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Paleo Diet Rules and Guidelines: Can It Boost Fat Loss?

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When you’re setting off on a fat loss journey you need all the help you can get. You’ll be getting your head down in the gym and nailing a healthier lifestyle to make the very best of it.

But what about the right diet to follow?

Could a paleo diet be the one for you? Unsure if it’ll ramp up your fat loss?

Don’t worry, in this article we’ve got you covered.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is the paleo diet?
  • Which foods can you eat… and which do you need to avoid?
  • Does a paleo diet improve your health
  • Does a paleo diet speed up fat loss?

What is The Paleo Diet?

The paleolithic or ‘paleo’ diet is a dietary approach rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts and meats, but doesn’t allow foods such as dairy, grains, or sugars.

It was proposed as a way of eating n the mid 1980s by researchers Eaton and Konner [1]. And since then has become a popular, mainstream way of eating for both athletes and non-athletes.

The overall guidelines for the diet include foods that are:

  • High in natural fats
  • Moderate to high in animal protein
  • Low in carbs

Otherwise referred to as a caveman or stone-age diet, paleo is less analytical in terms of calorie counting compared to other dietary approaches. In fact, proponents of paleo suggest that you don’t count calories or portions at all, and instead just focus on macro content.

What did we learn from paleolithic man

The paleolithic era was a prehistorial age that lasted more than 2.5 million years and ended a few thousand years ago.

The diet itself is based around what we presume paleolithic humans ate at the time. And although we’re only speculating to a degree, we can use various scientific techniques to have an educated guess.

What’s the idea behind the diet?

The paleolithic era allowed a more ‘hunter-gatherer’ approach to eating. If you could forage it, you could eat it. So the main staple diet at that time included wild animal sources and uncultivated plant foods.

After all, it’s unlikely that cavemen had access to ice cream and pizza.

But then we learned agriculture

The end of the paleo period coincided with the cultivation of grains and domestication of animals. This occurred on the border of the paleolithic age and neolithic period. 

Many people suggest that the ability to digest foods was different back in the paleolithic era, and that modern foods production and industrialization techniques has altered the way in which foods are produced. We’ve gone from only eating ‘natural’ foods to store bought, processed foods in a short space of time.

By contrast, it is suggested that our digestive systems have not had time to evolve and adapt to this new way of eating, leading to issues such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

According to fans of the paleo diet, the onset of the neolithic era and agricultural ability up to the present day is only a minute amount of time in comparison to the paleolithic period. And that hasn’t left enough time for our bodies to learn how to process and absorb the foods we eat.

Optimizing physiology with paleo?

Because of the lack of evolutionary change since agriculture, there are many researchers that believe we should all follow a paleo diet to get the best from our bodies.

One author suggested that “the genetic makeup of contemporary humans may more closely optimize core metabolism and physiology when they consume a diet more closely resembling our ancestral hunter-gatherer’s preagricultural diet” [1].

 


Paleo foods ona table including meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit

Key Point: The paleo diet follows a hunter-gatherer approach to eating, much like before agriculture and domestication of animals. Following paleo is to ‘eat like a caveman’.


Which Foods Can You Eat on Paleo?…

Although the list of exact foods differs slightly based on who is recommending it, here is an outline of what you’re permitted on this diet:

  • The higher fat content should come from naturally occurring fats such as coconut oil, lard and butter. Oils and avocados are also advocated too.
  • Animal protein should come from red meat, poultry, eggs and offal. Seafood is also fine. Grass fed is recommended over grain fed.
  • It is recommended that you eat plenty of vegetables, either raw or cooked. Starchy root vegetables such as beets and sweet potatoes are also fine.
  • Fruits are okay in moderation and can include apples, citrus fruits and berries.

…and which foods should you avoid?

In order to comply with the paleo method there are some foods which you’ll have to wave goodbye to. These include:

  • Dairy foods such as cheese, milk, yogurt and cream cheese.
  • Anything with added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup – soda, fruit juice, candy and nutrition bars, salad dressings and cocktails.
  • Foods or drinks with artificial sweeteners.
  • Any alcohol.
  • Legumes such as beans (black, Lima, kidney, fava), peas, tofu and peanuts.
  • Grains – cereals, bread, pasta, wheat-based products, crackers and chips.
  • Sweets, treats and any sugary desserts.

There are also those however that suggest it isn’t so much what you eat when it comes to weight loss, rather how much you eat.

Let’s see what the research says about health and paleo dieting…


Key Point: The paleo diet emphasizes eating natural whole foods and avoiding dairy, grains, legumes, high-sugar foods and artificial food sources such as sweeteners.


