Ups and Downs of the Paleo Diet

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Should we eat like our cave-dwelling ancestors? Proponents of the paleo diet seem to think so. We decided to take a closer look at this popular diet in order to determine whether or not it is actually good for your health.

To eat a paleo diet, you stick to fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and meats -- mainly wild ones like bison, ostrich, and fish. That's it. While this approach might work for weight loss because starchy grains and full-fat dairy products are cut out, it may not have good long-term ramifications for health. Think about what you are missing by restricting entire food groups in order to lose weight.

The pros of the paleo diet are that it eliminates refined carbs and processed foods made with sweeteners. This exclusion means that the empty calories from candy, cakes, cookies, and soda go right out the window. That’s great news, especially because Americans eat a lot of sugar. In fact, according to government estimates, sugar consumption in the U.S. ranges from 80-100 pounds per year! If the paleo diet teaches people how to read food labels and weed out excess sugar, that’s a bonus.

The paleo diet is not all sunshine and roses, however. A red flag goes up with the subtraction of nutrient-rich whole grain pasta, brown rice, red lentils, and yogurt. More meat consumption also means increased saturated fat intake. Unless you have a diagnosed condition like celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or lactose intolerance, whole grains and low-fat dairy products are healthful foods and should not be eliminated from your diet. Now think about people with fructose intolerance or cardiovascular disease? Is just eating fruit and fatty meats going to work for them? No. What about athletes who require a steady stream of carbohydrates to fuel muscles for prolonged activity and peak performance? It’s tough to stay healthy if you can’t have low-glycemic whole grain carbs in the diet mix.

Although you can get calcium from leafy greens and nuts, vitamin D -- which is critical to the absorption of calcium -- is not generally in those foods. Milk, some yogurts, and certain cheeses all contain a significant supply of vitamin D3, which helps get calcium into your bones. Plus, fermented dairy products like yogurt contain gut-friendly probiotics.

The best bet is to eat from all five food groups and think about the quality of what’s on your plate. Remember that avoiding processed foods leaves more room for the nutrient-dense bounty that Americans are fortunate to have in this day and age!

By Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LDN, author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods.

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