The Paleo Diet

Low-Carbohydrate diets have become increasingly popular over the last few years due to their association with weight loss, improved athletic performance and a variety of other health benefits. I’ve focused this post the Paleo Diet as it’s probably the most popular approach that falls into the low-carb category. Here is my introduction to the key principles.

What is the Paleo Diet?

The basic premise of the Paleo diet is that over the last few thousand years, our eating habits have changed much faster than our bodies have been able to evolve. As a result of this, we are unable to efficiently digest and absorb nutrients from many of the foods that make up a typical Western diet and this has lead us to develop a variety of health problems which were much less common in our ancestors. So, if we eliminate the foods that we are inefficient at digesting and go back-to-basics with simple, nutritious foods, our bodies will be under less stress and we will become healthier.

The originators of the approach spent time studying archaeological evidence to discover what our hunter-gatherer ancestors were eating before commercial farming, processed food and marketing started dictating our food choices – hence the term ‘paleo’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that our ancient relatives were surviving on foods that require a minimum amount of processing before consumption as these foods are the least likely to be toxic or be difficult to digest.

Key Principals of the Paleo Diet

Whilst the archaeological stuff is interesting, the key to healthy eating is to consume simple, unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods that are easily digested. In a nutshell, the paleo diet encourages increased consumption of protein, healthy fats and fresh vegetables whilst processed food, grains, dairy products, legumes and refined carbohydrate are all excluded.

Carbohydrate, Fat & Weight Loss

If like most people, you consume a diet that is high in carbohydrate, your body will become very well adapted at using it for energy as it can be burned easily. At the same time, it’s likely that you will become quite inefficient at using fat as an energy source as it burns much more slowly. If you keep feeding your body with a carbohydrate-heavy diet, the unused fat is stored and this can lead to obesity.

This is a bit like trying to light a fire by continually putting coal and paper on top of one-another. The paper burns in a few seconds so you have to keep throwing it on to keep the fire burning. Even though there is lots of coal, it doesn’t ignite because the conditions aren’t right and it starts to pile up.

If we reduce the amount of carbohydrate that we eat, we can teach our bodies to get better at burning fat and become less reliant on sugar. As well as promoting weight loss, this can improve our energy levels, and sleep, help prevent mood swings and reduce our chances of developing conditions like type-2 diabetes.

Systemic Inflammation

Acute inflammation is a complex physiological process that plays an important part in healing at the site of an injury or infection. Systemic inflammation happens throughout the body and when it becomes excessive, it is associated with health problems such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Consumption of grains, refined carbohydrate and certain fats and oils (see below) is thought to increase systemic inflammation where as eating the right type of fats has been shown to reduce it. Many sufferers of chronic inflammatory conditions report improvements in their symptoms after switching to a diet that is low in foods that are thought to promote inflammation.


The Paleo Diet and Athletic Performance

Low carbohydrate and Paleo-type diets are becoming increasingly popular among athletes. Advocates claim it provides the following benefits in addition to those which I have mentioned above:

  • Improved Aerobic Performance  When we exercise aerobically, like during endurance sports, we rely mostly on fat for energy. Even lean individuals store thousands of calories of fat so the more efficient we become at burning this, the more energy we have on tap. See my post on Maffetone Endurance Training for more info.
  • Reduced Recovery Time The paleo diet is high in protein, anti-inflammatory oils and key micro nutrients that are important to aid recovery.
  • Less Need to Refuel As your body becomes adept at burning fat, it is not as important to continually refuel it, particularly in endurance sports.
  • Improved Strength Increased consumption of high quality protein enables muscle growth and repair, leading to increased strength and power.


Take a look at The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain for more information on this.

Food Types Included in the Paleo Diet

  • Lots of ProteinFrom high quality animal sources. Examples include unprocessed organic meat, seafood and eggs. High quality protein is essential for repairing and building new tissue and enzymes. It also helps reduce appetite. 
  • Lots healthy fats Which include olive oil, coconut oil, fish oils, avocado and nuts. These all contain a good balance of omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids and provide our main source of Paleo energy whilst helping to prevent inflammatory diseases.
  • Lots of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Fruit and Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, anti oxidants and other key micronutrients which are essential for health. Fresh vegetables should for the foundation of your meals and they are also the main source of carbohydrate with the paleo approach although overall carb’ consumption is still significantly lower than a conventional western diet.


In other words, you get to eat lots of delicious REAL food!

Food Types Excluded From the Paleo Diet (or consumed very occasionally)

  • Grains and Refined Carbohydrates / SugarExcess consumption of grains and sugars have been shown to be significant in the development of various inflammatory conditions and they are often poorly digested. This means no bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, sweets etc etc…
  • PotatoesWhite potatoes are very high in carbohydrate and have a high glycemic index which means that our body burns them very quickly. As with sugar, this results in a spike in insulin and inhibits fat burning. It’s counter-intuitive but Sweet potatoes are actually much better in this regard and taste delicious.
  • Processed FoodProcessed foods tend to be high in sugar, unhealthy fats, additives and chemicals which have been linked with a variety of health complaints. This means that things like ready meals, smoked and processed meats and fast food are all excluded.
  • Dairy ProductsDairy products such as milk and cheese (to a lesser extent) are a common source of food intolerance and allergies and are difficult for the human body to digest. Dairy products also contain lactose, which our body treats as a sugar. Milk from commercial farming regularly contains growth hormones and a variety of other unpleasant chemicals.
  • Trans-Fats and Refined Vegetable Oils Examples include Sunflower oil, margarine, vegetable oil corn oil and peanut oil. These are high in polyunsaturated fats which are easily oxidised and omega-6 fatty acids. When omega 6 is consumed in excess and out of balance with omega 3, it can lead to inflammation and associated health problems.
  • Legumes Legumes such as beans and lentils are excluded from the paleo diet as they contain compounds called phytates which can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. They are also considered as inflammatory.
  • Alcohol – Consumption of alcohol is restricted with the paleo diet due to the high sugar content and the many health problems associated with excess drinking. Red wine is considered more acceptable when consumed in moderation due to its anti-oxidant content.


Transitioning Into the Paleo Diet

Sugar addiction is powerful and transitioning into a low-carb diet can be a tricky process. I thought this subject deserved a post of its own and you can find it by clicking on this link.

Where to Find Out More

Notable resources on this subject include:

Dallas and Melissa Hartwig – It Starts with Food

Mark Sisson – The Primal Blueprint

Robb Wolf – The Paleo Solution

Loren Cordain – The Paleo Diet for Athletes

The Weston A. Price Foundation – A not-for-profit organisation who promote paleo-type principals

Please note that the information in this post is not a substitute for a visit with a health-professional.

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