The Return of "Real" Food

paleo food

// by Noor Ashouri

Emerging diet trends such as the Paleo diet and the Whole30 program are cutting out major food groups and bringing the idea of “real” food back. But just how healthy is it to eat like a caveman?

The Paleo diet eliminates grains, dairy, legumes, processed foods, refined sugars, salt, potatoes and refined vegetable oils. It emphasizes healthy fats like nuts and oils, vegetables, fruits, eggs, seafood and grass-fed meat for a high-protein, low-carbohydrate intake.

The Whole30 program is similar in spelling out what participants can and cannot eat, with the exception of potatoes and salt being permitted. However, the Whole30 program is more focused on behavior and adherence. As its name suggests, the program requires participants to eat real food and avoid everything on the “don’t” list for 30 days straight with no exceptions. Proponents insist, “Don’t even consider the possibility of a ‘slip.’ Unless you physically trip and your face lands in a box of doughnuts, there is no ‘slip.’”

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Linda Brown says getting all necessary nutrients is possible on Paleo and Whole30 diets, but it requires meticulous planning. When entire food groups are cut out, so are nutrients. “Whenever you eliminate a food group, you have to pay particular attention to food choices so that you are getting the nutrients missing from the food groups you have eliminated,” Brown says.

For example, dairy is a primary source for calcium. A non-dairy option for calcium is nuts and seeds, but it would take a whole cup of sesame seeds to receive the adequate daily amount of calcium. “Then the question would be: who's going to eat a whole cup of sesame seeds?” Brown asks. Cutting out grains also eliminates a major source of trace minerals and B vitamins. Some may think a vitamin and mineral supplement is a quick fix; this isn’t always the case.

“There are some good supplements that have the nutrient complexed with amino acids or other carriers that increase absorption,” Brown says, “Those are not the vitamins you get over the counter.” Brown does say, however, that the Paleo and Whole30 regimens generally increase fiber and complex carbohydrate intake.

Primary care physician Dr. Daniel Kessler of Jacksonville Clinic has had many patients on both the Paleo and Whole30 diets. Like other diets, he says some have succeeded and some have failed. These diets, he says, are not for everyone.

Kessler says there are two key characteristics of people who succeed on the Paleo lifestyle. The first is a focused mindset. “You shouldn’t have to spend ten hours convincing them,” he says.

The second characteristic is a desire to change more than one area of their lives and sustain these changes for more than just a few days or a month. “In any successful weight loss program, you can never focus on just diet,” Kessler says. “It will always fail.” Sleep, exercise, stress levels and vitamin intake all need to be evaluated as part of a total lifestyle change.

Kessler says a focus on restriction can be overwhelming and cause boredom—a key characteristic of those who fail to maintain diets. “Restriction makes [people] nervous and causes stress. People love having choices,” he continues, “I tell my patients to think about abundance. Think of all these [foods] you’ve never heard about.”

Another elimination in the Whole30 program is scale and body measurements. Brown applauds this initiative, saying it prevents participants from becoming readily discouraged.

When it comes to dieting and weight loss, there is no one-size-fits-all regimen. To build a healthy lifestyle, both Brown and Kessler agree that nutrition has to be personalized in order to be effective.   “Our society is focused on instant,” Brown says, “When you are talking about changing habits, there is nothing instant.”