I tend to ignore dietary fads until it becomes obvious they’re not going away. And the Paleo diet doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. If anything it’s getting more popular based on the amount of Paleo-devotees, cookbooks and websites springing up.
The Paleo diet has taken on this cult-like status, and the people who choose to eat this way, from my observations, are also likely to be heavily into crossfit, yoga and entrepreneurialism. It’s also not a particularly cheap way to eat, so it’s got a bourgeois, middle-class flavour that might put some people off, or simply rule it out of contention.
What is the Paleo diet?
Those observations aside, though, what is the Paleo diet and why is it so popular?
The Paleo diet is also known as the Caveman diet
The Paleo diet is based on the idea that we should eat the way our cave-people ancestors did, before the agrarian revolution and industrial revolutions taught us to farm and then process the shit out of what we’d farmed.
So the ‘allowed’ list of Paleo diet foods is meat (and plenty of it), fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and oils. If it could be hunted and gathered it could be eaten. Not allowed are grains, dairy or refined sugar.
It sounds restrictive of course, particularly the grains part. What, no bread?? Nope. Or rice, barley, quinoa, any of the fancy new low-carbohydrate, low-GI (glycemic index), high-protein grains that are now on the market.
No dairy is not quite so difficult for people to reconcile with, since most of us probably know a vegan or two. It helps to remember that eggs are not dairy, contrary to popular belief (where did that idea come from anyway??)
The Paleo diet seems to be here to stay and nutritionally, I think it’s pretty bang on. And it caters for a broad range of people with it’s low-carb, high-protein, high-good fats, sugar-free, almost-vegan-if-you-take-out-the-meat, raw food, whole food, philosophy.
Eat this way all the time and it would be almost impossible not to lose weight. Right now you’re probably thinking “but carbs are so important!!” And they are – without them your brain and organs will eventually start to shut down as your body cannibalizes itself.
As Paleo diet sources remind us, it’s not really carbs themselves that are the problem in the modern diet, it’s the poor quality of them, and the corresponding excess consumption. Although if you read Wheat Belly, you might come around to the view that all wheat eaten in the modern world is of poor quality.
Anyway, so on the Paleo diet the main source of carbs are in fruit and vegetables, and if you eat enough of the right fruit and vegetables you will consume enough carbohydrate to stay healthy and not turn into a carb-deprived stabby machine (I ate a very low carb diet for a few weeks once – and yes, I felt homicidal for a good chunk of that time).
There are a whole list of vegetables and their corresponding carb counts found here. Unsurprisingly, pumpkin, all varieties of sweet potato, white potato and sweet corn rank most highly on the counter, so if you add a small amount of these to any meal, with a liberal dose of green veggies, you’ll be eating sufficient amounts of carbs.
What you can and cannot eat on the Paleo diet
Although the rules sound quite simple, there is still quite a bit of confusion about what’s ‘allowed’ and ‘not allowed’ on the Paleo diet. Soy, for example, what about that? It’s the go-to fake dairy option for most vegans.
Asian cultures have been eating it for thousands of years, but technically, it is a legume (bean), so it wasn’t part of the paleolithic diet. Also, many Paleo eaters express some concern about the ‘toxic’ effect that large quantities of legumes can have on your digestive system.
Here’s some common sense on the ‘allowed or not allowed’ subject from The Ultimate Paleo Guide:
“However, it’s important to remind ourselves that the paleo diet isn’t just about being “allowed” to eat this and “not allowed” to eat that. The paleo approach to eating aims to heal your body from the inside out, by eliminating as many toxins from your diet as possible, and by including more nutrient-dense foods which promote a healthy internal and external environment”.
So, in a nutshell, legumes are ok in small doses, if you’re only trying to loosely apply the Paleo principles, but if you’re a strict disciple they’re a no-go.
Paleo diet criticism
Critics of the Paleo diet argue that it’s based on pseudo scientific nutrition and is being falsely credited as the cure for almost every modern illness that affects humanity.
Recently in Australia, there’s been controversy around celebrity chef Pete Evans, a judge on the reality TV show My Kitchen Rules (MKR), who publicly advocates for the Paleo diet, declaring that “food is medicine” and sharing anecdotal evidence of how changing ones’ diet cures all manner of illnesses including polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which interests me because I happen to have it!
