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30 Day Cavewoman: How a Paleo Diet Affected My Biomarkers

By Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD, August 30, 2015

Whole_30_Paleo

I’ve never followed a specific diet. All foods agree with me and I generally agree with all foods. As a dietitian, health is always at the back of my mind but my philosophy is an additive one. Focus on the foods that you want to add in instead of the ones that you should cut out. If you are filling up on nutrient dense foods, eventually there won’t be any room left for the less healthy options. I don’t think there is necessarily a “perfect” diet. We are all different so, therefore, we all have different requirements. Trial and error is the best way to find the right eating pattern for you. Here’s a recap of my recent forae into a Paleo-esque diet challenge, the Whole30, and how my biomarkers were affected.

Recently I have worked with a fair amount of individuals that follow the Paleo diet. A simple explanation—Paleo is characterized primarily by the elimination of grains, dairy, soy and legumes. The nuts, protein, fruits and vegetables that remain make up the extent of your diet. The Whole30 follows these guidelines but it goes further to exclude any of the supplement/recovery/energy mumbo-jumbo flooding the market. It was all whole foods for those 30 days. Alcohol was also a no-go.

Throughout the 30 days I tracked my intake using MyFitnessPal. Before this I had never tracked my diet for more than a day or two. It was really interesting to see the breakdown of my nutrient intake.  For the most part, my diet was about 40% fat, 40% carbohydrates and 20% protein. For me, this was a lot more protein and fat and way less carbohydrate than I was used to eating.

myfitnesspal

 

So, how did it go?

 

Some subjective observations:

  • I was TIRED the first week, which is pretty well documented amongst participants. Admittedly, I was also a bit cranky. After the first week, my energy levels went back up.
  • I slept really well. And once I recovered from the initial lack of energy, I no longer had the 2PM crash I was used to having every day.
  • I wasn’t as “snacky”. I didn’t feel the need to eat between meals.
  • I definitely felt less bloated after meals.

 All-important objective measures:

Fortunately, I work for InsideTracker and can have my blood analyzed whenever the desire for self-experiment strikes. A few interesting changes:

Probably not surprising, my iron group is finally optimized! This is largely due to the increase in ferritin, the storage form of iron. I’ve always eaten meat but this experiment increased my protein intake by about 50% and my red meat intake by about 100%. I ate red meat, a significant source of iron, about 3 times per week while doing the Whole 30. In normal life I would eat it 1-2 times. Very excited about this increase! 

Whole30 and Ferritin

 

cavewoman_ferritin_

Ferritin is a good indicator of our iron status. It’s important for body maintenance but it also key for endurance. I didn’t want to begin supplementing with iron so I am glad to see this increase from diet alone.

Whole30 and Total Cholesterol 

Somewhat surprising—my total cholesterol decreased despite eating more red meat. My cholesterol was already good. I had expected that it would increase due to eating more red meat and eggs almost every day. 

Cavewoman_cholesterol_

 

Unfortunately, this decrease was a combination of reductions in both my “bad” LDL and “good” HDL cholesterol. My HDL dropped below the optimal range even though I was eating more fish and nuts than usual. Perhaps this speaks to the importance of soluble fiber found in specifically in oats, beans and whole grains for optimal HDL. I think the reduction in LDL was in some part also due to eliminating junk foods—I’m looking at you M&Ms.

The new USDA guidelines recently changed their advice on dietary cholesterol for people with healthy levels of cholesterol. Focus should be on the intake of saturated fat instead. Foods that are high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat that were exonerated are eggs, shellfish and shrimp, to name a few. It appears their advice was correct, at least in my N=1 experiment. An important caveat! Individuals with high cholesterol to begin with should be still mindful about their dietary cholesterol intake, particularly from red meat and egg yolks. If your cholesterol is high, keep red meat to once or twice a week and focus on poultry and fish as your main protein staples.

