Health & Medicine

Eating like a caveman can increase energy, decrease weight

Chances are, you or someone you know has been on Weight Watchers or Atkins or has tried the grapefruit diet, the Mediterranean or South Beach diet or the Zone.

Through the years, many different types of diets have come and gone. Some are still in use after standing the test of time.

There's another diet that's picking up steam in the research and fitness communities. It's been around longer — way longer — than the aforementioned solutions, but it just might be what many are looking for to help them lose weight and improve health in the long run.

It's called the Paleo diet, and it's a plan that essentially travels back in time to find the diet of early man to unlock nutritional secrets today's man and woman can use.

"Our genetics and the way we're eating are living at odds," said Robb Wolf, former research biochemist and author of the New York Times best-seller The Paleo Solution (Victory Belt Publishing, $24.95). Paleo "wasn't cooked up by any one person. It's the diet of our ancestral legacy."

The Paleo diet might not be so easy a caveman can do it — even though, technically, they did — but according to Wolf, it's a diet that's been used frequently with surprising results.

The cornerstones of the Paleo diet revolve around what people were able to essentially hunt or gather in prehistoric times. That means emphasizing the consumption of lots of lean meat, veggies, fruits and healthy fats from nuts, avocados, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and fish oil. However, foods that don't make the caveman cut are grains (including whole grains), legumes (beans) and any type of dairy. The diet also emphasizes restrictions on alcohol or foods that are heavily processed or contain sugar.

According to Wolf, the omission of grains, dairy and legumes revolves around their chemical composition not gelling with the human digestive system. Grains contain gluten and emit chemicals that can cause stomach irritation and inflammation, which can spread through the rest of the body. Plus, because cows mostly consume grains, their toxic irritants are passed on through the dairy products the cows produce. This is why Paleo promoters encourage the consumption of grass-fed beef and wild game as opposed to the more common grain-fed variety.

As with all diets, sacrifices must be made. For many, the omission of dairy and grains might be a hard sell.

However, many have gravitated toward the Paleo diet because it doesn't seem as much like an actual "diet." There are no points to keep track of, calories to calculate or carbs to count. You eat the foods on the diet when you're hungry and stop when you're full.

Sarah Fragoso is the founder of the Web site EverydayPaleo.com, dedicated to showing how you can apply the Paleo diet in a practical way to your daily diet. She had tried other diets such as South Beach and Atkins before giving Paleo a shot for 30 days and getting hooked for life.

"When I started eating that way, it was probably a light-bulb moment for me," Fragoso said. "It had a profound effect on my own life."

Wolf, Fragoso and other Paleo advocates encourage people to try the diet for 30 days and see how their bodies react. Then, decide whether to completely commit to Paleo or do it at a ratio that's right for you.

This is what Ben Shechet, a personal trainer at Body Structure in Lexington, did when he gave the Paleo diet a spin. He's been on it for four years.

"My energy and alertness throughout the day was just much, much improved. I didn't have these periods where I had to take a nap in the middle of the day," Shechet said. "It reconnects you with your body's intuition of what it wants to eat."

Shechet has gone as far as to prescribe it to his clients and see their performances increase and appearances change.

"I see an improvement in body composition. I see people losing fat and gaining muscle," he said. "And they feel better. To me, that's the biggest thing."

One of Shechet's clients who's taken to the Paleo diet is Kerri Turner, a hairstylist at Small Indulgence Salon in Lexington.

"It's a difficult diet to follow, but it's a diet that if you stick to it, it's pretty awesome," Turner said. "You have more energy (and) you lose weight."

But one aspect of Paleo that is emphasized almost as much as its short-term effects is its contribution to long-term health.

According to Wolf, a head-to-head comparison between the Paleo diet and a Mediterranean diet in insulin Type 2 diabetics showed that those on the Paleo diet showed a reversal of symptoms compared to those on the Mediterranean diet, who showed little to no improvement. The diet is also shown to reverse the effects of several types of autoimmune disorders and diseases, including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

"What we find is the sicker the individual is, the more this diet improves them," Wolf said.

For proponents of the Paleo diet, this primal approach to nutrition seems to be the answer in their quest for a healthy lifestyle.

"It's not like, eat this way to lose weight and fit in your jeans," Fragoso said. "It's more than a typical diet does for people."

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