Paleo for Weight Loss: How an Ancestral Diet Can Help | Chris Kresser

Paleo for Weight Loss: How an Ancestral Diet Can Help

by Chris Kresser

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paleo for weight loss
An ancestral, Paleo diet could boost weight loss. iStock/vadimguzhva

Are you watching your friends and family struggle to lose weight and keep it off? Or do you work in a healthcare, health coaching, or gym setting with clients who just can’t seem to shed unwanted pounds, despite their best efforts to eat right and exercise? Keep reading to find out more about eating Paleo for weight loss.

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.)

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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.

The Paleo diet seems tailor made for weight loss. Check out this article to find out what the research says. #paleo #changeagent #chriskresser

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.

The holy grail of reaching a healthy weight, then, is an approach that naturally and spontaneously leads to lower calorie intake—an approach that ensures you eat less without actually trying to. Many diets promise this, but there’s only one I know of that actually delivers over the long term: the Paleo diet.

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)

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)

One reason it’s so satisfying? While not purposefully restricting particular macronutrients, a Paleo diet encourages consumption of delicious, nourishing whole foods, including protein-rich animal products—even the red meat and eggs you’ve been told to avoid.

In general, studies of high-protein diets show that this way of eating can reduce appetite and increase metabolism, as well as effectively control hormones that regulate weight. (23, 24, 25)

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.

Do you have friends, family, or clients who have struggled to lose weight? What diets and lifestyle interventions have they tried? Comment below and share your story—and let me know if you’ll be recommending a Paleo approach.

213 Comments

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  1. Just read your https://chriskresser.com/what-is-the-optimal-human-diet/ as well, love your writings. I do understand that balance is the key. Considering that an ancestral diet included hunting and killing prey (no gyms at that time) and going without food for days at the time, paleo-diet is taken out of context by many. The planet and animals suffer with a meat-driven economy. If we would continue to truly live an ancestral life, we would consume less meat, eat the whole animal (not just the juicy bits) and utilise every little bit of that life we took as the tribes still do in some parts of the world. Free-range chicken (chicks that live outdoors, can peck the floor for grubs, build nests etc.) and grass-fed, free-range cattle for example also means a diminished production of meat. It will likely not fill that insatiable hunger for meat that causes so many health- and environmental issues in developed countries. My point is that true balance is achieved not just by assessing our bodies’ needs but by how we live, interact (and eat) more harmoniouly with the environment where that food comes from.

  2. I gained about 30 pounds in about 2 months from being on Lexapro. Besides making me fat it made me a zombie so I stopped taking it after just 2-3 months.

    That was about 15 years ago and umteen diets later I still can’t loose that weight. Had some success with extreme diets that had me weak and fainting, but other diets that used to work like Weight Watchers, Atkins, low glycemic, you name it have little to. I impact.

    The weight gain seems to happen to men and women, but men seem to lose the wt when they stop taking it. But a whole lot of women seem to be permanently altered from the drug.

    Any ideas that can help? Anyone else out there have that problem and find a solution? Will Paleo have an impact? Seems I can starve on diets or eat all I want of anything out there and I still weigh the same in the end. Makes it hard to be bothered anymore.

    • I had the same experience with Lexapro. I stayed on it for about 6 months and gained 30 pounds very quickly. I have not lost any of it despite trying various work out routines, including 6 months of training for long distance races. I’ve been on long term vegetable heavy paleo diets, I’ve done concurrent whole30’s, and nothing. I also don’t gain weight when I eat normally. I just stay the same. When I reduce carbs I lost a few pounds very quickly (water) and then flatline or even gain it back. It’s beyond frustrating.

      • Trisha – I had planned on starting the Paleo diet this week, but I found something else that intrigued me. I’m trying “The Serotonin Power Diet”. I just started 3 days ago, so can’t speak to it’s value yet. But I have a hunch that these anti-depressants block the manufacturing of serotonin in the body, and this diet is supposed to kick it back into action. I haven’t been hungry on this diet, and may actually not be eating quite enough – need more vegetables… Here’s a link:

        http://serotoninpowerdiet.com/

        Not trying to be anti-paleo – I’ll probably try that some day too. But for now, I was just way too intrigued by a diet that seems geared toward anti-depressant weight loss. It’s different than basic weight gain.

        I had tried another anti-depressant weight loss diet from “The Road Back” – their premise being that anti-depressants activate the “JNK” gene that makes weightloss difficult once activated. I bought the supplements and followed the protocol with no luck. Even the fellow who created the approach was at a loss for what do to for me. I’ll include it here though because some people did have success and so it’s worth knowing it’s out there:
        http://theroadback.org/weight_loss.aspx

        I wish you luck – and me too! And anyone else out there stuck with the curse of medication-weigh-gain! It’s not your usual bear…

  3. I’m about to start paleo, but was wondering is there a way to go completely without anything nut and coconut based, and still make paleo fried chicken and such? So no almond flour or milk and no coconut flour or milk.

    • Abby, I have been Paleo for 5 years and I would say that there are other kinds of milk and flours out there that aren’t almond or coconut based. For instance, I use macadamia nut milk in my coffee and I’ve seen cashew, hemp, and other nut-based milks at the grocery store. As for flours, I would go to a health foods store and ask if they sell any nut flours besides almond flour. Best of luck, hope this was helpful.

