The “secret formula” to weight loss is no secret at all. Take in more calories than you expend, and you’ll gain weight. Burn more than you eat, and you’ll lose weight. This is known as calorie balance, and you’ll hear it expressed as “eat less, move more.” It’s the logical extension of natural law, and whenever it’s tested under controlled conditions, it holds true.1 Outside of the lab, though, things get a little more complicated.
Our intake affects our metabolism and training. That training, in turn, affects hunger and hormonal factors, which then affect intake. Our environment, genetics, and psychology play a part at both ends of the equation. It’s the same math, the same two sides of the same equation, but it’s a whole lot messier than “eat less, move more” makes it sound.
Humans in general don’t prefer messy concepts. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we’re willing to travel far and work hard when we have clear, simple direction: “Follow the yellow brick road.” Many diets provide that direction by breaking down the whole chaotic mess to a single, magical rule. Sometimes the rule works, but if it fails to get us where we want, we’re left with only two options: give up or double down.
The paleo diet is a useful illustration of this point. It can be a great diet, but some people diligently eat only “paleo-approved” foods and still don’t see results. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and see if we can’t figure out why.
This is not what cavemen ate. But it might work for your goals anyway. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]
The Magical Premise: Too Good to Be (Completely) True
The magic claim of the paleo diet is simple: we’re sick and weak because “modern foods are at odds with our genetic makeup.”2 Eat in accordance with evolution, and you’ll be healthy. No need to count calories or engage in long, boring gym sessions. Easy.
The paleo diet centers around restriction, forbidding cereal grains, dairy, starchy vegetables, legumes, salted foods, fatty meats, and sugar because they are “too modern” for the human genome and are therefore bad. These foods and the compounds in them, things like gluten, lactose, omega-6 fats, sugar, additives, and anti-nutrients, are blamed for everything from depression to diarrhea.
When we dig into the details, though, some things don’t quite add up:
- Some of our model ancestors weren’t actually all that healthy.3
- Health, stature, quality of life, and life expectancy varied wildly throughout history, despite our ancestors’ access to organic, free range, GMO-and-RBGH-free, raw, lean beef.4
- Some people have already developed adaptations to modern foods like dairy, and even those with clear sensitivities sometimes adapt with repeated exposure, suggesting our bodies are more flexible than we think.5,6
- Grains, sugar, and starchy vegetables have been in our diet for far longer than dairy, inviting a question: why haven’t we evolved out of the need for a paleo diet, and how long until that happens?7
- Whole grains are either anti-inflammatory or neutral and are a key part of many healthy diets.8,9
- A diet without some level of processing was never sustainable, and farmed food, organic or not, is substantially different from its wild variants.10 No grocery store is truly paleo.
- Some foods, diets, and all effective supplements aren’t paleo, yet they consistently correlate with good health and improved athletic performance.11
Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
Remember in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy finds out the wizard isn’t actually magical at all? His wondrous illusions are the result of levers and switches hidden behind a curtain. The characters are dismayed, but I see something different in that scene. The smoke and sound effects may not be a wizard’s work, but they’re still impressive. If you get the results you need, does it matter that the cause is mechanical and not magical?
The same lesson applies here. The premise of paleo is shaky at best, but the diet has worked for a lot of people. It’s just that the reason it works is a boring, mechanical one: the calorie balance equation.
First, let’s take a look at how the paleo diet reduces the “calories-in” half of the equation:
- The paleo diet restricts the most common carbohydrate sources in the standard American diet and, unless fully replaced, you’ll simply take in fewer calories.
- Switching to paleo from the standard American diet almost inevitably increases protein intake. Protein leaves you feeling fuller longer than carbs.12
- The planning and preparation required to keep one’s paleo purity puts up a barrier to casual eating and makes us mindful of what we’re doing. In the same way, many people who start counting calories will lose weight even when they don’t intentionally try and do anything with that information.
- Avoiding added sweeteners, flavorings, and hyper-palatable comfort foods may remodel our expectations and help break negative food habits and cravings.
Switching from a junk diet to paleo also improves the “calories-out” end of the equation:
- Protein takes more energy to digest1,13 and supports muscle gain14 when paired with effective training, which improves metabolism (slightly) and allows for greater output in sport or the gym.
- Nutrient deficiencies are surprisingly common.15 Replacing Twinkies and mystery meat with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and seeds may provide these missing pieces, improving health and allowing us to move more.
- Many people take on other lifestyle habits along with “going paleo,” including increased physical activity, better sleep, and stress management.
Pulling the Right Levers
It’s also easy to see why some people who take a paleo approach fail to see results.
Sometimes, it’s a failure on the “calories-in” side of the equation. Replacing doughnuts and pancakes with “paleo-approved” doughnuts and pancakes instead of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats is pointless. It won’t reduce intake, change food habits, or address micronutrient deficiencies. The same goes for replacing the lost carbs with bacon and nut butters, foods so tasty and calorie-dense they’re usually used for weight gain.
On the other hand, failing on the “calories-out” end of the equation could be just as detrimental. Trying to control intake without improving output is a halfway measure that’s unlikely to be successful. Some high-volume athletes will suffer in the gym after switching to a paleo regimen (meaning less calories burned) unless they actively take in enough fruits and starches to keep up. Supplements are not paleo by definition, but even some paleo gurus will admit their place when they improve work output and help you stick to the diet.
There Is No Magic Shortcut
After pulling back the curtain and discovering the Wizard’s secret, Dorothy shouts “You’re a very bad man!” Sheepishly, he replies “No my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” Like the wizard, a paleo approach can be a very good diet. But it’s not magical. Evolution and nature hold no shortcuts.
I chose to highlight the paleo diet not because it doesn’t work, but because it does work for many people. If living like a caveman gets you to eat and sleep better and move more, more power to you.
However impressively simple a diet sounds, however slick its advertising, I encourage you to look behind the curtain with any diet. Ask yourself:
- Does it directly (or indirectly) move calorie balance the way I want?
- Does it provide enough fruits, vegetables, protein, and essential fats?
- Does it leave me feeling good and performing well in the gym?
- Can I follow this diet in the long run and be happy?
Success in a diet isn’t about meeting a specific hormone ratio, cleansing toxins, initiating a special fat-burning mode, or buying stupidly overpriced coffee. The real magic is hiding in the basic principles of nutrition, even though they’re not all that exciting. If you’re following the rules but your diet is broken, you might find the fix in that simple, boring equation: “calories in<calories out.”
Tired of all the diet magic tricks? Dig deeper into the basics of nutrition:
Let’s Talk About Diet, Part 1: Quantity Versus Quality
Let’s Talk About Diet, Part 2: Macronutrients
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