#2 Paleo… 5 Things Right With Paleo

Paleo certainly has it’s haters, but what usually annoys the more well read nutrition folk is not the diet itself but the attitude of the people following it. The paleo zealots often treat it like a exclusive club or cult, and there’s no place for that kind of thinking in health. Evidence counts, and if you go down you gym and start preaching about how amazing  Diet X is you’d better have some info to back you up.

I don;t always eat paleo

The most often peddled paleo argument – that we’re evolutionarily adapted to eating paleo – sounds scientific, but actually our understanding of evolution and the function of our body and biota is rapidly changing, meaning this argument might not be quite as water tight as originally thought, but do paleo folk even need it?

Let’s look at some of the more obvious or quantifiable advantages of paleo

1 It Pushes Whole Foods

Ask a group of ten nutrition specialists what makes for a good diet and the only thing they’re guaranteed to agree on is that it should be based on whole, minimally processed foods.


Food is an incredibly complex collection of chemicals. Not only fats, carbs, proteins, vitamins and minerals but different types of fibre and thousands of phytochemicals. Whilst we understand the minimum we need to stay alive under controlled conditions, we’re nowhere near a complete understanding of the full complexities of diet and how to support people thriving in the real world.

All we can say for sure is that at the moment we need real food.

With a huge amount of processed food on offer today in supermarkets and eateries, any diet the pushes back against this and gets us eating ‘real’ food is a bonus. As a wider society any movement that promotes wholefoods is going to help keep us in touch with facets of our food traditions, and it’s food traditions that most strongly correlate with resistance to diet related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Willett, Walter C., et al. “Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 61.6 (1995): 1402S-1406S.

1 (b) Minimises processed foods.

OK, so this is the flipside of the point above, but the focus here slightly different.

Food Processing is very useful. Butchery is an example of food processing, but there’s a difference between minimally processed [thing: steak] and highly processed [think: that deli meat with the picture of the bear running through it].

When you consider a processed food, you have to ask these four questions

  1. What has been removed from the food?
  2. What has been added to the food?
  3. What remains, how has that been changed?
  4. How do all of these changes alter the way we use the food?

We now eat diets heavily comprised of highly processed foods, so we need to be doing a lot of thinking about just what where putting in our mouths. Highly processed foods are usually much lower in essential nutrients, are often very calorie dense and low in fibre, and hyper palatable, which is to say, delicious and addictive, and that leads us on to the next point.

Monteiro, Carlos A., et al. “Ultra‐processed products are becoming dominant in the global food system.” Obesity reviews 14.S2 (2013): 21-28.

2 Good luck trying to overeat it.

Research shows that Paleo diets are ‘highly satiating’. In short: they fill you up. This is important because a filling diet is one that’s harder to overeat.

The core problem is that no matter how ‘elite’ the diet you’re eating is, if you eat too much of it you’re going to get fat, and research shows that, calorie for calorie, paleo is actually more filling than even the usual darling of the nutrition world: the Mediterranean Diet.

That ‘calorie for calorie’ comparison is important, because although there are other factors involved it’s too many calories that make you fat.

There’s another important point here. Loads of diets can take the weight off you, but many have a common problem: hunger. Filling diets, such as the paleo diet, help you stay lean but they also stop you from being hungry, meaning they’re less ‘painful’ and hopefully meaning support long-term compliance.

Jönsson, Tommy, et al. “A paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease.”Nutrition & metabolism 7.1 (2010): 1.

Of course the ability of humans to screw anything up is seemingly limitless, so if you;re living off paleo cookies then you might find ‘paleo’ pretty easy to over eat.

3 Paleo diets have more nutrients

Another measure of diet quality is how much in the way of nutrients it contains. This is much more tricky to quantify. There’s lots of different nutrients, some, like vitamins, we have to eat to survive, others – such as flavonoids – definitely improve our health but we can scrape by without them.

The big ones, like protein, carbs, fats and fibre we can play around with more easily,  for example avoiding starchy or sugary foods to cut carbs, but the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are harder control by altering food choices. Usually we just try to get a decent amount of the them all by eating and abundance of nutrient rich foods, and then let the body sort it out for us.

Firstly let’s look at nutrient density. Aggregate Nutrient Density Index.or ANDI <<http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0390.htm/pdf/13_0390.pdf>> is a US Goverment rating system based on nutrients per calorie. Some argue it’s flawed – fibrous veg is always going to come out on top due to the lack of calories. BUt still is makes interesting reading.

ANDI score

Note how those ‘non paleo’ foods including grain and dairy foods feature pretty low down.

Now, many disagree that ‘calories’ are the best basis to measure nutrient quantities against. Some like to compare typical portion sizes. This makes a big difference when you look at how different foods rate in terms of calories

Think about making a salad with 100kcal each of steak and watercress, it would have

  • 50g steak
  • 1kg watercress

That’s a big salad right there, but, now think about making a salad that a person might actually want to eat, if you take ‘serving size’ you’re talking more like

  • 100-150g Steak
  • 30-50g Watercress (1-2 handfuls)

So using typical serving sizes as the basis to compare the amounts of nutrients against things look very different

Big salad well up to date cultural reference.

Matt LaLonde – who holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry – went into great detail about this at the Ancestral Health Symposium HERE. Whether or not you think this arbitrary choice of ‘per serving’ is justified is up to you, here’s a rundown of where this gets us in terms of nutrient density.


taken from: www.paleotreats.com

Again, the paleo friendly foods are towards the top. Non paleo foods fare worse. So that’s 2:0 to paleo.

Not so fast though

‘Better, maybe, but better than what?’

The elephant in the room though here is that of course we don’just eat one food but a combination of them, so you have to decide what a whole diet looks like and what you’re comparing it against…

Loren Cordain did a good job of comparing a ‘typical paleo diet’ (whatever that is!) to the Standard American Diet, withhout going into deatil it greatly out perfroms it on pretty much every health measure you chose to look at. MOre can be found at the links below.

Origins and evolution of the western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 81:341-54

L. Cordain The nutritional characteristics of a contemporary diet based upon Paleolithic food groups. J Am Neutraceut Assoc 2002; 5:15-24

Honourable mentions …

There’s a couple of factors that we can’t forget, namely
4) Refocuses on food quality

This goes with points 1a and b but in a world that been dominated by ‘calories’ for so long if good to spend a little time focusing on food quality. Calories count, big time, but food is so much more than calories. The first month IIFYM was reductionist, it look at calories and where you got them from – the protein fats and carbs (and firbre) – but there’s literally  thousands of other compounds in food that may support our health. the phytochemicals for example.

5) (Generally) Higher protein

I’ll say it until I am blue in the face but PALEO DOESN’T PRESCRIBE MACRONUTRIENTS. You could eat yams all day and be paleo, however most people that ‘go paleo’ tend to higher protein and studies are staring to agree that certainly in terms of losing weight and holding onto muscle higher protein diets are a good thing….

Leidy, Heather J., et al. “The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance.”The American journal of clinical nutrition 101.6 (2015): 1320S-1329S.

Isanejad, Masoud, et al. “Dietary protein intake is associated with better physical function and muscle strength among elderly women.” The British journal of nutrition (2016): 1-11.


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