Simply put, the Paleo diet claims that eating the way hunter-gatherers did will promote health and wellbeing, but what do Fred and Wilma Flintstone know that we don’t? In this post, we are going to examine the Paleo diet and the critiques that have been waged against it, before considering whether it can be a useful way to structure your diet.
What is the Paleo diet?
The Paleo diet promotes eating foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. It includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some oils. Basically, the foods that can be hunted or gathered. It eliminates all highly processed food, grains, legumes, sugar, dairy, vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners.
It is based on the idea that changes to our diet that have occurred through agriculture and processing advancements are the cause of many of the diseases that are endemic in modern society, such as type II diabetes and cancer.
It claims that our bodies are not designed to handle these types of foods and that eliminating them from our diet will enormously benefit our health. As part of this, the Paleo diet is promoted as a weight-loss diet and paints excess weight as a side-effect of eating farmed and processed foods.
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Do experts recommend the paleo diet?
The Paleo diet has been criticised by both scientists and historians for a number of reasons.
Problem 1: The first is that its emphasis on meat consumption does not tally with what we know about past diets.
Our ancestors’ consumption of animal and fish products was dependent on their local region.
The same goes for the plants they ate. They would have also had to eat with the seasons. The variety of foods available on the Paleo diet, therefore, reflects global Palaeolithic diets (and even this is disputed), not what individual people ate.
Problem 2: We have evolved to eat starches
Back in secondary school, you will have learnt about amylase, an enzyme in saliva that begins the starch digestion process in the mouth so that it is well digested by the time it hits the small intestine, where the nutrients can be better absorbed.
We are biologically programmed to be able to eat carbohydrates, of which grains are an important source. There is also evidence that our ancestors did eat grains and legumes, although not in high quantities.
Problem 3: The Paleo diet ignores the lifestyles of our ancestors
Our ancestors had to catch and forage everything they ate. Their energy expenditure was huge compared to our dander down to the supermarket! This makes comparisons between their diets and ours very difficult, and it is likely that assumptions based on diets alone are wrong.
Summing Up: Is the Paleo diet worth it for most people?
Given that the Paleo diet includes a wide variety of foods that our ancestors would not have had access to, ignores some of the foods that they did eat, and fails to take into account our radically different lifestyles, the claim that eating this way is more aligned with our bodies’ natural needs is flawed. However, this is not to say that the diet itself is not beneficial.
The distinguishing feature of the Paleo diet is its emphasis on whole foods, which we know are more nutritionally loaded and satisfying than highly processed foods. It also cuts out high sugar and most high-fat foods, which are a known contributor to excess weight. As compared to most low-fat or low-carb diets, it does not demonise fat or carbs or have complicated rules around counting macros.
This is better for energy levels, which will always suffer if deprived of a macronutrient, and for our mental health, for the same reason. This is why the Paleo diet can be a successful way to approach weight loss.
The structure of the Paleo diet and its emphasis on whole foods make it an easy-to-follow plan which will not leave you feeling deprived. However, there are a couple of tweaks that we would recommend if you want to use this plan to lose weight. The first tweak is about the exclusion of whole grains, which are an important source of fibre and provide food for your gut bacteria. Eating a few servings a week will be beneficial to your gut.
The Paleo diet cuts out dairy. However, milk and plain yoghurt are good sources of calcium and protein, easy to portion control, and less expensive than almond milk (which our ancestors did not have anyway). Tweaking the diet to include milk and yoghurt is, therefore, a smart move.
It is difficult to buy into the claimed health benefits of eating Paleo given the significant flaws in the diet’s logic, however, as an eating plan, it is practical and includes a lot of good foods. While a few tweaks are needed to ensure that your body gets everything it needs nutritionally if the diet appeals to you it could be a good way to approach weight loss.