The truth about paleo dieting

Image: Paleo food, best eaten off a shabby chic tabletop, just like our ancestors did (via Flickr)

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be counting down the most popular posts on The Glow from this year. 

More than a decade ago I was compiling research on our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ diets. Outside of nutrition research circles no one was particularly interested in the topic. Fast-forward to today and everyone seems to talking about Paleo. So is it as fab as claimed, or just another passing fad? The basic premise of ‘paleo’ is that since our genes have not appreciably changed since Paleolithic times, the diet of ancestors from that era is the one that we evolved on, and is best suited to our genetic makeup. The argument goes that many of our current health woes, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, are caused by the mismatch between our modern diet and our ancient bodies.

The truth is there was no one paleo diet.

The first question therefore is what did our paleo ancestors eat? The truth is there was no one paleo diet. As a species we have been remarkable in our ability to adapt to the diet available to us. The “true” paleo diet therefore varied depending on geographical, seasonal and climactic changes. Flexibility when it comes to food has been part of our success as a species. Nevertheless we can make some broad conclusions. Essentially paleo men and women ate more protein and less carbohydrate than modern diets, but importantly they were not on low carb diets. In fact the author of the original Paleo Diet book, Dr Loren Cordain, published research showing that paleo is closest to the Mediterranean Diet than to modern low carb or low fat approaches. Yet for some reason I see many people claiming to follow paleo when in fact they are just cutting carbs. Despite the fact that most modern paleo advocates say “no grains and no legumes” there isn’t consensus between palaeontologists about when we began to eat these foods. There is very early evidence of paleo communities soaking legumes and roughly grinding the seeds of grasses (i.e. grains).

 We have only had a major problem with obesity in the last 50 or so years, so grains cannot be to blame.

As our brains developed, we just got smarter about obtaining sufficient food. Grains and legumes are terrific sources of plant protein. They have more kilojoules than veggies and they provide glucose for our glucose-greedy brains (at rest 70% of the glucose used by your body goes towards feeding your brain). Once our ancestors figured out how to prepare grains in order to benefit from their nutrients, these foods played an important role in helping human populations grow. We have certainly consumed them for the last 10,000 years. And since we have only had a major problem with obesity in the last 50 or so years, grains cannot be to blame. Modern processing of grains is far more likely to be the problem. New research is showing this to be the case. Consuming wholegrains and legumes is associated with being leaner and having a reduced risk of disease, while refined grains are clearly problematic for most of us. So rather than cutting grains out, why not just be more judicious in choosing the best, whole food versions?

Evolution did not stop at the end of the paleo era.

Another food group paleo dieters avoid is dairy. Yet there is evidence that some of us have evolved to be able to consume dairy. Evolution did not stop at the end of the paleo era. If you are of caucasian background you most likely produce the enzyme, lactase, that is required to digest the type of carbohydrate found in milk. Furthermore there is much positive research on dairy foods and health, and recent research is even vindicating the full fat versions. Confusingly many paleo followers say organic butter is fine. So why not other dairy foods? This isn’t the only inconsistency with the modern interpretation of a paleo diet. Bacon, ham, sausages, salami, coffee, tea, alcohol and chocolate were not part of true paleo diets. Snails, brain, liver, kidney, heart, rodents, tripe and other animal foods were…  Most of that doesn’t sound too appealing, but these foods are incredibly nutrient-rich. Tuck in if you truly want to be paleo.


How on earth is this paleo?

The popularity of paleo has also resulted in a plethora of paleo food products and café meals. My local serves paleo bread, paleo brownies, and paleo banana bread for goodness sake. How on earth is this paleo? The advocates argue such foods are ‘paleo-inspired’ but to me this just goes to prove that at least some want to have their cake and eat it.

The Paleoliths were renowned for their love of banana bread. Ahem.

 True paleo diets are estimated to have been a whopping 60-70% lower in saturated fat than our typical diet today.

I also see people using paleo as a reason to go back to eating lots of saturated fat. However true paleo diets are estimated to have been a whopping 60-70% lower in saturated fat than our typical diet today. They also ate 11/2 to 2 times as much mono and polyunsaturated fat and 4 times as many omega-3 fats. If you’re wondering how that's possible, given our ancestors' higher intake of animal food, it's because they were eating wild animals and seafood. Like game meats today, wild animals tend to be far leaner, have lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of omega-3s. To replicate this today you can certainly choose more game meats, more seafood, more poultry and grass-fed meat.

I find it difficult to see how such a diet can sustain us all.

Unfortunately some of these options are extremely expensive, and most importantly we have to think about whether the environment can sustain this kind of diet. Australia’s population is set to double in the next 50 years. We already face concerns with overfishing.   The contribution of farming animals, (and cattle in particular),  to our green house gas emissions cannot be ignored either.  Then there are the ethical implications of vastly stepping up animal food production. I find it difficult to see how such a diet can sustain us all. What I love about paleo is the passion,  Many  paleo followers have a very real desire to eat well. I wholeheartedly agree with cutting out much of the modern, highly processed rubbish that fills many supermarket trolleys today. However I fear that many nutritious foods, that make a healthy diet affordable, appealing, varied and environmentally friendly are being demonised by the paleo approach. I think we can learn from evolutionary nutrition and marry this information with modern research.  Together this will teach us which foods and dietary patterns suit us best. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived a short, extremely active lives. In the end the type of diet that fuelled them may be quite different to our (hopefully) long, relatively sedentary lives today. Have you ever tried the paleo diet? Having read this, would you?

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