Does The Paleo Diet Really Work?

The Paleo diet, a.k.a. the Caveman, or Stone Age diet, adopted its name after our early ancestors, who lived in the Paleolithic Era, dating back from 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. Though the Paleo diet revolves around what hunter-gatherers could find in nature, the eating plan is hardly primitive when it comes to studies regarding weight loss.

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What Is The Paleo Diet?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty and begin looking at studies to see how the Paleo diet supports weight loss, let’s find out what you may be actually getting yourself into.

The Paleo diet is pretty straightforward. It’s based on naturally growing foods, and for carnivores, the good news is it includes lean meats, like chicken and grass-fed cattle, as well as wild-caught seafood.

The bulk of the eating plan relies on (preferably organic) vegetables and fruits: two-thirds or more of each meal should consist of plant foods. Animal products make up the majority of the remaining third — plus you can add nuts and seeds to the mix.

The Paleo diet doesn’t solely focus on restriction; it encourages incorporating a variety of high-quality animal and plant foods to gain as many nutrients as possible. One strategy involves choosing foods of many different colours, termed “eating the rainbow.”

Paleo diet experts frown upon dairy products, grains, processed foods and sugars, legumes (such as chickpeas, beans and lentils), starches and alcohol.

However, Paleo researchers like Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (aka Paleo Mom), allow for a 10 percent or 20 per cent fudge-factor (though, that doesn’t mean you should actually eat fudge; it just means you can methodically introduce foods that don’t fit into the Paleo diet and see how your body responds).

A Research-Driven Diet

Paleoists, as the diet supporters are called, say you’ll feel like a new person, with more energy and less fat, after just a few weeks on the program. They even claim that your skin will change, causing your skin radiate (also known as the Paleo Glow).

But what kind of science backs these claims?

The Paleo diet stems from thousands of scientific studies, which evaluate how different foods promote or weaken health. Clinical trials have shown the Paleo diet beneficial in: lowering cardiovascular disease risk factors, reducing inflammation (which can cause a host of problems, from skin irritation and digestion issues to autoimmune disorders), aiding glucose tolerance and contributing to weight loss.

The reason? The eating plan, or way of life as Paleoists see it, emphasizes consumption of nutrient-dense foods, while eliminating those that contribute to illness, inflammation and imbalances in gut bacteria.

Samplings Of Paleo Research

One of the first controlled studies of the Paleo diet came in 2007, from Lindeberg et al. The study took patients with glucose intolerance (most had type 2 diabetes) and compared a Paleo diet to a Mediterranean diet. After 12 weeks, researchers found a significant reduction in blood sugar rise when participants consumed carbohydrates with the Paleo diet, whereas the Mediterranean diet resulted in little to no difference. By the end of the study, patients following the Paleo diet maintained normal blood glucose. Waist size also decreased with the Paleo diet (an average of 2.2 inches, with an average 11-pound weight loss).

A year later, Osterdahl M, et al measured 14 medical students as they ate a Paleo diet for three weeks. Their weight decreased by five pounds on average, and they experienced a mild reduction in waist circumference.

In 2009, Jonsson T, et al studied 13 patients with type 2 diabetes. They lost an average of 6.6 more pounds and 1.6 more inches from the waistline when compared to the Diabetes diet. The Paleo diet also improved cardiovascular risk factors.

A more recent study by Ryberg, et al studied 10 women with a body mass index over 27. After five weeks on the Paleo diet, they lost an average of 9.9 pounds and saw a 3.1-inch decrease in waist circumference. Measured liver fat also declined by 49 percent.

The limitations of these studies include a small participant size, as well as short duration. On the other hand, recent higher quality scientific studies (with control groups, larger group size and longer duration) show participants achieve significantly more weight loss with low-carb diets. These studies did not cite, or use, the Paleo diet specifically, but the Paleo diet does fit into the low-carb category of diets.

In 2014, Mellberg C, et al took a long-term look at the effects of the Paleo diet vs. adherence to the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR) and used a larger study group. They monitored 70 obese, postmenopausal women for two years, randomly assigning half to the Paleo diet and half to NNR. After six months, the Paleo group had lost significantly more weight and waist girth, and then the weight loss leveled off. Another study, a year prior by Ryberg M et al, showed that the Paleo diet was effective in reducing fat accumulation in the liver and muscles.

Clinical trials, common sense, and viewing our distant ancestral past indicate that eating whole, plant-based foods and avoiding processed foods, added sugar and foods that contribute to inflammation and disease, results in a healthier and slimmer body.

Is The Paleo Diet Right For You?

While studies have shown the Paleo diet to be effective in weight loss, it’s certainly not for everyone. Vegans will have a hard time following this diet, which relies heavily on meat, fish and eggs as sources of protein. Furthermore, the paleo diet tends to be an expensive one — the cost of organically-raised meats and fresh produce can  really add up.

However, if you’ve been experiencing digestive issues, or you’re struggling to lose those last 10 pounds, the Paleo diet is certainly one to consider. Reducing your refined carb and sugar intake, while upping you fruits, vegetables and protein intake (not to mention, cutting out alcohol) is a surefire way to lose weight fast.

Always consult your doctor before changing your diet.