Does a Paleo Diet Improve Health?

Frasetto et al [1] analyzed the effects of short-term, 10-day paleo dieting on vascular health, markers of blood sugar and other health parameters in a group of inactive men and women.

The study started with an initial 3-day period where participants ate a normal ‘western’ diet. They then had various blood and health tests done.

For the following 10 days they were instructed to eat only a paleo-based diet. This consisted of lean meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts, and excluded nonpaleolithic type foods such as cereal grains, dairy or legumes. They then had the same tests done again in order to analyze the differences.

What did they find?

Even after a short-term dietary change, the paleo eaters observed a reduction in blood pressure, insulin levels, cholesterol and triglycerides. And these results were seen in 8 out of the 9 participants involved in the study.

Did they lose any weight?

It’s hard to tell as researchers purposely tried to avoid weight loss in case it effected the other readings – remember, this study was more about metabolic health measurements, not fat or weight loss per se.


A family having fun making a healthy salad in the kitchen

Key Point: There’s little doubt that a paleo diet can promote health, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it helps with weight or fat loss.


Could Paleo Improve Fat Loss?

Any diet that results in a reduction in calories below the amount that you burn off each day will result in fat loss.

Where paleo might be beneficial for fat loss is that it makes the dieter more conscious of food choices, and indirectly reduce overall energy intake.

But is it just down to calories or does the paleo diet itself hold the key to fat loss?

A study published in Diabetologia [2] aimed to see if a paleolithic diet improved glucose tolerance in a group of diabetic patients with ischemic disease. They also measured any changes to body weight and waist circumference too as a way of determining overall metabolic health.

To do this, the researchers asked the participants to follow either an ‘old stone age’ diet or a more modern Mediterranean diet consisting of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruits, fish, oils and margarines.

They placed each participant into a group at random for a period of 12-weeks – more than enough time to see some differences, if they were to occur at all.

The result?

The paleo group saw a 26% reduction in blood glucose compared to the 7% see in the modern diet group – an important finding for diabetes care. It definitely promoted health!

Great, so there must have been some weight loss too, right?

No. The improvement in blood glucose was completely independent of changes to belly fat or weight loss. In fact, there was no significant change the either of these two variables at all.

High and low carb diets achieve similar weight loss

A study from the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [2] wanted to look at the effects of two diets – one that was low in carbs (a paleo-style diet) and one that was high in carbs. Both had the exact number of calories making them ‘isocalorific’.

To do this, researchers recruited 43 obese adults and ‘hospitalized’ them for 6-weeks, meaning they couldn’t have the freedom to stray from their diets (think prison).

They gave them one of the following 1,000 kcal per day eating plans at random:

  • Low carb – 32% protein, 15% carb, 53% fat
  • High carb – 29% protein, 45% carb, 26% fat

They must have lost weight on only 1,000 kcal per day, surely?

Most definitely.

But the interesting part wasn’t that they lost weight (that was inevitable on such a low energy diet), the interesting part was that there was no significant difference between groups for total body fat lost, waist-to-hip ratio weight loss.

It didn’t matter what type of food the participants ate, just how much. 

The research team concluded that it wasn’t the dietary approach that was the underlying factor in weight loss, just that the total calories were low enough to cause fat oxidation to make up the difference.

Energy intake, not nutrient composition determines weight loss

And finally, another study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [3] found that when obese women were asked to follow either a paleo or high carb diet for 12-weeks, both diets resulted in the exact same amount of weight loss – an average of 7.3 kg.


Key Point: It’s very likely that weight loss from following a paleo diet isn’t sue to the actual diet, just that it helps you achieve a calorie deficit.


Summary

The paleo diet is based on what we think paleolithic man ate prior to agriculture, cultivation and animal domestication. It is essentially a diet that makes you eat ‘like a caveman’.

When pitched against more modern, western diets, paleo has been found to improve a number of metabolic health risk factors such as blood sugar and cholesterol levels. And that of course is a good thing.

But when it comes to fat loss it is no more effective than any other calorie deficit-based diet.

Our advice is to follow a diet that works best for you. If you get good results and you find it the easiest to stick with then go for it!


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References

  1. Frasetto, LA et al. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009; 1-9
  2. Golay, A et al. Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nytr. 1996; 63(2): 174-8
  3. Noakes, M et al. Effect of an energy-restricted, high-protein, low-fat diet relative to a conventional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet on weight loss, body composition, nutritional status, and markers of cardiovascular health in obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005; 81(6): 1298-306


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