Whole30 and Vitamin B12

Another interesting find was a decrease in B12. B12 is only found naturally in animal products. Despite eating more animal products than normal, it still declined. My theory is because I didn’t eat any processed grains. Most processed grains in the US are fortified with folic acid and B12. Cereal used to be a staple in my diet so that might explain the decrease.

Cavewoman_B12

 

Whole30 and Calcium 

Lastly, please indulge me while I stand on my soapbox. I want to touch on calcium. Serum calcium does not accurately reflect your intake of dietary calcium. Calcium is tightly regulated in our bodies. An easy way to think of it is that we each have a level our blood likes to maintain. If we don’t accomplish this by eating enough calcium, the remainder is taken from our bones in order to keep the blood happy. Inadequate calcium overtime naturally leads to weaker bones. 

Calcium_

I NEVER hit my calcium requirements while eating this way (and probably did some damage to my bones in the process but all in the name of science, right?). Dairy is not the only food group with calcium but it is by far the largest contributor. Greens, some nuts, beans and tofu are also good sources of calcium. Reminder of some Paleo rules: no dairy, no beans, and no soy (tofu).

And let’s be realistic about how much kale you would need to consume to meet your calcium needs on kale alone. One cup of raw kale has about 25mg of calcium. The recommended daily intake for males and pre-menopausal females is 1000mg (increases to 1200mg post-menopausal). Drumroll please… 32 cups of raw kale per day. Realistic? Probably not. Dairy alternatives are typically fortified with calcium, which is great for achieving your needs in a dairy-free environment. Most commercially available substitutes are made with carrageenan to maintain a desirable consistency, which is banned on Whole 30 and iffy on Paleo. Yes, you can make your own almond milk but I highly doubt you are fortifying it with calcium.

My point here—if you don’t consume dairy or dairy alternatives for whatever reason, you may be doing damage to your bones in the long run. If eating enough calcium isn’t an option, taking a 500mg supplement every day is key to meeting your needs.  Having optimal vitamin D will help you absorb calcium more efficiently. Adequate calcium is especially important for women and even more important for women over 50. After around age 50, women lose calcium from their bones at an expedited rate. Going into this stage of life with maximal calcium in your bones is essential for good bone health throughout the remainder of life.

Finally, I lost about 3 pounds in those 30 days—a fair amount for my small frame. I will chalk this up to a few reasons:

  1. For me, this was a “low-carb diet”. Yes, I was still eating plenty of fruits and getting some carbs from vegetables and potatoes, but much less than normal. Most people are pretty familiar with weight loss associated with low-carb diets; however, a recently published study compared the effects of a low-carb versus a low-fat diet on weight loss. The study found that initial fat loss was higher on a low-carb diet, but ultimately a low-fat diet resulted in greater body fat loss with calorically equal diets in obese individuals. What I really think happened:
  2. Any time you eliminate a whole food group from your diet, you are basically also limiting the amount of caloric opportunities. My experiment was a bit more restrictive than one food group and definitely limited my snacking options.
  3. I was also recording my food, which I think probably had the greatest effect. I vaguely know the calories I should hover around each day depending on exercise, but seeing them clearly displayed on my phone when I wanted to enter in an extra tablespoon of almond butter, have another piece of fruit or top something with extra avocado really made me think twice about eating it.

Final Takeaways with Whole30 and My Biomarkers:

  • Eating a whole foods diet is always a good thing!
  • You have to be prepared! Planning is key when eating healthy. Weekend meal prep is a savior for busy individuals trying to eat well.
  • I don’t think I want to live in a world without oatmeal and yogurt… and ice cream.
  • Most importantly—experiment on yourself! Test different eating strategies and see what makes you feel best. Then get tested and see how your body responds. You can’t argue with your blood.

My next self-experiment will be to follow a vegetarian diet for 30. I am interested to see how my body will respond, particularly if it affects my inflammation markers. InsideTracker is a great tool for guiding your food choices. Our recommendations are specific to your particular style of eating ranging from gluten-free to Paleo to vegan. See what foods will improve your biochemistry and if your current dietary pattern is the best for you.

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