Mind & Body

The Paleo Diet—Is It Right for You? (Video)

TIMEJune 27, 2014

The Paleo Diet is one of the hottest diet trends around. With celebrity followers and even high-end restaurants taking notice of Paleo principles, some might even say Paleo has gone mainstream.

Here, I interview celebrity chef Pete Evans about his views and experience with the Paleo diet. He currently hosts a leading TV show in Australia called My Kitchen Rules — an amateur cooking competition. Evans also has an American food show that will air this Fall on PBS called Moveable Feast.

“I follow a Paleo diet,” he says. “But do I like it, that word?”

“It fits, but I prefer to call it Eating Real Food; simple as that—food that doesn’t inflame anything in me or cause any distress in my body. I love organic fruits and vegetables (not so many fruits), and I love to know where my meat or protein source comes from.”

From Vegan to Paleo

Evans claims a lifelong interest in health and nutrition, and he’s been a chef for over 25 years. Twenty years ago, he followed a strict vegan regimen. However, it didn’t work out so well.

After losing a lot of weight and becoming anemic—which is a common problem when following a strict vegan diet in which you abstain from all animal foods—he decided to listen to his body more, and to try other alternatives: 

“I started eliminating grain because I never eliminated grain while I was a vegan. That was the first major shift for me, then dairy, and refined sugars. You’re left with still a plethora of ingredients to cook with, coming from a chef’s point of view. That’s what I get excited about,” he says.

The Paleo Diet: What Is It?

While we may consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of human development, our modern food manufacturing processes have not created a race of super-humans in possession of greater health and longevity.

Quite the contrary… Humans today suffer more chronic and debilitating diseases than ever before. And there can be little doubt that our food choices play a major role in this development.

During the Paleolithic period, many thousands of years ago, people ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots, and meat, which varied depending on season and availability.

Based upon scientific research examining the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, the foundation of “The Paleo Diet” is lean meat, including ostrich and bison as well as organ meats, seafood, fresh fruit, and non-starchy vegetables — a far cry from the standard American diet.

Today, these staples have been largely replaced with refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cereal, bread, potatoes, and pasteurized milk products. Most Americans eat a far narrower selection of fruits, vegetables, roots, and nuts, and in lesser quantities than our “cavemen” ancestors.

“Normalizing” your system is the true strength of the so-called caveman diet. By eating foods that are concordant with your genetic ancestry, you can avoid many of the diseases associated with our modern diet. As Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet and one of the world’s leading experts on Paleolithic nutrition, has stated:

“The nutritional qualities of modern processed foods and foods introduced during the Neolithic period are discordant with our ancient and conservative genome. This genetic discordance ultimately manifests itself as various chronic illnesses, which have been dubbed ‘diseases of civilization.’

By severely reducing or eliminating these foods and replacing them with a more healthful cuisine, possessing nutrient qualities more in line with the foods our ancestors consumed, it is possible to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.”

Why the Typical Paleo Diet Might Be Problematic for Some People

Today, at the age of 40, Evans feels like he’s in the best shape of his life. And he credits his “Paleo style” diet for optimizing his health. However, while the “standard” Paleo Diet can be a healthful way of eating, especially compared to the Standard American Diet, I also believe it has certain weaknesses or flaws that could be improved upon.

The primary one is that I believe it calls for too much protein for most people. Protein is freely substituted for carbs as being a healthy choice.

Like my mentor Dr. Ron Rosedale, Evans also recommends being mindful about the amount of protein you eat. Your body only needs so much; when consumed in excess, you may run into problems again.

The reason Dr. Rosedale recommends limiting yourself to one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body weight is because of the stimulatory effect protein (branch-chained amino acids specifically) has on mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR)—a pathway that seems to be largely responsible for the pathology seen in cancer growth. When you limit protein to just what your body needs, mTOR remains inhibited, which helps lessen your chances of cancer growth.

I believe it is the rare person who really needs more than one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. Those that are aggressively exercising and competing or pregnant women should have about 25 percent more, but most people rarely need more than 40-70 grams of protein a day.

To determine your lean body mass, find out your percent body fat and subtract from 100. So if you are 20 percent body fat you would have 80 percent lean body mass. Just multiply that by your current weight to get lean body mass. For most people, this means restricting protein intake from 35 to 75 grams a day. As mentioned, pregnant women and those working out extensively need about 25 percent more.

Is It Possible to Eat Too Little Carbs?

Another common objection to the Paleo Diet is that it’s too low in carbs for some people. Generally speaking, if you’re on a high-carb diet and suddenly reduce your carb intake, your blood cholesterol profile will improve. Typically, your triglyceride levels will be sharply reduced. However, if your carb intake is below 25 percent (the Paleo Diet is about 23 percent carbs), your body will have to adapt to a scarcity of glucose, which can cause hormonal changes that may negatively impact your blood lipids.

