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Paleo: Pete Evans and the truth about the diet

The paleo lifestyle is often ridiculed by many, yet few people really understand it.

If you look at lists of the atrocities of 2014, you will see three standouts: Ebola, missing planes and the paleo diet.

In its annual "Top Celebrity Diets to Avoid in The New Year", the British Dietetic Association rated the paleo diet as the second worst regime, second only to "Urine Therapy" which advocates drinking you own urine for alleged health benefits.

The Dietitians Association of Australia call the paleo diet "potentially dangerous". There are arguments that it's too expensive, tasteless, unsustainable, time consuming and socially isolating.

And the media has also given the paleo diet, which excludes cereal grains, legumes, processed food, dairy and refined sugar, a thorough serving.

Personally, I feel many people are missing the paleo brigade's point.

For a start, the paleo lifestyle is lumped into the "diet" category. While it can produce great weight loss results, paleo isn't a diet, it is a lifestyle, and there's a lot more to it than not eating grains.

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Outspoken paleo advocate, chef, My Kitchen Rules judge and author of a series of paleo cookbooks, Pete Evans says it's not a diet, and nor is it a "fad".

"All these labels serve to do is disconnect paleo far away from its reality and, as a result - by forcing labels - many critics are getting it quite wrong. At its heart, paleo is about taking a balanced approach by returning to eating whole, nutrient-dense foods and living in a more sustainable and holistic way," he says.

"Isn't this what we all want to achieve, in some way? To have access new information? To question where our food comes from? And to understand how every day we can make the best possible healthy choices for ourselves and our families?"

While the paleo lifestyle is based on what our ancestors ate, it is exactly that - based on. We live in a much more advanced society these days, and have learned a lot which improves our lives.

Back in Palaeolithic times, people had much shorter lifespans. They also had very different standards of hygiene, cooking practices, and medical knowledge.

"We aren't trying to be cavemen. Sure, paleo takes its cues from our ancestors but these cues are coupled with what we know from today's nutritional research as a way of effectively taking control of your own health," says Evans. 

"The paleo lifestyle really is a way of life in which we can eat consciously and be mindful about how we use the earth's precious resources. It's not about labels. Instead, it's about seeking out the most natural, locally-sourced ingredients and eating a diet rich in delicious nutrient-dense wholefoods."

This is an eating philosophy that encourages paying attention to what's in your food, cutting out processed foods, eating locally, moving more and working towards a more sustainable future for the planet.

A recent catalogue for a large retailer had a page labelled "after school snacks" which showed Nutella, chips, juice, popcorn, biscuits and sugar-filled muesli bars. Do we really live in a world where it's perfectly fine to feed your kids that, but considered ludicrous to not eat grains?

The paleo lifestyle was something I particularly looked into after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Absolutely terrified to be sitting in a rheumatologist's office at the ripe old age of 25 and at least 40 years younger than anyone else in the waiting room, the doctor's prognosis left me looking at what I was putting in my body. Staring down a lifetime of medication didn't appeal to me, and the doctor told me that preventative action on my behalf could stop any physical symptoms coming on, despite my blood results.

It wasn't until then that I actually started to pay attention to what my body was telling me, and it turned out not everything that I was consuming made me feel good at all.

I did a lot of my own research, and chatted to a lot of other people who had been in similar situations, and the paleo lifestyle was what resonated with me.

A year later when I returned to the rheumatologist, he was very impressed at the improvement in my test results. I'd spent the year taking good care of myself in general, and I'm not saying the paleo lifestyle is what fixed things, but it certainly helped to get my body to a better place.

Vegetarians choose not to eat an entire food group because they either don't agree with it ethically, it doesn't agree with them, or they generally just don't like it.

Paleo isn't all that different. 

Instead of meat, vegetarians source their nutrition through other foods. Those who are paleo do exactly the same thing - but instead the foods that work well with their body.

And for those of us who find certain foods that do work for us that aren't strictly "paleo", it's just a matter of incorporating that in.

Personally, I also eat quinoa, oats, goat's cheese, buckwheat and corn regularly, and Evans is all for this.

"I like to steer well clear of labels because it's not about fitting in. It's about fitting yourself out with what's right for you. No two people are the same, nor are their bodies, the delicate balance of their systems or the health of their organs. This isn't a 'one size fits all' policy. Instead, paleo is constantly evolving, in the same way as nutritional guidelines all do today," he said.

"Essentially, it's about making a commitment to cutting out the processed food, choosing the most natural, nutrient-dense ingredients you can and then listening and learning from your body because it will tell you what is right for you. It's really about making sure that you consciously choose foods that are designed to let your body and mind function at optimal capacity with every mouthful you take."

