04 Jan 2022
The paleo diet is a way of eating which tries to mimic the diet of our Palaeolithic ancestors. According to the diet’s proponents, this means centring your diet around foods like meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. (1)
Meanwhile, foods which became staple items long after this period, such as grain products, dairy and processed foods, are largely off the menu.
The theory goes that our genetic makeup hasn’t changed significantly since the Paleolithic era. Advocates of the diet argue that this means we should return to the dietary patterns humans followed back then. By doing this they hope to avoid lifestyle diseases which have become common in the modern age. These include diabetes and heart disease.
The Paleolithic era covered a very long period of time, from about 2.5 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago. At this point we started to use stone tools (and eventually grow our own food).(2)
Scientists and fans of the diet can’t agree on a single ‘true’ paleo diet, so there is a bit of variation in what foods are allowed depending on where you get your information.
However, generally speaking, the following foods are acceptable when eating a paleo diet:
You can also enjoy a small amount of honey.
Fans of the diet argue that these types of food would have been part of the diet of hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic period. As such, they form part of the optimum diet for our genetic makeup.
Any foods which became part of our diet after the Paleolithic period are generally a ‘no-no’. If, like most of us, your knowledge of agricultural history is a little thin, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid the following foods:
This is because these foods involve the use of agricultural methods to either grow (grains, cereals) or care for (dairy). They were not available during the Paleolithic period and, as such, are not allowed on the paleo diet.
Yes, the paleo diet is gluten-free. This is a side effect of removing all grains and cereals from your diet.
However, not all gluten-free diets are paleo. If you are sensitive to gluten and need to exclude it, you can do so by removing gluten-containing grains from your diet. These include wheat, rye and barley.
If your sole concern is eliminating gluten, you don’t need to follow the full paleo diet.
The paleo diet has a lot more restrictions than a standard gluten-free diet. It excludes foods on the basis of whether our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate them, rather than on their nutritional content.
As mentioned above, the idea behind the diet is that by eating the optimum diet for our genetic makeup, we can avoid ‘modern’ lifestyle diseases.
But does the paleo diet actually have any effect on our risk of these illnesses?
As it turns out, the jury is out on that.
Take, for example, two major lifestyle diseases that are increasingly common in the West: diabetes and heart disease.
An uncontrolled study of Aboriginal people in northwest Australia with type 2 diabetes showed that following a ‘hunter gatherer lifestyle’ for seven weeks resulted in 10% weight loss and reductions in blood glucose levels.(2)
Another compared groups with diabetes or heart disease following a Mediterranean diet (which included grains and low-fat dairy alongside paleo-friendly items like vegetables and nuts) and a paleo diet. The study found that both diets improved glucose tolerance, but the improvement was much greater in the paleo group.(2)
One more study looked at a small group of non-obese ‘sedentary subjects’ (i.e. people who did not lead an active lifestyle). It found that the paleo diet helped to reduce blood pressure, their ability to process glucose and other markers of good cardiovascular health.(2)
So far, it all sounds rosy. So, what are are the controversies surrounding the diet?
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