For those of us who grew up watching our favorite prehistoric man on “The Flintstones” the last thing that crossed our mind is “when I grow up, I want to eat and look like Fred!” Yet, ever since Loren Cordain, PhD championed the presumed diet of the Paleolithic era as the antidote for our agricultural and processed food based diet, millions of Americans want to eat like the Flintstones. Brontosaurus ribs, bring it on!
The modern day Paleolithic diet (Paleo) aspires to do better than the Flintstones. (We see you sneaking in a three tier cake, Fred!) While there are variations
among commercial paleo diets, with some plans having stricter guidelines than others, paleo diets generally follow these guidelines:
Eat unprocessed meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and nuts
Avoid industrial products such as dairy, margarine, oils, refined sugars, legumes, and cereal grain products.
The premise behind returning to a way of eating that’s more like what early humans ate is based on the hypothesis that the human body is genetically mismatched to the modern diet that emerged with farming practices. Proponents of this hypothesis believe that this mismatch contributes to the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Paleo enthusiasts claim that mimicking the diet of prehistoric humans can help us lose weight (particularly around the waist), increase satiety, and improve our cholesterol profile.
There is evidence to support the touted health benefits of Paleo. A small study of 14 healthy adults reported a reduced body weight by about 5 pounds over 3 weeks on a Paleo diet. Paleo diet relies heavily on lean protein and bulking fiber from fresh fruits and vegetables. As such, it may be no surprise that a small study of healthy males reported decrease in hunger and desire to eat (but no difference in fullness) on Paleo with a high level of protein compared to meals based on World Health Organization nutritional guidelines. And while Fred Flintstone may inhale fat marbled slabs of meat, Paleo puts a cap of 40% daily energy intake from fats and stresses high intake of healthy omega-3 fats.
The health benefits of Paleo sound amazing. But we really don’t know the long term health effects of a caveman diet. The paleolithic man can’t tell us. On average, he only lived to 35 years old. The cave lion or the festering foot wound got ‘em before heart disease or failing kidneys. It’s unclear what high protein loads would do to the kidneys over time. Strict Paleo also eschews dairy, a reliable source of calcium. The clinical long term effect of calcium deficiency reported in Paleo is unknown. And let’s not forget that Fred snuck in a piece of pie every now and then. Although Paleo is without caloric or portion guidelines, it's a challenge to sustain a restrictive and relatively costly diet.
So for those of us who are dead set on eating like Fred but looking like Wilma, it’s probably best to weigh the risk and benefits, and develop a plan with a nutritionist to get Paleo done right.