If you've been around the fitness space for any reasonable length of time..then you've probably heard of both the Paleo and Ketogenic diets.
Amidst the bold claims of immortality and magical fat burning properties.
You're probably wondering..
Are they just fad diets? Is it all hype?
Today I'm going to dive into the science and answer this question for you (in-depth).
I'll provide a brief explanation of each and give you my honest, unbiased opinion.
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What is the Paleo diet?
The word 'Paleo' is a contraction of Palaeolithic; An era in history dating 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
During this period, humans gathered into small settlements and procured tools for hunting and fishing.
Dr Lorden Cordain conceived the Paleo diet based on a set of findings he and his peers made.
The research suggested our ancestors ate a primarily plant-based diet with lots of animal protein.
The Paleo diet has been coined- The hunter-gatherer diet, the stone age diet, and the caveman diet.
While following the Paleo diet you aren't permitted to eat grains, processed foods, or dairy.
What? No grains or dairy!
Simply put, if a caveman didn't eat it..then neither should you!
Here is a list of Paleo approved foods:
If this sounds eerily like a low-carb diet, then you would be correct.
The Paleo diet is inherently a low-carb, high-fat, and high-protein diet.
There isn't a cap on carbohydrate intake but you'll naturally eat lower quantities due to the food restrictions.
Criticisms of the Paleo diet
Paleo is certainly based on sound logic.
You don't have to look hard to find shocking statistics for adult obesity in western civilisation.
Mounting evidence is showing that this is largely due to our environment (i.e. fast food, convince).
If you think about it, the majority of our basic human needs are covered in first world countries.
- We have access to clean, running water 24/7.
- If we're hungry, all we need to do is walk to the nearest fast-food joint and we can stuff our face with thousands of calories.
Paleo is touted as the solution to the mass obesity epidemic in the US and other countries alike.
Apparently, our fore bearers were less prone to disease despite having shorter life spans.
As a caveman connoisseur, this peaked my interest.
With a bit of detective work, I stumbled upon this fascinating article.
It gives some insight into the Tyrolean iceman's origin.
"The Tyrolean Iceman, a 5,300-year-old Copper age individual, was discovered in 1991 on the Tisenjoch Pass in the Italian part of the Ötztal Alps".
Unfortunately, it seems our pre-historic friend wasn't in great shape despite his dietary habits.
"His genetic predisposition shows an increased risk for coronary heart disease and may have contributed to the development of previously reported vascular calcifications".
This leads me to my next point..
The cavemen didn't eat..like cavemen.
There is overwhelming evidence that our ancestors weren't exclusively 'hunter-gatherers' and ate a primarily plant-based diet.
Research has also shown that European Neanderthals ate starchy grains nearly 44,000 years ago!
Dr Cordain, the founder of the Paleolithic diet, based his research on the flawed ethnographic atlas- a database on the 1167 societies.
In short, many of his claims were based on a flawed understanding of how our ancestors truly lived.
The exclusion of Grains and Dairy
The exclusion of grains and dairy is another point of contention for the Paleo diet.
The primary reasoning for the exclusion of grains and dairy is that we haven't evolved (or adapted) to consume them.
Gluten-intolerance is a trendy topic lately but it's been over-hyped by the media and nutrition companies.
Well, what is gluten you ask?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley.
Gluten-intolerance can cause acid reflex, joint pain, dermatitis and more.
Men and women who suffer with Celiac disease can't consume grains but they are the minority in the population.
There has been no evidence to suggest that gluten-free diets are beneficial for non-celiac individuals.
Research has even shown that gluten-free dieters might be at risk of metabolic syndrome and nutritional deficiencies (up to 20-38%).
Similarly to the gluten-free craze, lactose-intolerance has been another hotly debated topic in the nutrition space.
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose; a naturally occurring sugar found in milk and dairy products.
This is due to a lack of the enzyme lactase, which is found in the small intestine.
The map above shows the levels of global lactose-intolerance.
As you can see, Caucasians in the US only have a 13% intolerance to lactose.
The percentages of those affected in Europe is also fairly low on average (16% UK, 20% France, 39% Belgium).
This is an important statistic because dairy is extremely nutritious and complete exclusion of it can cause deficiencies, especially in menopausal women.
If you aren't lactose intolerant, then moderate consumption of dairy is highly beneficial:
The main cons of the Paleo diet
Criticism #1 | It's expensive
If you're a money conscious person (as I am), then the Paleo diet is a big NO.
Grass fed meats, organic vegetables, and fruits can get really expensive.
Criticism #2 | it's impractical
The Paleo diet is extremely inconvenient for the average person.
Just think about it, you wake up to eat breakfast..but what do you eat?
If you're used to eating wholegrain toast, cereal, or bagels then your out of luck!
Want milk with that tea? Better can that idea.
It's a nightmare for eating out too..
let's say visit an Italian restaurant with some friends/or family..
What do you order?
The carbonara looks good... ah crap.
No pasta allowed!
I guess it's the salad for you.
Criticism #3 | It's HARD to stick to
Just because something is hard, doesn't mean you shouldn't stick with it right?
The problem is, Paleo has no discernible benefits that make it worth the slog.
It doesn't have any magical fat burning properties..
It's comparable to training for a marathon and getting last place.
What's the point?
Criticism #4 | It's not how our ancestors actually ate
The premise of Palaeolithic eating is quite intriguing..
Until you realise that our ancestors lived precariously short lives and resorted to eating each other when the occasion permitted.
