Why Paleo Works
Are you trying to follow Paleo for the New Year because someone else recommended it and you think it might be a good idea? Or do you want to have a way to explain what you’re doing to your friends and family, who are looking at your new diet as some kind of ineffective fad? Or do you just need to understand why this might work for you when everything else has failed?
Read on and we’ll share with you the main reasons why the Paleo Diet works – and what it works for (spoiler alert, it’s probably not what you think).
What Do We Mean By Work?
It is important to stress that at Paleo In The UK we promote the Paleo template as a route towards better health, lower inflammation, better overall physical functioning and a reduction in stress. We do occasionally, therefore, mean that Paleo can help those with metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes to lose weight and re-regulate their metabolism to result in a healthier physiology which, consequently, is ‘lighter’.
However, we are never promoting Paleo for Weight Loss… any weight loss that comes as a result of Paleo is likely to occur with the lowering of inflammation, the reduction of insulin peaks and troughs (note, not ‘lowering insulin’ as per the low-carb approach (NOT Paleo), but minimising the rollercoaster of metabolically damaging and inflammatory insulin spikes and crashes which can happen in diets filled with highly refined foods) and the focus on food quality, nutrient density, satiation and overall reduction of empty calories.
So – for the rest of this article – when we refer to ‘work’, we mean in the context of improving overall health outcomes.
Removal Of Common Allergens
The most obvious reason that Paleo works is based on the fact that some individuals have allergies – or at least slight intolerances – to foods they regularly consume. Because these foods are a constant feature in our diets, we don’t even know that our body might be having a mini-stress response each time one of these foods is consumed. Some of the most common allergenic foods are dairy and soy – with observed symptoms being acne and other skin complaints, congestion, excess phlegm and issues with sleep.
Removing the foods on the ‘eliminate’ list for Paleo tends to give people really noticeable results if they have allergies to them. Skin clears up and sleep improves. This happens simply because of the removal of foods that were creating reactivity. This is one reason behind why a Paleo approach ‘works’.
And yet, not everyone is ‘allergic’ to anything they remove on a Paleo template. In fact, that is one of the main criticisms of Paleo. Some suggest that Paleo promotes the removal of foods which are, actually, perfectly healthy for humans to be consuming – including dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese, as well as gluten-containing grains, and non-gluten grains like rice and oats.
Removal of Junk
What is relatively uncontentious is that focusing on whole food nutrition (as Paleo does) removes a lot of artificial and processed foods from the table. Again, there are those who would choose to object to the choice of language here (endless debates about what is ‘real’ or ‘processed’ or ‘natural’ etc), but what really matters is what we mean by whole foods.
At Paleo in the UK, by whole foods we mean choosing to eliminate foods which have been manufactured and man-made: the non-nutritious, manufactured foods in which the flavour profiles are harnessed to engage maximum addiction, craving and overconsumption. We mean here the meals that are created to be calorically-dense, though nutritionally lacking and also those snack foods and treats which are used as injections of energy, but are low in actual nutrients – think chocolate bars, bags of crisps, candy and confectionery.
Some of these products are even bold enough to use their addictive nature in their promotional materials, “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” (Pringles) – so it’s no secret what these foods are engineered for. And removing foods which are engineered to make you over-consume is by default going to put you in a more natural, healthy state.
On a Paleo diet every meal or snack is made using foods which are in their most natural state. This doesn’t mean everything is really pure and completely un-processed – coconut oil, for example, is a refined product. And yet, we are eating foods which are close to their original form, without additions or unnecessary processing. The only processing that has been done is to maximise the goodness or the usability of the product, The foods haven’t been engineered for palatability or to achieve a certain flavour profile which appeals to our primitive, sweetness-seeking taste buds.
Now, you may wonder where all of the Paleo snack products which have emerged on the market come into a ‘whole foods’ philosophy. And the answer is that they don’t. At Paleo In The UK you will know by now that we are not in favour of promoting excess sugars and alternative flours simply so you can recreate goodies and treats (see our Grey Area Foods page and scroll down to “Foods that Are Paleo But Aren’t Really ‘Healthful’” for more). As with every diet – occasional consumption of these foods is perfectly fine, but using them as everyday diet staples for a prolonged period strays far from the original ethos of what Paleo is supposed to be.
Paleo, when done with a focus on nutrient-density and lowering inflammation, is not filled with Paleo junk food any more than it’s filled with regular junk food. Minimising the consumption of empty calories – whether they come with a “Paleo” name or not – is another reason that the Paleo diet works. You spend more of your nutritional allocation on foods that actually give you nutrients. With more nutrients in your body every physiological process becomes easier.
Removal of Common Inflammatory Foods
Beyond removing allergens and removing junk, when it comes to lowering inflammation we may step into controversy when it comes to the claims of the Paleo diet.
