Paleo, cave-man, hunter-gatherer – call it what you will, a diet based on grub that might have been feeding our stone age ancestors (that’s 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago) is all the rage. Hollywood loves it. Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus, Jessica Biel – they’ve all been channelling their inner cave girl. Weight loss, energy, sparkling skin, mental clarity: you name it, Paleo is said to deliver it.
So what is the Paleo diet and, more importantly, is it any good?
According to Paleo’s cheerleaders, things started to go wrong for our diet when farming emerged – somewhere around 10,000 years ago. Dairy, grains and legumes all started to fill the pantry. And for Paleo fans our bodies weren’t ready. They couldn’t adapt fast enough. And the resulting mismatch lies behind the avalanche of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that is killing us by the million. Enter the Paleo diet.
It takes us back to what the gurus say we were evolved to eat. And that means what – at least on a good day – a hunter-gatherer could lay her hands on. We’re talking fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, lean meat, preferably from wild game or grass-fed animals – anything that speaks of industrialised farming is a no-no – as well as oily fish like wild salmon or mackerel and good oils made from olives or nuts.
Like a lot of healthy diets, paleo wants us to chuck out anything highly processed, anything refined – white sugar, trans fats, anything too starchy like potatoes – as well as salt. But it also wants us to avoid things like oats, barley, beans and peas, stuff we’re used to thinking of as healthy.
So what does the science say?
Well there’s lots of healthy stuff on the paleo plate: piles of fruit and greenery, lots of lean meat and Omega 3 rich fish, so if your staple diet is burgers, beer and bacon butties, chances are you’ll lose some weight and give your body a boost. Some small studies put it on a par with the Mediterranean diet – a benchmark for healthy eating. It’s also billed as a long-term strategy, not a crash diet, which is all to the good. There are those who claim that it can help with autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders – lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or Alzheimer’s – but despite some of the hype, the evidence is thin. So talk to your doctor.
If there is an issue with Paleo, it’s more to do with what’s missing – diary, grains and legumes. Dairy is an important source of calcium – so paleo might not be good for osteoporosis – and grains and legumes are both important sources of fibre and may reduce heart disease. Again, no harm in talking to your doctor if you’ve got any underlying health problems and want to embark on a diet.