Is Paleo the Best Diet for Weight Loss?
I’ve been in therapy for the past two months and my therapist sent me to a nutritionist to deal with my binge eating disorder. The nutritionist told me that the Paleo way of eating is the best diet for weight loss, for beating cravings and for having overall health. I’m curious what you think about that. Is Paleo the best diet for weight loss? I’m torn. – Alicia in New York
If you’ve been following me for a while, you will know that I take a non-diet approach to healing from binge eating disorder. I do have a lot of thoughts about your nutritionist’s advice because I think it was both well-meaning and there is some wisdom in the approach, but I want to dissect it a little bit so that you can get the most out of your healing journey.
The Paleo doctrine (yes, I call it a doctrine because some people treat Paleo like Tom Cruise treats Scientology) says that you should eat like a caveman. But let’s think about that. How did cavemen (and women) eat? Well, they went out, they looked for food, and let’s say they came upon a lion carcass- they ate and ate and ate until they couldn’t eat anymore. Basically they binged. They went days without eating and then when they found food they ate as much as they possibly could since they likely wouldn’t have food later. Now let’s think about that for a moment. Our bodies were biologically predisposed to binge eat because there would be times when we had no access to food at all. Cavemen had no 1500 calorie per day diets. Your body was designed to eat more some days and less on others. Fortunately, in this day and age, most of us have unlimited access to food– so going days without eating is not a problem. However, because of our biological makeup, we still have the instinct to binge when we come upon food if we’ve not been eating. So that means if you are on a restrictive eating plan (no cheese or bread for instance- like Paleo) and you come upon cheese and bread, your caveman instincts will likely come in, club your willpower over the head and binge on bread and cheese. Will it happen every time? No, certainly not. However you will always find yourself in a fight. Your inner caveman and your willpower will be at odds with each other. Some days one will win, other days the other one will win. It’s not fun to have a constant internal struggle. You’re always fighting with yourself and you’re never finding peace. You will then look at other people who you believe have been “perfect” in their Paleo-ness and wonder to yourself, “why is it that everyone else can stick to Paleo and I can’t?” and you will beat yourself up for not being good enough. I have a secret to tell you. Nobody is perfect in their Paleoness. Or in their any dietness. As a therapist specializing in treating eating disorders, I can tell you this for sure. I have had rockstar yoga teachers come into my office (in San Francisco there are lots of rockstar yoga teachers) and tell me that on the outside they drink green smoothies and eat kale salads and seeds and do yoga all day every day, that they have a huge following, but at night.. they sit home and can’t stop bingeing and purging. I’ve had doctors, naturopaths, nutritionists… all the same story, “I show everyone how to eat perfectly and I can’t do it myself. I’m a fraud and a failure…” And they beat themselves up and feel horrible about themselves. And yet, it’s difficult for them to give up their identities, and the one thing that’s had them stuck in their eating disorder for so long, which is the belief that they should stick to one perfect eating plan.
So, ideally, Paleo type diets seem great, but in practice, most people are not able to stick to them in the way they believe that they should be.
So what is good about Paleo? Paleo takes a whole foods approach and recommends that you eat food in their purest form. So instead of apple sauce from a jar made with preservatives, eat an apple. Instead of eating high protein, high fiber cereal with milk for breakfast, eat some eggs and fruit. These are great ideas. However people tend to take ideas to the extreme. People like to interpret things to the most literal minutia and then beat themselves up when they cannot stick to it. For instance, the bible. There are people who reject it completely and people who follow it to the letter. But what if everyone just took the parts of it that made the most sense to them, like “be kind, do unto others, don’t hurt people…” well then we wouldn’t have wars. Dogma creates war. And when it comes to diets and eating, it creates wars within you. You believe that you should eat one way and then you attack yourself when you don’t.
What if you could take the parts of Paleo that did make sense to you and not call it Paleo? There are things that I do like about Paleo. I like that it encourages whole foods and lots of good fats from animal and vegetable sources. I don’t like that it restricts dairy, grains and legumes. I don’t like that if you happen to eat a piece of cheese that you believe you’ve messed up your whole diet and then you figure “whatever, I don’t care…” and you spend the day bingeing or beating yourself up for being a failure. What if you could eat more whole foods more of the time? I have also found some kick-ass recipes though Paleo cookbooks. They tend to have hearty, nutritious meal ideas.
The other diet that we hear about being great for health all the time is the Mediterranean diet. Well that diet has you eating mostly beans and grains and not very much meat at all! The opposite of Paleo. So really, what’s right?
The best thing to do is find what works for your body. If you find that your skin breaks out in eczema when you eat dairy, then maybe you should avoid dairy. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should avoid dairy. Do you hear what I’m saying? There is no “plan” that is right for you that your body hasn’t told you about. You need to listen to your body and let your body inform what is right. A good nutritionist should be helping you to listen to what your body needs and encouraging you to follow those cues.
I believe that your nutritionist was very well meaning. But I also think that she likely doesn’t have a lot of experience treating eating disorders. If you ever go to a nutritionist who tries to have you restrict foods (even if you’re not allergic to them) then it’s best to find a nutritionist who specializes in treating eating disorders. I really like the nutritionists over at Be Nourished. They wrote a great article on the paleo diet last month. I also really like Summer Innanen’s article on What Going Paleo Did to My Body.
That was probably a very long answer to a short question. But in a word, no, to answer your question, “Is Paleo the best diet for weight loss,” I’m going to have to say that I don’t believe that Paleo is good way to lose weight or to decrease cravings. Yes, you might find that it is effective in the short term (one-three weeks) but in the long term, I know that a strict Paleo “religion” type diet is actually a good way to gain weight and increase cravings. There is a way to include lots of yummy Paleo recipes and great Paleo ideals without “going Paleo,” and killing yourself to follow the diet to the letter. You can eat more whole foods more of the time, not be afraid of fat and complex carbs and learn some really amazing recipes. But to follow the doctrine as though it’s religion is absolutely not a good idea.
Check out Dr. Janet Tomayama from UCLA who talks about diets and weight loss.
I really hope that this helped to answer your question: Is Paleo the best diet for weight loss? Please don’t hesitate to write back and let me know what you think.
Do you have a question about binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, or anything associated with eating? Send an email to bingeeatingtherapy at gmail dot com. All questions will be kept confidential. Include your first name or the name you want to be referred to as and your location. Are you interested in online therapy or coaching to deal with your eating disorder? Please contact me to discuss getting started, or if you don’t want to meet individually and would prefer to follow a self-guided recover plan, check out Recover From Binge Eating.