Inflammation is a buzzword in health – and for good reason. It is at the root of many, if not all, illnesses – and it certainly is a feature of all of the long-term, chronic illnesses we face. However, what causes inflammation has been a source of increasingly vitriolic debates amongst different dietary advocates.
Once it was fat and dietary cholesterol, then it was carbs and every grain of rice, then it was sugar that was evil. And more than just making these ingredients out to be bad for us, the propaganda machines labelled them ‘poison’, ‘fattening’, ‘toxic’ and – yes – ‘inflammatory’.
In truth, inflammation is actually caused by different things in different people. There are some universals, yes, but then there are – as always – unique responses which can be entirely unpredictable. Moreover, the amount of inflammation caused by each food changes from person to person. Furthermore, the level of damage that the inflammation causes is largely dependent on the level of inflammation that is present to begin with.
For our founder, for example, inflammation is occasionally caused by relatively benign foods. Why? Because she has a disproportionately large concentration of Mast Cells (cells which hold all of the inflammatory molecules) in her GI tract. For her, eating something that is mostly harmless – a mildly overripe tomato, for example – can (sometimes) cause massive inflammatory reactions. This isn’t because there’s anything wrong with the tomato – it’s actually all to do with her body.
We point this out because whilst this is an extreme, this is actually the perfect example of how inflammation is triggered by different things in different people – and when it is triggered, the net effect can differ in its extremes.
Here is where inflammation becomes contentious, because some dietary advocates who don’t think Paleo is at all based in science argue that gluten, grains, dairy, legumes and soy (eliminated on Paleo for inflammatory potential) are perfectly healthy foods which are NOT inflammatory.
Unfortunately, they do not look at the entire population to make that statement and they then state that mechanistic data is not enough to justify elimination. This takes us into an argument about the merit of certain scientific methods, which is actually a tedious and circular argument that rarely achieves anything.
The evidence that we have amassed on this site – in our All About Pages, for example – details the science behind the inflammatory potential of those foods excluded on a basic Paleo template. Gluten and grains, dairy proteins, legumes and even nightshades CAN BE incredibly inflammatory – in some individuals. This is mechanistic data, mostly – but it provides the basis for a dietary approach that can then be used in the clinical setting… to dramatic, and astounding effect. In short, basing our dietary conclusions on the mechanistic effects of certain foods actually works.
If you look at the Autoimmune Protocol, this mechanistic examination of the inflammatory and immune triggering potential is the root of its, now-proven, efficacy. Basically, AIP is an overzealous removal of everything that we know to be (even in the slightest way) triggering to an immune or inflammatory response. As such, it is definitely overkill – but it is a useful strategy which doesn’t require specificity for each individual because so much is removed.
Paleo is a mini-version of this diet. It scales back the extreme restriction and focuses solely on the foods which are known to create the worst level of symptoms in the largest numbers of individuals. Still, the struggle with these ingredients won’t be true for all – but it will be true for enough people to warrant recommending a trial period without these foods.
Here again we see another reason why Paleo works – removing foods for a trial period often illuminates how well these foods were being tolerated prior to their removal. The answer is sometimes that they weren’t being tolerated well at all. And yet this is something that would not have been known without experimenting with eliminating foods for a period of time.
This “just try it for 30 days” ethos is what gave rise to the Whole30 approach, and is also what can give Paleo its ‘fad diet’ label. In truth, the “just try it for 30 days” was designed as an introduction to what would then become a self-motivated lifestyle change based on the improvements noticed in the first month. And, in fact, this is how it does work for many people.
It is true that even with eliminations of Paleo we may remove more things than strictly necessary for each individual. However, as with all diets, this approach is a starting point that reduces many people’s inflammation significantly and makes them wish to continue. This is how Paleo works – it gives you an insight into how well you function without the big hitters of inflammation. From the stages of removal you can work up to seeing how each individual food acts within your unique biology and create a bespoke nutritional template from there.
Introduction Of Nutrient Density
Beyond the removal of inflammatory or allergenic foods (and the ‘junk’), the Paleo approach (when done as it was originally intended) brings into the diet a host of nutrients that many individuals would have been lacking when following a modern Western Diet. The quantity of vegetables, the diversity of good quality meats and fats, the variety of herbs and flavourings (each with their rich micronutrient profiles) and the inclusion of whole foods such as sea vegetables and oily fish with bones in, bone broth etc. – all of these foods add nutrients that are not typically found in standard Western fayre. And those nutrients, in the Paleo foods, are far more bioavailable.
Nutrients are the currency of the chemical reactions that take place on a second-by-second basis within the human body. Without enough nutrients, some of our systems struggle. In a state of nutrient poverty, what follows is a very simple scaling back of normal physical processes. Certain things become prioritised, other functions slow and essentially our system starts to operate on rations.
