The term dieting has been around since the time of Ancient Greece. Everyone has heard of diets, and almost everyone has entertained the idea of trying them. The choices in weight-loss dieting are endless and sometimes downright nutty. But I want to really hone in on one of the most popular diets of the 21st century: the controversial Paleolithic diet, AKA the Paleo diet. Give it a Google and you will be bombarded by thousands of articles on “everything you need to know” about this diet. So what is the Paleo diet, why is it problematic and what exactly has put it in the mainstream spotlight and why is it so damn popular?
The Paleo diet, also known as the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet is a pretty recent phenomenon, arguably starting out in 2011 when Loren Cordain published the first Paleo Diet book. It claims to be the alleged diet of Paleolithic cavemen, where the focus is on eating only meat, fruits and vegetables; y’know the only foods that were available to our stone-age ancestors. This means that grains/legumes, dairy, refined sugar, salt, processed food and coffee are all out of the question.
Ok, so the first thing I will say is that any diet that emphasises fruit and vegetable intake while cutting processed foods, sugar and fats is a positive thing. Studies have even found that the Paleo diet boasts short-term benefits like weight loss, improved glucose tolerance, blood pressure control, and appetite management. However, that’s kind of where the good stuff ends.
It’s important to note that I said ‘short-term’ benefits, as there haven’t been any conclusive studies to prove the Paleo diet can have lasting benefits to our modern-day bodies. As researchers of a long-term study of Paleo diet on obese women, Mellberg (et al) concluded;
The long-term consequences of [the Paleo diet] remain to be studied.
In other words, researchers don’t know exactly what could happen to your body if you were to make this your lifetime diet. But they do know that restricting grain intake can affect overall diet quality and is generally seen as not the safest (or most practical) way to lose weight in the long term.
And as a nutrition student, I can’t tell you how much it pains me to see grains always getting the cold-shoulder in diets like these- it really irritates me. Restricting such a core food group like that is a recipe for disaster further down the track, but I’ll rant about that a little later.
First I want to talk about the logic behind the Paleo diet: why are people believing so adamantly in the benefits of this régime? Well basically people who adopt it tend to think that ‘if it’s good enough for the cavemen, then it’s good enough for me’. Scientifically speaking, they believe human bodies are genetically mismatched for the modern diet, meaning that our bodies were never supposed to deviate away from the OG hunter-gatherer diet. Looking at those skyrocketing obesity rates of today, it’s hard to not argue that we are killing ourselves with the food modern man has developed. But when a diet starts demonising core food groups that have been proven countlessly to improve and protect quality of life, that’s when we should take a step back and really analyse what we’re doing.
So what are the flaws of this justification? Well from a paleoecology standpoint, the Paleo diet is a straight up myth. The human diet is altered as much by what is available to be eaten as it is by what a species has evolved to eat. The Earth’s ecosystems have constantly evolved over the millennia, and with it so too have our diets and our bodies.
Micro-evolutionary changes have been genomically proven to have occurred in humans between the Paleolithic era and today. For example, we now have an increased number of genes related to breakdown of dietary starches, meaning human beings have evolved to survive off of foods that might not have been available to our caveman ancestors. And in terms of the assumption that paleo hunters didn’t have access to grains, archeologists have actually found evidence of them eating wild grains from 30,000 fossils. Oops, it’s almost as if defining one era by one type of diet is a little unrealistic.
Bringing us back to the modern human, I want to talk about the subsequent consequences of sticking to the Paleo diet. In the short term, we’re talking low-blood sugar from cutting out carbs (which can cause fatigue, fainting, weakness, irritability), diarrhea from the lack of fibre, and irregular sleep patterns from cutting out the dairy that helps regulate serotonin and melatonin needed for sleep. Then there’s the risk of poor bone health due to the combination of cutting out dairy and increasing acidic animal protein intake which can deplete bone tissue. There is also arguably an increased risk of bowel cancers because you’ve taken away the protective fibre that wholegrains provide.
The rising popularity of the Paleo diet in modern times can be associated with its adoption by celebrity chef Pete Evans, who took that Paleo cash cow and milked it for all it was worth. Pete Evans is a celebrity chef with no nutrition or dietitian qualifications and yet he constantly uses his platform to promote a diet he has no expert knowledge on. Out of the 10 books he’s published, 5 of them are Paleo related, with one being infuriatingly tailored to new mums and their infants… Don’t get me started on the bone broth formula thing, it’s a nightmare.
As clinical dietitian Melanie McGrice says,
“…the concern is because he [Pete Evans] isn’t trained in any nutritional science, he doesn’t have the knowledge to be administering this kind of health advice. And a lot of it isn’t backed by evidence.”
To which Pete Evans himself heroically replies with “What do you need a qualification for? To talk common sense?”
The Paleo diet is a controversial topic that is vehemently defended and attacked by both sides of the argument. It’s up to us as individuals to decide what we want to feed our bodies with, but I would highly recommend listening to professionals and not glorified celebrities looking to make a quick buck.