Practicality, cost and the lifestyle being too time-consuming are some of the biggest criticisms of the lifestyle, which for me just makes no sense.

In terms of cost, in my experience, sourcing fresh produce from local farmers where possible is not only cheaper, but it also lasts far longer, meaning less goes to waste.

Shopping in the supermarket is a breeze, given the meat and vegetable section is generally right at the front door. And anyone who thinks cooking up a piece of meat with a nice mix of herbs and spices and some veggies is outrageously difficult is kidding themselves. Restaurants also all have a meat and vegetable dish of some kind.

Paleo advocates and previous My Kitchen Rules contestants, Luke Hines and Scott Gooding, set out to dispel these myths in their Clean Living series of books.

"A lot of people say that it's unsustainable and too expensive because they either try to do everything every single meal out and about at their local paleo-style cafe, which is unaffordable and unsustainable, or they're trying to still shop with a non-paleo headspace," says Hines.

"So they're still looking for the fancy cuts of meat and they're thinking they still need to buy the same amount of product as they would in a regular lifestyle, but not only can they buy cheaper cuts of meat, but you don't actually need as much food as you used to eat."

The paleo lifestyle also goes hand-in-hand with the nose-to-tail philosophy - consuming as much as possible of an animal, with minimal waste - which means it's not only more sustainable and ethical, but also supports buying the cheapest cuts of meat.

"I think it's great that the whole nose-to-tail concept is gathering momentum and people are sort of opening their eyes to the odder cuts of meat," says Gooding.

"If you choose to eat meat then I think you should respect the animal and eat as much as you can, not just the eye fillet or the lamb backstrap. You should eat the brains and the liver and the whole thing."

And as for the arguments that the food is tasteless, you don't have to go far these days to find a blog or a book filled with delicious and easy paleo dishes, including nutritionist Lola Berry's upcoming book The Happy Cookbook which even includes a paleo-fied version of a Cadbury Creme Egg.

"I don't love when people tell me healthy is boring," says Berry.

"I'm like, 'no it's not, you just haven't enjoyed beautiful healthy food. Or your taste buds aren't used to not having that much sugar.' I think to call healthy food boring without giving it a chance, I think that's not cool."

For Emma and Carla Papas who run paleo blog The Merrymaker Sisters, adopting a paleo lifestyle not only left them with, "higher and longer lasting energy levels, weight loss, clear skin and no more 3pm sugar cravings and bloated bellies", it even improved their relationship with food in general.

"The most exciting benefit from living paleo is our new positive relationship with the food we eat. Long gone are food binges and the guilty feelings that follow afterwards," they said.

"Instead, we eat when we're hungry and choose foods that are going to nourish our bodies and make us feel our bests."

As hilarious and original as all the jokes are - that paleo followers shouldn't use blenders or electricity, or should be out catching wild boar for dinner - let's be serious.

It all comes down to how conveniences have changed our lives. 

Convenience certainly has its benefits. I would much rather use my aforementioned blender than crush something up by hand. I also appreciate my fridge, and technology as a whole, as well as the other modern trappings that we're accustomed to.

However, we eat pre-packaged foods that are full of ingredients and chemicals that we've never heard of and cannot pronounce. We sit down for long periods of time. We take escalators and lifts instead of the stairs. We even call or email our colleague at the other end of the floor instead of walking over to chat to them. And when we do move, we go inside to buildings where we get on man-made machines, which as much as I do it myself, really is a bit ludicrous when you think about it.

This is the part of modern life that paleo frowns upon.

So how can the paleo movement survive in a world where it's publicly lambasted as only slightly better than drinking one's own urine?

Just like the animals that survived the prehistoric age, paleo needs to evolve. 

Fellow Australian Irena Macri, author of Eat, Drink, Paleo, says she believes paleo is often misrepresented to and largely misunderstood, and that people are missing the bigger picture.

"I think if people focused on the positives, if we all came together, people that promote paleo and people that promote other lifestyles, and if we focused on our similarities rather than our differences, we would be giving much better service to the public," she said. 

"It's very important for both parties to stay fluid and to stay objective and to continually evolve based on the latest research, and that also includes paleo. And it has changed quite a bit. I think people are still focussing on a very early version of paleo which was quite strict. 

"It all becomes about personalisation and people really tailoring the paleo template to suit them. So it's more here's paleo, learn about it, and adapt the aspects of it that will help you achieve better well-being in your situation." 

As for me, I know paleo is not for everyone, and that's fine, but I certainly don't believe it deserves public ridicule.

If people want to be close-minded that's fine - they are entitled to opinions. But let's be honest - that way of thinking didn't work out too well for the dinosaurs.

Pete Evans and Luke Hines are heading around the country on The Paleo Way tour. Tickets available from earthevents.com.au.

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