  4. I have been doing Paleo for almost
    7 months now and have lost almost 70 lbs. I have been fighting weight issues all my life and have lost well over 300 pounds off and on, but always comes back. With Paleo the weight has stayed off and I am continuing to lose weight. Now I do lift weights every morning for about 45 – 60 minutes so I’m sure that helps too. All I can say is that for the first time in 21 years since I decided to start losing weight, it truly feels like I don’t have to stress about the weight coming back. I do fell hungry at times, but I just eat more Paleo foods… I was 335 lbs and now I’m looking pretty good at 265!

  5. I hate articles that try to explain how you can lose weight by using a certain special diet or exercise or technique, but when it boils down to it, it’s just their way of saying you’re more likely to eat less on this regime. It has almost ZERO to do with the technique and you could do it numerous ways if you had will power.

  6. The Paleolithic diet is a simple nutritional plan dieticians have designed that can be super helpful in losing weight, and gaining good health. Our ancestors were eating food that’s been scientifically proven to help people lose and maintain a healthy weight over the long term.

    The perfect result of the caveman diet was realized by the regular consumption of different Paleolithic wild animals & plants. This is the reason why it’s known as “the caveman diet”.

    • I lost 10 lbs. The first 3 weeks without trying and without feeling hungry. And this is post menopause with a slower metabolism! I feel good and look good and will continue. Now for some exercise to take it further. I’m sure our paleo ancestors did a lot of walking.

  7. I have not had processed carbohydrates or sugar since mid January. I have only lost 5 lbs. I have finally dropped dairy completely as I thought that was what was stalling me and no change yet. I do enjoy a couple glasses of wine most nights with dinner, could this be my issue?

    • Go 30 days grain, legume, dairy, alcohol free. Every meal is protein, veggies, a little fat. Aim for 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight. Lead with protein for each meal, it’s highly satiating and you’re less likely to overeat on snacks etc. Sleep 8-10hrs in a pitch black room. Done.

  8. I started a Primal?Paleo diet about two weeks ago. I am still STARVING all the time and am not losing weight. Eggs and bacon for breakfast, veggie, 1/2 serving of fruit and avocado smoothie for lunch, then some protein, fat and veggies for dinner. Most times I am starving within two hours of dinner and can’t sleep. I have snacked on nuts, pickles and hard boiled eggs.

    If you have any advice at all I would really appreciate it.

    • You’re still hungry because Paleo/Primal is not the holy grail that many make it out to be. I find that a lot of the stuff that the paleo community has to say is just fluff and often does more harm than good. What I will suggest is intermittent fasting.That’s the only way that I can stick with primal, is by fasting 16-18 hours a day. Although fasting helped me to solve the hunger issue, I’m still struggling with the lack of sleep part as well.

    • You’re still starving because you aren’t eating nearly enough protein and fat. You need a good portion of protein at every single meal, plus some fat, and enough food to eat to fullness.
      In the early stages of eating Paleo, your body is still craving carbs for fuel, so you must eat plenty of fat until your body converts.
      But you will always be hungry if you aren’t eating enough protein and fat.

    • I had the same problem when I started paleo but I did notice how my clothes were fitting and by comments from others about how much weight I’ve lost, so maybe don’t focus on the numbers on the scale go by measurements and clothes.

    • I don’t know if you are following up on these comments about a year later, but check out Paleo for Women .com. Stefani Ruper is the best and you probably aren’t eating enough dense carbs and calories overall, is what I would guess she’d say. I hope you see this and try her website.

  9. So at first I did loose a lot of weight effortlessly when i went Paleo back 6 years ago. I got to my goal weight of 117 and stayed for a while, this year though, after to many “cheats” with popcorn, gluten free crackers, and chocolate for a few months – 6-7 pounds have now creeped back on me, and it seems like no matter what it won’t budge. Following Paleo, no fruit, no sweeteners, no starchy veggies now, i have tried many different combos though, adding back in more starchy carbs and removing them further adding in more fat ect. I don’t understand why at first with Paleo my body responded right away with weight loss, now I that I regained some (I lost 40) it won’t budge! Is it possible our bodies become use to the Paleo and hence are not stacked into weight loss anymore when we stick to it? Is it possible I am to impatient? At first the weight flew off, I mean every week I lost 1-2 pounds.. now after 4 weeks no change on scale HELP.. annoyed 36 year old female.

    • Despite what the Paleo community says, calories do matter and you do have to count your calories if it is your intention to lose weight. This is even more so the case if you’re already small. Going off of your comment, I’d guess that you’re 124 lbs. Well, when you were 40 lbs. heavier, even the most basic paleo approach would help you to lose weight because 1) Since you were heavier, it took more calories to maintain that body weight. 2) By going paleo at that heavier weight, you not only entered a caloric deficit automatically but the effect of going grain and sugar free helped to accelerate the process.

