Paleo Diet Benefits
June 25, 2014 | by Greg Sharp MD

Two thirds of the American population is overweight or obese, and my medical practice has been pretty consistent with these national figures. After years of preaching conventional diet advice like: "eat less, exercise more" and "follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet," I was frustrated with the lack of results—for my patients and for myself.

A few years ago, I became more seriously interested in nutrition and started reading everything I could get my hands on. In my research, I found a recurring theme: dietary fat isn’t the evil culprit it has been portrayed to be over the last 40 years and that refined carbohydrates like sugar and grains are likely more responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

After careful review of the growing medical research literature, I was convinced that a low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, higher-fat diet had plenty of compelling evidence to use in order to address obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

In 2012, I started recommending the low-carb, Paleo approach to my patients and at the same time began following the diet to address my own weight and family history of cardiometabolic issues. It was the best decision I’ve ever made for my patients or for myself.

My frustration with previous ‘conventional wisdom’ nutrition advice quickly turned to being pleasantly surprised when my patients and I were finally able to shed our excess pounds using such an ‘unconventional’ approach. For some of us, the weight melted off; others saw more moderate weight loss, but virtually everyone drastically improved their metabolic risk factors even if the weight loss was mild.

What is the Paleo diet?

It’s a whole-foods approach loosely based on ancestral practices before the advent of agriculture. It includes nutrient-dense sources of protein, fats, and plants that our bodies were designed to digest such as:

  • Grass-fed meats
  • Eggs
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Seafood
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Seasonal fruits
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

In strict definition: Paleo eliminates the foods that came later in our history, the processed foods and their accompanying chemical additives and preservatives, grains, sugar, legumes, and dairy. For a lot of people, it’s more of a template to adapt as needed. Many people on Paleo today also incorporate some sources of full-fat dairy such as butter, cream, yogurt, whole milk, etc., ideally from grass-fed cows, unless there are underlying dairy allergies or sensitivities.

After careful review of the growing medical research literature, I was convinced that a low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, higher-fat diet had plenty of compelling evidence to use in order to address obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

My personal experience was fairly dramatic. I embraced a low-carb, Paleo plus dairy approach and lost 45 pounds without trying too hard and never counted points or calories. I have more energy and feel compelled to be active and get exercise rather than having to force myself.

As for my patients, weight loss is just one of the many benefits. A low-carb/Paleo approach can be truly life-changing for people with:

  • Diabetes or metabolic syndrome. I’ve seen a full range of benefits for many: weight drops, blood sugar normalizes, blood pressure comes down, healthy HDL cholesterol goes up, triglycerides plummet, fatty liver inflammation goes away, and the so-called 'bad' LDL cholesterol gets repackaged into large, buoyant lipoprotein particles that are less likely to cause vascular plaque formation. When all of these things happen, I get to take people off of medications rather than add them. It's the most gratifying part of my job these days.
  • Underlying autoimmune, allergy, neurologic, and/or inflammatory conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory arthritis, asthma, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, GERD and others. I specialize more in the metabolic conditions related to obesity and diabetes but these other patients can often have dramatic improvements in their chronic disease symptoms as well.

What I Found: Benefits of Eliminating Wheat and Milk

What I found early on was that my patients who eliminated wheat and milk as part of their overall low-carb plan usually had the most symptomatic benefits to go along with the weight loss, blood sugar control, and other metabolic improvements.

  • People's allergies and asthma got better
  • Acid reflux went away
  • Irritable bowel syndrome improved
  • Migraines vanished
  • Joints felt better
  • Eczema and psoriasis cleared up

The first few instances of this made me say, "Hmm, maybe there's something more to this after all." When it happens time after time, patient after patient, it becomes impossible to ignore and really led to reinforce the value of the Paleo approach over just lowering the overall carb content of the diet.

Is the Paleo diet sustainable?

A lot of people ask me about sustainability and wonder if they’ll be able to stick with a diet that restricts many of the foods they love. In my opinion, the low-carb Paleo diets are more sustainable than most because they are better at appetite regulation. Getting off of the blood sugar roller coaster ride makes everything easier. Replacing grains and sugars with sources of natural proteins and fats are very satisfying and keep us full longer.

For the record, I still eat cheese, use cream in my coffee, and cook my eggs and veggies in butter, since like most people, I don’t have sensitivity to dairy. And I eat dark chocolate nearly every day. However, I don’t eat bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, cake, or cookies…and believe it or not, I don’t miss them.

On occasion, I’ll treat myself to ice cream, have a beer or two at the Seahawks game or indulge in some cheesecake at a special event. But these indulgences are truly quite rare. I make sure to enjoy every bite or sip. Other people can get away with more frequent indulgences, others less, it's highly variable. In general, I certainly don't think it's necessary to be 100 percent Paleo all the time and I really try to live by the mantra of not letting perfection get in the way of good enough.

More Than a Diet, It’s a Lifestyle

Paleo is truly more than a ‘diet’ and addresses other critical lifestyle issues for those who look into it, like full-body, functional movement-based exercise, optimized sleep, family and other social connections, stress management, and community interactions. If you want to explore a low-carb or Paleo approach, I’ll leave you with three main points to keep in mind:

  1. Just. Eat. Real. Food.
  2. Refrain from sugar and grains (and maybe dairy and legumes too).
  3. Get over the fear of natural dietary fat.(The Paleo diet features healthy fats from eggs, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, etc.)

If you’ve been frustrated trying to find a way to reduce your weight, or better manage your blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol, you should consider a low-carb or Paleo diet plan.

As with any diet or exercise plan, I urge you to check with your primary care doctor before making any major changes. If you’re looking for a new primary care doctor who supports a low-carb or Paleo lifestyle and has the personal and patient success stories to prove it, contact me by calling my office at 206.860.4791.

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Written By: Greg Sharp MD