods, such as berries, citrus fruits, and legumes, can round out your diet without the guilt.