Q: “I’ve heard mixed reviews about the Paleo Diet. What gives?”
A: No wonder you’re confused. One day we’re hearing that the Paleo plan, aka the caveman diet, tied for last place in US News and World Report’s ranking of 29 diets; the next, we’re told it rated second best in Consumer Reports‘ survey of 9,000-plus readers. The former was based on health-expert-panel input; the latter, personal experiences. Amid the frenzy, Paleo took first prize as most online-searched diet in the first days of 2013, reports Experian Marketing Services. Who—and what—is a guy to believe?
First, a quick primer: Paleo’s premise is that Paleolithic Era’s hunter-gatherer eating habits some 10,000 years back (think: wild game, nuts, berries) are superior to those of the typical modern Western man (think: packaged, processed salt-and-sugar-laden food products). Sounds sane, right? That part of it is. “Large amounts of vegetables, seeds, and fruit along with avoidance of refined carbs, added salt and sugars are healthy changes,” says Stephen Devries, M.D., executive director of the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology.
“The concern,” Devries adds, “is the meat emphasis. Large amounts of red meat should not be encouraged, given associated increased heart-disease and cancer risks.”
But there’s another reason you might want to hit pause on a pure Paleo lifestyle. Foods Wilma and Fred didn’t scarf down are forbidden for dieters following their foragers’ path—meaning nix all dairy, legumes (low-fat, protein-packed, fiber-full beans and lentils and healthy-fat peanuts), grains (including wheat, oats, corn, rice, and quinoa) and starchy tubers (including phytochemical-rich potatoes and beta-carotene-packed sweet potatoes).
“I can’t think of any nutritional reason why such foods should be prohibited,” says Marion Nestle, M.P.H. Ph.D.,Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU. Elimination of food groups can also be hard to maintain long-term. “The basic principles of healthful eating are simple and easy-to-follow: Vary unprocessed foods. Don’t overeat.”
A Paleo dieter consumes about 700mg of calcium daily—shy of the recommended 1,000mg for men 19 to 50. Low vitamin D levels—largely in dairy and fortified foods—follows. Cavemen didn’t take supplements nor did they slurp down diet soda, which Paleo allows in limited amounts. Most, says Dr. Marion, also didn’t live past 30.
Follow Paleo and you will get lean. But as Dr. Nestle puts it: “Health is about where the calories come from.” Bottom line: It may be best to try to incorporate the diet’s best principles (like the focus on whole foods ) into your life—without holding yourself to its extremes. But if you do go full-Paleo, stick to lean proteins, and bend the supplementation rule so that you’re getting the nutrients you need.
MF EXPERTS: Stephen Devries, M.D., a preventive cardiologist and associate professor of medicine-cardiology at Northwestern University; Marion Nestle, PhD, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.