I have decided to look into the Paleo diet. Not in order to eat that way myself, but to explore the science behind it. As a doctor, medical educator and science communicator I feel an obligation to be able to provide accurate information about this way of eating that is surging in popularity.
I have had a few friends and patients express an interest in eating ‘paleo’, ostensibly as part of a quest for better health, but is it really that healthy? Is it safe? I worry that eating paleo lends itself readily to the sufferers of disordered eating as yet another way they can ‘legitimately’ cut their caloric intake.
Certainly the diet in its pure form is not a bad one, as fad diets go. With an emphasis on whole foods it ensures minimum processed food is consumed. The basic premise is that we should return to those primitive foods that are available from trees, plants and animals. For some reason this excludes some plant based foods. This is where the water becomes muddy.
The problem arises, in my view, in what is left out. Aside from those with an intolerance, such as in coeliac disease, avoiding whole grains is a good way to deplete your diet of many essential nutrients. Avoiding dairy means it gets that little bit harder to get enough calcium. Avoiding foods like lentils and peas seems nonsensical.
Another problem is that some food groups are overrepresented.
The ‘paleo breakfast’ on the menu of my favourite local cafe consists of bacon, eggs and avocado. I’m not sure just how paleo this is, and my arteries shudder at the thought of this fatty feast. It also seems that when something is labelled ‘paleo’ people may eat more of it as they believe it must be good for them. I wonder about all the slices and balls full of coconut oil, cacao and dates… Is eating a bunch of these really better than having a good wholegrain salad sandwich?
The paleo diet seems a bit meat heavy to me. Being vegetarian, it is certainly a diet I won’t be trying. Australians already eat too much meat. An overly high protein intake is not beneficial and has some adverse health effects, like increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
Finally, I ask why? Why the urge to eat as we would have when we were cavemen? Human beings have been farmers and cultivators for a long time now. The suggestion that we have not yet evolved to digest dairy and grains is lacking in scientific evidence. Humans have certainly evolved since the Stone Age. The gene for blue eyes is relatively recent in the timeline of humanity.
Apparently we would avoid all our modern diseases of excess if we ate paleo. However, when I speculate about the health of a caveman, I do not see a glowing, fit human being glorifying in being free of diabetes. I see a malnourished, toothless crone (aged about 25) at the end of her life, with stringy hair, sallow skin and hungry eyes.
I would like to see these paleo people, accustomed to their life of luxurious choice, darting about the bush with spears, hunting down their dinner. This is what a true paleo follower should do, surely. Or they should come out at night and scavenge from roadkill, then get up early in the morning to start foraging for berries.
If we ate only what was available in caveman times- we would probably starve. We have not only cultivated plants but we have also bred animals to produce more meat. None of the animals available for the eating in the paleolithic area exist in an unmodified form.
The inconsistencies also bother me. Why can you eat seeds in a paleo diet but not some nuts? Why can you eat bacon but not oats? Why the hell can’t you eat pulses?
Big problems arise when we get our nutritional information from self professed experts (read: unqualified minor celebrities) instead of from dietitians. All you doctors out there would have come across patients who ‘know better’ after consulting the cyberverse about their condition. It is similar in the world of nutrition.
As Rosemary Stanton discussed at the recent AMWA conference, dietary faddists are quick to blame the existing dietary guidelines for ‘causing’ our current health problems. ‘We have been advised to eat less fat and heart disease has increased!’ they screech triumphantly, touting this ‘fact’ as evidence that eating fat is actually beneficial and that we should ‘invert the food pyramid’. The reality, Rosemary pointed out, is that the population has not actually been following the guidelines, therefore it is inaccurate to blame them for our current ill health.
I will continue to feast on delicious nourishing wholegrains, legumes, nuts, yoghurt as they are vital to my well being. I will also try to minimise my intake of highly processed foods. It’s all about balance.