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Paleo: the most divisive modern diet?

Paleo: a meaty topic.

Paleo: a meaty topic. Photo: PM Images

Far from extinct, the caveman is making a comeback.

In a behemoth manner.

Paleo was the most searched diet term on Google in 2013, caveman cafes are cropping up in capital cities around the country and if you look for paleo books on Amazon you will get close to 4000 listings. There were nearly 20 new books published on the topic in the past month alone.

Cutting to the diet chase on health?

Cutting to the diet chase on health? Photo: Dwight Eschliman

Since the original book promoting paleo, The Paleo Diet by Dr Loren Cordain, was published in 2001, it has certainly been catapulted into public consciousness.

But the diet remains one of the most divisive out there.

Paleo advocates eating how our ancestors theoretically ate 10,000 years ago, pre-agriculture and thus before grains, dairy, sugar, pulses and processed foods were introduced en masse.

The idea, for those who have been living in a cave, is that our genes have not had time to adapt to the rapid (from an evolutionary perspective) changes to our diet. The Western diet as we know it has, paleo-proponants say, led to many of the health issues we face today.

So, paleos are encouraged to emulate the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of old and and stick to grass-fed meat, vegetables, some fruit, nuts and seeds. Ideally, all organic.

Seems simple and healthy enough. Yet paleo was rated the worst of the 29 diets in US News and World report's most recent best and worst diets survey.

The panel of expert judges took issue with every aspect of the regime, saying it was too restrictive, too hard to follow, ineffective for weight loss and unhelpful for heart health.

Its wooden spoon status is incomprehensible to many, including Scott Gooding, personal trainer and co-author of the paleo-inspired lifestyle book Clean Living.

"I find that astonishing," he says. "I'm a massive advocate of paleo. I think it's one of those diets that's easy to adhere to – it's a really clean diet, you're not eating anything processed, anything refined or anything synthetic.

"So if anyone's conscious of their health and of optimal health it's definitely a diet that should be investigated."

But a recent article by Scientific American also took aim at paleo, painting the diet as "half-baked". Apart from saying that the image of the caveman as a "tall, lean, ripped and agile 30-year-old" is idealistic at best, paleo is pulled apart for its sketchy science.

"If humans and other organisms could only thrive in circumstances similar to the ones their predecessors lived in, life would not have lasted very long," it says. The feature also points out that the details around the Paleolithic diet "remain murky" and humans may have been eating grains and dairy for longer than initially thought. 

Certainly Chris Kesser, in his new book Your Personal Paleo Code, concedes that we are not carbon copies of cavemen. Dairy, for instance, need not be entirely eliminated if you are lactose tolerant. "It seems clear now that there are some genetic changes that allow some of us to partially adapt to agriculture," Kesser says.

Gooding agrees that a paleo approach doesn't necessarily mean perfect adherence. For non-purists it can simply help steer them away from processed foods.

"It's about replicating it as best we can," says Gooding, who personally eats organically and avoids all grains, sugar, pulses and dairy.

"You don't have to go as extreme as someone like me. Everyone is on a spectrum – it's all about improving and being a better version of yourself.

"By being aware that there are choices other than grains, other than dairy and trying to eliminate sugar you should make improvements in your health."

A new book takes the paleo health message a step further.

In his book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain's Silent Killers, David Perlmutter, a neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition, reiterates the idea that grains are poisonous to humans.

Although dietitians the world over continue to defend wholegrains and gluten, unless you have coeliac disease, Perlmutter says that gluten (and sugar) spike blood sugars, causing inflammation to the brain. This inflammation, he tells The Sunday Times, "sets the stage for a brain that falls apart". 

Adopting a paleo-style diet (Perlmutter's version includes some dairy and gluten-free grains such as quinoa and rice) can "save" your brain from conditions including dementia and Alzheimer's disease, he says.

He also defends criticisms that the restrictions of paleo result in a nutrient-depleted diet.

"The idea that people are nutritionally deprived because they don't eat grain has no scientific basis," he tells US Health News.

His book has received criticism from those concerned about people taking an unecessarily extreme approach to their diet.

But Perlmutter is unrepentant.

"Halfway measures work halfway," he says. "Even small amounts of cheating can have large inflammation results."

Author and dietitian with a PhD in nutritional science Dr Joanna McMillan agrees with taking an anti-inflammatory approach, "but such a diet does not need to cut out grains", she says.

"First of all, much of this is based on his hypotheses, not scientific evidence. Some of it is based in science but has then been exaggerated.

"So for example we certainly know that if your blood glucose levels regularly run too high, even if you are not a diabetic, this is bad for the brain (as well as other organs). However, you don't need to cut out all grains and sugar to control blood glucose levels."

McMillan also takes issue with Perlmutter's argument that we are not wired to eat grains.

"We have done so for some 10,000 years and so I would argue that it is much more important to consider what have we done to grains in the last 50-100 years that may be causing us problems.

"The answer is we have refined them, thrown out much of the good stuff (the fibre and nutrients) and processed them into energy dense, easy-to-over-consume food products.

"It is not carbohydrate or grains per se that are our problem, but too many cakes, biscuits, refined breads, bagels, pikelets, lollies, confectionary and so on. Team that with insufficient whole plant foods and a sedentary lifestyle and you have a recipe for disaster."