Criticism #5 | It demonises grains and dairy
Devout Paleo dieters love to cite studies defaming grains and dairy but they are flawed.
Gluten-free diets have no real purpose outside of those suffering from celiac disease and IBS.
Lactose intolerance also affects the minority of the population (at least in the US and Europe).
Benefits of the Paleo diet
So, is the Paleo diet completely worthless then?
No, it's actually quite a healthy way of eating.
Whilst I wouldn't advocate 'pure' Paleo, it's certainly a vast improvement over the traditional western diet.
- It's a diet high in protein, which is very healthy.
- It includes an abundance of fruits and vegetables, which contain essential micro-nutrients and prevent diabetes.
- It removes harmful additives and sugars which serve as 'empty calories'.
- it excludes high-glycemic carbs which can increase risk of cardiovascular disease if eaten excessively.
In reality, the Paleo diet is a good step forward but it isn't perfect.
Many have advocated using a modified approach to Paleo dieting, known as the 80/20 rule.
Mark Sisson is an example of somebody who teaches this more relaxed approach (and his knowledge on the subject of Paleo is far superior to mine).
What is the Ketogenic diet?
The Ketogenic diet was discovered in 1921 by Dr Henry Geyelin to combat elliptic seizures.
He found that when the body is in a state of Ketosis many of the benefits of fasting are replicated.
The Keto diet faded into obscurity as soon as anti-epileptic drugs were introduced.
In the 21st Century, the Ketogenic diet has been re purposed and marketed as a way to burn fat faster.
How does it work?
When blood sugar is in short supply, the body switches it's primary fuel source from glucose to ketones.
Ketones are small fuel molecules which are derived from fat in the liver.
Theoretically this leads to the body becoming more efficient at burning stored fat which equals faster weight loss.
What foods can you eat on a Ketogenic diet?
The Ketogenic diet is a low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet.
There are four categories:
- The standard Ketogenic diet: This is the traditional Keto diet which comprises of very low-carb (under 10%), high fat (70+%)and moderate protein (15-20%).
- The cyclical Ketogenic diet: With the cyclical variation you are allowed two high-carb refeed days and five strictly keto days.
- The targeted ketogenic diet: You're allowed carbs before and after workouts.
- The high-protein Ketogenic diet: Fat intake (60%) is sacrificed for a slightly higher protein intake (30%).
In terms of nutrition, the Keto diet is nearly identical to the Paleo method.
The major difference is that carbs are capped intentionally; You need to keep net carbs below 50 grams per day for optimal ketosis, and ideally under 20 grams.
Here is a list of foods you can eat on the Keto diet:
The benefits of a Keto diet
Benefit #1 | Reverses type 2 diabetes
A Ketogenic diet is often prescribed for people with hypertension because it lowers blood sugar levels.
In this study, individuals with type 2 diabetes improved their glycemic control following a ketogenic diet.
Benefit #2 | It's a natural remedy for epilepsy
The original purpose of the Ketogenic diet was to emulate the rehabilitative effects of fasting on epilepsy.
Despite new anti-seizure drugs, the keto diet is still a viable choice for people suffering with the condition.
It also negates the side-effects that come with these drugs such as drowsiness and reduced focus.
Benefit #3 | Alleviates the symptoms of autism
Research has found a potential link between diet and the symptoms of autism.
The keto diet can help alleviate ASD because it removes processed foods and starchy carbs that tend to aggravate symptoms.
Is Keto better than high-carb dieting for fat loss?
So, does Keto have magical fat burning properties?
Unfortunately , many have succumbed to the hype surrounding the Keto diet.
It is true, Keto does help you lose more weight in a quicker span of time..
But there is a catch!
99% of the extra weight lost is diminished glycogen stores and a reduction in water retention.
What is glycogen?
Glycogen is a form of glucose which can be found in carbohydrates.
For every gram of glycogen stored in the body, 3-4 grams of water also tag along for the ride (they're a bit clingy bless em).
When you couple this with the fact that the average man can store 15 grams of glycogen for every kg of bodyweight, you begin to see just how much glycogen (and water balance) can impact bodyweight.
Switching from a typical high-carb western diet to a very low-carb keto diet can cause huge shifts in water balance and this accounts for the (almost) miraculous weight loss observed on the keto diet.
Wait! What about the studies low-carb dieters use as evidence for the efficacy of the keto diet?
- (A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-fat diet to treat obesity and hyperlipidemia: a randomized, controlled trial).
- (Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women).
There is a common flaw with these studies.
The low-fat diets are paired with low-protein intake, whereas the low-carb diets are supplemented with higher protein intake.
Why does this matter?
Well, you need to take protein into consideration because it plays a huge role in fat loss (and body composition).
Paleo vs Keto
So which is better.. Paleo vs Keto ?
The answer isn't cut and dry.
The truth is, it depends.
What are your goals?
If your goal is:
- To lose fat
- Enjoy dieting
Then the Paleo and keto diet aren't for you..
Who can say with a straight face they enjoy low-carb dieting?
Trust me, I've tried both low-carb and high-carb dieting and I can say confidently I'll never go low-carb again.
Of course, there will be exceptions to this rule.
If you have a gluten and lactose intolerance, the Paleo diet will be a life saver.
Likewise, if you want to eat for general health then you can't go wrong with eating a predominantly plant-based diet.
Now you have the facts it's time to make your own decision.
The Paleo diet is great for health purposes provided you follow the 80/20 principle.
The ketogenic diet also makes sense for very specific cases (mostly health related).
Are you team Paleo or Ketogenic? (or neither)
Let me know what you think below!