Fad Diets vs Reality: How Going Paleo Is A Genuine Alternative

21st July 2016

By Peggy Greb, USDA ARS

By Peggy Greb, USDA ARS

There are so many different diets around that one can start to blend into another after a while. With a wave of dietitians handing out advice on which is the best way to go for your health and weight issues, it’s easy to become sceptical. As soon as one diet pops up, you’re likely to see a news story or a new blog post which either debunks it or claims to do so. This can make you see all new diets in the same light.

Some of the diets that the experts seem to swear by are, to be fair, ripe for debunking. Or they might actually work for a specific purpose at a specific point in time, but be harmful long-term. This is the case with many fad diets that allow a person to drop serious amounts of weight early on but then lead to health issues. Crash and fad diets have been known to lead to fainting, skin problems and a lot more besides.

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When embarking on a diet, it is important to know what your goals are. If you just want to lose some weight fast for a specific purpose, it may be fine to go with a crash diet. But these diets work in the short-term. Do not be tempted to extend them. If on the other hand, you want to get and stay in shape and be healthier, then you’ll need a more balanced approach.

Be aware also that some diets lean quite heavily on one type of food. You may be OK with this, to begin with, but it is worth taking into account that a lot of people have an underlying food intolerance and allergies. So if you see a diet that you think looks fine, but it asks for a lot of cheese and milk, make sure you aren’t lactose intolerant. This may sound obvious, but a lot of people have intolerances without knowing.

A case in point for the above is that many people, who might only occasionally eat a certain food, do not put two and two together when they later feel ill. Some people only realize that they are intolerant to gluten when they see a doctor for seemingly unconnected reasons. The same is true of lactose and wheat, among other ingredients. This is vitally important – people who have issues with gluten can become very ill if they eat it regularly.

So the first take-home message from this is that you need to know what you can and cannot eat on a regular basis. It may be worth keeping a food diary, and seeing a doctor if you are concerned about any issues.
Then, it is worth thinking about what makes a fad diet undesirable. The truth of this is that the long-term benefits of such diets are, by the nature of fads, unproven. Again, you may lose weight right off the bat, but with some fad diets, the potential side-effects are unknown. With others, they are all too well known, and can be extreme and off-putting.

So why not go for the opposite of a fad diet? While it has come into fashion recently, the Paleo diet is one that has already stood the test of time. These are foods that were eaten by the early humans and have survived down the line to be served and eaten to this day.

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There is no one specific food, or food group, that you stick to when eating this diet. You’ll still eat meat, but not factory-farmed stuff. Grass-fed meat is the order of the day. Fish and seafood are also welcomed, along with plenty of fresh fruit and veg. Nuts and seeds are part of it too, as long as you don’t have allergies that rule them out. Eggs, packed with good stuff that helps you live well, are also a big part. And remember all that hunting and gathering lead to plenty of exercise, so you need to add that in too.

If you’re sitting at the back thinking “Yes, but, haven’t we moved on since the palaeolithic era?”, bear with it. Of course, we have, but there’s more to it than that.

“We’ve Evolved, So Why Eat Like Early Man?”

Yes, early man had a different lifestyle than the one we live now. He didn’t have a computer and he (or she) needed to catch their own food. A different lifestyle, and a different diet. And yes, their life expectancy was dramatically shorter than ours is, so they could learn more from us than we could from them. There is no getting around any of that.

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With that said, the fact that we live longer and have more medical intervention available to us hasn’t meant we all live smarter. While early man’s convenience food was berries and any boar that were too slow to run away, ours is different. It’s often processed and not easily digested. Digesting it can put quite a strain on our bodies, and the build-up it creates in our system is the cause of a lot of ills.

The other thing about the early man is that he survived and thrived. Early man (and woman) evolved to become what we are today. So the food that they ate was right for them. And guess what? Inside, we’re essentially the same as they were. So food that worked for them, works for us. Allowing for the intolerances you may have, of course, but those are just a fact of life. You can work around them.

“If Early Man Was So Clever, How Come He Died Out?”

Medical science has never been more advanced. We have houses, clothes, clean water and no mammoth to escape. When we talk about how human life expectancy has never been higher, let’s not high-five ourselves. It doesn’t mean we’re living better in every way. In a lot of cases, one of the impacts of medical science has been to allow us to live longer despite what we put into our bodies, not because of it.

One of the key aspects of the Paleo diet is going grain-free (or at least limiting the grains we eat). So you cut down on bread, pasta and rice, and so on. These are things that have become common to eat since we developed agriculture and could farm in large amounts. Because they are easy to produce, preserve and process, they have become staples in our diet. But they’re often not what the human body wants.

Here’s a shocking fact. People with Celiac disease cannot eat gluten; they are so intolerant to it that they will get ill. As they get older, their chances of getting cancer increase exponentially when they eat gluten. It’s not a fad for them. It’s not a preference. It’s a fact of life. Our bodies, much the same as early man’s, need certain nutrients. And often, those nutrients are not what is “easy”.

“So, If We Are Acting Like Cavemen, Shouldn’t Food Be Raw?”

Some people do follow a raw food diet and find that it has benefits for them. But a raw food diet is not the same as a Paleo diet. In case you were worried by the idea, going Paleo doesn’t mean you have to eat your steaks raw. If you like them that way, then, by all means, give it a go, but medium rare is fine. The key with a Paleo diet isn’t that you eat exactly what our long-ago ancestors ate, how they ate it. It’s that you stick to the principles.

It’s true that raw vegetables will not lose nutrients the way they will if overcooked. On the other hand, sometimes cooking will make them safer to eat, so it’s one we have to play by ear. And yes, early man didn’t have to commute to work to get there at 9 am, then get home at around eight to go to bed at 10. They had a bit more time to find and eat food. If convenience is a concern for you, visit PaleoHacks for tips on picking and preparing the right food.

The bottom line is that eating food that your body has evolved to depend on makes simple, straightforward sense. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to subsist on a diet of leaves and berries. While many other diets are built around heavily focusing on one type of food, this is different. Adopting a Paleo diet means you’re getting all the nutrients you need and, although the transition can be difficult, it’s short.

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It’s easy to mock the range of diets that are mooted as the perfect way to eat what you want, stay thin and feel better. Most of them deserve this mockery, because they are completely unsustainable. But the Paleo approach is custom designed to give your body what it wants. It’s the polar opposite of a fad. It may be fashionable, but even when it isn’t it will still be right.

The bottom line is that a diet which makes you feel ill for large parts of the day is missing the point completely. There is no point being thin if you’re fainting or your skin looks sallow. Eat healthily, get the foods you need and you’ll see positive results fast and on an ongoing basis.

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