Some thoughts and considerations…
Getting older has its merits; but, of course along with it, the typical thoughts that go along with the ever-accelerating passage of time. The latter are likely more positive when one is healthy, allowing for the enjoyment of the beneficial elements of aging and yet so many individuals suffer considerably with chronic disease as their years progress. And, it is not a stretch to say that the majority of these situations are preventable. I turned 50 last year and I am extremely fortunate that I can say I feel little difference physically to when I was a young man in my twenties. Even typing that feels strange as it implies that I am not young and; yet, I feel as young as I ever have in nearly every way.
There could be many reasons for my good fortune. I was a competitive athlete for most of my life and I have continued to be extremely active working in the health and fitness industry. My parents are still playing golf in their 80s and show little sign of slowing down; and, so I likely have pretty decent genes. I know many individuals, however, that can say the same about their athletic past and healthy relatives but without the same enthusiasm for their current vitality. So I am confident that the major reason in providing me the good health I enjoy at 50 is because Dr. Cordain introduced me to the Paleo diet back in 1988 when I arrived as a graduate student at Colorado State University. Consequently, the Paleo diet has been my dietary template – both personally and professionally – since that time and; as a result, I feel I have more than a few thoughts that merit sharing about the diet that has now taken the world by storm.
The first topic worth addressing; particularly for those thinking about adopting the Paleo diet, is that of the constant attacks the diet comes under because of its newfound popularity. For those interested in the details of the many ludicrous attacks and unsubstantiated claims against the Paleo way of eating and the responses thereto, you can read a number of rebuttals1,2,3,4 I have recently penned. However, you can also realize that these unsupported attacks follow the same worn-out tracks that have, to date, not gained any traction worthy of merit. Further, the authors of such attacks demonstrate that they are either woefully ignorant of the science supporting the Paleo diet or that they are a pawn to the corporations that stand to lose financially the more the Paleo diet gains followers. Ultimately, the research, clinical findings, and individual success stories supporting the Paleo diet have set it on a path without an end. Therefore, it is important to become educated about the Paleo diet to make sure that the path followed is the right one and not an imposter hiding behind the name.
To that end, the Paleo diet template is such a simple concept, and one that resonated with me back in 1988. It made immediate sense to me back then and nothing has changed that thinking today. When I first heard Dr. Cordain outline the template for , I simply heard the message that the diet represents the consumption of foods that the earth naturally provides for human consumption without human intervention. Non-Paleo foods represent the exact opposite. The foods on the Paleo diet template – animal protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, can all be consumed without human intervention, but those not on the Paleo diet template – , legumes, and dairy; with milk being an exception, can not. And with respect to non-human milk, for its consumption to be considered natural, one has to accept the image above to be natural for humans.
Since being introduced to the Paleo diet template, I have had my fair share of non-Paleo diet foods as I have always allowed myself to eat foods outside of the template that I enjoy. Having said that, I do not eat the foods outside of the template ad libitum, and it is always my guide when making healthy food choices. An example I always share with my clients is a dish I usual order at a local Mexican restaurant. The menu item is a lemon-garlic sautéed chicken breast that comes with; of course, rice and beans. I never fail to request that the rice and beans be replaced with sautéed or steamed vegetables and I have never come across a restaurant that won’t accommodate this kind of request. Making these sorts of small adjustments to meals add up over time and; so, even for people that eat out a lot, their diet can be improved considerably following the Paleo diet template. Eating free range animal protein and organic produce is not always possible eating out at restaurants and I am not going to try and argue that doing so as much as possible is not optimal.
However, I will say that avoidance of the non-Paleo foods, grains, legumes and dairy, is the more important practice. A goal of eating 80% Paleo foods has worked well for my wife, myself, and the majority of my clients. I also do not allow my clients to make the non-Paleo 20% quantity highly processed “junk” food; rather, I split the non-Paleo quantity into 15% minimally processed non-Paleo foods (i.e., “clean” grains, legumes and dairy) and the remaining 5%, if desired, into highly processed “junk” foods. I have also found that individuals adopting an 80:20 Paleo to non-Paleo diet quickly develop a different palate that allows the 80:20 split to be more easily attained; and, in many cases, individuals increase the quantity of Paleo foods by preference. Improved health following this 80:20 template indicates that it is sufficient for the body to obtain the necessary nutrients while also allowing the body to deal with the negatives of the non-Paleo foods (e.g., anti-nutrient consumption) without consequence. It might even be argued, that for many people, a small quantity of non-Paleo foods are useful to maintain the effectiveness of the physiological mechanisms that handle foods containing anti-nutrients.
