Oscar's Training Articles - Why The Paleo Diet Is So Effective


The paleo diet has become extremely popular lately. It is by far the most popular category of diet books at any book store. Many athletes and other famous people have bought into the concept and started to follow a more “primal” way of eating. The basic premise of the diet is to exclude more modern and highly refined foods. Foods that were created after the beginning of large scale agriculture are blamed for contributing to modern health problems such as obesity. The guidelines involve eating whole, unprocessed, nutrient rich foods that have been around for a very long time (meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, and etc). Food items that are off limits include things such as bread, pasta, ice cream, soda, candy, dairy, legumes, fruit juices, refined sugar, and etc. There is some debate in regards to what actually was around 10, 000 years ago to eat however, for simplicity's sake, the previous items listed are on the allowed & not-allowed list.

Now what happens when you go from a standard American diet and follow a more paleolithic approach. Well first things first, the obvious junk that can help pack on the pounds disappear. Ben & Jerry's, pizza, donuts, french fries, and soda unfortunately does not make the cut. This will most likely lead to weight loss for most people which is a great benefit. It’s very hard to find something as palpable (“yummy”) and calorically dense as these items that are paleo-approved. When going from a diet higher in processed meals and switch to more whole foods you automatically cut out trans fats. This type of fat is very common in products that have a very long shelf life such as pre-made and processed meals. Trans fats are very disadvantageous to your health and eliminating these is one of many positive side effects of the paleo diet.

A diet high in calories does not have to be a diet high in micronutrients. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are extremely important for health. A person can carry an excessive amount of fat from eating a lot and at the same time be lacking vitamins and minerals. There are many common deficiencies that automatically improve when increasing your vegetable, fruit, and nut intake. Common nutritional deficiencies such as magnesium, vitamin k, vitamin d, iron, omega-3, and much more automatically improve when making the switch towards a whole food diet. A small change such as eating more green vegetables could potentially drastically increase your health. Magnesium is a very common nutritional deficiency and increasing it in you diet has been shown to:

- Decrease blood pressure
- Decrease blood glucose
- Decrease risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increase insulin sensitivity
- Decrease inflammation
- Improve sleep

This is only one single nutrient deficiency that could potentially be solved by eating more dark greens.
Something that easily happens when starting a paleo diet is that carbohydrate (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, candy, etc) intake decreases significantly. Carbohydrates are stored in muscles as glycogen and it binds water. Every gram of stored carbohydrate binds 3-4g of water. When someone reduces the amount of carbohydrates then rapid water (not fat) weight is lost. This is usually seen as a rapid decrease in body weight. Now the loss comes from water, however, the rapid loss makes the diet look very effective. Now I’m not saying that the paleo diet is not effective, it certainly is, however, the initial pounds of weight loss are due to water and not fat. This water loss is still very positive for one powerful reason. It helps the dieter believe in the diet, it’s an instant reward and it strengthens the belief in what is happening is great. Dietary adherence is extremely important for success and this quick initial loss empowers people.

Being insulin resistant is a huge problem for a lot of overweight individuals. It’s part of the metabolic syndrome and it plays a major role in type 2 diabetes which is rapidly increasing. The paleo diet has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. If your ability to shuttle fuel in and out of cells become more efficient then you automatically become healthier. There are most likely a multitude of factors that help improve the insulin sensitivity by following a paleo diet such as decreased calorie consumption, decreased carbohydrate consumption, decreased sugar intake, decreased omega-6 intake, increased micronutrient intake, and increased intake of monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats.

Now there are some paleo items that have a lot of calories, almonds for example. However, these whole unprocessed foods end up contributing a lot less than what food labels say. In 1oz of almonds, there is 163 calories, however, once the digestive tract has done its work there is only 110 calories that can be used. The more refinement a food item goes through the easier it usually is for the body to absorb the energy. For example, there is a huge difference between eating mashed potatoes and gnawing on a raw potato. The refinement of food products makes the storage of energy more attainable. Eating apples has been shown to be more beneficial compared to drinking apple juice. This works in favor of whole and unprocessed foods. Pre-made and restaurant meals always have a nutrition label of some sort to inform the customer. Unfortunately, these labels are far from accurate. There can be a huge underestimation of many pre made foods ranging from 18% on food labels and even higher on restaurant items.

This makes calorie-counting very difficult to do which is a common approach for many people. It has been shown that even registered dietitians can not accurately estimate how many calories they consume. Counting calories is a minefield to implement, not even professionals can estimate calories when the labels are lying to you. Sticking to whole unprocessed foods allows for caloric restriction without having to do the math. This is a win-win scenario.
The factors that contribute to this positive effect from the paleo food items are due to a higher fiber content and protein content. These two components increases the thermogenic effect (the cost of breaking down the food to useful substances) of food. If you increase your intake of fiber you automatically burn more energy, feel more satiated, and it contributes to better gut health which is very beneficial for weight loss. Fiber intake is directly correlated to an improved all cause mortality risk. These whole unprocessed foods also contain a lot of water. Foods higher in water has been associated to help with weight loss and lower waist circumference.

The paleo diet does not have any quantity rules set. The “rule-book” is simply made up of foods that are allowed and not allowed. The diet composition usually ends up being a high protein diet. Higher protein diets have consistently been shown to to increase satiety, save lean mass when losing weight, and making a diet more sustainable. Eating more lean meats, nuts, and eggs will definitely increase the protein intake compared to an average western diet. This gives a great advantage in terms of weight loss. Muscle mass is very beneficial for health and keeping the protein high while dieting makes it easier to maintain muscle and strength while losing fat. Protein is also a very thermogenic macronutrient, meaning that it requires a lot of energy to break it down. The body has to go through a lot of trouble to convert protein into fat (~30% of calories from protein is “lost”). There are a few myths regarding protein, meat and egg intake: “Cholesterol is not bad for you”, “eggs are not bad for your..”, “protein is not bad for your kidneys”, and “protein is not bad for your bones”. Please advise the listed references if your feelings just got hurt. Keeping the protein high ensures that muscle is maintained, satiety is higher, and your metabolism is increased.

Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, has a simple and powerful recommendation in regards to food. “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat”. The premises of why the approach works boils down to a few simple, but effective things. Decreasing calories and increasing nutrients will have a positive effect. A diet made up of a lot of fiber, protein, nutrients, and etc can probably also include a few foods from the “not-allowed” list but that’s a personal decision and something that needs experimenting to figure out on a individual level.

If you have any question or comments about the information, consultations, personal training, and etc. please email

Oscar Isacsson, M.S., CSCS, CF-L2
CrossFit TNT Coach

More info

Fiber and mortality -

Food and water keeps you slimmer -

Calories in almonds -

More calories that what the label says -

Eating apples is better than drinking fruit juice -

Dietitians and calories -

Glycogen storage and water retention -

Magnesium and increase life span -

Paleo and insulin sensitivity -

Muscle mass and strength maintenance from protein -

Protein and bones -

Eggs -

High protein and creatine on kidneys -