Our Most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
We’ve received a lot of questions over the years about what The Paleo Diet® is, how it works, and why we believe it’s the healthiest diet out there.
Here’s a list of our most commonly asked questions to help you understand why The Paleo Diet is a lifestyle, and not just a fad diet.
Q. How does The Paleo Diet® work?
A. The Paleo Diet mimics the types of foods our ancestors ate prior to the Agricultural Revolution, a mere 333 generations ago or about 12,000 years ago. These foods include fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood which are high in a variety of beneficial nutrients that promote good health, like soluble fiber, antioxidant vitamins, omega-3 and monounsaturated fats, and key minerals such as magnesium and potassium.
Foods added to our diets since the agricultural revolution, such as refined sugars and grains, trans fats, salt, high-glycemic carbohydrates, and processed foods, tend to be low in healthy nutrients and contain many antinutrients. These foods may contribute to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and numerous other health problems.
We encourage you to replace dairy products and grains with nutrient-dense alternatives, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Q. How is The Paleo Diet different?
A. The Paleo Diet is the only diet that focuses on eating the foods that our species is genetically adapted to. This program of eating was not designed by diet doctors, faddists, or nutritionists, but rather by Mother Nature’s wisdom acting through evolution and natural selection.
The Paleo Diet is based upon extensive scientific research examining the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. The foundation of The Paleo Diet is seafood, meat, and unlimited amounts of fresh fruits and veggies. These are the foods that were readily available to our Paleolithic ancestors.
Q. Will it help me lose weight?
A. Conventional wisdom tells us that to lose weight, we must burn more calories than we take in, and that the best way to accomplish this is to eat a plant-dominated, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. The first part of this equation is still true – a net caloric deficit must occur in order to lose weight. However, the experience for most people on low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diets is unpleasant. They are hungry all the time, and the vast majority of people on this diet find it nearly impossible to under-consume calories. As a result, any weight lost is regained rapidly or within a few months of the initial loss.
A healthier, more sustainable alternative is to eat a high-protein, high-fruit and veggie diet with moderate to higher amounts of healthy fat. Protein has two to three times the thermic effect of either fat or carbohydrate, meaning that it revs up your metabolism, making it easier to under-consume.
Additionally, protein has a much greater satiety value than either fat or carbohydrate, so it puts the brakes on your appetite. Numerous recent clinical trials have shown high-protein, low-glycemic load diets are more effective than low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets at promoting long-term weight loss.
It’s also important to point out that when we are hungry, we are usually hungry for something. When we eat “empty” calories such as processed foods, our bodies will store the calories as fat, but they won’t turn off the hunger signals. Eating a high nutrient density diet satiates hunger signals and makes it much harder to overconsume.
Q. What health benefits can I expect to see?
A. In addition to weight loss, you can expect better digestion, more energy, and protection from a variety of diseases. Here’s how it works.
When people think of carbs, they often think of bread and pasta, but fruits and veggies are carbohydrates as well. These are the carbohydrates we focus on with The Paleo Diet.
Carbs from fruits and veggies are of a low-glycemic index, meaning that they cause slow and limited rises in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Excessive insulin and blood sugar levels are known to promote a cluster of diseases called Metabolic Syndrome (obesity, hypertension, undesirable blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels, Type 2 diabetes and gout). The high fiber, protein, and omega-3 fat content of The Paleo Diet will also help to prevent Metabolic Syndrome.
Because of the unlimited amounts of fruits and veggies promoted by The Paleo Diet, your body will be slightly alkaline – which can combat diseases of acid/base imbalance. In other words, problems like osteoporosis, kidney stones, hypertension, stroke, asthma, insomnia, motion sickness, inner ear ringing, and exercise-induced asthma will improve.
Plus the high soluble fiber content of The Paleo Diet will improve most gastrointestinal diseases, and the high omega-3 fat content will improve most of the “itis” or inflammatory diseases.
Q. Will I get enough calcium?
A. Yes. While it may seem odd that you’d be able to get enough calcium while eliminating dairy products from your diet, you’ll improve your calcium balance, which is far more important. As a result, your bone health will improve.
The science behind this is a bit confusing. In the U.S., we have one of the highest calcium intakes in the world. Yet paradoxically, we also have one of the highest rates of bone de-mineralization (osteoporosis). Bone mineral content is dependent not upon calcium intake, but upon net calcium balance (calcium intake minus calcium excretion). Most nutritionists focus on the calcium intake side of the calcium balance equation, however few realize that the calcium excretion side of the equation is just as important.
Bone health is substantially dependent on dietary acid/base balance. After digestion, all foods produce either an acidic or base load on our bodies that our kidneys need to then keep in balance. When the diet yields a net acid load (such as low-carb fad diets that restrict fruits and vegetables), the acid must be buffered by the alkaline stores of base in the body. Calcium salts in the bones represent the largest store of alkaline base in the body and are depleted and eliminated in the urine when the diet produces a net acid load. It’s that constant acid load of many western diets that gradually leeches the calcium out of the bones and leads to osteoporosis. The highest acid-producing foods are hard cheeses, cereal grains, salted foods, meats, and legumes, whereas the only alkaline, base-producing foods are fruits and vegetables.
And keep in mind that even if a food is considered acidic when you consume it – such as lemons and grapefruits – doesn’t mean they have a net acid load on your body. If you want to know the impact of a food, look up it’s PRAL value.
Because the average American diet is overloaded with grains, cheeses, salted processed foods, and fatty meats at the expense of fruits and vegetables, it produces a net acid load and actually promotes bone de-mineralization. By replacing cheese, cereal grains, and processed foods with plenty of green vegetables and fruits, the body comes back into acid/base balance which brings us also back into calcium balance.
