The human genome didn’t undergo any drastic fat-storing mutations around 1990. But the obesity rate has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, reaching almost 36% in 2010. The problem is not with our bodies – physiologically, we’re the same as we always were. The problem is the disjunction between the world we evolved to thrive in and the world we actually have to deal with.
Evolving in a premodern food environment forced our bodies to adapt to an inconsistent food supply. We’re very good at storing fat, because for most of human history, our next meal was a lot further away than a trip to the Quickie Mart. Fat storage allowed us to stock up on food when it was available, and use those reserves during periods of scarcity. A biologically hardwired taste for fat and sweetness directed us to calorie-dense foods when they were available, maximizing our energy intake to prepare for lean times ahead.
Unfortunately for us, our food environment has changed faster than our bodies can keep up. Adapted for food scarcity, we’re confronted with overabundance and the constant struggle to limit our consumption. The foods available in the modern world are also more intensely stimulating than anything our brains evolved to deal with. Most people innately find certain tastes and textures (sweetness, saltiness, crunchiness…) pleasurable; this pleasure is called food reward. Highly processed foods overwhelm our brains with a level of food reward that they simply can’t handle, creating a kind of food addiction and throwing our natural taste for healthy foods completely out of balance. At the same time, these foods lack in nutrition what they provide in calories, creating the paradoxical problem of simultaneous obesity and malnourishment.
The Paleo diet helps many people lose weight because it re-creates the food environment that we evolved for. Some people accomplish this effortlessly. They cut out the “heart healthy whole grains” and the weight seems to melt off faster than they can buy new jeans. But others struggle with their weight even after the switch – and some people initially see great success but then plateau. Putting so much effort into a healthy diet and regular exercise only to see no results can be incredibly discouraging. But whether you’re just starting and frustrated at your lack of progress, or stuck in a plateau after a few months of success, there are many ways to optimize a Paleo diet for healthy, sustainable weight loss.
Keep It Clean
Eating a clean, nourishing diet free from industrial toxins and overstimulating processed foods is the first step. While safe starches are a great component of a Paleo diet for metabolically healthy people, they’re less beneficial for someone whose insulin signaling is already damaged. Using fat as your primary fuel source and keeping your carbohydrate intake as low as possible gives your insulin metabolism the rest it needs to heal. This will trigger your body to enter a state called ketosis, using fat, rather than glucose, as a primary fuel source. You will enter ketosis with a daily carbohydrate intake of 50 grams or less, but to truly give your metabolism the healing it needs, keep your carbs as low as possible. Aim to eat around 20-25% of your calories from protein, 75-80% from fat, and 0-5% from carbohydrates, with no fruit or starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Cut Back on the Nuts
Cutting out nuts also eliminates another food category that anyone trying to lose weight should avoid: “Paleo-ified” versions of your favorite junk foods and desserts. These often include “crusts” or “breading” made from nuts – but just because they’re technically Paleo, doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Paleo pancakes sound tempting, but they’re incredibly high in calories (as a replacement for flour, the recipe uses almond meal), and more importantly, they keep you in the wrong mindset. When you’re constantly trying to re-create the food culture of the standard American diet, you start to see Paleo as a set of unfortunate restrictions that you have to work around to keep enjoying your food, instead of a delicious way of nourishing your body. If you never make the psychological switch from junk food to real food, you’ll always feel deprived on a healthy diet. And if you’re constantly feeling deprived – especially if you’re not making progress – eventually you’ll give up. It sounds harsh, but the easiest way to transition to Paleo in the long run is to rip off the band-aid and recreate your relationship with food, rather than going through the motions of your old lifestyle.
Another strategy is intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting magnifies several of the benefits of carbohydrate restriction: for example, it lowers insulin, prompting your metabolism to use stored body fat for fuel. Since you aren’t taking in any calories during a fast, your body runs entirely on the stored fat. As icing on the fat-burning cake, fasting also raises the levels of several other fat-burning hormones like growth hormone and adrenalin. Like a low-carb diet, intermittent fasting also lowers your calorie intake without forcing you to think about calories: you might eat a slightly larger meal to break your fast, but if you IF for 24 hours you’re hardly likely to eat an entire extra day’s worth of food when you break the fast. As with calorie restriction, however, make sure that intermittent fasting doesn’t lead to any micronutrient deficiencies.
Exercise should go without saying. It’s an integral piece of the insulin sensitivity puzzle: if you regularly use up your muscles’ glycogen reserves, your body uses the glucose you do ingest to replace them, instead of storing it as fat. This is why carbohydrates are such an important fuel for serious athletes, but you don’t need to be a powerlifter or a marathon runner to get started. All kinds of exercise can fit into a Paleo diet – just don’t look at it as primarily a way to burn extra calories. Trying to lose weight by forcing yourself through hours on the treadmill every week is the exercise equivalent of calorie restrictive dieting: intensely unpleasant and largely ineffective. Instead, find something you enjoy. Even regular walking can improve your insulin sensitivity. Swimming can be a great option if you’re overweight because it puts very little stress on your joints, no matter how heavy you are. Biking is not only low impact, but useful: take a spin down to the grocery store to pick up some dinnerand notice how much less appealing that 2-liter Coke looks when you’re faced with the prospect of lugging it all the way home under your own steam.
Since inflammation is such a major contributing factor to leptin resistance, any change in your diet or lifestyle that reduces inflammation can only help. Toxins of all kinds can be dangerously inflammatory: limit your exposure to environmental toxins like chemical fumes and BPA. If you can afford it, buy organic meat and produce to reduce your consumption of pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and the other harmful chemicals in the conventional food supply. If you buy any processed meats (like bacon or beef jerky), make sure to read the labels carefully – many processed meat products contain sugar or chemical additives, and jerky is often made with soy sauce, which contains gluten. Stress (especially chronic stress) and sleep deprivation produce inflammation by raising your levels of cortisol; do what you can to keep yourself out of the sleep-stress cycle.
Successful weight loss isn’t about counting calories in your low-carb tortillas, or “earning” every indulgence with an hour of sweating it out on the treadmill. Trying to starve your body into submission without addressing your underlying metabolic problems and nutritional needs is ineffective and unnecessarily painful. The key to lasting weight loss is repairing the damage to your metabolism and hormonal systems from the toxic modern food environment – a ketogenic Paleo diet gives your body the chance to heal itself, creating a solid foundation for your long-term health, not just a temporary change in your belt size.