How a low-carb paleo diet changed my practice
Dr. Greg Sharp talks about the paleo diet.
December 10, 2020
Over 40% of the American population is obese or overweight. The patients I see in my medical practice reflect this statistic.
After years of preaching typical advice like, "eat less, exercise more" and "follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet," I was frustrated with the lack of results, both for my patients and for myself.
A few years ago, I became more seriously interested in how food affects our health and started reading everything I could find on the topic.
In my research, I found a theme again and again: dietary fat isn’t as evil as we've been told over the decades. Refined carbohydrates like sugar and grains are likely more responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemics.
After careful review of the growing medical research, I was convinced that there was plenty of evidence that a low-carb, medium-protein, higher-fat diet could help my patients. In 2012, I started telling my patients a low-carb paleo diet could help them.
At the same time I was telling my patients to try a paleo diet, I tried the diet myself to help with my own weight and family history of cardiometabolic issues. (Metabolism is how the body uses food to create energy.) It was a great decision.
My frustration with previous "conventional wisdom" nutrition advice quickly turned to pleasant surprise when my patients and I were finally able to shed our excess pounds using such an "unconventional" approach.
For some of us, the weight melted off. Others saw more moderate weight loss. Almost everyone greatly lessened their chances for metabolic health problems, even if they didn't lose a lot of weight.
What is the paleo diet?
A paleo diet is a whole-foods approach loosely based on ancestral practices. It's a diet that goes back to a time before what we now call modern agriculture or farming. It includes nutrient-dense sources of protein, fats and plants that our bodies were made to digest, such as:
- Grass-fed meats
- Wild-caught fish
- Fresh vegetables
- Seasonal fruits
In a strict definition, a paleo diet doesn't have the foods that came later in our history. Some of the modern, processed foods that contain chemical additives and preservatives include:
For a lot of people, the paleo diet is like a template to adapt to what works best for them. Many people on a paleo diet today also include some sources of full-fat dairy, such as butter, cream, yogurt or whole milk.
It's ideal if the dairy you eat or drink is from grass-fed cows. People who have dairy allergies or sensitivities don't need to include it in their diet.
What happened to me when I switched to a paleo diet was fairly dramatic. I embraced a low-carb, paleo-plus-dairy approach and lost 45 pounds without trying too hard.
I also never counted points or calories. I have more energy and feel compelled to be active and get exercise rather than having to force myself.
As for my patients, weight loss is just one of the many benefits. A low-carb or paleo diet can be truly life-changing for people with medical problems, such as:
- Metabolic syndrome (a group of health problems that can raise your chances for heart problems, like heart disease or a stroke)
- Autoimmune disease (an illness of the immune system or the part of the body that fights illness)
- Allergy, neurologic and inflammatory problems, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (a disorder of the large intestine), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or when stomach acid flows back toward the mouth), among others
A paleo diet can ease symptoms related to many medical problems by helping people:
- Lose weight
- Have the right blood sugar levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Raise healthy HDL cholesterol
- Lower unhealthy triglycerides
- Stop fatty liver inflammation
- Lessen the need for medications for health problems
Benefits of not eating wheat or dairy
What I found early on was that my patients who stopped eating wheat and dairy as part of their overall low-carb plan usually had the most improvements with symptoms related to illness.
My patients found:
- Allergies and asthma got better
- Acid reflux went away
- Irritable bowel syndrome improved
- Migraines went away
- Joints felt better
- Eczema and psoriasis cleared up
The first few instances of this made me say, "Hmm, maybe there's something more to this, after all." When it happened with patient after patient, it became impossible to ignore and proved the value of the paleo approach.
How long can you stay on the paleo diet?
A lot of people ask me about sustainability and wonder if they’ll be able to stick with a diet that restricts many of the foods they love. In my opinion, the low-carb paleo diets are more sustainable than most because they are better at controlling appetite.
Getting off of the blood sugar roller coaster makes everything easier. Replacing grains and sugars with sources of natural proteins and fats is satisfying and keeps us full longer.
For the record, I still eat cheese, use cream in my coffee and cook my eggs and veggies in butter. Like most people, I don’t have sensitivity to dairy. And I eat dark chocolate nearly every day.
I don’t eat bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, cake or cookies and, believe it or not, I don’t miss them.
Sometimes, I do eat ice cream, have a beer or two at the Seahawks game or indulge in some cheesecake at a special event. But these indulgences are truly quite rare. I make sure to enjoy every bite or sip.
Some people can get away with more frequent indulgences, others less. It's different for everyone. In general, I don't think it's necessary to be 100% paleo all the time. I really try to live by the mantra of not letting perfection get in the way of "good enough."
Paleo is a lifestyle
Paleo is truly more than a diet. It also helps with some lifestyle issues for those who look into it, such as:
- Full-body, functional movement-based exercise
- Sleep problems
- Family and other social connections
- Community interactions
- Stress management
If you want to explore a low-carb or Paleo approach, I’ll leave you with three main points to keep in mind:
- Just eat real food.
- Don’t eat any or eat less sugar and grains (maybe dairy and legumes too).
- Get over the fear of natural dietary fat.
Remember, a paleo diet offers you healthy fats from eggs, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and more.
If you’ve been frustrated trying to find a way to lose weight, or to better handle your blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol, you should think about trying a low-carb or paleo diet plan.
As with any diet or exercise plan, I urge you to check with your primary care doctor before making any major changes. If you’re looking for a new primary care doctor who supports a low-carb or paleo lifestyle, contact me by calling my office at 1-206-860-4791.
By Greg Sharp, MD
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult Obesity Facts. Accessed October 27, 2020.
- Mayo Clinic. Paleo diet: What is it and why is it so popular? Accessed October 27, 2020.
The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.