Paleo diet–is it all it’s cracked up to be?
Anyone in the fitness industry, health industry or has investigated dieting will have come across the Paleo diet. It’s huge! It’s bigly! In fact, it took the world by storm when it first came out and still has strong followers today. But is it just another diet fad?
What is the Paleo diet?
Paleo is a shortened version of the word Palaeolithic, a time in history from around two-and-a-half million years ago when humans started using stones for tools, and thus the common term for this period of our evolution is The Stone Age .
The Paleo diet is therefore often known as either the Caveman diet or the Stone Age diet, and is based on what we know as the diet of early hunter-gatherer human beings.
Prof. Loren Cordain, PhD
The Paleo diet was founded by the exercise physiologist, Prof. Loren Cordain  who teaches at the Colorado State University in the US . He wrote his first book on ancestral diets back in 2002, although the ideas of this diet were not new and are based on writings on ancestral diets during the 1970s and 80s.
The basics of this diet have somewhat evolved over time, and have become interpreted by different people in different ways. In order to follow the pure, original intention of the diet, Prof. Cordain has his own website that is dedicated to all things Paleo.
This diet is essentially an exclusion diet. There are “don’t eat” and “do eat” lists, but committing these to memory is not difficult since the “don’t eat” list focuses on whole food groups.
Foods that are excluded in the Paleo diet include :
- All cereal grains: wheat, oats, rye, barley. So this means no beer, whisky, bread, pasta, couscous, noodles anything made with grain flour
- All legumes. So this means no lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas, peanuts and peanut butter, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, or anything made with legume flour (such as papadum)
- Refined sugar. No cakes, sweets, biscuits, chocolate, pastries
- Dairy. No milk, yoghurt, cream, cheese, butter
- Processed food. Nothing at all in a packet or bottle or jar that has gone through a manufacturing process
- Potatoes. No fries, no roasties, no baked spuds, no shepherd’s pie, fish pie, fritters, croquettes
- Refined oils
- Salt. No processed foods. No adding salt no stock or bouillon, no soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tamari sauce, miso, no pickled vegetables, no fermented vegetables.
Foods that are allowed in the Paleo diet include :
- Grass-fed meat. This comes at a high price tag incidentally
- Fish and seafood
- Nuts and seeds
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Unrefined oils
When you look at this diet, it’s essentially a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. The included food list are all very laudable but there are some essential problems with this diet, and they are largely of practicality. There is no doubt that you can get all your nutritional needs from this diet, but depends upon how much of the foods you eat.
1. The diet as a whole
My main concern about this diet as a whole is that it only lists nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables are you main sources of dietary fibre. You would be forgiven for thinking that this diet essentially sits around high protein foods like grass-fed meat, fish, shellfish and eggs, with all other foods supporting this.
We don’t need that much protein in our diet. Most of us only need around 0.8-1g of protein for each kilogramme that we weigh, and this is approximately 15-20% of your daily calorie intake.
Without sufficient dietary fibre, you’re not doing your gut much good. There are trillions of live species in our guts that survive on the diet we give it, and science is increasingly telling us that these species look after us in more ways than we care to think!
Excluding plant-based proteins (except nuts and seeds) is a mistake. The western dietary lifestyle would mean that most followers of this diet would subsist largely on meat, and there is no evidence that early humans ate as much meat as we do today. Remember, the stone age people had to chase their meat, they didn’t keep cows!
If you look at carnivores in modern day nature, they often do not eat fresh meat for several days at a time, largely because most of their attempted kills are unsuccessful – their prey outrun them. So it is likely that early humans ate a mostly vegetarian diet supported by meat when they could get it, and not the other way around.
Avoiding dairy in children and in the elderly (it’s doubtful there were any elderly in Stone Age times, most died by the age of 40) exposes you to risks of calcium deficiencies, and this can have a profound effect on growing bones and aging bones.
Part of the diet is the exclusion of oils other than unrefined oils; essentially this means using cold-pressed, the most expensive method of producing oil.
They do make the oils taste much better, but unrefined oils are not stable in heat and therefore not particularly good for cooking.
They have a much lower smoke point and thus burn quicker, producing compounds that aren’t good for your health.
I suppose the Paleo diet would suggest you cook in unrefined coconut fat or lard, both of which are much more stable at high temperatures, but both are very high in saturated fat.
This diet excludes legumes. The Paleo followers want us to follow a diet as close to nature as possible, and legumes are mostly consumed in their dried form, although not all. Also some require a lot of cooking to remove harmful enzymes first, something that cavemen probably didn’t do.
I’m baffled why legumes would be excluded as they provide an essential source of dietary fibre, minerals, protein and vitamins. This diet would be very difficult for a vegetarian to follow, since there is no other source of protein other than nuts and seeds. Legumes are great at helping us stay fuller for longer, and from an ecological point of view, growing legumes has less of an environmental impact than farming animals .
The diet only allows grass-fed meat, which suggests the animals are pasture-fed, free-roaming and probably organic (by that I mean, not pharmaceutically managed to bulk lean meat). This is possibly the healthier way to eat meat, as recent research suggests that it might be higher in omega-3 fatty acids that the animal gets from eating grass , but the cost of this meat excludes a number of people on lower incomes.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this diet, in fact it’s probably quite a healthy diet to follow – providing you make the most of the fruit and vegetable aspect of it. I applaud the avoidance of processed foods, but then – not all processed food is bad! Yoghurt is processed, but is it bad?
The avoidance of legumes and even dairy and grains to me is strange. We’ve adapted to this in our diet over thousands of years, I don’t understand why they have to be excluded simply because early humans chased their meat rather than reared it on their back lawn.
I can’t help thinking that eating a Paleo diet as a lifestyle would not quickly get boring. Imagine a life with no rice, lentil dhal, bread, cheese, a bit of chocolate or even a beer!
I wouldn’t recommend it for young children or the elderly, due the absence of dairy and calcium – however, excluding grains and legumes does prevent the dieter from consuming phytates and oxalates that block some minerals like calcium from being absorbed into the body.
I wonder how easy it is to following in the long-term, both from a practical and financial point of view. It would entail home cooking every day – it would mean getting almost all protein from meat, and that doesn’t particularly sit well with me as I believe quite firmly that we should also be getting protein from plants too.
It does exclude food groups, not a strategy I promote particularly. I wouldn’t recommend going Paleo, but I would also not deter either.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.