      Now that you’re 124 (I’m presuming), it takes a lot less calories for you to maintain your weight. I did a calculation and for a woman your age and weight, it takes 1700 calories per day to maintain your current weight. Despite this foolishness about not needing to count calories on paleo, you need to cut your calories in order to lose that weight. Not counting calories only works for someone who’s really overweight and that’s only because going paleo automatically puts them in a caloric deficit.

      • Some good info. And off of one of your other comments: You’re right, a “holy grail” doesn’t exist. There’s no automatic pilot system inbuilt in any way of eathing; you have to stay on it daily, literally every single day, because it’s actually very important.

        I would argue that cutting processed food out of your diet is a smart move, though, no-matter-what, though. And training your body to burn fat as its primary nutrient source is also good. Cooking from whole foods is good. Avoiding severe blood glucose spikes is good. But just doing that is a way to get generally healthier, not necessarily a fool-proof weight-loss system.

        And yeah, counting calories–actually monitoring everything you can about what you’re putting into your body and how your body responds–is a *really* good idea! (But psst! “fewer” calories. 😉 They are notoriuosly counted, after all.)

        I am interested in the intermitent fasting aspect, but if sleep is an issue, I don’t want to exacerbate my insomnia. Although your doing it daily rather than a 5/2 approach…. Any particular reason?

      • Yeah I agree. I am 123 pounds now.. and cals definitely matter with the last 5 for sure. 1700 is not very much and super easy to eat.

    • Maybe 124 isyour “natural” healthy weight? I am finding that I lose weight much more slowly on this diet, but also my whole body composition has changed to be more muscular , and muscle weighs more than fat. Also I find that I put on a little weight naturally in winter, and I think this is normal & healthy as we need more padding to keep us warm. I am 16lbs overweight but feel the healthiest I’ve ever felt & I’m in great shape. I will continue on this diet and focus on my strength & health & happiness, numbers don’t mean as much as we think.counting cals is not in keeping with the philosophy of paleo for me

      • Yeah I think you’re right around 122 to 124 seems to be my natural weight then when I start eating crappy again I am shoot up to 130.. i’m seriously sticking to Paleo for life, there’s no reason ever go back I just feel too good on it. I am 38 years old so I guess it’s time to give up the ideal of my 117 pounds and be happy with where I’m at.

  10. I have never been super overweight, but I have been carrying around an extra 10 lbs the last couple of years (I’m in my early 40s). Then this past summer I had a mastectomy and was a little depressed, and out of work for 8 weeks. I put on more weight and was very discouraged that my pants didn’t fit anymore. I tried a counting calorie diet with no results. I enjoy healthy foods and decided to try Paleo. After the first day, I went through my kitchen and got rid of non-Paleo foods and clarified my own butter. It’s been one week and I’m down 6 lbs! I was feeling run down on day 4, but I understand this is my body adjusting to the carb loss and every day I’m getting better. I love that I can eat a small, nutritious meal and I feel full, not bloated, and I do not get hungry two hours later. Before this diet, I only ate fish for meat, and I’m finding it hard to get more protein, so I think I may introduce chicken back in, but right now the thought of it grosses me out (It’s been 15 years since I ate it) so I’ll have to give it time. Also, I was a big wine drinker and decided I didn’t not want to give that up. I used to be able to drink a bottle and feel fine. Now though, I have two glasses and feel it. I will be most likely weaning off my “wine every evening” habit.
    I love the diet and plan on making it a lifestyle. I enjoy cooking and there are so many fun recipes out there to try! I’m making salmon patties tonight 🙂

  11. This is explained and elaborated on in the movie/ documentary “Fed Up” you can find it on Netflix.

  12. Hi,
    I started to eat paleo food 3 weeks ago n I like it Because ai losing weight But when I wake up in the morning my hands n feet are swallowing I don’t know what’s going on with me ??? Is this normal?
    Please help

    • Here are some things I would say if you were my client.
      Make sure your eating your greens, make sure your drinking
      at least half your body weight in ounces. This help flush the toxins out. Movement is necessary to keep you lymphatic system flushing out toxins.

    • Also, to add to what Gregory said, you may be using a lot more salt than normal, depending on how you used to eat verus how you are eating under paleo (or possibly a lot less potassium). Try monitoring your salt intake and rule that out; a good method is to put a daily recommended intake’s worth in a small bowl/ramkin/cup and only use that in al of your cooking and all of your seasoning for the day.

  13. Hi every body,
    Diet is not about losing weight, it’s about eating right. Read Grain Brain and you will understand Paleo Diet. Sugars cause inflammation, which ages us. Marketing is damage you up. A slice of whole wheat bread is probably the worst thing you can put in your mouth. It’s about putting gas in your engine, not diesel. And yes arthritis is gone, the bags under my eyes are gone and as a side effect, went from 180 to 152. Don’t knock it till you try it. And you have to put the alcohol away.I used to have big problems with lose weight tips, but am getting in better shape now. Here’s a good site I found that really helped. It gave me great methods and and showed me what I was doing wrong before…there’s even lots of free articles on the site…http://www.cavediet.net

    • No, Ezekiel Bread wouldn’t be considered paleo. All grains are eliminated on a paleolithic diet…even whole and sprouted grains like those found in Ezekiel products.

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