As we approach the new year, a person often begins to think about change and how to get off to a fresh start - this year much more so than ever before. For many of us, the past 10 months have been a time of high stress and anxiety, isolation, staying at home, balancing numerous responsibilities, as well as possibly gaining the “quarantine 15”.
If you are considering making a dietary change in 2021, whether it is to embark on a new health journey or just lose a few pounds, it can be tempting to choose a diet that promises quick or dramatic results, also known as fad or crash diets. Many people who struggle with weight can follow a crash diet for a short period of time and have success, but long term, the weight comes back often due to the fact that the eating plan is not sustainable.
Understanding the pros and cons of different diets, especially those that are often promoted by the media or are currently popular, can help you determine if a certain type of diet or eating plan can be beneficial to you in your quest to lose weight, if it is one that you can fit into your lifestyle, if it is one that you can incorporate long term, and most importantly, is it safe?
The Paleo Diet concept originated in the early 2000’s and is a nutrition plan that focuses on eating in a similar style to how early humans may have eaten during the Paleolithic era, around 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Also known as the “caveman” or “paleolithic” diet, it is modeled after what foods our ancestors could have hunted or gathered in nature.
The paleo diet remains controversial with many experts due to the exaggerated claims often associated with this eating structure. ¹ Similarly, dietitians hold different views over whether modern humans should eat foods similar to what prehistoric humans were eating, as evidence suggests prehistoric humans experienced nutritional deficiencies.
However, studies have demonstrated that there may be some benefits associated with going paleo, including improvements in metabolic function and the ability to detect and correct nutritional deficiencies is significantly better. The key benefit of the paleo diet that most dietitians agree on is that it reduces consumption of processed foods, which has been linked to many modern health problems.
How it works
The paleo diet typically limits the kinds of foods that became more common once farming began, including processed foods and modern grains such as wheat, rice, corn, and rye. This means that there will be a focus on foods that could be obtained by means of hunting or gathering and foraging. Fortunately, thanks to the increased availability of different types of food at most grocery stores, you won’t have to acquire food in the same manner as our nomadic predecessors.
What foods are “allowed” on the Paleo Diet?
Switching to a paleo diet means eating—or cooking with—whole foods in their most natural form. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are very common ingredients for snacks and meals. Individuals on the paleo diet also eat a lot of lean meats, eggs, and fish. It is worth noting that legumes are not a part of the paleo diet, so keeping up with a vegetarian or vegan meal plan is more challenging on the paleo diet—it would become very difficult to consume enough nuts and seeds to reach daily recommended protein intake levels.
What foods are “not allowed” on the Paleo Diet?
Some foods you will want to avoid when adhering to the paleo diet are the following:
- Dairy products – Including cheese, yogurt, and butter, as prehistoric humans did not milk cows
- Grains – Such as oats, wheat, rice, barley, rye, and corn (yes, corn is considered both a grain AND a vegetable)
- Legumes – Including lentils, beans, peanuts, chickpeas, soy, and peas
- Refined sugar – Refined sugar comes from a process unavailable to prehistoric humans, so the only sugar that individuals on the paleo diet consume comes from nature (fruits, raw honey, etc.)
- White potatoes – This particular food has caused a bit of a divide within the paleo community, but the general consensus is that white potatoes are not paleo, but sweet potatoes are
- Highly processed foods – Many processed foods include a variety of ingredients that are “banned” from the paleo diet
- Alcohol– Hardcore adopters of the paleo diet will argue that because alcohol is a toxin and highly processed, it does not belong on the list of paleo-approved foods. However, others allow themselves the occasional drink—as long as it is not grain alcohol, as grains are also restricted on the paleo diet. Non-grain alcohols include wine (made from grapes), tequila (made from agave), and rum (made from cane sugar)
What Are Some Benefits of the Paleo Diet?
Overall, people who strongly adhere to a paleo way of eating are likely to consume significantly less junk food and sugars compared to average as well as incorporate more produce. Additionally, this diet is relatively high in numerous essential nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids (thanks to the abundance of seafood and grass-fed meat). Consider some of the promising benefits of the paleo diet—from improved blood pressure to heart health and beyond.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Coronary heart disease is unfortunately the leading cause of death in the U.S., with stroke coming in third. Hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure, is the main modifiable risk factor for coronary heart disease and affects as many as 43 million Americans today. These conditions, as well as congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, and end-stage renal disease, are thought to be reduced, in part, by eating certain foods.
Researchers have studied the connection between potassium and lower blood pressure, for example, and believe that these healthful effects could stem from higher amounts of fruits and vegetables—food groups that people on the paleo diet depend on. Eating more of these wholesome foods tends to lead to an increase in dietary consumption of essential vitamins, such as vitamins C, A, and E.