According to Dr. Paul Jaminet, a trained astrophysicist and author of the book Perfect Health Diet, you may be able to tolerate an extremely low-carb diet if your health is really good, because your body can manufacture some glucose from protein. Others may not fare as well. According to Dr. Jaminet:

“The biggest problem is it’s not a robust diet. If you get infections (which will raise your body’s glucose needs), then you can really get into trouble on a zero carb diet. In general, it’s a stressful thing for your body.”

While some experts, such as Dr. Ron Rosedale, believe you can’t have too little glucose because it’s always going to cause some adverse metabolic consequence, Dr. Jaminet, on the other hand, believes that once you get below a certain threshold of glucose in your diet, you can start experiencing certain health challenges.

I believe that the low-carb, low-to-moderate protein, high healthy fat diet is appropriate for most who are insulin or leptin resistant. Once that resistance resolves, then it may become counterproductive to maintain a low-carb approach. Once your weight, blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol normalize, you can then increase your carbs again. If your weight goes up or other symptoms return, then it would be wise to use that approach again. 

Does the Paleo Diet Contain Enough Fat?

When you are treating insulin/leptin resistance, I believe most would benefit by decreasing carb consumption, and replacing them with healthy fats. Replacing carbs with too much protein can actually cause health challenges similar to eating too many grain carbs and sugars. The Paleo Diet calls for about 38 percent protein and 39 percent fat, which may actually be too much protein and not enough fat for optimal health.

Again, when you consume protein in levels higher than you require and recommended above (one-half gram per pound of lean body weight), you tend to activate the mTOR pathway, which can help you get large muscles but may also increase your risk of cancer. This pathway is ancient but relatively recently appreciated and has only been known for less than 20 years. Odds are very high your doctor was never taught this in medical school and isn’t even aware of it.

Many new cancer drugs are actually being targeted to use the mTOR pathway. Drugs using this pathway have also been given to animals to radically extend their lifespan. But you don’t have to use drugs to get this pathway to work for you.

The key thing to remember is that when you reduce carbs and protein, you need to replace the lost calories with high-quality fats such as avocados, butter, coconut oil, nuts, and eggs. Your healthiest option is to ensure your carbs come primarily from fresh, organic non-starchy vegetables like greens; eat limited amounts of high-quality protein; and eat primarily a high-fat diet. Depending on the type of carbs (high fiber or not), most people need anywhere between 50-85 percent fat in their diet and sometimes even higher for optimal health.

This applies to athletes and those who exercise vigorously as well. As noted in a recent Malta Today article,1 a high-fat diet can actually be more beneficial for athletes than traditional carb-loading:

“A gym-goer or athlete consuming a low-carbohydrate diet will in turn teach their working muscles to utilize the fat stores and this is actually more efficient and can level out blood sugar fluctuations… Grain-based carbohydrates also can lead to bloating, creating a certain sluggishness which in turn affects performance in training, and not in a good way…

What about the actual training? Allow your body a chance to adapt to the low carbohydrate intake without overdoing it at the gym, gradually increasing the repetitions or time spent doing cardiovascular exercise. You will soon benefit from the leaner and sharper feel, and you can up the tempo as your body begins to tap into fat stores for energy.”

Key Differences Between My Nutrition Plan and the Paleo Diet

My nutrition plan has many similarities with the Paleo Diet, namely the restriction of sugars and grains, increases in fresh vegetables and a focus on finding high-quality, toxin-free food sources. However, there are some key differences that I want to highlight, as I believe these factors can make a significant difference in your health. My nutrition plan contains the following dietary advice, which the Paleo Diet is lacking:

  • Less protein, higher healthy fat: In general, it would be unusual for most adults to need more than 100 grams of protein and most likely need close to half that amount. Again, when you reduce protein, you need to replace it with other calories, specifically high-quality fats such as avocados, butter, coconut oil, olives, olive oil, nuts, and eggs.
  • Dairy is allowed: Dairy, particularly full-fat raw dairy, is allowed in my nutrition plan. I personally do not drink much milk nor think it is necessary to drink milk, but raw dairy from organically-raised grass-fed cows, especially fermented like yogurt or kefir, does have worthwhile nutritional components, as do other whole raw dairy products, like raw-milk cheese.
  • Seafood should be eaten with caution: The Paleo Diet includes lots of fish and other seafood on a regular basis. However, it is difficult to find seafood that is free from toxin buildup as a result of pollution. For this reason, I only recommend seafood that is high in healthy fats while being minimally exposed to toxic contaminants. Safer options include wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies, as well as a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement (krill oil) to make up for lacking seafood in your diet.
  • Fermented vegetables: One of the best ways to protect your health is by keeping your gut flora healthy by eating naturally fermented foods. Fermented vegetables are a key component of this and are highly recommended in my nutrition plan. One-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies with each meal is ideal, but you may need to work up to this amount gradually.
  • Intermittent fasting: The Paleo Diet is supportive of intermittent fasting, although it does not specifically highlight it. Intermittent fasting is one of the most powerful interventions I know of to shed excess weight and reduce your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. There are many different variations of intermittent fasting, but if you are like 80 percent of the population and have insulin resistance, my personal recommendation is to fast every day by simply scheduling your eating into a narrower window of time.

