By Dena Gershkovich
For Unwind magazine
No grains, dairy, or refined sugar. No legumes, processed foods, or white potatoes (yes, that includes french fries).
To some college students, this may sound like a terrible nightmare. You may be wondering how anyone could possibly survive finals week without Starbucks cappuccinos, or live without ice cream from the Maryland Dairy, especially on those days when it’s really necessary.
Even if those are both non-issues, in a diet this constricting, it may seem impossible to navigate a University of Maryland dining hall.
To most, this may sound complicated. To others, like those on the paleo diet, this is simply a way of life.
The paleo diet was founded by Loren Cordain, researcher and professor emeritus of Colorado State University. The premise of the paleo lifestyle is a diet “based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors,” according to thepaleodiet.com.
Paleo followers are encouraged to eat whole, simple, natural foods – the same foods that would have been available to our “cavemen” ancestors – while minimizing consumption of processed foods, such as refined sugar and grains. Additionally, some foods are on the paleo ‘no’ list, despite being considered healthy by most dietitians and medical professionals. Paleo supporters claim that our bodies have not evolved to digest legumes, dairy and whole grains because our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have access to these foods.
According to thepaleodiet.com, supporters also claim the diet will help lower sodium intake while raising potassium levels, due to the minimal amounts of sodium in unprocessed foods. Additionally, the diet applauds itself on raising individuals’ protein intakes.
However, one potential caveat of the paleo diet is that the majority of the protein consumed tends to come from animal sources, which generally contain high levels of saturated fat. Many studies have shown eating too much saturated fat to lead to conditions such as high cholesterol and heart disease.
“It’s not necessarily a problem, but I think for most people it probably could be a problem,” doctoral student and teaching assistant Amy Schachtner-Appel said.
She added that many paleo websites have recipes encouraging people to cook proteins such as beef and pork, which tend to be high in saturated fat, but if one were to prepare lean meats and lean fish, then a diet pretty low in saturated fat could result. “It requires a lot of planning,” she said.
Jane Jakubczak, coordinator of nutrition services at the university, expressed concern over the fact that the paleo diet eliminates entire food groups. She worries that this can cause nutrient deficiencies.
“As we’ve evolved, we’ve also evolved to be able to consume things such as grains and dairy foods in a healthy manner,” she said. “There really isn’t any evidence that our bodies are designed in the same way as 10,000 years ago.”
Despite this, following a diet this constricting is difficult to sustain, especially in a college setting.
“It’s almost easier to describe what I do eat than what I don’t,” freshman bioengineering major Aviva Borison said. She follows a diet similar to that of the paleo diet, though it is not as limiting.
However, aspects of the paleo diet can also be extremely healthy.
“Any diet that promotes eating natural, whole foods that aren’t processed, put in boxes, or frozen I think has the right idea,” Jakubczak said.
The emphasis that the paleo diet places on eating more fruits and vegetables is also a healthy approach, Schachtner-Appel said.
If you’re concerned about your current diet, keep in mind that finding balance is key. “You don’t need to eat a pristine diet all the time and you don’t need to have the most intense workouts all the time,” Schachtner-Appel said. “A normal diet has room for things that we don’t always consider perfectly healthy.”