Does the Paleo Diet work?

By | September 7, 2021

THE New Yorker once published a cartoon of two jutting-jawed, low-browed cavemen. One is complaining to the other: “Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.”

It’s the image that springs to mind every time I hear of another celeb who has signed up for the so-called Paleo diet. English cricketer Andrew Flintoff and Welsh balladeer Tom Jones are reported to have lost kilos on the regime, while actress and singer Miley Cyrus is another devotee and, whatever you think of her, she has an enviably lithe figure.

The Paleo diet is so called after the Paleolithic era, the “Old Stone Age”, which started about 2.6 million years ago and finished in roughly 8000BC, before arable farming began.

The premise of the regime is that we should go back to our ancestral diet and eat the foods that predate agriculture, namely, the fruit, veg and meat that hunter-gathering cave-persons would have eaten. This, advocates claim, is what we have evolved to eat, and what is best for us. Our modern diet, high in carbohydrate and processed food, is not what we are genetically programmed to consume and is therefore unhealthy.

Really? Going back to the disconsolate caveman, life expectancy at birth in the late Stone Age was indeed probably the mid-30s, although, as Paleo diet-lovers will point out, this is debatable: some estimate that our New Yorker cave dwellers might have expected to live into their mid-50s. And we are talking averages here: some people would have lived longer.

But the point is still a good one. These days, life expectancy at birth is more than 80 in Britain and Australia, so why would we want to ape the lifestyle of our less-enduring ancestors?

I put the question to Joy Skipper, nutritionist and author of The Paleo Diet Made Easy, a slim and easily digestible (forgive the pun) paperback of recipes and guidelines for following the regime. She was pragmatic. “Paleolithic diet is actually a brand name. We can only guess what people really ate at the time. But people like to have a handle, a shorthand.”

Skipper has been a Paleo diet acolyte since the 1990s, when she discovered it through a book that recommended it for athletes. The point of the diet, she maintains, is that it cuts out refined and processed food, as well as carbohydrate-dense potatoes and grains.

Like the Atkins diet? Not really, Skipper says. “You can have root vegetables, which have plenty of carbs.” But you can’t have any dairy produce at all (suddenly the Atkins is looking like a soft option) and in Skipper’s book salt is also verboten, though some versions of the diet allow sea salt.

One aspect even Skipper admits to finding tricky is the no-pulse rule. That’s right, the darlings of the health-food movement, pulses, are excluded, and that is dried or fresh. Apparently they contain high levels of lectins, which, says Skipper, are toxic and inflammatory. So peas are out. Peanuts, a legume rather than a nut, are also a no-no, so forget peanut butter. Lentils, green beans, broad beans and baked beans: they’re all has-beens to the Paleo dieter.

Skipper doesn’t like the term “diet” much, either. “It implies something that is short-term. But the only thing that really does any good (for health or weight loss) is to change eating patterns for good.”

Oh, dear. That sounds pretty depressing – a lifetime without flour, sugar, alcohol, cheese and cream. So my birthday tiramisu is history, then?
Well, not quite. “You don’t have to follow the diet 100 per cent of the time,” Skipper says. “If you are going out to dinner, say, you can lapse, I think of it as. As long as I eat the right things 80 per cent of the time, then the other bits don’t matter.”
Ah-ha! A bit like the 5:2 diet, which I’ve followed successfully, where as long as you stick to only 500 calories two days a week you can eat normally the other five days. Except that this is more 2:8 – eight “good” days to two lapses.

Skipper doesn’t care much for the comparison. “This is more a lifestyle change,” she says. She owns up to dipping in and out of the diet but warns that, if you want to lose weight, you’ll need to stick to it, and limit your consumption of root veg as well as fruit.

Not all medical scientists agree with some of the diet’s claims. One idea promoted by Paleo-ites, but not embraced by all doctors, is that eating a diet high in cheese, grains and legumes makes the body more acidic, forcing it to leach calcium from the bones.

And, while studies show that modern tribes following a diet similar to the Paleo have lower rates of obesity and diabetes, this could be explained by their higher levels of activity and limited access to junk food. But this misses the point, says Skipper. “Essentially, it is a regime that cuts out refined carbs, and gets you eating more vegetables and lean protein.” This is, I’m sure, a good thing, eliminating foods low in nutrients and high in calories.

It’s also a diet that involves no weighing or calorie-counting – another plus. The recipes, such as tomato, saffron and almond soup and Moroccan beef kebabs, won’t make you feel like you’re living in the Stone Age.

When I tried the Paleo diet I felt deprived and headachy (probably as a result of the lack of caffeine), but Skipper reckons if I stick to it I’ll see great results. I’m not sure I’m ready for the full-on lifestyle change. But a little Paleo in my life? I can see it makes sense. As long as I can still have my tiramisu.

The Paleo Diet
Vegetables (but not peas or green beans)
Fruit (but not too much if you are trying to lose weight)
Grass-fed meat
Free-range pork
Fish and seafood
Nuts (but not peanuts, which are legumes)
Herbal infusions

Dairy products including milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt
Wheat and flour
All other grains, including rice and oats
Legumes including peas, beans (dried or fresh) and peanuts
Potatoes (though sweet potatoes are allowed)
Sugar (honey and maple syrup are OK)
Processed foods
Coffee and tea

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