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Going paleo: There's no such thing as a ‘natural diet’ for humans

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The Paleo diet, also well known as the Caveman or Stone Age diet, has gained revolutionary popularity among physicians, health experts and the general public, since it joined the scene in 2002.

Dr. Loren Cordain is the author of the book, “The Paleo Diet,” that initiated the movement that has earned a cult-like following.  Cordain proclaims the diet to be the healthiest in the world, but his claims are met with opposition from many leading experts.

While some of the health claims of the diet have held up in the few studies that have examined the plan’s efficacy, the feasibility of the protocol is often under fire. The diet calls for consumers to eat all food sources in their all natural, unmodified state and practice intermittent fasting. The menu consists primarily of free range or wild caught animal-based proteins, fruits and vegetables. Heavy consumption of red meat is endorsed, while starches and sugars are shunned.

Those criticizing the diet refute the possibility that modern food sources can even remotely mimic those of the hunter/gatherer period. So much of the food found on supermarket shelves, even in “organic” and “whole food” supermarkets, are subject to processing, regulation and modifications. The average person doesn’t have the means to grow a garden, raise and slaughter farm animals or literally live off the land.

Others simply don’t agree with the endorsement of red meat, high consumption of animal proteins or the lacking vegan and vegetarian options.

However, published studies have proven the diet effective for reducing blood pressure and lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and triglycerides. In private practice, many health care professionals have observed multiple health benefits in their patients, such as reduced joint pain, reduced risk of diabetes and diminished symptoms of food allergies and sensitivities. Weight loss, hormone balance, increased energy and better sleep are other claims that have been touted by paleo diet advocates.

The paleo diet, like most programs, is not without flaws. It’s true that Cordain’s emphasis on all-natural, straight-from-nature food sources is extreme, but it doesn’t mean that following a modern version of the diet would be any less effective.

The elimination of sugar and starch alone is a win for so many aspects of human health. Increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables while relying on your hunger cues to determine when and how much to eat – those are principles that fit well with a generally healthy lifestyle.

Based on my own research of the scientific data, I have personally used my own version of a paleo-type diet for several years and encourage my patients to do so as well.  Most of my diet consists of lean proteins, both animal and vegetarian, vegetables, nuts and seeds and a small amount of fruit.  Maybe you’d call it pseudo-Paleo.  

This diet allows one to eliminate the starches and sugars that have become so prevalent in our society and are one of the biggest health threats we currently face.  This adaptation of the paleo diet also requires giving up gluten and dairy.   It may sound severe, but eliminating gluten and dairy has been a key factor for me and many of my patients for keeping weight off and aiding in hormone balance.  

In my experience, this adapted paleo-type diet has surprising benefits other than weight control, including keeping energy up, getting rid of skin rashes, sinus congestion, joint pain and more.   I definitely don’t kill my own food (I can’t even stand the thought of it!), or grow my own vegetables, but I do try to eat organic as much as possible, especially when it counts (check out the dirty dozen list here).  Regarding meats, eating hormone- and antibiotic-free is important if one is determined to eat a large amount of animal protein.  One of my favorite paleo cookbooks for low sugar, paleo eating is “The 21 Day Sugar Detox Cookbook” by Diane Sanfilippo.  

It is always best to talk to your doctor about the healthy eating plan that is right for you. There is space in the industry for a wide variety of “perfect” diets, because there is no cookie-cutter formula for optimal health. Nutrition is a personal pursuit, but finding the right diet for your life is paramount. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about your dietary needs, as food is the most powerful form of medicine.

Dr. Jennifer Landa is Chief Medical Officer of BodyLogicMD, the nation's largest franchise of physicians specializing in bioidentical hormone therapy. Dr. Jen spent 10 years as a traditional OB-GYN, and then became board-certified in regenerative medicine, with an emphasis on bio-identical hormones, preventative medicine and nutrition. She is the author of "The Sex Drive Solution for Women."  Learn more about her programs at www.jenlandamd.com