In a caloric surplus, this might seem impossible. But calories are only units of energy and not currency for biochemical reactions. Use-able nutrients are only available from nutrient-dense foods. Within the Paleo template, nutrient-density is a given because every food included is chosen precisely because of its exemplary nutrient profile. In essence, a Paleo diet provides you with a load of currency for running the chemical conversions that make you a healthy, effective, efficient human.
Introduction of Attention And Focus On Food
Everything that we have said thus far has been somewhat predictable. And, to be honest, you could have replaced the word “Paleo” within many of these paragraphs with other dietary styles. Most ‘diets’ remove junk, processed foods and refined sugars (which are highly inflammatory). Many ‘diets’ recommend home, fresh cooking and a focus on vegetables (nutrient dense foods).
Scientific evaluation of dietary styles reveals the alarming truth that MOST OF THEM WORK.
The reason they work isn’t because all of them are nutritionally matched or calorically balanced. And yet, the one thing that every diet has in common is that it puts our attention and focus on our nutrition and our bodies. It makes eating a mindful activity, typically one that has parameters and may even be kept track of in journals or fitness trackers.
The act of observation changes behaviour.
It might be because we know that we’re going to have to write down what we eat that makes us stop ourselves having foods we’re trying to limit. Or perhaps it’s because we are now thinking about everything that we put into our body and suddenly this makes us aware of how many times during the day we were mindlessly eating. Either way, the process of observing nutrition actually changes the way we relate to it – and to our bodies as a consequence. And this isn’t just “what gets measured gets managed”, though that’s part of it.
When it comes to Paleo most meals have to be cooked from scratch. The side effect of this is that meals become a slower affair. You have to build up to eating – perhaps whilst the food is being prepared the digestive juices start to flow and your entire body is being readied for food. This stands us in great stead for the act of digestion – and easier digestion equals less symptoms and more nutrient absorption.
Then there’s the fact that typically the entire family enters into the Paleo lifestyle together. Cooking, therefore, can become a family affair – and one in which you spend time together, collaboratively putting effort into the finished product. This is effectively ‘socialisation’ and has enormous health benefits, independent of the meal that results.
The whole process of cooking and preparing your meals, therefore, provides you with absolute control, freedom of choice, a connection to what you’ve prepared and a deeper connection to those with whom you’ve made it. All in all, there is nothing rushed, stressed or ‘unhealthy’ about this way of choosing to nourish yourself.
From a very simple decision to pay attention to what you eat, and to do so through the lens of Paleo, you are having a double effect of naturally falling into healthy practices which very simply work to create better health outcomes.
Paleo Is the Result Of A Choice To Focus On Health – and On Yourself
And lastly, it is worth commenting on the fact that by the time anyone has got to the point of choosing Paleo, there is a precursor step which is often not acknowledged – and it should be. This step is the choice to actually focus on your health.
No matter the specific dietary choice that comes off the back of this self-health-focus, the motivation to change one’s diet already indicates that a commitment has been made to taking care of oneself. Believe it or not, this simple act of commitment to self is sometimes enough when it comes to our health.
In a world where we are perpetually running around stressed, conscious of social comparisons or feelings that we should always, somehow, being doing ‘better’ than we are, choosing to diet sometimes emerges as a sort of self-flagellation tool. Motivated by guilt, regret and a feeling that you haven’t cared enough for your health in recent months, we use food rules as a way to beat ourselves into shape.
And sometimes, you know what, that’s actually OK. As all the feminist, non-diet advocates reel back in horror, please note that I am a woman writing this, on a team dominated by women. And the worst thing about society is not the motivations which move us to do things – but the bitchy criticism that comes as others judge our motivations.
Wanting to improve our bodies and be healthier is not a ‘negative’, even when that motivation comes with a tinge of recognition that we haven’t been taking care of ourselves as we want to. Any form of renewed commitment to doing so is a huge step towards self-development, irrespective of the physical changes we hope to see as a result. It is not a crime to want to change and improve your body, especially when it comes from a place of self-love, not self-hatred.
It is this commitment to self-love, to self-respect, to taking the time out of life to actually buy food, cook for ourselves and sit down to a table to eat – this is precisely what self care looks like. As soon as we step into a place of showing ourselves self care, it is remarkable how quickly a healthy body is the result.
So much of what makes diets work is the attitude with which we enter into them. If you’re not sure that your head is in the right place as you embark upon your New Year Paleo Diet Kick – check out the resources in our Attitude and Mindset pages. Paleo really does work for all the physical goals, but Paleo can also truly transform your life if you do it wholly and entirely, using the opportunity of focusing on food to also work on the psychology with which you approach your life.