Is the Low-Carb Paleo Diet a Healthy Choice?

The Paleo diet is the most recent rage in specialty diets, but are the dietary restrictions –which are similar to the much venerated Atkins’ diet–unhealthy? Paleo restricts dieters from eating grains, legumes, processed sugar and dairy. While a focus on healthier, natural ingredients is a plus when compared to Atkins and other low-carb fad diets, what key nutrients are lacking?

The idea that humans can subsist on what cavemen ate is a popular one. After all, the natural, whole food movement has merit. But, with the evolution of farming and introduction of grains and dairy into our diets, came the evolution of the human body. So, can modern humans subsist solely on meat, fruit and vegetables like our ancestors without health risks?

The Risks

The risks of the Paleo diet are similar to Atkins. While it’s effective, at least in the short-term for weight loss due to low carbohydrate intake, it also may promote heart disease due to the excessive amounts of saturated animal fat. And, without the daily minimum of 150 grams of carbs, normal metabolic activity may become disrupted. The Paleo diet eliminates what are considered the healthiest carbs: legumes, nuts and whole grains. The high protein intake required for the Paleo diet also may increase the risks for stroke and cancer, as well as bone loss and osteoporosis.

The Paleo diet suggests lumping all processed food together in one boat, including the more ancient processed foods like bread and pasta, and eliminating them along with relatively new processed foods like refined sugars and oils. Ancient grains existed during the Paleolithic era, just not as prolifically. Looking to Paleolithic era humans for diet advice may be fundamentally flawed. After all, Paleolithic people didn’t avoid carbs and other food varieties to keep a svelte waistline; food was scarce. They ate what was available.

A recent report from U.S. News ranked the Paleo diet even lower than the Atkins diet in terms of nutrition, giving it two of five stars as opposed to Atkins’ 2.5 stars. The typical Paleo diet is higher in fat and protein than the government recommends. You also may have trouble with some key nutrients:

  • Calcium: With the lack of dairy, calcium may be a problem. A typical Paleo menu includes only about half the government’s recommended calcium intake. 
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D will also be scarce. Promoters of the diet often recommend a supplement (even though that’s not the caveman way) since the fortification of vitamin D found in grains and dairy in the U.S. won’t be consumed by the dieter.

The Benefits

While Paleo has its commonalities with Atkins, it also diverges from the diet in important ways. Paleo supporters suggest an increase in fresh and unprocessed food and avoidance of refined sugars and processed oils. These rules are pretty universal for the modern healthy diet. Atkins promoted use of processed sugar substitutes.

With the focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as quality lean meats, some nutrients will be in abundance with the Paleo diet:

  • Fiber: Veggies in large amounts will make your fiber intake supreme on this diet.
  • Vitamin B-12: With all of that meat and fish intake, you won’t miss the B-12 from fortified grains.
  • Potassium: Most Americans on a standard diet don’t meet the recommended 4700 mg from food. But according to the U.S. News sample diet, Paleo intake is double the government’s recommendation. It’s one of the few diets studied that met the potassium recommendation.

Without the varied phases of Atkins, the Paleo diet can also be much easier to follow. Once you start, your diet doesn’t change. You simply try to avoid anything that wasn’t available in Paleolithic times.

As for the weight loss claims, if you already eat a diet low in processed foods, Paleo is unlikely to be of much help. In fact, it can even hinder healthy weight maintenance by eliminating high protein, low fat options like legumes and low fat dairy. If you’re into the benefits of Paleo, consider using the positive guidelines and ignoring what doesn’t work for you. Cut processed foods and eat lean meats, but keep the healthy dairy, grain and legume options on your table for a balanced, healthy diet. It’s not quite how the cavemen did it, but maybe how they would have done it if they had a choice.

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Image: aloi