Evans’ Favorites: Organ Meats and Fermented Veggies

While Evans does eat a moderate amount of red meat these days, he favors organ meats and other animal parts.

“You go all around the world, and the chefs love to cook with the bits that you usually can’t find in the markets. [Not only] because it is cheap but because it’s got so much flavor. Whether it’s the brains, kidneys, livers, tongue, tail, or the foot, we get excited about that sort of thing. That’s what I guess my mission is: not to encourage people just to eat the offal, but to eat nose to tail if they’re going to eat the animal.”

Evans is also a staunch proponent of fermented vegetables, having read Dr. Natasha McBride‘s book on The GAPS Diet. She was the catalyst for me as well; I had dinner with her one night at a Weston Price event where we were both speaking, and I started fermenting vegetables as soon as I got back home. Besides a number of cooking and other food-related TV shows, Evans has also authored two books: Healthy Every Day and The Paleo Chef, which focuses on gluten-and grain-free whole food recipes that are easy to prepare.

“What I consider real food is fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and good-quality protein. [It’s] simple, but the most important thing apart from the health benefits is: it’s delicious, because ‘health food’ has always had that sort of stigma that it’s like eating cardboard, whereas that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.

As for the actual process of cooking, Evan recommends keeping it simple. He prefers economy when it comes to cooking, which means making big batches of stock, broth, soup, curry, and stew.

“It’s not just for one meal; I’ll make enough for six meals or even 10 meals. Do it in bulk. That way, you can freeze it down in portions, so you’re not spending all your time in the kitchen, because there are better things to do with your time like spend it with your family. Per meal, I average between 10 to 45 minutes. If I have to spend any longer than that, I probably won’t do it. That’s the type of recipes I like to put into my books.”

In Doubt About What to Eat? Read My Nutrition Plan

Dietary advice can be a bit of a moving target, as everyone has unique nutritional needs. That said, there are some dietary basics that are foundational, and which I believe will likely never really change—at least in our lifetimes—and that apply to the vast majority, if not everyone. This includes avoiding processed foods and limiting sugar as much as possible.

Aside from making sure your diet is low in sugar and consisting primarily of fresh, whole foods, many of the finer details need to be regularly revised based on new research and increases in wisdom from personal explorations of applying this research. More often than not, some trial and error is required in order to determine what works best for you. For example, while some people achieve great health on a vegan diet, it’s certainly not for everyone. As in Evans’ case, sometimes a vegan diet can do more harm than good, even though it may sound like a very healthy way to live, in theory. As Evans says:

“I fully respect anyone who takes on a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, if it makes you healthy and strong. That’s all I would say: Listen to your body. Do what feels right for yourself. Be your own guinea pig. As soon as something doesn’t feel right or doesn’t make sense to you, maybe you can tweak it a little bit. But don’t be harsh on yourself or feel too much guilt if you got off track either.”

The challenge is to keep up-to-date with it all and have a process that allows you to integrate this information using an easily digestible format. That is one of the primary reasons behind the compilation of my nutrition plan. In the ’90s, I rejected the idea of writing a book, as by the time it was printed it would be out of date. Instead I chose to focus my efforts on the Internet. I strongly recommend reviewing my nutrition plan whenever your schedule allows. It is a very detailed and comprehensive program – it’s basically an entire book in multimedia format. The plan is divided into three stages: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. If you realize you’re already doing all the things included in the beginner’s phase, then it may be time to move on to the next phase.

If you’re new to the site, I encourage you to go through it from the beginning, as it is one of the most powerful tools to truly allow you and your family to take control of your health. If you’re a Paleo Diet fan, you may be able to jump in at the intermediate or advanced level, taking your health to an even higher level than you had before.

*Image of “grilled halibut” via Shutterstock

Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder of Mercola.com. An osteopathic physician, best-selling author, and recipient of multiple awards in the field of natural health, his primary vision is to change the modern health paradigm by providing people with a valuable resource to help them take control of their health.