The Paleo Diet: Should You Eat Like a "Caveman"?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Going "paleo" -- similar to the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate -- can help you optimize your health and live a longer, more disease-free lif
  • Your body is programmed to store energy when you eat carbs, which is why a diet focused on grains, sugar and fructose will lead to excess weight, even if you exercise intensely
  • Exercise will help you lose body fat, but only if your diet is improved first

By Dr. Mercola

In the video above, Dr. Doug McGuff, author of the book Body by Science, explains how going back to a "Paleo" way of eating and using high-intensity exercise can help you optimize your health. In terms of lowering your body fat, it is absolutely essential that you take some tips from generations long since passed, as they hold the keys to developing the lean, strong body you were designed to have.

What is the Paleo Diet?

One of the most thorough looks into "Stone Age" nutrition was done by Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet and considered to be one of the world's leading experts on Paleolithic nutrition. Based upon scientific research examining the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, the foundation of "The Paleo Diet" is lean meat, including ostrich and bison as well as organ meats, seafood, fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables -- a far cry from the standard American diet.

During the Paleolithic period, which spans to 12,000 years ago, people ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots and meat. As Dr. McGuff stated, if you went out to gather food during this time, the foodstuffs you would find the least of would be carbohydrates. As he said, there was a lot more "fauna" than "flora" in the environment.

Your body likely developed the signal to store energy based upon the food type that was least abundant, i.e. carbohydrates, and this has continued to this day. So when you eat carbs, your body hears "store energy" -- and this situation is put on steroids with the Standard American Diet, as McGuff said.

While exercise is important and crucial for weight loss, the foods you choose to eat are multiple times more important for controlling your weight than your exercise. And if your diet relies on carbohydrates like sugar, fructose and grains, weight- and fat loss will be virtually impossible.

If You Want a Lean Body, Eat the Way of Your Ancestors

Our Stone-Age ancestors not only ate more natural foods than we do today, but they also ate an incredibly wide variety of them. Dr. Mark Berry, who is involved in the Paleolithic nutrition research, explained that back then humans ate 20-25 different plant foods a day.

Today, many Americans struggle to fit in five!

Meanwhile, modern-day man eats far more carbs -- including grains, sugar and fructose -- than your ancestors could have dreamed of. See, you don't get fat simply because you overeat -- on the contrary, you overeat because your fat tissue is accumulating excess fat. But why would your fat tissue continuously accumulate fat if you're not simply "eating too much and exercising too little"? Because:

  1. Dietary carbohydrates, especially fructose, are the primary source of a substance called glycerol-3-phosphate (g-3-p), which causes fat to become fixed in fat tissue
  2. At the same time, high carb intake raises your insulin levels, which prevents fat from being released

The resulting equation is simple: fructose and dietary carbohydrates (grains, which break down into sugar) lead to excess body fat, obesity and related health issues. No amount of exercise can compensate for this damage because if you eat a lot of fructose (and there's a good chance you are, considering it's in virtually every processed food), it could be "programming" your body to become fat.

It's not hard to understand the dietary roots of the American weight problem nowadays when you consider that the top 10 sources of calories in the American diet: Four of the top five sources of calories, and eight out of the full 10, are CARBS -- sugars (primarily fructose) and grains! This is the opposite of what our ancestors ate, and is also counterproductive to what you need to lose body fat and stay healthy.

1. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars) 139 calories a day

2. Yeast breads, 129 calories a day

3. Chicken and chicken-mixed dishes, 121 calories a day

4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, 114 calories a day

5. Pizza, 98 calories a day

6. Alcoholic beverages

7. Pasta and pasta dishes

8. Mexican mixed dishes

9. Beef and beef-mixed dishes

10. Dairy desserts

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So What Should You Eat to Mimic Your Stone-Age Ancestors?

Ironically, when U.S. News evaluated and ranked 20 diets with input from a panel of health experts, the Paleo diet ranked lowest of the 20! But this was not because it is a poor diet, but because the panelists didn't believe it was possible to find the appropriate foods in the modern era. Nothing could be further from the truth, because food selection today is no longer dictated by your environment as it was so long ago, but rather by your choices at the supermarket or, better, the farmer's market.

As written in AlterNet:

"The Paleo diet is less a prescription than a framework for considering one's relationship with food, but several themes are common to most Paleo menus. Aversion to wheat and most grains is common, and processed carbs and sugar are especially avoided. Many Paleos are suspicious of modern fruit, engineered as it was by agriculture into the equivalent of candy bars hanging from trees."

While you wouldn't be able to find many of the wild varieties of plant foods eaten by cavemen even if you wanted to, because modern agriculture has largely taken over the food supply and tweaked and shrunk it to where only a few varieties of wheat, corn and other plant foods are left, you can certainly mold your diet around the principles of Paleo eating rather simply by following my nutrition plan.

I believe it to be one of the most profound interventions for the 21st century and, when properly applied, it can improve just about anyone's health by basing your diet on fresh, whole, unprocessed, "real" food!

As Dr. Cordain stated:

"Simply put, human nutritional requirements for optimal health are determined by our genes, and our genes are shaped by the environment of our ancestors through natural selection. Many modern staples and processed foods were not present throughout most of the more than 2 million years hominin species have been present on earth.

The nutritional qualities of modern processed foods and foods introduced during the Neolithic period are discordant with our ancient and conservative genome. This genetic discordance ultimately manifests itself as various chronic illnesses, which have been dubbed "diseases of civilization."

By severely reducing or eliminating these foods and replacing them with a more healthful cuisine, possessing nutrient qualities more in line with the foods our ancestors consumed, it is possible to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease."

Where Does Exercise Fit In?

Much of Dr. Doug McGuff's video above is focused on high-intensity exercise like Peak Fitness -- and this, too, mimics the behavioral patterns of the Paleolithic people. During this era, people were not running long distances without any rest, the way so many people do on treadmills today. Rather, they would exert themselves in short bursts while hunting or evading threats, and then follow this up with a period of rest.

By following this strategy, you can really maximize your weight loss efforts, as long as it is combined with proper dietary changes.

The short intense training protocol that is used during Peak Fitness exercise improves muscle energy utilization and expenditure due to its positive effects on increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fiber quality. Muscle tissue burns three to five times more energy than fat tissues. This means that muscle gain increases your body's metabolic rate and allows you to burn more calories, even when you're sleeping.

Further, several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session. In fact, you can actually lose more weight by reducing the amount of time you spend on exercise, as with Peak Fitness you only need 20 minutes, two to three times a week. Remember proper dietary choices are your first and most important step to fat loss, but high-intensity exercise can boost your progress from there.