However, I have also found there to be a significant amount of variability with respect to this. Some people can attain their health goals with a 70:30 approach, while others need a 90:10 approach. So if you are not seeing the results you expected by adopting the Paleo diet, you may need to be stricter and increase your ratio of Paleo foods to non-Paleo foods. However, regardless of the ratio of Paleo foods to non-Paleo foods with which you see effective results, I also recommend following a strict Paleo diet plan for around 7-14 days, 3-4 times per year to maintain optimal health.
But what if you have been extremely strict with your adoption of the Paleo diet and you are still not seeing an improvement in your health or specific chronic condition? Over ten years ago, while lecturing on high-intensity interval training and the Paleo diet, I met a clinical nutritionist by the name of Dr. Oscar Coetzee. is one of the most impressive nutritional practitioners I have had the pleasure to work with and I have frequently sought his expertise with difficult clinical cases. He is currently lecturing and researching nutritional protocols at the Marlyand University of Integrative Health, with his research efforts now focusing on intestinal permeability, autoimmune diseases and cancer. He is an advocate for the Paleo diet and the answer to why a strict Paleo diet may not work for someone is tied to intestinal permeability. Consequently, Dr. Coetzee and I are going to address the above question in a series of articles for ThePaleoDiet.com blog in the coming months. But simply stated, the answer lies in adopting, virtually, a liquid Paleo diet. So, if you are someone, or know of someone that has not had the expected results following a strict Paleo diet, stay tuned!
Following one of my recent rebuttals, I was Tweeted the statement “you must realize that a Paleo diet lifestyle is unrealistic.” This is a common criticism and yet it is easy to see the lack of logic in this thinking. If the Paleo diet was so hard to follow or is unrealistic, how has it gained such popularity? The fact is, the Paleo diet is not unrealistic at all, particularly the 80:20 approach, and as demand changes supply, we are seeing how its popularity is changing the landscape with respect to the choices being made available to the consumer.
A 100% Paleo diet may well be unrealistic or perhaps better stated, unnecessary for most. But I have also seen autoimmune patients, who discover they do not have the luxury of being able to eat outside of the Paleo template without consequences, follow a 100% Paleo diet with little problem. In my rebuttal to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), I challenged the BDA to choose and analyze 21 meals (7 breakfasts, 7 lunches and 7 dinners) from Dr. Cordain’s The Paleo Diet Cookbook. Then, having done so, defend their position that the Paleo Diet is “an unbalanced, sure-fire way to develop nutrient deficiencies, which can compromise health.”
Despite me quoting exactly the BDA’s analysis earlier in the rebuttal, I received an e-mail from an individual challenging my closing statement because I did not fully address the statement that the Paleo diet could be “An unbalanced, time consuming, socially isolating diet, which this could easily be, is a sure-fire way to develop nutrient deficiencies, which can compromise health and your relationship with food.” Because the BDA were so off base with their nutritional analysis of the Paleo diet, I quite honestly did not take their positions of it being time consuming and socially isolating too seriously, so let’s address those now.
For individuals experienced in following a Paleo diet, they are well aware that it is no more time consuming than any other diet that actually prepares the food from scratch. It is, of course, more time consuming than eating out from fast food restaurants or than grabbing highly processed, pre-packaged foods. However, I can assure anyone thinking of adopting the Paleo diet that the small investment of time in preparing meals at home following the Paleo diet template, would be well worth the investment. Having said that, I have had many clients that rarely cook at home and yet have improved their health considerably by using the Paleo diet template as their guide when eating out at restaurants. As to the Paleo diet being socially isolating, presumably because of the avoidance of grains, legumes, and dairy, the BDA endorses vegan diets, and so some how, the elimination of dairy, meat and fish does not have the potential for social isolation but the elimination of grains, legumes, and dairy does! For what it’s worth, I don’t think that following a vegan diet is socially isolating either, we should all respect everyone’s individual food choice, I just hope people make choices based upon accurate nutritional information. And similarly with the suggestion that the Paleo diet is unrealistic, the diet’s popularity wouldn’t have ballooned if the diet was socially isolating.
So what has more than 25 years of eating and recommending the Paleo diet taught me? Very simple, it is not time consuming and is easy to implement. For most of you, you do not have to be 100% strict and can find the balance that works best for you. In doing so, you will not find yourself an outcast in society and your health and vitality will change dramatically for the better.
Dr. Mark J. Smith
Dr. Mark J. Smith graduated from Loughborough University of Technology, England, with a Bachelor of Science in PE & Sports Science and then obtained his teaching certificate in PE & Mathematics. As a top-level rugby player, he then moved to the United States and played for the Boston Rugby Club while searching the American college system for an opportunity to commence his Master’s degree. That search led him to Colorado State University where Dr. Smith completed his Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Science, with a specialization in Exercise Physiology. He continued his studies in the Department of Physiology, where he obtained his Doctorate. His research focused on the prevention of atherosclerosis (the build up of plaque in arteries that leads to cardiovascular disease); in particular, using low-dose aspirin and antioxidant supplementation. Read more…