Hot Topic – The Paleo Diet

*Sigh* this has been met by many Facebook shares, in-depth discussions and heated arguments amongst my friends. The Paleo diet is THE hottest fad diet of 2015 and the most controversial too. Here’s the low-down, it’s by no means complete, but it’ll give you an idea of what the Paleo diet is about.

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Somebody put some kale in his mouth, he looks hungry.

What is the Paleo diet?

The Paleo diet was designed to emulate the hunter-gatherer diets of our paleolithic ancestors from about 2.5 million years ago. From what we know, our cousins hunted for meat and gathered and foraged for fruits and seeds to survive. Just for some context about when our good friend the carb came along, agriculture wasn’t developed till 10,000 years ago, this came with its own problems, but that’s for another time.

What does the Paleo diet involve?

The Paleo diet basically has a yay or nay attitude to certain foods and food groups.

The “yay” pile includes:

  • Grass-fed meats
  • Fish/seafood
  • Fresh fruit and veg
  • Eggs
  • Nuts (except peanuts) & seeds
  • Healthy oils: olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut

The “nay” pile:

  • Cereals or grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Refined sugar
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Salt
  • Refined vegetable oils

What are the benefits of the diet that are claimed by those who endorse it?

Those who back the Paleo diet claim that it helps with weight loss, managing diabetes, reducing the risk of cancers, improving overall wellbeing. Of course, if you’re eating a “Western diet” with lots of high salt, high sugar foods, adopting a diet with more fresh fruit and veg, lean meats and nuts is going to be beneficial, irrespective of it being classified as “Paleo”.

There’s also the concept of eating fresh and locally which the Paleo diet encourages, which is great for the local farmers and the economy, as well as promoting sustainability.

What are the risks/problems with the diet?

Looking at that yay and nay pile above, you’re probably thinking, where are the carbs?! We have known for a long time with solid evidence that a carb-based diet has many health benefits, particularly if you are getting these from whole grains and legumes. You may feel fuller on a Paleo diet as you’re consuming more protein, yet, the lack of carbs may leave you feeling sluggish and probably reaching for a sugar fix very quickly.  A no-no in the eyes of the Paleo gods.

Being part of the “Paleo diet movement” is going to hurt your back pocket with all this extra protein you’ll be buying and eating, all that almond milk you’ll be drinking (which is basically water with a bit of crushed up almonds in it, read the back of the carton next time) and drenching your salads in expensive and obscure oils.

There are also a few flaws in the idea of eating like our ancestors, will equate to longevity and a life free of chronic illness because there was no evidence of cancer 2.5 million years ago. However, our paleolithic ancestors didn’t have a long lifespan, most succumbed to infectious disease during their middle age years. Developing these chronic diseases in later life would have been uncommon, as few lived into their grey-haired years. If they did die of chronic disease, how would they have detected these diseases? And how would we know about the hunter-gatherers suffering from these illnesses?

The other major issue with the concept of this diet is the fact that, our ancestors are genetically different to humans today. The hunter-gatherer was adapted to a high protein-high fat-low carb diet, we, however, are probably not. We have been immersed in an environment with an abundance of carbohydrates for 10,000 years! It could be argued that this isn’t enough time to genetically adapt, but it’s likely something has changed. So, it shouldn’t be assumed that we will see the same benefits on this style of diet given our different genetic background. It’s basically a mismatch between our environment and ourselves, we wouldn’t expect our hunter-gatherer ancestors to be eating a typical diet we consume today.

cavemen

That just doesn’t look right…

The quality of meat between a couple of million years ago and today differs greatly. The game that our ancestors hunted was far leaner and contained less saturated fat (that’s the kind of fat that gets stuck to the inside of your arteries and too much can cause a heart attack) and even contained our friends the omega-3s. Today, meat is fattier than ever before (for flavour) and is full of saturated fats and has lost any potential beneficial fatty acids. So, eating more meat than recommended nowadays isn’t necessarily going to be the best for your heart and overall health.

Then, of course, we have the recent WHO media release on eating red meat is likely to increase your risk of cancer, however, the Paleo diet claims the opposite… Interesting.

What should you do if you’re considering starting this diet?*

In general, anything that cuts out a food group/s and labels them as a “no-no” raises alarm bells for me, there is a lot of very well established evidence out there that supports the current recommendations of a carbohydrate based diet with proteins and fats in smaller portions with lots of fruit and veg. As this diet has only become popular recently, these claims cannot be confirmed by solid scientific evidence, so I’d be really skeptical to try this diet out.
From my little article here, you can see that the risks and problems far outweigh the claimed benefits. Make an informed choice, do some research before diving into your bone marrow broth.

* Always consult a health care professional or dietitian before starting a diet.

Sources:

http://thepaleodiet.com/what-to-eat-on-the-paleo-diet/#.Vo4cBvl95D8

http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/

 

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