The Paleo Diet recommends an appropriate balance of acidic and basic (alkaline) foods, like grass-fed beef, fresh seafood, fruits, and vegetables, and will not cause osteoporosis in otherwise healthy individuals.
For more information, read about the calcium-magnesium ratio.
Q. Why should I avoid salt?
A. Salt presents a net acid load to the kidneys in the absence of alkaline foods such as fruits and vegetables. And, as explained above, the body responds by tapping its reserve of calcium salts in the bones, which can lead to osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases. It also creates a host of other problems. It’s important to note that you can balance out the natural sodium found in certain foods by eating enough potassium. Read more about the sodium-potassium ratio and how the synergistic relationship between the two works to improve your health.
Q. Don’t meat-based diets promote high cholesterol and heart disease?
A. There is a lot to unpack here. First, there’s no doubt that the fat quality and quantity in the wild animals our Stone Age ancestors ate was vastly different from the types found in feedlot-produced meats. As an example: A 100-gram serving of roast buffalo contains only 2.4 grams of fat, and 0.9 g of saturated fat, whereas a 100-gram, T-bone steak from feedlot cattle contains a whopping 23 grams of fat, and 9 grams of saturated fat. Plus, the bison roast contains 215 mg of heart-healthy, omega-3 fatty acids, whereas the T-bone steak contains a paltry 46 mg.
Next, despite its blood cholesterol raising effects, recent meta-analyses (studies that combine the results of multiple studies on a subject) show that saturated fats have little adverse effect upon the risk for heart disease. We recommend that you choose free-ranging or grass-produced meats over feedlot meats whenever possible. These meats are more healthful because they have nutritional characteristics similar to wild animals.
Recent clinical studies have shown that high-protein diets are more effective in improving blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels than are low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. Omnivore diets containing at least some fish or meat have also been shown to lower blood homocysteine levels, another risk factor for heart disease.
Finally, we aren’t a meat-based diet! While we encourage you to eat meat or fish every day (or as often as you like), we’re actually more of a plant-based diet. You should be eating a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than meat on The Paleo Diet.
Q. Aren’t whole grains good sources of fiber, minerals, and B vitamins?
A. On a calorie-by-calorie basis, whole grains are lousy sources of fiber, minerals, and B vitamins when compared to the grass produced or free ranging meats, seafood, and fresh fruit and veggies that dominate The Paleo Diet.
For example, a 1,000-calorie serving of fresh fruits and vegetables has between two and seven times as much fiber as does a comparable serving of whole grains. In fruits and veggies most of the fiber is heart-healthy, soluble fiber that lowers cholesterol levels – the same cannot be said for the insoluble fiber that is predominant in most whole grains. A 1,000-calorie serving of whole grain cereal contains 15 times less calcium, three times less magnesium, 12 times less potassium, six times less iron, and two times less copper than a comparable serving of fresh vegetables. Moreover, whole grains contain a substance called phytate that almost entirely prevents the absorption of any calcium, iron, or zinc that is found in whole grains, whereas the type of iron, zinc, and copper found in grass-produced or free ranging meats and seafood is in a form that is highly absorbed.
Compared to fruits and veggies, cereal grains are B-vitamin lightweights. An average 1,000 calorie serving of mixed vegetables contains 19 times more folate (in fact, grain products have to be fortified with folic acid), five times more vitamin B6, six times more vitamin B2 and two times more vitamin B1 than a comparable serving of eight mixed whole grains. On a calorie-by-calorie basis, the niacin content of lean meat and seafood is four times greater than that found in whole grains.
It’s important to point out that vitamin B6 comes in many forms. The form found in most plants can’t be used by our bodies. Likewise, we can only get vitamin B12 from seafood and meat. This is important because B6 and B12 are critical in keeping homocysteine levels low and high homocysteine levels are actually a much greater risk factor for heart disease than cholesterol.
Q. Can I still go Paleo when I’m a vegetarian?
A. No. It is simply impossible to follow The Paleo Diet without meat, seafood, and eggs.
The Paleo Diet is based on foods similar to what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era – 2.6 million years to 10,000 years ago. That comprises 99.6 % of our evolutionary history; hence, our genome is perfectly adapted to eat foods similar to what we found during that period of time. This means eating meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) led to a dramatic change in human nutrition. Cereal grains, legumes, dairy, vegetable oils, salt, alcohol, and refined sugars now comprise 72 % of the nutrition in the western society. These recent additions to the human diet maintain nutritional characteristics that promote virtually all known “diseases of civilization.”
Most vegans and vegetarians rely upon legumes (beans, soy, lentils, peas, etc.) and whole grains to meet the majority of their daily caloric intake. Legumes and whole grains contain some of the highest concentrations of antinutrients in any foods. These compounds frequently increase intestinal permeability and cause a condition known as leaky gut, a necessary first step in almost all autoimmune diseases. Further, a leaky gut likely underlies chronic, low-grade inflammation, which in turn underlies not only autoimmune diseases, but also heart disease and cancer.
Sadly, vegan and vegetarian diets almost invariably result in numerous vitamin, mineral and nutrient deficiencies such as B12, B6, D, zinc, iron, iodine, taurine and omega-3 fatty acids. We don’t recommend it as a healthy way to eat.
Trevor Connor, M.S.
Dr. Loren Cordain’s final graduate student, Trevor Connor, M.S., brings more than a decade of nutrition and physiology expertise to spearhead the new Paleo Diet team.More About The Author