Article by REVATHI MURUGAPPAN & FIONA HO
The Paleo Diet follows the principles of eating like our ancestors to achieve greater health, and has been packaged as the perfect nutritional approach for athletes and fitness enthusiasts who want to get leaner and stronger. But is it too good to be true?
SERIOUSLY?” a colleague teased and scrunched her nose as she glanced at my lunch. On most days, it would be home-cooked chicken breast, spinach and two hard-boiled eggs.
It would seem like a humdrum meal to most, one too boring to excite any attention, yet I keep getting amused and incredulous stares every time I tuck in at work.
“I’m on the Paleo diet,” I would try to explain, only to be met with more interest and subtle ridicule.
My boyfriend thought I was crazy. My mother didn’t understand why I couldn’t eat chee cheong fan anymore, and I suspect that my editor gets a kick out of poking fun at me at lunchtime.
So, what is this Paleo (or paleolithic) diet that has been stirring up confusion and fascination among my family and friends?
Well, like its namesake, it is based on this simple premise – if the cavemen didn’t eat it, then you shouldn’t either.
So it’s goodbye to processed foods like grain products, legumes and dairy, and hello to meat, poultry, fish and veggies.
I took on the diet because I was tired of being a wimp, and was convinced that the Paleo, known for its raw approach to nutrition as it comprises mostly wild plants and animals, would provide a balanced diet for improved strength and performance.
I was also sold on the idea that the absence of refined and processed carbohydrates, the notorious culprits of coronary heart disease and diabetes, would help improve my performance during CrossFit workouts.
Sticking to the diet was not easy, but I did see some pretty immediate changes within the first four weeks. Most noticeable would be a more defined abdominal area. I was lean to begin with, but the Paleo gave me an even more sculpted physique.
Performancewise, I went from not being able to lift a 15kg barbell to being able to deadlift 40kgs and squat 25kgs in less than two months. I also gained about 3kgs of muscle mass in the process.
Obviously, being on a Paleo diet meant that eating chap fan was no longer an option. I have also stopped going out for lunch with my colleagues, and prepare most of my own meals. Most of my friends just thought I was being weird, but I feel that the increase in strength and power I’ve gained from it has made it worthwhile.
In the process however, I did find myself feeling constantly peckish, and always craving a snack after meals.
I also found myself binging like crazy on my “cheat days” (which was becoming everyday!). Pizza, pasta, nasi lemak, ice cream, french fries – you name it, I would eat it, and often in a single setting!
On Thursday, I wolfed down everything I had sworn to never again touch – fish and chips, followed by a fizzy drink, then chocolate cake and a java chip Frappuccino – all at lunch.
It was then that it struck me – I could no longer manage my cravings. My gluttony frightened me. How did one go from being a disciplined dieter to a binge-eating calamity? I was weak, and I needed help.
So I got Hong Ya Chee, a certified nutritionist and personal trainer to share her thoughts on how to manage a healthy and sustainable diet with me.
The Paleo diet does have its health benefits, she notes. “Fast food is easy food, and in Malaysia, they include curry puffs, Maggi goreng, mee goreng and nasi lemak, and they are all high in sodium and saturated fats that can increase the risk of hypertension and diabetes.
“Cutting out all that will certainly improve one’s quality of health,” she says.
However, Hong, who is chief nutritionist at ILife Nutrition Centre and a fitness educator at Fitness Innovations Malaysia (FiT), remains sceptical of the diet.
Her main concern has to do with the high-fat nature of the diet. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently recommends that less than 30% of daily calories should come from fat. With about 39% of daily calories from fat, a sample Paleo menu easily exceeds this recommendation.
In addition to the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol produced naturally by the body, saturated fat, trans-fatty acids and dietary cholesterol can also raise blood cholesterol, she says. Red meats, especially beef and pork, are high in saturated fats. This could aggravate a pre-existing heart condition, as well as affect those who are already overweight or obese.
Hong also notes that the overload of protein in the Paleo diet can cause damage to the liver. Protein in your diet has a number of functions, including supporting tissue repair. However, protein consumption also places certain burdens on your liver, which is responsible for processing protein waste products and eliminating them from your body.
The USDA recommends 12-20% of daily calories come from protein, but a sample Paleo menu clocks in at about 38%.
“The excess of protein can cause damage to the liver in the long run,” Hong says.
Given that it cuts out entire food groups like grains and dairy, it may also not be the best example of a balanced diet, she adds. With 23% of daily calories from carbs, the Paleo diet is far below the USDA’s 55-65% recommendation.
Despite its much-reviled reputation, Hong says that carbs are an important energy source for the body to perform its daily activities, as well as for recovery after a workout. “Eliminating carbs can cause serious problems over the long term.”
Naturally, how much you eat should also correlate with your daily energy expenditure. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any unused fuel will be stored as fat.
Another concern that plagues the Paleo dieter is that by eliminating dairy and all its derivatives, you are likely to get only about 700mg of calcium from a typical Paleo menu. Women, and anyone older than 50, are generally encouraged to meet the recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300mg of calcium daily.
“Calcium is essential to build and maintain bones, and milk and yoghurt are some of the best sources for calcium,” Hong says.
While on the Paleo, this writer supplemented her diet with 500mg of calcium tablets daily. Do note, however, that overdosing on calcium can lead to the formation of kidney stones.
While vegetables are often cited as an excellent source of calcium, how much calcium the body can actually absorb is another story. For instance, vegetables like brocolli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and asparagus, contain measurable amounts of oxalates, which may interfere with the absorption of calcium from the body.
While it is unclear how much interference actually takes place, in the case of spinach, you can expect to absorb a minimum of only about 10% of the calcium from what you eat. For example, in one cup of boiled spinach containing about 285mg of calcium, you can expect to absorb only about 25-30mg of it.
So, is the Paleo diet safe? Well, I know of highly-fit people who swear by it, and I have not personally encountered any adverse effects from it, besides the incessant desire to binge-eat.
Hong however, says she would not recommend the diet to her clients. “You can try the Paleo diet for maybe two weeks or a month to lose weight, but it is not sustainable in the long run.”
For a more manageable diet, she recommends that this writer factor in oats into her diet. “Oats are a good source of complex carbs (the good kind of carbs), and are rich in fibre,” she says.
“Ultimately, the key to maintaining a healthy diet is sustainability, and that means you shouldn’t eliminate any food groups.”
Will the new adjustments and a more balanced diet stop this writer from over-eating and ultimately bursting out of her clothes? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see…
> Fiona Ho is a certified personal trainer and a CrossFit enthusiast who is trying her darnest to stay in her skinny jeans.