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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Paleo Diet: One Year On

One year ago today I began to adopt the “paleo”, “primal”, or “ancestral” diet after first reading Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet and, later, Arthur De Vany's The New Evolution Diet. Both books come to much the same conclusions, albeit by different routes. Please see the reviews linked above for additional details.

Regular visitors to this site will know I have little interest in fad diets and even went to the length of mocking them in The Hacker's Diet. What interested me in the paleo diet was not a desire to lose weight—using the feedback tools of The Hacker's Diet I've been able to keep my weight right where I want it for more than two decades even in the face of perturbations that took me more than a year to figure out—but rather the evolutionary argument made by Michael Rose that individuals past the age of last reproduction have necessarily not benefited from evolutionary adaptation to the radical change in diet which occurred with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry at most 500 generations ago and are consequently vulnerable to late-onset diseases which may be caused by such a diet. Those interested in prolonging their healthy lifespan might thus consider adopting a diet closer to that with which our ancestors have co-evolved over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Proponents of paleo argue not only from an evolutionary standpoint but also from biochemistry that eliminating recent innovations such as grain and dairy products, highly glycemic sweeteners, refined vegetable oils, and added salt that a variety of diseases which appear after the age of 40 may be avoided or their effects mitigated.

Anyway, I found this sufficiently persuasive that a year ago I decided to give it a try, and now it's time to review the results. I consider them remarkable. First of all, shortly after eliminating the non-paleo foods from my diet, my blood pressure dropped from the low yellow right into the middle of the green range and has remained there ever since. I have seen a downward bias in my weight which didn't exist before and, in fact, without any deliberate intention, my weight today is 6 kg less than it was a year ago. (I experienced what I call the “paleo plunge”, which others have reported: after some turbulence when initially adopting the diet your weight will stay about the same and then, after six or nine months begin to drop smoothly. Some argue that this delay is due to the body's need to repair ongoing damage and inflammation from non-paleo nutrients and once it's caught up, weight loss will begin. I don't know if this is really the explanation for the paleo plunge, but I certainly have experienced it. Should it continue and I begin to bump the bottom of my target weight range, I will add calories to my diet as described in The Hacker's Diet to stay within the target; it's a nice problem to have.) I feel great: after a couple of months almost all of the perceptible symptoms of chronic inflammation are gone, along with just about every other complaint of growing old. The persistent skin irritation from low humidity during the winter, which I've experienced since the 1990s, is gone. Nine months after the change-over to paleo, I had the first blood work done since before. The doctor went so far as to shake my hand and say, “I've never seen a blood panel like this for somebody your age. You have the blood of a 35 year old man.” Works for me.

Drawbacks? Of course there are some: this is a radical change to what most people have been eating all their lives, and some adaptation is required. Most of what people consider “comfort foods” runs afoul of one or another of the paleo proscriptions. Fortunately, there is now a Paleo Comfort Foods cookbook which provides alternatives (albeit with compromises). If you've been salting your food (guilty as charged) or adding sugar to everything (innocent, milord), you'll have to adapt to getting along without them and learn to enjoy the flavour underneath. If you've been eating relatively few vegetables and fruit, you'll need to increase that portion of your diet to replace refined carbohydrates with the complex ones in those natural foods. How long will it take to accustom yourself to paleo? Dunno, but my own experience was about three months. I'm not talking three months of Hell, just three months of “different” and discovering alternatives you're happy with as regular meals. After that, will you still crave things? I do: pizza and cheese in particular, but as time passes I increasingly look at things I used to gulp down regularly as poison and don't miss them at all.

I should qualify my experiences by observing that shortly before I adopted the paleo diet I also began a dietary supplement program of my own devising. It is consequently impossible to disentangle the results of one from the other. As I'm satisfied with the results of the two combined, I shall continue with them both.

Is this right for you? How could I possibly know that? If you read the books and find the evolutionary and metabolic arguments for paleo persuasive, I'd say take three months and try it for yourself. If you don't feel better and (if you monitor such things) your blood work does not improve, then so much for that—move on. If you experience the kind of dramatic changes I have, they should be sufficient to provide the motivation to persist.

Posted at December 8, 2011 19:59