The Paleo diet might be heading for extinction, like the cavemen who inspired it, after the country’s leading nutrition body warned Australians that the popular eating plan is potentially dangerous.
Also known as the Caveman or Stone Age diet, modern Paleo eating mimics the hunter-gatherer diet of our Paleolithic ancestors and promotes a diet that avoids grains, legumes and some dairy products in favour of lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, non-starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The Paleo craze has become one of the most popular lifestyle trends around endorsed by celebrities, bloggers and many in the fitness world who have linked it with weight loss and health benefits. Last year it was the most Googled diet on the internet. From books – there are about 5000 Paleo-related books available on Amazon – to restaurants, a whole industry now exists around the Paleo lifestyle.
However, the chief executive of the Dietitians Association of Australia, Claire Hewat, says there is no scientific evidence to support eating the Paleo way.
"A recent search of the published studies looking at Paleolithic diets revealed no more than 10 studies, all with very few participants over very short time frames – most less than three months. And many people dropped out of the studies, claiming the diet was difficult to follow,” Hewat says.
Hewat also says she is concerned that the Paleo diet excludes whole food groups.
“Some proponents of Paleo suggest we avoid all grains, legumes, certain dairy products, conventionally raised meats, non-organic produce and genetically modified and processed foods,” Hewat says.
"Any diet excluding whole food groups should raise suspicions. The idea of cutting out grain-based foods and legumes is not backed by science and eating more meat than is needed by the body certainly has risks, according to the World Health Organisation."
Instead of getting on the latest fad diet bandwagon, Hewat said Australians should become familiar with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Australians released last year, and to seek expert nutrition advice from an accredited practising dietitian.
Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton points out the inconsistencies that exist between the diets of our ancestors and the modern Paleo version.
“Many anthropological experts dispute the claims of Paleo diet promoters, noting that our ancestors’ diets varied greatly and many included seeds of grasses,” she says. “Claims that our ancestors did not experience heart disease, cancer and diabetes ignore the fact that few people lived past their reproductive age and physical activity ensured people were lean.”
Stanton says we should applaud the low content of processed foods, sugar and salt advocated in Paleo diets but asks, “why exclude plant-based foods such as wholegrains and legumes when a wealth of evidence confirms their health value?
“Two major hazards associated with the Paleo diet are the high content of red meat and the lack of wholegrains” she says. “Cancer experts rate a high intake of meat as a convincing cause of bowel cancer while wholegrains reduce the risk. These two factors also increase long-term risk of heart disease.”
Not only is adhering to a Paleo diet expensive but people who cut food groups such as carbohydrates from their diets also face other dangers, says Margaret Hays, a spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
People cut out carbohydrates and then find that they really struggle through the day, she says. “What I find is that a lot of people are reaching for quick fix snacks and they are getting more sugar and more fat than we would recommend so it backfires on a lot of people.”
Hays says in her works as a dietician she has seen people who are following a very low carbohydrate diet “so when they do have carbohydrates they binge on them and they then develop binge-eating disorders or some other kind of eating disorder.
“People want a quick fix,” Hays says. “They like quick fixes with their diets, they like to follow a fad and they think miracles will happen but it doesn’t work that way. You have to work at being healthy over a long period of time.”