There has been much publicity recently regarding the “Paleo Diet”. Advocates tell us it is the only way to eat in order to remain healthy and disease free. Critics say it is just a trend, there is no science behind it whatsoever and it is even dangerous.
So what is the truth? As usual with these controversial topics, the truth is somewhere in between.
I like to call it a Paleo lifestyle, because that is exactly what it is. The word diet brings up images of struggling and suffering through the strictness of what can and cannot be eaten, whereas a lifestyle is a choice – for better health.
Followers of a Paleo lifestyle eat food similar to what would have been eaten by our ancestors during the Paleolithic Era, from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Foods such as lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds are eaten and foods such as grains, legumes, dairy, processed foods and sugar are eliminated from the diet. The foods eaten during this era are supported by anthropological findings. Of course, how much of each of the foods was eaten is not really known.
The foods that are not eaten only became available around 10,000 years ago, during the agricultural era. The theory behind eating as our ancestors ate is that the human body has not had time to adjust to eating foods that were only introduced into our diets such a short time ago. This is still a theory, but whether or not you believe that we have not had time to adjust to grains, there is no disputing that grains are an inflammatory food and we need to reduce inflammation in our body as much as possible to retain good health. There is also no disputing that since the 1980’s, our consumption of grains has skyrocketed, raising with it obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions and inflammatory diseases.
There has been much criticism and fear generated by the critics of the Paleo lifestyle and to some extent the advocates of this way of eating are somewhat to blame. There have been many misinformed statements that have been issued by Paleo enthusiasts and the general impression that so often seems to prevail is that following the Paleo lifestyle means that we can eat meat, meat and more meat!
Meat from the Paleolithic era was game meat. Very lean and fed on grass, not grains. Our modern meat has a much higher fat content and is usually fed on grains, which changes the fatty acid content of the meat from Omega 3 to Omega 6. Our modern diet has too little Omega 3 and too much Omega 6, so eating grass fed meat is very important. On top of this is the fact that grain fed animals are also fed chemicals, pesticide laden grains, and are given antibiotics and other drugs.
Because modern meat has a higher fat content than game meat, we shouldn’t eat huge quantities of it. Although saturated fat is good for you, everything in moderation. Eat a small to moderate portion of quality protein with each meal. Vary it between wild caught fish and organic meat, chicken and eggs. Eat the offal as well – it is packed with nutrition.
Another criticism is that Paleo man didn’t eat almond meal cake or cashew nut balls or nut milk so this isn’t Paleo. Paleo man certainly didn’t eat cake, cashew nut balls or nut milk, but they certainly did eat nuts, seeds, honey and fruit. The only difference is they didn’t mix them altogether and turn them into a cake. Just because advocates of the Paleo way of eating combine foods to make delicious recipes doesn’t mean they are not true to this way of eating.
It has been said by critics of the Paleo lifestyle that to eliminate a whole food group such as grains or dairy is outright dangerous because we are reducing our fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The fibre that we obtain from grains can more than easily be replaced by fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. For example, there is 3 times the amount of fibre in ½ cup of broccoli compared to ½ cup of white rice. ½ cup of carrots contains over 3 times the fibre of a slice of bread. ½ cup of asparagus has the same fibre as 1 cup of oats.
The vitamins and minerals that we obtain from grains can also be easily replaced by fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. In fact a lot of the minerals in grains are bound by a compound called phytic acid and excreted from the body. So our absorption of vitamins and minerals from fresh fruit and vegetables is greater.
Whether or not you are convinced that following a Paleo lifestyle is beneficial for your health, test yourself – go off grains for 1 month and note any changes in your health. Bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhoea, arthritis, muscle aches, pains and stiffness, puffy eyes, heavy menstruation, cramps and swelling during menstruation and headaches can all be improved by following the Paleo way of eating. And as far as weight loss goes, it has been proven as the best way to lose weight.
If you find following a Paleo lifestyle too difficult, then compromise. Allow yourself some of the “non Paleo” foods occasionally. It really does need to be a lifestyle choice, not a diet. By occasionally eating some of the non Paleo foods, you can also re-assess yourself for any symptoms that occur after eating these foods. If you do get symptoms like bloating, flatulence, changes in bowel motions or pain and inflammation from eating these non Paleo foods, it makes it much easier to change your lifestyle because the reward is better health.
So, is Paleo a trend? Hopefully it isn’t. It certainly shouldn’t be. Any lifestyle that eliminates processed foods and sugar is a step in the right direction for good health. Paleo is a healthy way of eating your body will thank you for.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705