The first thing to know about Paleo diet weight loss is that weight loss for its own sake is not the point. If Paleo were primarily a weight-loss diet, it would work just as well as all the other weight-loss diets on the market: it wouldn’t. The Paleo diet is designed first and foremost to support overall health: for some people that means weight loss; for others, it might even mean weight gain.
Think of the struggle to lose weight as something like this: your car has run out of gas at the bottom of a hill. At the top of the hill is a gas station. If you know the weight of the car and the angle of the hill, you can make a pretty good estimate of how hard you’d have to push to get the car up the hill to the station. Most mainstream diets look at weight loss in the same way: as a simple arithmetic problem. One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so if you eat 500 calories below your daily maintenance level, you ought to lose one pound a week.
This kind of simple math is technically accurate – if you’re strong enough to apply enough force, the car will move up the hill, and if you consistently eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. It’s simple physics. The problem with this approach, though, is that it doesn’t take into account the way humans actually behave. Much like pushing a car up a hill, calorie counting is time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating. It can make you feel constantly deprived and neurotic, and the thought of keeping it up for the rest of your life is discouraging enough to send you running for the Haagen Dazs in despair. Unsurprisingly, most people who try calorie restriction can’t keep it up for long.
Fortunately, there’s another way to look at this situation. The problem is not that the car is at the bottom of the hill. The problem is that the car is out of gas. So just walk up the hill, buy a gallon or two, and bring it down to your car. Then you can drive up to top off your tank!
This is the Paleo approach to weight loss. Instead of fighting your appetite and hunger signals every step of the way, you can address the root of the problem: the modern diet that prevents your body’s natural appetite regulation systems from working properly. Obesity not the natural human condition; it’s a problem unique to the modern diet and food culture. Humans shouldn’t have to count calories to maintain a healthy weight – people in hunter-gatherer societies have no idea what a calorie is, but obesity is almost unknown in traditional cultures. We become obese on the modern diet.
Exactly how the modern diet creates obesity is still up for debate. Since obesity is such a complicated phenomenon, the truth is likely a combination of one or more of the theories below.
- Hyperpalatability – Humans are hardwired to enjoy the taste of fat and sugar (in a premodern world where food scarcity was a serious problem, this was a survival advantage, because it drove us to seek out energy-dense foods). Palatability is a measure of how attractive a food is to us: the more of these hardwired desires a food meets, the more palatable it is, and the more we want to eat it. Food manufacturers know this, so they artificially design their products to hit as many of our buttons as possible, creating “hyperpalatable” products that are more intense than anything our brains were designed to process. Like addictive drugs, these foods overwhelm our neural processing centers – our bodies no longer know when to send the signals to stop eating. For more on this theory, which is also called the food reward theory of obesity, see this post.
- Insulin Resistance – This is an increasingly debated theory, but still important for Paleo weight loss. According to this theory, a diet high in carbohydrates it the root cause of obesity. When your body digests carbs, it produces a chemical called insulin, which signals your muscles to store the carbs as glucose (emergency fuel that you can then burn off when you exercise). If you eat too many carbs and don’t exercise enough, your body still produces insulin, but your muscles can’t store any more glucose, so they resist the insulin signals, causing the carbs to be stored as fat instead. For a closer look at the insulin resistance theory, look here.
- Nutrient Deficiency – There are certainly a lot of calories in modern processed foods, but there isn’t much else. A third theory of obesity holds that your body handles a nutritional deficiency by keeping you hungry, in the hopes that you’ll consume more food (and thus more nutrients). Unfortunately, your body doesn’t factor Twinkies into its plans: if you keep eating empty calories, you’ll gain a lot of weight but your body will stay hungry because it still isn’t getting the nutrients it needs. For more on this theory, see this post.
You could fight an uphill battle to cut calories in the face of all these problems with the modern diet, but it’s much simpler and more effective to tackle all three issues at once by eliminating the modern processed foods that cause them. On the Paleo diet, you don’t have to count every calorie, because you’re not eating a hyperpalatable, nutrient-poor, and carbohydrate-based diet. When you nourish it with foods it was designed to thrive on, your body actually has very well-developed appetite regulation mechanisms. Paleo lets you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, rather than fighting your body every step of the way.
While any version of Paleo will be effective for weight loss, below are some tips for tweaking the Paleo Diet to reach your goals as quickly as possible.
- Don’t fear the fat! Dietary fat will not cause weight gain. It can even help you lose weight, since fat keeps you feeling full, while carbohydrates leave you hungry again in half an hour. Enjoy fatty cuts of meat, avocados, and healthy oils like avocado or coconut oil, and laugh at your friends’ disbelief when you lose weight eating all that butter.
- Eat your veggies. Vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals (remember the nutrient deficiency theory above?) and low in calories. If you’re used to eating a very high volume of food, try making up that volume with vegetables – put some meat and olive oil on a huge pile of greens, or fill half your dinner plate with roasted root vegetables.
- Go easy on the nuts. Nuts are among the most palatable foods on a Paleo diet, making them very easy to overeat, especially if you use nut-based flours for Paleo versions of baked goods. Some people find it easier to cut them out completely rather than have a big jar of Macadamias tempting them from the pantry all day long. Check out some other paleo snack ideas that you can snack on instead.
- Go easy on the fruit. Modern fruit has been selectively bred for sweetness, making it very different from the fruit you evolved to eat. Fruit is very nutritious and there’s nothing wrong with a bowl of strawberries for dessert, but try to keep your fruit intake to moderate levels (an entire meal of fruit salad is technically Paleo, but not the best option).
- Exercise. It doesn’t have to be long or strenuous. If you can blast through an hour-long kettlebell bootcamp class, that’s great! If you can take the dog for a 20-minute walk, that’s great too! Don’t punish yourself for eating too much by forcing another hour on the treadmill – the goal of exercise is to feel stronger and healthier, not to burn calories.
Paleo diet weight loss isn’t effortless – no kind of weight loss ever is. But it’s a lot less difficult than fighting the uphill battle to restrict calories on the modern diet. By eliminating the modern foods that derange your natural appetite regulation mechanisms, you can effectively lose weight on the Paleo diet, without losing your mind in the process.