As fitness professionals, each of us has honed our craft to the point of knowing how best to service our clients’ variety of needs in the gym. While I truly enjoy the athletic and motivational aspect of my career, it was not until the addition of a Health Coach certification that my world opened up to include nutritional counseling. It often seems to be the missing puzzle piece for many clients who exercise properly yet remain stuck in their weight-loss efforts.
Try as I might to coax clients away from every new fad diet being proclaimed as the next “Holy Grail” in the checkout-line magazines, it seems virtually impossible at the moment to escape the Paleo Meal Plan. Choosing to educate myself about this trend, which seems to be gaining momentum at a fast and furious pace, I delved into the science- as well as the hearsay -behind this desire to return to our caveman days. The premise of the Paleo meal plan is quite simple: it is an organic and nutritious diet founded on whole foods, mimicking those our hunter/gatherer Paleolithic ancestors would have found available. These foods are devoid of any artificial additives and genetic modifications which are currently found in many processed foods on the grocer’s shelves. The main staples of daily consumption are limited to wild-caught fish/seafood, wild-caught or grass-fed meats, wild-harvested fruits, mushrooms, seeds/nuts, and wild-harvested flowers, leaves, stems and some roots. In his critically acclaimed book, “The Paleo Solution”, former biochemist Robb Wolf explains the anthropological and biological evidence behind the claim that humans haven’t evolved to digest grains and other foods that became widespread after the rise of agriculture. As such, he strictly adheres to the precept of a total elimination of all grains, legumes, cultivated plants, farmed animals, and dairy products. Alcohol is likewise on the banned list, as is processed sugar; and salt intake is to be rigidly controlled. Similarly to Wolf, cardiologist Dr. William Davis writes in his book entitled “Wheat Belly” that modern strains of wheat are the cause of many current and common health problems, such as weight gain, arthritis and hypertension. He blames this situation on gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, which can elicit an autoimmune response in those individuals living with celiac disease. Celiac disease differs from gluten sensitivity. According to the National Institutes of Health, between 5 and 10% of the population has some form of intolerance to gluten. Celiac disease, however, is a serious condition affecting the digestive systems of roughly 1 in 133 Americans. It is typically characterized by such symptoms as gas, cramping and diarrhea. When an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten, the body views this substance as a foreign invader and begins the chemical cascade of producing antibodies to fight it. Unfortunately, some of those antibodies end up disrupting healthy tissues as well – particularly those found in the intestines. These antibodies damage the villi, the little hair-like structures lining the walls of the intestines, which interferes with their ability to absorb nutrients. Some of the more worrisome manifestations of celiac disease, linked to the malabsorption of nutrients, are fatigue, lack of mental clarity, and muscle aches. Although there is currently no cure for celiac disease, it seems that following a gluten-free diet can reduce or eliminate some of the more disruptive symptoms of the disease. For those individuals affected by celiac disease, or those attempting to dodge its bullet, we can begin to see the appeal of the Paleo approach to eating. However, while celiac disease does not necessarily endorse a diet free of dairy and farmed meats and produce, the Paleo plan is much more rigid in nature. Oats, for example, do not contain gluten and are therefore embraced by celiac sufferers; and yet, this is not a food choice available to Paleo followers. When clients inquire about the practicality of such a meal plan, it is incumbent upon us to first find out about their medical history. If a shift in this direction is predicated out of necessity, due to food intolerance or celiac disease, the main benefit to be derived will be a relief from symptoms. However, for those individuals who choose to adopt a gluten-free diet simply because they feel it must certainly be a healthier alternative to the more traditional American fare, we must offer them a more realistic view. As gluten-free diets gain momentum, food manufacturers rise to the challenge by producing a variety of gluten-free products; while these foods are a boost for celiac sufferers, processed gluten-free foods are quite often high in sugar and saturated or trans fats, as well as artificial ingredients. In fact, many health-conscious individuals with the best of intentions come to find that an abundance of these products are tantamount to “junk food”.
In the second part of this article, we will discuss some of the findings of scientific research into the Paleo diet.