Pete has copped it from every single corner, and his publisher decided to withdraw his kids’ cookbook because of concern over ‘potentially deadly recipes’. Fair call Pan MacMillan, dead babies aren’t good for business. While Evans does say some unsubstantiated things – blaming high carb diets for increases in autism and mental illness for example, most of what he says is not that extreme.
He’s particularly upset with the Heart Foundation, getting on board with a campaign against its so-called ‘healthy food tick’, which is supposed to be a guide to help people make healthy food choices.
Unfortunately it fails the common sense test, and has enraged Pete and others, by appearing on sugary breakfast cereals, frozen pizza, and other food that really can’t be deemed healthy. Mayonnaise with more sugar in it than soft drink for example.
Other food gurus like Sarah Wilson (I Quit Sugar) and David Gillespie (of Sweet Poison fame) have supported him. Underlying this campaign is a great deal of cynicism about how organisations like The Heart Foundation are funded – often by food manufacturers.
My view is that it’s just smart to maintain a healthy scepticism about who owns the ‘health’ information we’re provided with. When manufacturers actually pay a license fee for something like ‘the tick’, can anyone be blamed for questioning its authenticity?
The Heart Foundation have themselves become victims of accusations of pseudo-science and caught up in tangled debates such as “is saturated fat really bad for you”. The tick is currently being reviewed and there are no clues yet as to what its future might hold.
Coming back to the Paleo diet, I personally don’t really see what all the fuss is about. Paleo followers essentially advocate for cutting out grains, dairy and refined sugar. Most naturopaths would agree, and at least suggest that you eat less of these things.
Pete suggests to try it for 20 days and see how you feel. A quick scroll through any Paleo dedicated website and you’ll see pictures of the most amazing, delicious, healthy looking food. I suspect that it’s the thought of ‘cutting out’ particular types of food that’s a turn-off for a lot of people, rather than looking at the full of range of what can still be eaten.
Any way of eating that has social implications (harder to find places to eat out with friends, or concern that you’ll be seen as that ‘extreme’ dieter or ‘food crazy’) as much as any potential health implications, is always going to be scary for some.
Food as medicine just is not that extreme. It’s accepted fact these days that Type 2 Diabetes is a lifestyle illness, largely caused by a diet high in sugar and refined white carbohydrates. And we know that vegetables, nuts, seed, etc, all contain vital nutrients to keep our bodies healthy.
So is it that big a stretch to suggest that if you cut out the crap, not only can you reverse some conditions (like Type 2 diabetes, which we know is reversible through weight loss and reduced blood sugar levels), but you’ll be avoiding obesity and other food-related illnesses, such as heart disease?
Pete takes it further than most, and that’s what’s gotten him into trouble, I think. Plus there’s that old Australian favourite past-time of tall poppy syndrome – cutting down to size anyone who is seen to have gotten a bit too big for their boots.
Dairy and Paleo
While I don’t think I could permanently live in a world without cheese (the real stuff – the French creamy stinky variety), or butter (yummmmmm), I know I eat too much dairy, and I know grains tend to disagree with me.
And refined sugar – well – that’s been my nemesis for years, and even if you don’t have a ‘problem’ with it per se, no one needs it! Most ‘extreme’ diets such as Paleo are unsustainable, and commentators caution that there have been no medical studies done (yet) on the long-term impact of eating this way, but I’m taking the hippie route of ‘listening to my body’ and incorporating more Paleo principles into my diet.
Paleo diet and low carbs
Low carb eating has helped me lose weight and reduce my blood sugar levels (both real medically-proven evidence) and anecdotally I can tell you that I feel like a million dollars most days. And cutting down on dairy has definitely improved my eczema.
I mostly subscribe to the ‘all things in moderation’ school of thought but if I’m honest, that’s mostly because I lack the discipline or willpower to rule anything out 100%, not because I’m dissuaded by the lack of ‘science’ behind the Paleo movement.
If you would like to learn more about the Paleo diet, Paleo For Beginners is a great place to start:
I’d love to know your views on Paleo. What do you think? Too extreme? Or just basically common sense? Pop a comment in below to get the conversation started.
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