And, because paleo-style eating discourages excess salt, blood pressure may be reduced in some individuals. In fact, people who eat reduced sodium on any diet may see results in as little as 12 weeks.
Doctors are beginning to focus on the fact that avoiding processed or very refined foods has helped some people with chronic inflammatory problems. Aside from the physical discomfort inflammation causes, continuous bouts of inflammation can lead to major diseases—including arthritis, cancer, diabetes, depression, and even Alzheimer's.
Therefore, healthcare professionals are excited to study more about the benefits that can come from avoiding some of these unhealthy ingredients while on the paleo diet. This meal plan could have the potential to significantly benefit people suffering from chronic inflammation and help them cut down on the drugs they are taking for a more holistic and less caustic approach.
Improves Insulin Sensitivity
Studies have shown that people on a paleolithic diet experience improved glycemic control. When cutting out processed foods, those that follow the paleo diet are less likely to be binging on extra sugary foods.
Foods that contain excess sugars can increase inflammation. This, in turn, can affect insulin sensitivity, which could increase your risk of diabetes.3 Whether you follow specific food guidelines or not, reducing your sugar intake may help your body regulate insulin better and lower your chances of becoming diabetic.
What Are Some Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet?
For some individuals, the paleo diet might be a structured way of eating that can help them successfully manage certain health conditions, as well as help with weight control. Besides being one of the more costly diets for some persons, including those who have type 1 diabetes or kidney damage, a paleo diet might cause more harm than good.
While everyone should talk to their health care provider before making changes to their diet and lifestyle, it is important to understand the potential drawbacks of embarking on a paleo diet to help make better and more informed decisions.
Cutting out entire groups of food
As previously mentioned people on the paleo diet are not eating any grains, dairy products, or legumes. This could put your health at a disadvantage because you may be missing out on specific nutrients and the value those nutrients offer to overall health and function.
For instance, cutting out dairy could mean you’re getting less calcium and vitamin D in your meals. Additionally, certain food groups that are not allowed on this diet, such as legumes and beans, provide a rich source of protein. Cutting out these foods may make it difficult for some individuals, especially for vegans and vegetarians to get adequate protein.
Furthermore, a lack of grains and legumes means fewer critical sources of fiber and vitamins like B, magnesium, iron, and selenium. These are important in regulating the digestive system, cell growth and development, and more.
High Intake of Saturated Fats
Saturated fats have been connected with an increase in the incidence of heart disease. These “bad” fats are often obtained through meat consumption. Since people typically eat more meat while on the paleo diet, it is important to choose lean meats if following this nutrition style. The meat that our ancestors ate contained significantly less fat than the meat commonly found in our markets. Saturated fats, especially those in red meat, can have negative metabolic effects due to the high caloric content—as in, there could be up to twice as many calories per ounce as carbs.
Despite the research of long-term effects of full-fat foods pointing to less-than-ideal outcomes for our health, we do not have to stay away from them completely. A lot of it has to do with moderation. If you control your portion sizes of saturated fats, space out the times you eat them, and adjust the way you cook, you can still enjoy meat, dairy, and more. Another major component is that the way a person's body reacts to fats has to do with their genetic makeup. Someone whose genes indicate they would do better on a low-fat diet may not do so well on the paleo diet, for instance.
Try the following substitutes to avoid the potentially more harmful side effects of the paleo diet:
How to do it better
Although there is a risk of missing out on important nutrients if entire food groups are cut out, ultimately a diet that is low in processed foods and sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, lean meat, eggs, and fish may have many health benefits.
Each person’s body is unique and finding a diet that works is difficult. The safest approach is to use science as the basis of your decision, no matter which diet you’re considering trying out for yourself. While the paleo diet might be a nice option for some—and while we cannot guarantee it will be the absolute best plan for you—it is important to know what works for your body and its individual needs. Building a healthy dietary foundation begins with examining a breakdown of your genes.
Everyone is unique and our process can help guide you to uncover where to start when it comes to how much you should eat of certain nutrients, as well as what kinds of foods are most agreeable with your body.
The Paleo diet can be flexible to accomodate how much protein, fat, and carbohydrates a person needs. A couple of modifications may help a person whose lifestyle is suited for this eating program be even more successful by incorporating an eating for your genes approach.
How Does Eating for Your Genes Work?
You are one of a kind. Our bodies each have at least slightly varying needs as we all respond differently to the world around us and metabolize nutrients differently. Studies demonstrate we can personalize nutrition by taking a look at our individual genetic variations and use this information to construct a solid dietary foundation.
