Thai chicken salad

Health concerns ... lean protein, lots of vegetables but not enough fibre. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Sometimes nutrition seems like a war zone with different tribes slugging it out over what’s the best way to eat – and one current skirmish has the Paleo People pitted against the Grain Eaters.

If you haven’t tuned into the Palaeolithic Diet yet, its followers say we need a diet that’s as close as possible to that of our hunter gatherer ancestors: lean animal foods like meat, birds and fish, along with vegetables and nuts but not too much fruit. Dairy foods, legumes and grains are off the menu. As relative newbies that weren’t part of our diet until the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, these foods can cause many health problems now dogging the industrialised world because, according to Paleo philosophy, we haven’t adapted to eating them.  

"If you take these grains out of your diet, along with lentils and beans, can you still get enough fibre?" 

It’s hard to argue with a diet based on lean protein and lots of veg, especially one that kicks highly processed food off the plate. Nor would you disagree that there are some people who can’t tolerate wheat and gluten and are healthier without them. But while the Paleo Diet gets brownie points for being based on whole food, its reliance on meat, fish and poultry doesn’t tick many boxes for environmental sustainability or animal welfare – or anyone on a tight budget.

Muesli and poached pears.

Against the grain ... no place for muesli in the Paleo diet.

The Paleo Diet also leaves me wondering what’s so bad about a whole food diet that includes some grains – foods that have sustained so many traditional cultures for thousands of years. I don't mean diets swamped by refined grains, but modest amounts of the rougher stuff - whole grains like oats, barley, bulgur and brown rice that provide fibre as well as nutrients. If you take these grains out of your diet, along with lentils and beans, can you still get enough fibre?

“You can – but you’d have to work a lot harder to get it and you’d also miss out on getting a diversity of different fibres,” says Dr Tony Bird, Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Food Futures National Research Flagship.

Bird believes we need a mix of three types of fibre for optimal health – there’s the heart healthy viscous fibre from oats, barley, some vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, and there’s insoluble fibre from grains and quinoa that help keep the bowels moving. Then there’s a third type - resistant starch from legumes, whole grains, under-ripe bananas, cooled cooked potatoes and al dente pasta that may give extra protection against colon cancer.  

The reason is that resistant starch provides food for friendly gut bacteria, which then produce a substance called butyrate - and this seems to protect cells in the colon from DNA damage.

“There’s strong evidence for this from animal studies along with corroborating studies in humans,” says Bird.” And if you look at African populations with rates of colon cancer that are about one tenth of ours they have diets very high in resistant starch.”

Tony Bird also speculates that lack of sufficient resistant starch in the diet may help explain what he calls the Australian paradox – that while our intake of fibre has increased, our bowel cancer rates are still high.

While the Paleo Diet sees grains as an enemy contributing to many western diseases, Bird points out that research also suggests that high fibre grains are linked to less obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease – and that if you look at the populations with less risk for western diseases, they tend to be those eating diets high in starchy fibre foods.  

Whether you go with the grain or without it is up to you, but for now I’m sticking with a whole food diet that includes a mix of different grains. The Paleo Diet may be pretty healthy, but then so are eating styles based on traditional diets like the Mediterranean Diet and the Okinawa Diet. Both include some grains but, like the Paleo Diet, they don’t include highly processed food –and that’s likely to be the real enemy.

Are you for or against grains in the diet?