Whether you bin the bread altogether or just cut down on the cakes, the cavemen are at the very least getting us thinking and talking about the modern-day diet.

"We can all make advances in our lifestyle, we can all make improvements in our health," Gooding says. "It's just being open to another way of life . . . but you can't put a price on your health."

169 comments

  • The most sensible aspect to this article is the comment on how refined and overconsumed grains have become, therefore creating the health problems the paleo diet tries to avoid. We need grains for our brains and bodies to function, but in the fibre rich form they grow in, and in moderation.

    Commenter
    LJanes
    Date and time
    February 06, 2014, 6:50AM
    • It is all half-baked nonsense. Our knowledge of our paleolithic ancestors comes from a few fossilized skeletons and much guesswork. They would have lived in a variety of environments, from coastal to alpine, with varied diets and health outcomes we have little way of knowing. It's also based on supposition that despite living on an agricultural diet for 8000 years, there has been no natural selection for those better able to live on this diet in all this time.
      To say "our ancestor 20000 years ago lived on this diet, this diet gave them optimal health outcomes, therefore, this diet will give me good health outcomes" is not an evidence-based conclusion, and I would challenge all three statements.

      Commenter
      Cumquat May
      Location
      Upper Gumbowie
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:28AM
    • We don't "need" grains at all. Is there any nutrient in grains you can't get from vegetables, meat and fruit?

      Commenter
      Al
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:50AM
    • I agree. I think the general direction of steering away from processed foods can only be a good thing. The simple fact is 3/4 of a supermarket aisles are made up of processed foods and crap where half the ingredients are words I can't pronounce with numbers next to them. Emulsifer 2048 for example.

      Now I don't know what Emulsifer 2048 is or what its made from, but when I read this on a label, I have no idea whether it will be broken down into glucose, fatty acids or amino acids. Which, if you want to maintain a macronutrient balanced diet, is the most important thing to know.

      When I buy a carrot or beef steak, I can pretty much know exactly what's in it.

      Obviously moderation comes into play but I think if people can stick to 80% eating whole, natural foods and 20% of the time having a biscuit or bag of chips then, for the most part, they will be healthy and well nourished.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:54AM
    • +1

      Commenter
      CityDweller
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:55AM
    • The trouble is that paleo started with a bad assumption (eat as our ancestors ate) but has now become far more refined (eg low carb/refined grains/no sugar). However, it is still being called 'paleo' and is still being criticised because of the original premise and being discarded for reasons that advocates no longer actually use as justification.

      Call it what you will, the number of people who have lost significant amounts of weight on this diet, without starving, and who find it quite easy to maintain, is astonishing.

      Commenter
      asdf
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:59AM
    • No, the trouble is that the word of paleo is too often being spread from the frothy mouths of zealots.

      I recall one exchange where a paleo adherent was trying to convince another guy (exercised regularly, good blood numbers and looking as fit as they come) that because his diet included a moderate amount of grains, he must have been in a state of constant inflammation and was poisoning himself. This kind of thing is far from rare. Just look at any comments thread where anyone dares to suggest that there are any alternatives to the One True Diet.

      You know what? We get it. You've found something that works for you. Congratulations. Now please shut up about it.

      Commenter
      Spex
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 11:43AM
    • @Al...can I reiterate.....pulses like lentils, chickpeas, 'seeds' like sesame and flax, nuts, grains, coconuts and some vegetables such as green peas and beans ARE ALL SEEDS!!! In other words they are reproductive capsules packed with nutrients. Why does the paleo diet single out grains and pulses as bad, but the other types of seed are great?

      Commenter
      Grains, nuts, pulses, coconuts are all seeds.
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 12:39PM
    • @Adrian. Whilst avoiding processed foods is a good thing as it makes it easier to have a balanced diet it can be done whilst still including grains - simply ones that are not refined (not sure if you were suggesting grains were to be avioded). And the fact something has a number and a name you can't pronounce doesn't mean it's bad for you. Many chemicals in life, and in natural foods you eat, would have chemical names that are hard to pronounce. As far as I know there is no Emulsifier 2048 (wrong number range) but I don't know any emulsifiers that are a problem in terms of food intolerance. You could get too much of one I guess but then egg yolks are emulsifiers and you could also have too much of them.

      And you don't really know what's in vegies. There's countless chemicals in them that we assume are OK simply because we've evolved to eat such things and mostly they are but some can also give you an upset if there's too much of them. And if they're not organic then they may have pesticides in the skin that are worse for you than some emulsifier. A friend that runs a lab that tests such things always peels them - despite the nutrients in the skin. I'm too lazy.

      Commenter
      Nowt
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 1:39PM
    • And if you research how the first food pyramid telling people to eat grains came into effect, you'll find that it came from General Mills/Post, one of the biggest cereal and grain producing corporations in the world. They actually paid Harvard University a large sum to come up with the Pyramid and then paid to get it backed by specialists and nutritionists as part of the USDA food program. And if you look around the word where countries are abandoning their way of life, you will find the "Western" diet high in grains, carbs and refined sugar causing a lot of diseases that these places didn't suffer from previously.

      Commenter
      MrBiggles
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 1:56PM

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