It's the latest diet craze, but should we really be taking lead from our ancestors and eating like cavemen?
The Paleo diet is by no means a new concept, but has gathered momentum over the last couple of years. It is now the subject of hundreds of books and has been further popularised by some high profile celebrity advocates including Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Biel and Miley Cyrus. However, this way of eating is still the subject of much controversy amongst health professionals and nutrition experts.
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The Paleo diet is based on the principle of only eating the foods the cavemen ate during the Paleolithic period - the "hunter-gather" diet. This consists of lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, non-starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds. This is in stark contrast to the typical Westernised diet that has become the main-staple of much of the population; rich in refined carbohydrates, grains, sugar and processed foods, all of which are omitted from the Paleo diet, as well as dairy, starchy vegetables and legumes.
A sample day's menu on the Paleo diet may look something like this:
Breakfast: mushroom omelette
Mid-morning snack: handful of raw, unsalted nuts and fresh fruit
Lunch: salmon and avocado salad
Dinner: chicken breast with steamed broccoli, spinach and a tomato and basil salad
Loren Cordain, PhD, one of the world's leading experts on Paleo nutrition, describes the Paleo way of eating as "the one to which we are genetically adapted". He argues that certain foods only entered our diets with the agricultural revolution (around 10,000 years ago), when we began cultivating grains on a huge scale, and that this is not enough time for our bodies to have adapted to them.
Cordain and other proponents of the diet believe that eliminating 'modern' and processed foods and replacing them with the natural foods our ancestors would have survived on can dramatically improve our health and well-being.
Some of the claimed potential health benefits of eating the Paleo way include reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, weight loss, clearer skin, improved sleep and energy levels and better mental clarity.
It's difficult to argue with a diet that rules out processed food, and encourages the consumption of lean protein and plenty of vegetables. However, those who oppose the Paleo diet believe that it is too restrictive, and unnecessarily cuts out entire food groups such as dairy and wholegrains that they argue could put individuals at risk of nutritional deficiencies. Others challenge the reasoning behind the diet, pointing out that the hunter-gatherers had a much shorter life-span than we enjoy today, and therefore questioning whether we should be taking their lead. There is also the practical element to consider, with many dieticians arguing that it is just not realistic for most busy individuals to be following such a strict regime long-term.
Despite the controversy, there is one key principle of the Paleo diet that is unquestionably good for our health, and that is compliance to an unprocessed diet. In particular eliminating refined sugar, which offers no benefits nutritionally and has been closely tied to a vast array of chronic illnesses, is advocated unanimously by all health professionals.
Perhaps a more sensible and realistic approach would be to take an 80/20 approach to a Paleo eating, allowing for the inclusion of some grains, legumes, dairy, and even the occasional sweet treat!