Hugely popular, the Paleo diet has exploded onto the nutrition scene. Touted by followers as ‘the way our body was designed to eat’ it has become an industry of its own.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is based upon eating the way our ancestors did in paleolithic times, between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago. Generally, it is low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fats and omits the modern foods which were not available in the Paleolithic era. Paleo enthusiasts claim the diet will extend our lifespan and reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and obesity because Paleolithic populations experienced low rates of such diseases by eating this way. Numerous claims have been made by many that it is the answer to weight loss.
So is this true?
In this article I will break down the pros and cons of the diet, in terms of the nutritional, marketing and environmental aspects of the diet.
Fresh fruits and veggies
Nuts and seeds
Healthful oils (Olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
Legumes (including peanuts)
Refined vegetable oils
*A general overview of the Paleo diet (variations of this diet exist)
High in fruit and vegetables: The promotion of fresh fruit and vegetables and high fibre intake is an element we can draw on from the Paleo diet. It is now well established that diets rich in fresh fruit, vegetables and fibre play a major role in the prevention of chronic disease and obesity. However, the diet does not allow starchy carbohydrate such as potato, sweet potato which is a shame because these foods in the right quantities are cheap, accessible and highly nutritious.
Heart Healthy Nuts and Seeds: Highly nutritious, high in fibre and rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Excess Meat Consumption: The Paleo diet is often (but not always) based heavily on meat. It’s typically consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner and even snacks. There are major health and environmental concerns surrounding this. Based on solid scientific research on humans, it is recommended that we limit our intake of red meat to a maximum of 100 grams per day (the size of a deck of cards) as intakes above this level have proven links to colon cancer, kidney and heart disease. Such high levels of protein places extra stress on the kidneys, as the kidneys work over-time to filter such large levels of protein molecules. (Remember that the Paleo diet is also rich in nuts and seeds which are also rich sources of protein). It’s all well and good to say that the science shows that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed large amounts of meat and therefore we should too, although there are no studies which document the kidney health of people during this era. How do we know that there were not high levels of kidney disease?
The point is, we don’t.
As well as this, the fat profile of our meat has changed significantly. Now livestock are bred to be larger, feed more people, and to contain higher levels of fat and marbling for flavour and mouth feel. Studies show the wild beasts caught in Paleo times were much leaner and contained lower levels of saturated fats and much higher levels of heart healthy omega 3 fats. People following the diet in 2015 are consuming higher levels of fat than the Paleolithic people.
In contrast to today, our cave-man ancestors were hunting their meat with a spear which is darn hard work physically. They would have been burning energy (kilojoules) for their dinner, not purchasing it from the supermarket after sitting at their desk all day.
From witnessing the dietary intake of people on the Paleo diet, it can often be heavy on bacon. Bacon is high in fat, and contains nitrates which have been linked in studies to increased risk of developing some cancers. Hint: If you are going Paleo, try and track down nitrate free bacon.
The Environmental Impact: Meat production is now one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock require large amounts of grain and water to feed, and produce environmentally damaging methane gas. We do need to ask the question: Can our planet support the high levels of meat intake required by people on this diet long term?
The Paleo diet does encourage sourcing meat from pasture fed animals which is great, but this is difficult for many, due to the higher cost, making this diet not accessible to many.
No Dairy: Dairy was not available during the Paleolithic era. Paleo advocates associate dairy with a range of health problems including inflammation, but dairy has proven in strong studies to in fact, reduce inflammation, prevent obesity and help prevent osteoporosis.
Paleo fans argue that their dairy free diet contains calcium via green leafy vegetables, and whilst it is possible to obtain adequate calcium without dairy, in my experience the majority of people who cut out dairy once going Paleo are not always aware of the importance of maintaining an adequate calcium intake, nor the quantities of certain foods to eat in order to do so, and this is a major concern. To consume adequate levels of calcium to prevent osteoporosis, one needs to consume 7 cups of broccoli or 10 cups of chopped kale or 5 and a half cups of cooked wilted spinach.
How do we know that our Paleolithic ancestors did not have extremely high rates of osteoporosis due to the lack of calcium and vitamin D? We don’t. So why am I making a fuss about Osteoporosis? This bone disease is a silent killer, with approx 20% of osteoporosis suffers passing away within 12 months of suffering a fracture, due to the simple fact that they are immobile and unable to care for themselves. And with over 1 million Australians currently suffering from Osteoporosis, it is a major health concern.
Now I’m not saying that you can’t get your calcium without dairy but if you are starting this diet, maintaining an adequate calcium and vitamin intake needs to be consciously factored into your daily food intake. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as just ‘removing dairy and you will be healthier.’ You need to substitute very wisely.
