The Paleo Diet is one of the most popular diets currently found in the media. It is touted by many as the answer to a long list of modern lifestyle diseases. Supporters argue that humans have spent only 10 000 years (less than 1% of the 2 million years that their ancestors have been on earth) engaged in agriculture. The remaining 99% was spent living as hunter-gatherers, eating meat from wild animals, and what plant foods could be foraged. As such, supporters argue that human genes are programmed to live on a hunter-gatherer diet. They argue that there has not been enough time for these genes to evolve in order to tolerate foods that have been added to our diets since then, such as milk and grains.
What’s in, what’s out?
Researchers agree that hunter-gatherer diets varied markedly based on the latitude. People living in the tropics, where humans originated, ate far more plant foods than people living in the harsher climes, such as Greenland, where over 95% of the traditional diet came from meat. While there are several interpretations of what a Paleo Diet stands for in modern times, supporters agree that dairy, grains, legumes, salt and processed foods are out, and meat, fish, nuts, fruit and vegetables are in. One-quarter of the diet should be lean meat, with the remaining 3/4 being fruit, vegetables and nuts. Limited non-Paleo foods are allowed.
Paleo diets are much higher in fruits and vegetables than the average Western diet. There is strong evidence that shows that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is associated with a significantly reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. It is also good for bowel regularity, macular health, blood pressure control, bone health and for prevention of certain types of cancer.
Paleo diets can be high in nuts, which contain plenty of healthy unsaturated fats. Specifically, eating a moderate (handful-sized) amount of nuts has been shown to boost cardiovascular health
Paleo diets are low in highly processed foods, low in salt and low in added sugar.
Paleo diets have been shown to significantly increase satiety (fullness). This may help with maintaining a healthy weight, or losing weight if you are overweight.
Elderly people (over 65) should eat a high protein diet, which can reduce the risk of falls, significantly reduce mortality, and reduce the risk of infections in people of this age group. Paleo diets, being high in protein, may help to achieve these benefits.
Restrictive diets (such as Paleo) can be difficult to maintain over the long-term. They can foster an unhealthy relationship with food, increasing the risk of eating disorders. Following an eating pattern that is sustainable in the long-term is associated with successful weight loss maintenance.
Largely because they exclude all dairy, Paleo diets can be very low in calcium, increasing your risk of developing osteoporosis. Calcium is essential for bone health, and the best sources are from dairy foods, canned fish with chewable bones, and fortified dairy alternatives.
Eating a diet high in meat and meat products is not the best for the environment. Due to being higher up in the food chain, a diet high in meat uses up far more water and carbon dioxide than a diet high in plant foods.
A diet high in meat, for people under the age of 65, has been linked to an increased risk of developing Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohns Disease or Ulcerative Colitis) and bowel cancer, and is suspected of increasing the risk of a number of other types of cancer.
Compared to a traditional balanced diet, Paleo diets can be expensive to follow. Lean meat, nuts, fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive than legumes and grains.
Paleo diets’ emphasis on fruit, vegetables and nuts is consistent with good health, and short-term studies of people following a Paleo-style diet have shown promising results. However, like any strict diet, most people are likely to find it difficult to maintain over the long term, and there is insufficient evidence regarding long-term health effects. Also, cutting out grains, legumes and dairy from the diet is not consistent with eating a balanced diet, and means you may be at risk of being deficient in certain nutrients, such as calcium.
Instead, consider opting for a less-restrictive way of enjoying the benefits of a Paleo diet. Eat a balanced diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and legumes, moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, dairy and nuts, and limit junk foods. A number of plant-based diets, such as those from the Mediterranean and Okinawa, as well as a vegetarian, or ‘flexitarian’, eating pattern, have all been associated with good health outcomes.
Finally, it is important to remember that diet is only one half of the equation. Traditional hunter-gatherers were far more physically active than today’s sedentary lifestyle, and the health benefits of physically activity are well established. If you want to maximise the health benefits of a wholefoods-based diet, including at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week is a must.