The Paleo Diet: Arthritis, Inflammation, and Food Allergies, Help, or Hype?

Everywhere you look there is a “new” weight loss, health promoting, or performance enhancing diet. “The Paleo Diet,” (Paleo: being before the agricultural revolution) created by Dr. Loren Cordain is gaining a lot of buzz. It is promoted as an anti-arthritis diet.

In this diet, Dr. Cordain outlines a “hunter-gatherer” diet plan, claiming to help people optimize health, minimize risk of chronic disease, reduce inflammation, and lose weight. It is based upon common, modern foods, which mimic the food groups of our (pre-agricultural) ancestors. The concept is, “If the cavemen didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either.”

This is due to the high correlation between inflammation of the gut and joints. Autoimmune problems are thought to result from lectins, a protein often found in grains. When consumed in large quantities, these lectins could lead to increased inflammation. Wheat contains both gluten and lectins, and intolerance to both gluten and dairy lectins have been connected to arthritis.

A diet too high in omega-6 fatty acids and too low in omega-3 fatty acids can also promote inflammation. Omega-3 fats are known to reduce inflammation, while overconsumption of Omega-6 fats has been linked to arthritis inflammation. Processed oils such as corn, soybean, and vegetable oils contain high levels of Omega-6’s, unlike butter, olive oil, or coconut oil. Both fats are necessary, but in a proper ratio. Creating a smart balance can help improve health.

While interesting in theory, it is not a magic bullet. Eating and exercise patterns have changed dramatically since prehistoric time. Because our lifestyles are different from our Paleolithic ancestors, so are our nutritional needs.

(Pros) The Paleo Diet:

  1. Promotes eating natural foods, needed to maintain health. The body and brain work in harmony, and all-natural foods promote functioning, whereas highly processed foods can cause dysfunction.
  2. Uses protein as the mainstay of the diet, and decreases carbohydrates and processed foods. This ratio of protein to carbs, was seen more in our earlier ancestors.
  3. Lowers the chance of health problems due to food intolerance. For people with arthritis, food allergies or sensitivities, (especially to gluten, nuts, additives, dairy, artificial preservatives, or refined carbs) such restriction can create a noted health advantage.
  4. Encourages lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemicfoods. Foods low on the glycemic scale are digested and absorbed more slowly, so they do not spike blood sugar.
  5. Creates a high fiber intake, which is essential for good health. Whole grains, fruits, and non-starchy vegetables are excellent options to increase fiber; they promote intestinal health and reduce inflammation.
  6. Does not demonize healthy fats. Encouraging and allowing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balancedOmega-3 and Omega-6 fats, offers a cardiovascular benefit.
  7. Promotes a net dietary alkaline load, tobalance dietary acid.This offers a range of health benefits such as stronger bones and muscle, lower blood pressure, and a decreased risk for kidney stones.
  8. Increases potassium intake and decreases sodium intake. Unprocessed, fresh foods contain 5 to 10 times more potassium than sodium, (a ratio to which Stone Age bodies were adapted).

(Cons) The Paleo Diet:

  1. Demonizes Dairy (a healthy food group). Unless you have a true sensitivity, there is no need to exclude dairy, which serves a distinct purpose in the diet. It provides essential nutrients the body needs to function properly.
  2. Excludes potatoes, legumes, and peanuts. While higher in glycemic value, potatoes are a natural starchy vegetable. All natural foods should have a place in healthy diets. Learning when, and how to place them in your diet, would provide more benefit than excluding them.
  3. Is restrictive. It provides a list of off-limits foods (many of which are natural and healthy). Not everyone is willing, or able to withstand this, making adherence a problem. Processed foods, sugars, and starches are not allowed. For some this would be a deal breaker.
  4. Does not emphasize the role of exercise and leading an active lifestyle. Diet is only one component of living a healthy lifestyle. Any plan that does not include the role of movement, in one’s life, should be looked at with skepticism.
  5. Does not address or take into consideration, the mental component of eating. While a scientific approach is taken, the mental attachment to food can often override what we understand to be beneficial. By not offering support or accountability, this plan leaves room for a high drop out rate.

The bottom line is, if you are looking for a different approach to eating, have some food sensitivities or arthritis, need structure, and would be willing to restrict your food options, this plan could provide the health benefits claimed by the creators.

However, a half-hearted attempt could lead to more frustration and perhaps additional pounds. Keep in mind, healthy eating is not something you do TO yourself, but FOR yourself. Finding a method that works in your lifestyle, makes that possible. Here is a general checklist for evaluating any healthy living plan. Does it:

1. Increase healthy, natural, and unprocessed foods choices (not restricting any one food or group).

2. Decrease highly processed foods, sweets, and calorie dense food options.

3. Guide you to stay mentally engaged to what and why you eat, along with providing support and a means for accountability.

4. Encourage you to create, and stick to a plan to move more daily.

5. Allow you to make wise choices 80% of the time and allow 20% of the time for indulgences.