Emory Nutritionist Breaks Down the Paleo Diet

This post originally appeared on the Emory Office of Health Promotion Blog.

If you could put yourself on a diet that promised increased energy, flawless skin, and a scientific basis–all with limited calorie counting–would you? Plenty of people have done just that by adopting the Paleo diet, supposedly based of the diet of our paleolithic ancestors.

The diet advocates cutting out two major things: sugar and gluten. The logic is that neither refined sugar nor harvested wheat were available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors prior to about 10,000 years ago, when humans started intensive agriculture.

Though 10,000 years seems like a lot, in the scheme of human evolution it’s a drop in the genetic bucket, and Paleo proponents argue that human bodies have not caught up with these fairly recent dietary changes.

I spoke with Carol Kelly, the coordinator of nutrition education at Emory Student Health to see what her opinions are on the Paleo diet. She laughed when I asked whether she was familiar with it–she has seen multiple clients come to her looking for advice about starting the diet. It is very popular.

Some parts of the diet aren’t all that bad, according to Kelly. For example, the fact that most people report feeling a lot more energetic on the diet is pretty reasonable–any diet where someone cuts out most of their sugar intake is going to make them feel pretty good. No one is arguing that added sugar is good for people.

But the problem comes with some of the other restrictions. Pulling out gluten from the diet of someone who isn’t sensitive to it (with celiac disease or another sensitivity) may restrict someone’s food options unnecessarily. Particularly given that the true Paleo diet requires substituting a lot of meat in for the pulled-out gluten, students can wind up eating a lot of low-quality factory-farm meat in order to meet the requirements of the diet while staying true to budget.

Though Paleo is supposed to be done with free-range, grass-fed meat, that simply may not be possible on a college budget. Kelly worries that substituting low-quality meat is both potentially unhealthy for the student (as factory-farmed meat may have animal steroids or other not-so-great additives) and for the planet (as every Emory student knows, factory farming isn’t good for the Earth).

Kelly worries that the two main exclusions (gluten and sugar) plus the exclusions of legumes and some fruits and vegetables may make it so that someone not paying attention can lose weight while winding up malnourished. It’s not an ideal solution.

Perhaps most importantly, Kelly pointed out that the science supporting the Paleo diet is lacking. Obesity, she pointed out, has risen in the last 30 years–not the last 10,000. The switch to intensive agriculture didn’t cause the shift. And scientific studies about the diet’s effectiveness haven’t supported the idea that the Paleo diet is any better for people than just restricting calories would be.

So what’s a college student to do if they want to ramp up their energy levels and potentially lose weight while still being focused on promoting health? Kelly suggests that students focus on cutting back sugar intake, increasing vegetable intake, and increasing the intake of non-GMO grains other than wheat and rice. (Think quinoa or barley.) These changes will produce many of the effects that people rave about on the Paleo diet without having to strictly follow all of the rules about what is and isn’t an appropriately stone age food.

Students looking for further counseling about nutritional issues can contact Carol Kelly in Student Health Services at (404) 727-1735.

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