‘Going paleo’ is so hot right now, but can this Stone Age eating plan really improve our health? HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull digs a little deeper.
Right now, we seem to be surrounded by paleo books and blogs, not to mention paleo-obsessed celebrities, from chef Pete Evans to actress Gwyneth Paltrow. You’ll even find that your local supermarket now stocks paleo-style foods, breakfast cereals in particular. But why has this way of eating suddenly captured everyone’s attention? And what does it involve?
The paleo diet is loosely based on the eating habits of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic period — a time that preceded farming and the subsequent development of food manufacturing and processing. The so-called caveman diet has several interpretations and no absolute definition, as this way of eating would have varied according to prehistoric people’s global location, their access to food in that area and the season. Consequently, today’s foods do not reflect the foods that Stone Age people ate. In other words, you can apply the principles of this diet to your eating, but it’s actually impossible to eat as our primitive ancestors really did.
Modern paleo diets embrace meat, fish and seafood, along with nuts, seeds, eggs, fruits, vegies and certain oils (such as olive, coconut and flaxseed oils). Sugar and processed foods are out, and many paleo enthusiasts also restrict grains, dairy foods, potatoes and legumes (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas).
Some aspects of the paleo diet offer great health benefits. I’d certainly encourage people to head towards a diet that’s full of wholefoods, such as fruit and vegies, and to head away from highly processed sugary foods and drinks — just as this diet does. However, I also believe that this diet goes too far in some ways. The elimination of legumes is unnecessary and puts you at risk of falling short on several key types of fibre. Legumes are also a valuable source of protein; they have a low glycaemic index (GI), which helps stabilise blood sugar and keep you feeling full; and they’re nutritious plant foods.
Although it can be beneficial to reduce your intake of heavily processed grains, the elimination of all grains is also unnecessary. Wholegrains provide filling fibre as well as vitamins and minerals, so I recommend eating minimally processed wholegrains, such as flaked cereals, wholemeal pasta and oats. A range of gluten-free grains is available, too, for people who need to make that choice.
My message about dairy foods is similar, despite paleo purists’ insistence on a dairy-free menu. Thanks to evolution and changes in the human body through the ages, most of us can digest milk perfectly well. And remember: Dairy products are great sources of hunger-busting protein and bone-building calcium.
The diet focuses on unprocessed wholefoods.
It also features nuts and seeds, which are good sources of healthy fats.
You’ll eat more meat and nut proteins, which helps keep hunger at bay between meals.
And the bad?
The diet lacks dairy foods, so you miss out on calcium for strong bones and healthy teeth.
It also excludes valuable high-fibre grains and legumes, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Overall, the paleo diet is extremely low in carbs, which are essential to maintaining your energy levels throughout the day.
Like many fad diets, paleo-style eating limits not only certain foods, but also your social behaviour when you want to share meals or dine out with friends or family.
The bottom line
Eat a diet that’s rich in wholefoods, and be mindful that following a paleo diet to extremes can unnecessarily restrict your diet.
What’s on the paleo menu
Fruit and vegies
Potato, except sweet potato
Grass-fed meat and poultry
Grains: rice, pasta, bread, cereal, oats
Fish and seafood
Legumes: beans, lentils and chickpeas
Milk and other dairy foods
Nuts and seeds; coconut oil, olive oil and other plant-based oils
Salt; processed foods: pastries, muffins, chips and lollies