Can a ‘Paleo diet’ help you lose weight? And are there times or circumstances when that might not happen? A huge amount of literature is available online about the link between following the Paleo diet and losing weight. You only have to do a Google search for ‘Paleo and weight loss’ and get tons of results. But while some will provide evidence of the fact that people who follow the Paleo protocol do indeed lose weight, others will say you won't. Or at the very least, that results aren't guaranteed, which might be a ‘coping-out’ but is indeed prudent. Can the Paleo diet really help you achieve long-term weight loss results? And is it better than other eating plans?
People who follow the Paleo diet often lose weight
My reasons for trying (and then fully embracing) the Paleo diet were health-related, but losing weight was a natural side-effect. And I'm not the only one to have experienced this. All my clients who thoroughly implemented the Paleo or Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) framework lost significant weight in as little as 6 weeks. Whilst this is great, it's worth noting that the main aim and result they achieved was to experience considerable health improvements.
As a health coach, I have learnt that weight (whether too much or not enough) is a symptom of an overall imbalance. And working to find the root-causes of this imbalance will naturally help people achieve their optimal weight (for them).
Here's what some of my clients have said:
“As a nice side effect of following Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) I lost 8kg in 6 weeks, as weight is the result of an imbalance in the body. Eating 9 portions of vegetables a day means you are never hungry when adding protein to every meal as well.” – Julia.
“I have lost some weight that I had been trying to shift for a couple of years!” – Abby.
So what does the Paleo protocol consist of exactly, and how can it support healthy weight loss?
Paleo is a lifestyle and nutrition framework
Paleo is a lifestyle and nutrition framework, and as such, it’s quite specific in its guidelines.
At a high level, foods that are excluded from the Paleo diet are:
Dairy (although sometimes good-quality, raw dairy, if well supported, may be included)
Caffeine and alcohol (consumed in small quantities if not completely eliminated).
In the words of Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (aka The Paleo Mom), the Paleo protocol "omits foods known to be inflammatory, disrupt hormones, or negatively impact the health of the gut" and "Believe it or not, ALL of these foods are ones that can hinder weight loss, because systemic inflammation is associated with weight problems".
Foods that are included in the diet are wholesome, unprocessed foods, with a huge emphasis on vegetables.
Additional AIP protocol exclusions
For people who follow the Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) protocol, further foods are excluded. This is because AIP is essentially an elimination diet of all possible inflammatory foods. While it's true that everyone has a different tolerance or sensitivity to specific food groups, and it's important to identify individual needs and sensitivities, to ensure that all possible inflammatory foods are eliminated, AIP carries the following additional exclusions:
Plants belonging to the nightshade family, including white (but not sweet) potatoes, aubergines (or eggplant), tomatoes, and peppers.
It’s worth pointing out that these exclusions are temporary and only applicable during the elimination phase. The aim is to then re-introduce them following a rigorous process to identify which are well supported and which need to be eliminated for good.
How does the Paleo diet help with weight loss?
A lot of anecdotal evidence supports the fact that the reason why the Paleo diet helps with weight loss is that it's a low-carb and high-protein diet. And while the Paleo template is often considered a low-carb one, this isn’t technically true. Sure, when you compare Paleo to a westernised diet, often called SAD (Standard American Diet), which is high in grains, starchy carbs, and processed foods, the Paleo diet is indeed lower in carbs.
Traditional weight-loss diets tend to focus on so-called macronutrients - carbs, fats, and proteins. The Paleo template and especially AIP focuses on micronutrients instead - vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which are crucial to our health. Foods rich in micronutrients tend to be fruits and vegetables and good-quality animal products and minimally processed (which generally means home cooked).
Fill your plate with vegetables!
To ensure we consume enough of these micronutrients, a Paleo plate should be filled three quarters with vegetables. That way we are ‘crowding out’ the high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods (think processed foods and grains). And we're doing that because we’re effectively full from the vegetables! Anecdotally, people often ask me “what I eat” and “how come I’m not hungry”. If you eat 8 to 12 portions of vegetables a day, accompanied with some protein and a good amount of healthy fat, you will not be hungry!
Paleo diet should also regularly include the ‘micronutrients powerhouses’:
Organ meat (offal)
Seafood (fish, seashells, crab, prawns, as well as seaweed)
It is worth noting that, in terms of how the Paleo diet can help with weight loss, by eliminating high-sugar foods like cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, and soft drinks, we are removing refined sugar from our diets. And that can have an amazing impact on our weight loss efforts!
If you're interested in finding out more about how and why the Paleo diet helps with weight loss, this article from The Paleo Mom (Dr Sarah Ballantyne) gives you a great, well-researched explanation.
Why following a Paleo diet cannot guarantee weight loss
While losing weight is often a nice side-effect of following the Paleo template, weight loss isn't a guarantee. And there can be a number of reasons why you may follow a Paleo diet but not lose weight in the process. Also, once you have found your optimal weight, the weight loss will, thankfully, plateau.
