Chelsea Granheim admits she was skeptical at first when a CrossFit trainer suggested she try the Paleo diet.
But after four years of living with chronic fatigue, joint pain, inflammation and migraines, the 27-year-old audiologist was willing to try the high-protein, low-carb diet that goes back to the food basics of the Stone Age.
“I’m feeling 10 times better,” Granheim said, since starting the diet in November. “I was eating processed foods and all sorts of things before. You really don’t know what’s in processed foods until you research it. My energy is a lot better than when I ate crap food.”
When asked if she misses foods like pasta or breads that the diet forbids and that she used to love, the Wichitan replied: “I don’t miss my joints hurting.”
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Eat like a caveman
The Paleo diet may be trending right now, but it’s been around for thousands of years, say Paleo diet advocates. “Eat like a caveman” is a popular description for the diet. The Paleo in the diet’s moniker is short for Paleolithic, the era the diet is based on.
In prehistoric times, humans were eating only what they could hunt and gather. That means a diet heavy on meats, fish, seasonal fruits and vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds. Since our prehistoric ancestors weren’t farmers and cows hadn’t yet been domesticated, the Paleo diet doesn’t include grains, legumes or dairy.
Jeff Davis, a family physician in Wichita who often recommends the Paleo diet or variations of it to his patients at Prairie Health and Wellness, describes it this way: It’s not from a box, not from a can, not from a bag and it’s not served over a counter or through a window.
“A lot of what we eat is Frankenfood,” said Davis, using the term that has gained popularity to describe how much food products are engineered now. “It’s made in a plant. It doesn’t come from a plant.”
Paleo dieters can eat some fairly gourmet foods and snacks. Granheim buys a lot of her prepared Paleo food from Kansas City-based Evolve Paleo Chef, and some of her favorites are a creme brulee French toast made with coconut flour and an ice cream made with coconut milk.
Growing in popularity
While books and papers were published a few decades ago about similar prehistoric diets, the Paleo diet has become more popular in the past decade with a succession of books like “The Paleo Diet” by Loren Cordain, a Colorado professor and researcher who’s been called the founder of the Paleo movement, and “The Paleo Solution” by former biochemist Robb Wolf.
For Kansas City chef Caleb Summers, the proof of the diet’s popularity is the business he founded, Evolve Paleo Chef. Summers had wanted to pursue a personal chef business, and his first two clients happened to be on the Paleo diet.
“And then the business just blew up,” he said of the company that started in September 2012 in a home kitchen with an unintentional niche. The company now has a 6,000-square-foot commercial kitchen, 60 employees, including six other professional chefs, and more than 300 customers. About a third of those customers, including Granheim, are from Wichita, a market the company branched into in March.
The Paleo diet is particularly popular with CrossFit gyms and other personal trainers who use what are called functional, high-intensity moves like lifting barbells, doing squats and pushups and jumping in their workouts.
‘Accidental weight loss’
When Summers himself started on the Paleo diet in 2011, he lost 12 pounds in the first two weeks. He often hears from his company’s clients that they too find themselves losing weight while on the diet, even if weight loss wasn’t their intent.
“I call it accidental weight loss,” Summers said.
“It’s because your body is shedding all the crap you’re been eating before,” said Jason Fechter, a chiropractor and Summers’ business partner. “As long as we put things into our body that it can utilize, it does great.”
For Noah Morford, a former Kansas State University fullback, and David Yee, one of Davis’ patients, losing weight has been intentional.
As a collegiate football player, the 6-foot Morford weighed 250 pounds.
“That’s quite a bit of weight and once I got done playing, I knew I needed to lose the weight,” said Morford, 30. With the help of a Paleo diet, he’s down to 215 pounds. Although he occasionally slips in some pizza or milkshakes with his three kids, he tends to follow the diet about 85 percent of the time, he said.
“I’m in way better shape than when I was playing football,” said Morford, noting he has better mobility and endurance.
Yee had tried various diets to lose the 30 pounds he gained after a surgery four years ago. “I never would have believed I could lose weight with a high-fat, high-protein diet,” he said. In six weeks on a Paleo-based diet, he lost 25 pounds.
Many Paleo diet followers say that besides weight loss, they experience higher energy levels, better sleep and better concentration.
Paelo diet advocates say that’s because the diet gets rid of refined foods, trans fats and processed sugars that often lead to less than optimal health.
The diet’s focus on lean proteins from grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and naturally raised fish supports strong muscles and bones; the fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; and the body is getting healthy fats from the nuts, seeds, coconut milk and olive oil allowed in the diet, advocates say.
Like every diet, the Paleo diet has its critics. In a recent study of 32 diets by a panel of health experts, U.S. News and World Report gave the Paleo diet its lowest spot.
Registered dietician nutritionist Diane Greenleaf-Kisner agrees that eliminating processed foods and eating more fruits and vegetables does make for a healthier diet and can lead to weight loss.
But she and many other nutritionists say the diet is leaving out some important foods as well.
By eliminating dairy, one might not get enough calcium and vitamin D, said Greenleaf-Kisner, who owns Healthy Green Nutrition in Wichita. Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D. Legumes can be a good source of low-fat protein and soluble fiber, and they are excluded, too. Carbohydrates, another limited item in the Paleo diet, can be a good energy source.
For anyone making diet changes, “you have to be realistic and do what’s good for you,” Greenleaf-Kisner said. “There’s no one consistent diet that helps everyone.”
To combat any diet deficiencies while on the Paleo diet, Granheim, the Wichita audiologist, said she consults with a health care professional and takes a multivitamin and supplements.
Some Paleo dieters will make concessions for certain foods and won’t follow the diet as strictly.
Yee, Davis’ patient, said he wasn’t willing to give up one of his favorite dairy products.
“I’d die if I couldn’t eat cheese,” he said.