Although some skeptics remain wary, Mary Tapia, of Mount Prospect, is convinced there are benefits to the "Paleo Diet," which promotes unprocessed foods that were the diet of hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era — primarily meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables.
Most dieters define success as losing weight. But Tapia, 45, faithfully followed a 30-day "Paleo Challenge" recently that meant swearing off sugar, grains and dairy, without shedding a pound.
Tapia, 45, said the Paleo Diet has resulted in a dramatic change in her overall body composition, including an 8 percent decrease in body fat, and a nearly 3-pound gain in muscle mass.
"Since I've started a Paleo lifestyle, I haven't had any issues with my neck, and no more colds or migraines either," said Tapia, an elementary school art teacher and the mother of three children. She began "dabbling in Paleo" in April 2012, and gradually became a true believer when she felt like it led to an abundance of energy and improved overall health.
More than a decade has passed since the 2002 publication of the first edition of "The Paleo Diet" by Loren Cordain. Its popularity seems to be on the uptick in 2013, with 30-day Paleo Challenges being offered at private gyms and public park districts across Chicago and the suburbs. It's billed by Cordain and his followers as "the world's healthiest diet."
The Paleo diet's Stone Age roots are reflected in the title of a program kicking off April 3 at the Arlington Heights Park District dubbed, "Eat Like a Caveman / 30 Day Paleo Challenge Workshop." According to the program's instructor, Karen Stoychoff Inman, the Park District decided to offer the class for residents after hearing about its popularity at area private gyms.
"In our culture, the scale is the be all and end all for dieters, but with Paleo, we're not looking for a magic number," says Stoychoff Inman, the co-owner of Elite Athletic Development-CrossFit Arlington Heights, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who is Tapia's trainer.
"You might start out at 125 pounds, and you're still 125 pounds after the 30-day challenge, but now, your jeans fit great," she says. "With Paleo and CrossFit, you will feel and look totally different ... much more energy, and a lean, toned and firm body."
As the co-owner of CrossFit ForeFront in Chicago, which also recently held a 30-Day Paleo Challenge, Harrison Heller said clients often ask him where the scale is located — but his gym doesn't have one. Instead, clients who range in age from 17 to their mid-60s, are encouraged to change their lifestyle, for example, starting with the way they shop for groceries.
"You need to start thinking of the grocery store like a racetrack, where the healthy foods are found on the outside ring — the produce and meats — and the unhealthy, processed foods are in the middle aisles," Heller says. "If you were to visit my kitchen, you'd discover I have very few things on the shelves in my pantry, but my refrigerator is always full of fresh, healthy foods."
For Cordain, the founder of the Paleo Diet, and a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University, the enduring popularity of his diet is not a surprise.
According to Cordain, the diet was created after his research in the late 1990s of a tribe in South America led to his findings that many of the chronic health problems that afflict modern society — heart disease, cancer, obesity and even adolescent acne — were virtually nonexistent among those whose diets were unchanged from what our ancestors consumed in the Paleolithic era. Fresh meats, fish, fruits and vegetables.
"A lot of diets out there are like dwarf stars that burn brightly and then go away," Cordain said. "With the Paleo Diet, what started out as a trickle has become a tidal wave. Why is it becoming even more popular? Because it works."
Not everyone agrees with Cordain's assessment of his diet. Some express concern about the abundance of meat, as well as the total elimination of even healthy grains and legumes, for example, quinoa and lentils, which many nutritionists proclaim as miracle foods, leading to improved heart and gastrointestinal health.
"The fruits and vegetables part of the Paleo diet is fine, as it helps people stay away from highly refined foods like sugar, white bread and potato chips," said Janice Stanger, author of "The Perfect Formula Diet."
A nutritionist and health industry consultant, Stanger promotes eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, advocating healthy grains, and eliminating meat and animal products — the antithesis of the Paleo diet.
"Eating all that meat on a Paleo diet is a huge problem, as you are stocking up on foods — animal products — that study after study has shown are unhealthy," Stanger said. "It also has a very high environmental price, and no, it doesn't matter if you're eating organic grass fed animals."
Jim White, a nutritionist and national spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, also urges Paleo devotees to reconsider their decision to ban healthy grains and dairy products from their diets.
"Any diet that eliminates a whole food group is a sign of a fad," said White, who like Stanger, applauds the fresh fruits and vegetables component of the Paleo diet. "With Paleo, you are eliminating dairy, legumes and grains, which put you at risk of deficiencies.
"With diets like this, that are challenging and fairly restrictive, the lack of variety can make you crave the eliminated foods even more," White added.
Paleo fan Tapia acknowledges that the diet's strict dictums can be challenging, especially when cooking for her husband and three children. Still, she said following a Paleo lifestyle has far more rewards than drawbacks.
"My 'cheats' are usually going out for a margarita and tortilla chips," Tapia said. "You have to be able to live and celebrate things in your life with your family and friends. But even if you go Paleo 80 percent of the time, you are still reaping the benefits."