1. No caloric deficit
In order to lose weight, we need to create a caloric deficit. In other words, we need to burn more calories than the calories we consume through our food intake. When following a Paleo nutrition plan, calorie deficiency is likely to happen naturally. The Paleo Mom estimates a caloric deficit of 10-20% compared to people who follow the Standard American Diet. And when it comes to long-term, sustainable weight loss, this is a great figure!
If you're serious about creating a caloric deficit in order to lose weight, you also need to pay attention to the type of calories you consume. Ever heard of the saying that not all calories are created equal? Calories from carbs are definitely something that needs to be reduced if you want to lose and maintain your weight. This is because:
Calories from carbs are stored as fat (as insulin turns excess sugar into fat).
Calories from fat increase satiety (the feeling of fullness).
And calories from proteins stimulate fat burning.
So if we're after achieving a calorie deficiency, we need to watch our portion sizes. And we also need to keep an eye on the type of calories that sit on our plates.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is our sugar intake. It's quite common for people who follow a Paleo diet to not lose weight on account of overindulging in Paleo treats. And yes, Paleo treats do exist! If you don't believe me, check out my recipes for Christmas pudding, bounty bars, sticky toffee pudding, and for an amazing chocolate cake! While these sweet dishes are still delicious and indeed Paleo- (and even AIP-) 'approved', it doesn't mean you should consume desserts regularly. After all, sugar is still sugar, regardless of its source or form.
2. Excessive snacking
Too much snacking between meals can also hinder weight loss. Some Paleo snacks, especially any nut-based ones (which are included in the Paleo template but not in AIP protocol) can be highly calorific. So while we may be eating very balanced meals from a caloric perspective, what we're effectively doing by snacking is piling up on the ‘hidden calories’.
Snacking can also have a negative impact on our hunger hormones (namely leptin and ghrelin), which play a crucial role in controlling our satiety feelings. When snacking starts to play havoc with these hormones, losing weight can become harder than we think.
3. Stress and hormonal issues or imbalances
Hormonal issues could also have a negative impact on weight loss. For example, if we are frequently stressed, our bodies produce large quantities of the stress hormone cortisol. When the body detects the presence of cortisol in the body, it gets the message that something isn't right. The body gets into fight or flight mode and fat gets stored in case it's needed. Cortisol raises blood sugar levels, (sometimes more even than carbs) and it therefore stimulates insulin release, which can play havoc with our blood sugar levels. This can, in turn, increase our appetite and create cravings for the wrong types of foods (sweets, processed food, and high-fat foods).
Equally, if someone suffers from thyroid-related issues, their metabolism may slow down, which means that energy isn’t burned as easily as it should be.
4. Eating too late
The time we eat our meals, and especially our dinner, may also have a negative impact on our weight loss efforts. Eating a very heavy dinner too late in the evening, for example, may result in unwanted fat storage and increased blood sugar levels. This is why large meals within a few hours of bedtime should be avoided. In this podcast episode, Dr Alessandro Ferretti makes a really interesting point about how blood sugar levels in the morning are influenced much more by the time at which we ate our last meal, rather than what we at. He suggests not to eat any later than 8pm.
And additional point is that the later you eat, the less your body is prepared for sleep, which nicely leads to my next point.
5. Lack of sleep
Following a Paleo diet can’t do wonders if we don’t get enough good-quality sleep. And while this has seemingly nothing to do with food and nutrition, if you're trying to lose weight, looking at your lifestyle more generally and holistically is fundamental.
Lack of sleep causes changes to the hunger hormones:
it reduces quantities of leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite and encourages the body to expend energy,
and it increases the amount of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for the feeling of hunger.
Not sleeping enough doesn't just impact on how much you want to eat. But also on what you want to eat. Sleep deprivation is known to trigger cravings for fat- and sugar-rich foods.
6. Lack of exercise or movement
And last but not least, not moving or exercising enough can have a detrimental impact on anyone's weight loss aims. Whilst weight gain (or weight loss) are mainly influenced by food (my clients know I always say that you can’t outrun a bad diet!), not moving or not moving enough means you may struggle to create the caloric deficit that you need to lose weight. Muscle burns more energy than fat, and by exercising you obviously create more muscle, which can help towards long-term, sustainable weight loss.
Would you like some help with losing weight (the healthy way)?
Following a Paleo nutrition and lifestyle protocol can definitely give both your health and your weight loss efforts a much-welcomed boost. But sticking to the diet alone isn't a guarantee for weight loss. This is why it's important to look at your diet and your lifestyle more holistically and decide on a plan of action that is catered to your needs and that focuses on self-care practices as well as on nutrition.
If you'd like to find out more about how you could get started and how I could help you achieve the results you're after, book a free 20-minute consultation with me, and we can get the ball rolling.
IIN qualified health coach, foodie, mum of 2, wife of 1, ex corporate advertising executive, RA warrior