A New Year's resolution is usually forward-looking, a bold stab at a future of change and innovation. So why are so many dieters these days looking back, way back?
The Paleolithic diet has gained substantial ground in the past two years as more and more nutritionists and health gurus turn a skeptical eye to the benefits of a grain-based diet, which most Americans eat. Embracing the foods of hunter-gatherers, the Paleo diet is red hot right now. Celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Biel and Miley Cyrus are reportedly eating like cavemen.
But the Paleo diet is hardly new. First popularized in the mid 1970s by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin, it in many ways resembles the South Beach, Atkins and other low-carb regimens. The Paleo diet consists of fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, nuts and roots, while eschewing grains, legumes, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, processed oils and, in most cases, dairy products. The basic idea is that by adopting this ancestral pre-agricultural diet, people may circumnavigate some of the "diseases of civilization."
For Safety Harbor resident Wendy Schwartz, 49, the Paleo diet was a New Year's resolution two years ago. With bachelor's and master's degrees in food and nutrition from New York University, she runs gopaleo.com and is the author of the upcoming Go Paleo, a Shopper's Survival Guide. Although she has a background in nutrition science, she works as a recruiter and resume writer.
"I took a divergent path. I got out of nutrition, but my passion has been studying nutrition and learning about supplements."
Since adopting the Paleo diet, Schwartz has lost 25 pounds, but she perceives her health benefits to go far beyond just weight lost. She differentiates Paleo from other low-carb diets because, she says, Paleo focuses not only on what you eat but the source of your food. Paleo focuses on quality ingredients whenever possible and really restricts the use of grains. (Schwartz found Paleo because she was having trouble digesting wheat products.) In the age of the gluten-free craze, the Paleo diet fits in nicely.
Even with a growing legion of adherents, the Paleo diet has its detractors. Some nutrition experts are concerned with increased consumption of saturated fat from the meat-centric diet and a lack of calcium from the elimination of dairy. Also, there is much research that shows legumes and whole grains help fight some diseases of aging and keep blood sugar at appropriate levels. Neither is part of the Paleo diet.
"There's no real research behind it," Lisa Sassoon, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor of nutrition at NYU, told the Huffington Post last year . "And it eliminates things that do have research behind them: grains, beans and low-fat dairy."
Still, Schwartz is a staunch proponent and offers these suggestions for moving toward a Paleo diet:
• Eat real food. If you can buy food that doesn't have labels, that's ideal.
• If your great-grandfather didn't eat it, don't eat it. Stop buying foods that have long, complicated ingredient lists.
• As far as vegetables, focus on fresh lettuces and try to order vegetables without sauce (order olive oil on the side).
• Stop thinking that low fat is the way to go. Incorporate more extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil or avocado oil.
• Focus on vegetables and healthy oils and preferably pastured and grass-fed lean meats.
• If you can buy grass-fed and pasture-raised meat, get higher-fat cuts. If you can't, go with leaner cuts. (And don't rely too heavily on meat: It should be no more than 35 percent of daily calories.)
"Paleo is predominantly grass-fed and pasture-raised meat, poultry and eggs, optimally organic vegetables, throwing in a little bit of fruits and nuts, herbs and spices. What's nice about it, compared to standard low-fat diets, is that it's very, very tasty."
But first, says Tarpon Springs resident Eileen Forte, 58, you have to get past the addiction to grain.
"Your body craves the wheat. Manufacturers know it. There's wheat in ice cream. It's not a matter of willpower. You have to withdraw from it. The American diet is based on that kind of eating."
She knows firsthand.
"About four years ago, I was turning 55 and 55 pounds overweight. My daughter put a copy of Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet on my coffee table. I started following the Paleo diet and the weight was falling off me."
Forte got certified to teach nutrition by the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association. She found that identifying prepared foods that were healthy, nutritious and also Paleo was nearly impossible. With a culinary background, she began to experiment with making Paleo energy bars in her home kitchen. Paleo Simplified launched in February, and two flavors of her bars are now available at Fresh Market, Nature's Food Patch and other Tampa Bay healthy food stores. A raw product with goji berries, cashews, cacao, coconut and nuts, she says, "It's food the way your body is meant to utilize it."
And demand is growing along with awareness.
Says Schwartz, "From the time I started Paleo to now, people are really starting to know it. When I first started, if you asked 10 people, maybe only one or two would know what it is. Now I'd say it's closer to seven. I predict you'll see more and more people who join the Paleo community."