While my own clinical experience is enough to assure me that an ancestral, Paleo diet is the best choice for weight loss and one that I enthusiastically recommend, there is plenty of credible scientific evidence, much of which I’ve compiled here, to back up this claim and win over even the biggest skeptic. Let’s dig in, so that you can pass these facts along to your loved ones and clients and help guide them on their Paleo-for-weight-loss journey. (And as an added bonus, if you want to lose those last few stubborn pounds yourself, this information may be all the motivation you need.)
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work—But Paleo Does
You probably already know that we gain weight when we eat more calories than our bodies can use. But you might not be aware that it doesn’t need to be a huge excess. Eating just 10 percent more calories than we need on a daily basis can lead to significant weight gain over time. Yes, even a few extra bites at each meal, which would be hardly noticeable, can pack on the pounds.
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It’s surprisingly easy to gain weight, especially since processed food has taken hold over the last 50 years or so and super-sized portions are the norm. Unfortunately we’ve become a nation of overweight and obese people.
In the early 1960s, only a little more than 10 percent of adults in the United States were obese (defined as a BMI over 30). (1) Today, that statistic hovers around 40 percent. When you factor in those who are overweight (defined as a BMI between 25 and 29.9), the number skyrockets to more than 70 percent of people over the age of 20. (2, 3) While many have argued that certain nutrients like carbs or fat are to blame, the simple truth is that we’re eating more than we used to. A lot more. (4, 5)
Therein lies the problem: to lose body fat, we need to be in what’s called a “calorie deficit” for an extended period of time. That means that the number of calories entering our bodies (i.e., what we eat and drink) needs to be lower than the number of calories being used by our bodies (i.e., general metabolism and physical activity).
Seems simple, right? As you and your loved ones and clients have heard over and over again, you just need to “eat less and exercise more.”
Unfortunately, this advice rarely works because the brain has powerful mechanisms for overriding our efforts to lose weight. When you consciously reduce your calorie intake, your body responds by lowering your metabolism to match your reduced intake. So as you purposefully consume fewer calories, your body finds ways to use fewer calories, all while ramping up hormones that increase your appetite and drive you to eat more at every meal in order to regain the fat you’ve lost. (6)
In other words, it’s extremely difficult to eat fewer calories than your body uses through sheer willpower alone—and this is exactly why calorie-restricting diets fail.
How Effective Is the Paleo Diet for Weight Loss?
Studies evaluating Paleo for weight loss have shown it to help a number of diverse populations shed pounds and improve their metabolic profile. What’s more, research reveals that it improves risk factors for metabolic syndrome, including waist circumference, better than other dietary approaches. (7)
Impressive Results for Women
In a two-year randomized controlled trial of 70 participants, researchers compared a Paleo diet with a diet structured to meet the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR). (These are national dietary guidelines set by health ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and other Nordic regions.) They found a Paleo diet to produce a greater loss of fat mass and reduction in abdominal obesity, as well as a greater reduction in harmful triglyceride levels, than the NNR diet. (8)
Among those same study participants, researchers found the Paleo diet resulted in an average weight loss of more than 17 pounds at the end of the study period, compared with a conventional low-fat diet. After six months, weight reduction was more significant in those following the Paleo diet versus the low-fat diet. Impressively, the study also showed that at six months and 24 months, a Paleo diet reduced liver fat in all of the study participants. (9, 10)
In another study, 10 healthy, non-smoking obese postmenopausal women were instructed to follow the Paleo diet. After five weeks, participants lost an average of roughly 10 pounds (a 5.3 percent reduction in body weight, with a 7.5 percent decrease in waist circumference), as well as experienced decreases in their diastolic blood pressure, cholesterol, and other metabolic markers. (11, 12)
Beneficial Impacts for Type 2 Diabetics
Compared to a “diabetes diet” generally recommended to patients with type 2 diabetes not treated with insulin, a Paleo diet was found to result in more weight loss and a greater reduction in waist circumference, as well to better improve glycemic control and risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as triglycerides. (13)
Additional studies have confirmed a Paleo diet’s ability to help followers with type 2 diabetes lose excess fat and improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic response. (14, 15) Of particular note is one study of diabetic aboriginal Australians, who agreed to return to the natural hunter–gatherer diet of their ancestors for seven weeks. All participants steadily lost weight over the study period, with an average loss of roughly 17 pounds, and experienced marked improvements in glucose tolerance, fasting plasma insulin concentrations, and blood levels of triglycerides. (16)
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Positive Outcomes in Healthy Adults
In one study of healthy men and women between the ages of 20 and 40, the Paleo diet produced decreases in weight, body mass index, and waist circumference, as well as systolic blood pressure and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1, elevated levels of which are a risk factor for atherosclerosis. (17)
A recent Australian study of 39 healthy women with an average age of 47 randomized participants into two groups: a Paleo diet group and a group following dietary guidelines set by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE), which is similar to the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guide. After four weeks, participants in the Paleo group had lost significantly more weight than those in the AGHE group. They experienced, on average, a 4.3 percent reduction in body weight, along with a 3.8 percent reduction in their waist circumference. (18)
And you know what? None of these groups was told to reduce their overall food intake or to count calories.
What Happens to Your Body When You Follow an Ancestral Diet
You’re now armed with the scientific evidence behind Paleo for weight loss. But you may also want to share with your friends, family members, and clients exactly how the approach works.
Research shows that a Paleo diet is more satiating per calorie than other dietary interventions, including a Mediterranean-like diet and a low-fat diet. (19, 20, 21) That means it’s more filling for the same number of calories than other popular diet methods. This is crucial for weight loss, since feeling full helps you eat less without fighting hunger or counting calories. As I mentioned before, if you’re constantly fighting hunger, your brain will respond by reducing your metabolic rate and increasing your appetite. Furthermore, studies suggest that a Paleo diet helps your body produce more of the hormones that keep you feeling full after eating versus promoting the hunger hormones that cause you to overeat, as calorie-restricting plans do. (22)
Just as important, a Paleo diet eliminates so-called “empty calories,” in the form of refined carbohydrates, highly processed foods, and added sugar. The science shows that eating empty calories results in “phantom fullness,” the enemy when it comes to weight loss. (26) In fact, it appears that obesity rates have risen as consumption of processed junk and fast foods has increased. (27, 28)
This is why so many of my patients have lost 20, 30, even 60 pounds or more (I have patients that have lost upwards of 150 pounds!) on a Paleo diet, even when they’ve tried and failed with numerous diets before. If you ask me, the anecdotal and scientific evidence is overwhelming that an ancestral diet is the way to go, not just when it comes to losing weight but also to resisting chronic disease. I hope this article helps you as you guide the important people in your life to looking and feeling their very best.