The Paleo Diet and Patient Health

Paleo DietAre we really just Stone Age people living in the Space Age? And is that why so many Americans are unhealthy and overweight? Zach S. Conrad, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, blames modern diets for many of our health-related problems. “Nature determined what our bodies needed thousands of years before civilization developed,” he explains. But can a prehistoric diet that’s full of meat and devoid of grains help your patients to achieve their health goals?

Eat Like a Caveman?

The diet that Conrad advocates seeks to replicate what humans ate in the Paleolithic period, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The Paleo Diet, a best-selling book by Loren Cordain, PhD, explains what it means to “eat like a caveman” in detail. Dieters who follow Cordain’s advice consume grass-fed meats, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, and oils from olives and coconuts. Paleo dieters avoid cereal grains, legumes, dairy products, processed foods, sugar and commercial sweeteners, and salt.

Some parts of the Paleo diet meet general dietary guidelines backed by modern medical research. For example, most healthcare providers would counsel patients to “go Paleo” by eating more fruits and vegetables while avoiding processed foods. Eliminating or reducing sugar and salt can also help patients to lose weight and manage blood pressure. A few small, short-term studies have even shown that the Paleo diet improves glucose control in people with Type 2 diabetes.

Beware of the Risks

Yet there are risks to eating like a caveman. For starters, the Paleo diet doesn’t set a limit on daily caloric intake. Overeating can become a problem, and dieters may consume too much red meat, which has been linked to heart disease. Too much protein and too few carbohydrates can also contribute to ketosis, a normal metabolic process that can become life-threatening to patients who suffer from diabetes. Avoiding low-fat dairy products could also mean lower calcium levels, a condition that’s been linked to reduced bone mass.

The Paleo diet isn’t just imperfect. It’s also historically inaccurate. Our human ancestors were opportunistic eaters who consumed whatever was available when it was available. This included grass-fed meat such as buffalo, but also moles, weevils, gophers, rats, squirrels, insect grubs, and larvae. So when patients ask if the Paleo Diet is right for them, healthcare providers might suggest, “Talk to a dietitian to evaluate the merits and the pitfalls of this ancient, and perhaps, not very realistic diet.”

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