It Was a Lifestyle: In the Paleolithic era, they were wanderers and hunters. Their entire day was spent being heavily physically chasing their food, as their life was dependant upon it. A factor which would have contributed significantly to their health profile, not JUST their diet. They did not sit at a computer for 8 hours a day, then do a 1.5 hour cross fit session at the local gym then drive home. They did not work in a retail store then drive home and watch TV for the remainder of the night. Many Paleo fans undertake exercise programs to compliment their Paleo diet, which is a healthful aspect of the diet as physical activity plays a major role in preventing obesity and preventing chronic disease. A point to remember though, is that 1 hour at the gym 5 nights of the week is still only considered a moderate level of physical activity and not comparable to the activity levels of the Paleolithic cave-men.
No Legumes or Grains: There is no doubt that the western diet is heavily reliant on grains and the dose in which we consume them is above which our body needs. Processed cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. However, it is the high levels of grains and type of grains which is the issue, not the grains themselves. To banish grains is making a simple problem more complex. Whole grains are rich in Vitamin B and carbohydrates for energy, fibre, protein, zinc anti oxidants and phyto nutrients. Grains such as whole meal pasta, millet, quinoa, barley and brown rice are nutritious foods and are low cost ingredients. They also have less environmental impact than meat production. Interestingly, new research is revealing that grains were in fact consumed in the Paleolithic era. Oooooh ahhhhh, controversial!
Legumes are a rich source of plant based protein, essential amino acids, zinc, iron, fibre, anti oxidants and phytonutrients. Low in fat, they can prevent cancer and protect our heart, making them a highly nutritious ingredient. Just because the cave-men didn’t eat them, doesn’t mean we can’t!
Low Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are extremely important for brain and immune function. The major fuel our brain uses to function is carbohydrates (not fat or protein). It can use fats an proteins when it runs out of carbohydrates, however this is not necessarily an efficient system. Carbohydrates are very important in regulating our mood and enabling us to think and complete complex cognitive tasks. Lucky for them, our Paleolithic ancestors did not have the added stress of working two jobs, mortgages, phones constantly ringing and getting the kids to soccer practice on time. There were no jobs in which focusing and high levels of attention was required for 8+ hours a day. The Palaeolithic cave-man and woman roamed and foraged, requiring much less brain activity than the pressures that we and our over-worked brain have today.
As well as this, carbohydrates play a major role in our immune function; protecting us against germs and illness. Global travel has increased the rates of colds, flu and other communicable diseases in which we need to protect ourselves and build a healthy immune system, making carbohydrates essential for overall health.
No Sugar or Processed Foods: This is one aspect of the diet we can certainly draw from. It is well known that processed sugar and processed foods are linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and some cancers.
Paleo as a Disguise: Paleo cakes, cookies, bliss balls would not have existed in Palaeolithic times especially the likes of ‘Raw paleo coconut chocolate mousse tarts’. These types of recipes found online and in swanky Paleo cafes are laden with calories, though the Paleo diet as a label carries the assumption that it is healthy. Many Paleo recipes contain more calories per serve than a Big Mac hamburger which many people are not aware of. The recipes often contain much greater nutrition (vitamins, minerals and good fats) though regardless of whether a food is Paleo or not, if it tips us over the number of calories our body requires, it will lead to weight gain. Don’t get me wrong, I cook paleo recipes, but keep in mind that because the recipe has Paleo in it doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy.
Paleo is Now a Business: Paleo has become a brand of its own and there is no doubt that there are people making very large amounts of money from the hype of this latest diet. Books, food products, diet plans, and restaurant chains.
Stigmatism: Paleo has a list of ‘allowed’ and ‘not allowed’ foods which for some people can give rise to eating disorders, unhealthy relationships with food and eating, and difficulties in social situations
- It is important to remember that every time we remove a food group or ingredient from our diet, we are restricting the intake of healthy nutrients and opening ourselves up to deficiencies and possible disease. The health effects associated with the elimination of dairy, grains and the limitation of carbohydrates should be considered before embarking on the diet
- There are certain aspects of the diet which we can certainly implement today such as getting back to whole natural foods, limiting sugar and processed foods, consuming more fruit and vegetables, choosing grass fed meats over grain fed and using healthful oils that are free from trans fats. This I do love about the Paleo diet.
- Consideration of the effects of such high levels of meat and protein intake on our long-term health, and the cost to our environment needs to be taken
- The lack of dairy is also of concern unless the dieter actively maintains their calcium intake via adequate levels of green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds and fish with edible bones
- It’s like anything, moderation is the key and finding out what suits your body best
- More peer-reviewed scientific research is needed into the effects of the Palaeolithic diet on our body TODAY, in our current society using our current food systems before we can apply the results of a diet many years in the past to that of our current changing world. I look forward to the new emerging research
- Be cautious of packaged foods labelled as paleo. Clever marketing to entice you to buy, not necessarily healthy.
- One last thing I will leave you with – our Paleo ancestors only lived to an average of 30 years of age. So, it is really the life-extending, life-changing diet that it’s supposed to be? 🙂
The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and all round myth buster. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible and up to date nutrition information in order for people to make their own educated decision about nutrition.