If you’ve come across the Paleo Diet in your search for weight-loss programmes, you will know that it is an eating regime that takes us back to our ancient ancestors. We are supposed to eat like cavemen in the hope that this natural, simple and varied diet will slash our consumption of processed fats and sugars — the most common causes of obesity.
Proponents of the Paleo Diet insist that, if followed correctly, it can make us leaner, stronger, fitter and generally more healthy. But is this all true?
To understand and put into context the pros and cons of the Paleo Diet, it’s a good idea to delve into what our ancestors actually ate millions of years ago.
What did the first humans eat?
It is generally accepted that home sapiens are related to the apes. It is therefore widely believed that we ate a very similar diet to the one today’s primates enjoy. This includes lots of fruit, insects and leaves. As we evolved and learned to work together, however, we started to develop tools that allowed us to become hunter-gatherers. We moved onto meat, more exotic fruits and various vegetables.
According to Paleo Diet proponents, paleolithic humans had a much more balanced and nutritious diet than most Westerners enjoy today. For instance, they had a great deal more fibre, protein, unsaturated fat and vitamins in their diet than most of us have today. They also consumed a great deal less saturated fat, sugar and salt.
This all sounds perfect, right? Well, no, because paleolithic humans were susceptible to parasites, infectious diseases and cardiovascular problems. The truth is that humans need a well balanced diet to thrive, packed with good carbohydrates, fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Crucially, the Paleo Diet forbids the consumption of legumes and grains, which many nutritionists warn against.
What should you eat?
The pros are simple: the Paleo Diet is rich in fruit, vegetables, raw nuts, seeds and animal fats. There is very little saturated fat, no processed sugar, no dairy products and no added salt in this eating regime, but you can eat animal products such as eggs and honey. Off the menu, however, are grains and legumes.
Legumes are a no-no because they are rich in “anti-nutrients” such as phylates and lectins. However, research tells us that cooking legumes almost completely eliminates these substances. Grains are out because of the inflammation they can cause — but this only affects the small proportion of people with celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten. But most nutritionists are in agreement that whole grains, for most of us, are beneficial to our general health.
The Issue with the Paleo Diet
The claims that paleolithic people were healthier than we are today are hotly disputed. Yes, obesity isn’t believed to have been an issue, but certain deficiencies in their diet probably led to a range of different health issues we don’t have to worry about today.
Most nutritionists will tell you that dairy, legumes and grains are all part of a healthy, well balanced diet — and to cut them out of your life completely could cause more problems that it solves.
The best option is surely to take the principle of eating vegetables, fruit and unprocessed meats and adopt a healthy, balanced, calorie-controlled diet in the long term. Replace the processed foods in your life with the staples of the human diet, cut down on processed sugar, and slash your consumption of the hydrogenated fats that are found in fast foods and ready-meals.
Exercise, eat well and look after yourself generally, and you can enjoy all the benefits of the Paleo Diet without most of the drawbacks.