Those genetic variants and their related nutrition outcomes have been thoroughly researched. Once we know our genetic variations, we have a better idea of which foods can help us optimize our diet. For example, you may have a genetic variant that indicates you are predisposed to a lower BMI if you consume a diet higher in protein or you have a decreased ability to convert beta-carotene to active vitamin A. In this case, it may be helpful to consume more vitamin A-rich foods—such as seafood, full-fat milk, or fortified dairy products.
Benefits of Eating for Your Genes
Why does the concept of implementing a DNA-based eating program seem so novel? It is because the innovative nature of nutrigenomics creates a science-based roadmap for us when it comes to our food choices. With information about your genetic makeup, you can start to pinpoint which foods should be included in your diet and how much.
Eating for your genes is not a specific diet per se, it instead is a true eating plan. If you do like a more traditional or structured weight loss approach, as many people do since they can help our brain compartmentalize information, using your DNA as a guide you can begin to better tailor a structured or commercial program to your needs and may increase your odds of success. Nutrigenomics gives us the insights we need to make specific, thoughtful, and strategic choices about what we put into our bodies to prevent chronic diseases and gain optimal nutrition.
DNA testing companies like GenoPalate can help you interpret and understand your genotype and nutritional recommendations to make truly informed decisions on how to distribute your calories wisely and to choose foods that will nourish your body and help to achieve prime health.
Disadvantages of Eating for Your Genes
The biggest shortcoming that comes with eating for your genes is that DNA test reports do not account for epigenetics or medical conditions. Thus, you should combine the eating for your genes method with any additional medical information you have—such as blood test results—to determine your ideal diet. We recommend working with your healthcare provider to fill in any missing pieces so you end up with a holistic plan and know exactly how to achieve your health and wellness goals.
How to Determine the Right Way to Eat for Your Body
The great thing about eating for your genes is it is not a FAD diet, it is simply understanding how your body responds to both macronutrients and micronutrients and adjusting your intake to better align with those parameters. Additionally, it is personalized to your unique needs and it can be incorporated into your everyday life in numerous ways. In fact, eating for your genes can help prevent you from engaging in fad diets, which are often not sustainable and result in the regaining of any weight that may have been lost. Moreover, for those eating programs that have withstood the test of time and have evidence that they can help people lose weight, an eating for your genes approach can be incorporated and may help individuals achieve their goals successfully.
To learn more about what your DNA can reveal about your nutrition, check out Can a DNA Test Really Tell You How to Eat?—our comprehensive guide to DNA tests and what they can tell you about nutrition.This resource can help you discover how your genes can inform your meal plan and give you a more specific road map, so you’re not navigating your health and wellness goals in the dark. We can help you build your nutrigenomics game plan!
1. Pitt, C. E. (2016). Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Australian Family Physician, 45(1/2), 35.
2. Ogden, L. G., He, J., Lydick, E., & Whelton, P. K. (2000). Long-term absolute benefit of lowering blood pressure in hypertensive patients according to the JNC VI risk stratification. Hypertension, 35(2), 539-543.
3. Klonoff, D. C. (2009). The beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on type 2 diabetes and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
4. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S.
5. de Oliveira Otto, M. C., Padhye, N. S., Bertoni, A. G., Jacobs Jr, D. R., & Mozaffarian, D. (2015). Everything in moderation-dietary diversity and quality, central obesity and risk of diabetes. PLoS One, 10(10), e0141341.
6. Gardner, C. D., Trepanowski, J. F., Del Gobbo, L. C., Hauser, M. E., Rigdon, J., Ioannidis, J. P., ... & King, A. C. (2018). Effect of low-fat vs low-carbohydrate diet on 12-month weight loss in overweight adults and the association with genotype pattern or insulin secretion: the DIETFITS randomized clinical trial. Jama, 319(7), 667-679.
7. Forum, F., & National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Nutrigenomics and the Future of Nutrition.
8. Tanaka, T., Ngwa, J. S., Van Rooij, F. J., Zillikens, M. C., Wojczynski, M. K., Frazier-Wood, A. C., ... & Mikkilä, V. (2013). Genome-wide meta-analysis of observational studies shows common genetic variants associated with macronutrient intake. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 97(6), 1395-1402.
9. Ferrucci, L., Perry, J. R., Matteini, A., Perola, M., Tanaka, T., Silander, K., ... & Fried, L. P. (2009). Common variation in the β-carotene 15, 15′-monooxygenase 1 gene affects circulating levels of carotenoids: a genome-wide association study. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 84(2), 123-133.
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