Is the Paleo diet the secret to health and weight loss?

·6-min read
Photo credit: Claudia Totir
Photo credit: Claudia Totir

Designed to resemble the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the Paleo diet is a high-protein, high-fibre eating plan that eschews modern processed foods – including grains, coffee, and dairy – in favour of the 'whole foods' Palaeolithic-era humans are thought to have hunted and gathered.

Advocates of the Paleo diet claim that modern humans remain genetically unchanged from our ancestors who lived more than 10,000 years ago, and therefore adopting the dietary habits of prehistoric humans is optimal for good health. But research indicates that our bodies and the animals and plants we eat may have evolved over time. So is the Paleo diet the secret to perfect nutrition or dangerously outdated?

We speak to dietician Sophie Medlin, founder of City Dieticians, and pharmacist Mina Khan, founder of Formulate Health, about the pros and cons of the Paleo diet:

What is the Paleo diet?

The Paleo diet is an eating plan that consists of foods that precede the advent of industrial agriculture. It's sometimes called the caveman or stone-age diet. 'The Paleo diet is designed to mimic what humans were thought to have been eating around the Paleolithic era, which dates from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago,' says Medlin.

In its strictest form, the Paleo diet is made up exclusively of food that can be hunted or gathered, such as meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts. It excludes all processed foods, along with grains, legumes, processed oils, salt, alcohol, coffee, sugar, sweeteners and dairy (animals were not domesticated until after the Palaeolithic era).

'The Paleo diet tends to consist of natural foods that are unprocessed and were available to our caveman ancestors,' says Khan. Advocates suggest choosing organic food wherever possible, along with grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and eggs. Some people have a more lax approach to the Paleo diet, and view it as a loose template, rather than a strict set of rules.

What do you eat on the Paleo diet?

What you eat on the Paleo diet depends which iteration of the diet you are following. When gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin wrote his book, The Stone Age Diet, back in 1975, he advocated a meat-based diet with low proportions of vegetables and starchy foods.

More recently, the term 'The Paleo Diet' was trademarked in 2002 by Dr Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University, who released a book of the same name. According to Cordain's website, Paleo diet-approved foods include:

Fresh vegetables: Bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, garlic, onions, sweet potatoes etc.

Fruit: Apples, avocados, bananas, berries, lemons, limes, melons etc.

Animal products: Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, game meats, seafood, fish, eggs etc.

Nuts and seeds: Almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, etc.

Healthy oils and vinegars: Olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, etc.

Spices and other flavourings: Basil, rosemary, dill, garam masala, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, unsweetened coconut flakes, dark chocolate, etc.

Drinks: Almond milk, coconut milk, tea, freshly-squeezed fruit juices, gluten-free beer, spirits, wine.

Packaged foods: Broth, diced tomato, frozen fruit and vegetables, pureed tomato, nut butters, tahini etc.

The Paleo diet controversy

The Paleo diet is not without controversy. Early humans did not all eat the same diet, according to Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution by Katharine Milton. In fact, precisely what they ate is unknown. 'We do not know much about the range of foods Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers consumed in almost any environment at any time,' she wrote.

Even the hunter-gatherer tribes that exist today eat hugely different diets. The Inuits, who live in the Arctic, primarily eat sea mammals, birds, land mammals and fish, since lichens and moss were traditionally the only vegetation that grew there. Meanwhile the Hadza, who live in northern Tanzania, get almost 70 per cent of their calories from plants.

Additionally, the nutritional profile of almost every modern domesticated plant and animal is drastically different to its ancient ancestor. Cows have been selectively bred to produce maximum meat or milk. When grown wild, almonds contain potentially fatal levels of cyanide. In the Palaeolithic era, broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower did not exist.

While many early humans died at a young age, those who lived longer were not immune to disease. Studying 147 ancient mummies from across the globe, researchers from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine found signs of atherosclerosis – a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries, often related to modern lifestyles – in more than a third of them.

What does the Paleo diet do to your body?

The Paleo diet is touted as a way of improving health. Advocates posit that modern humans have not adapted to dietary changes brought about through agriculture, which has increased the incidence of chronic diseases. While it's untrue that our digestion has remained unchanged – humans developed a tolerance to the lactose in dairy, for example – eating fewer processed foods, sugar and salt aligns with mainstream health advice.

Photo credit: Boris SV
Photo credit: Boris SV

'When we avoid processed foods, we tend to consume less saturated fat, salts and sugars in our diets, which can help reduce the risk of health issues such as heart attacks and strokes,' says Khan. 'As well as this, processed, starchy foods tend to be high in calories and lower in nutrients, so limiting your consumption of these can be beneficial for those looking to lose weight.'

However, along with processed foods, the Paleo diet also cuts out some essential dietary food groups, such as carbohydrates. 'Cavemen lived much shorter lives than we do now,' Medlin says. 'While this diet may help you to lose weight, it's not well-balanced. Weight loss can be achieved in a more balanced way that includes pulses, dairy and whole grains.'


The Paleo diet drawbacks

If you are considering following the Paleo diet speak to your GP or a registered nutrition before you proceed, as some elements of the eating plan may be detrimental to your health:

The Paleo diet can be high in saturated fat: 'When doing the Paleo diet, you can eat high amounts of meat, fish, eggs and nuts,' says Khan. 'Although it can be beneficial to eat foods such as these in moderation, eating too much can lead to the intake of too much saturated fat which can over time cause damage to the kidneys, as well as putting strain on the heart.'

The Paleo diet is restrictive: 'Due to its restrictive nature, the Paleo diet can be really hard to stick to in the long term and requires a lot of planning and preparation,' says Khan. 'Many dieters following this plan often report symptoms of low energy, bad breath and digestive issues, which can also make the diet more difficult to stick to.'

The Paleo diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies: 'Cutting out dairy products and starchy foods, especially whole grains, means no longer eating some sources of fibre, calcium and vitamin D,' says Khan. 'This can have a detrimental effect on your health in the long term, as essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D are vital in maintaining heart health, bone strength and nerve function.'

Last updated: 24-05-2021

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