To Paleo or not to Paleo – that is the question…

If you haven’t heard of the Paleo diet, perhaps you were fossilised in a very old rock. The diet has literally taken over all media in this country since a number of people have advocated it, promoted it and credited it for changing their lives. Now, I am all for health being discussed and gaining attention but sometimes I feel this particular diet (among others) is gaining the attention for all the wrong reasons.

The Paleo diet is not a new concept – well obviously, given its Palaeolithic heritage. It was “developed” about 15 years ago by Dr Loren Cordain, mainly out of frustration of the overconsumption of processed foods in the US. At the core, it really is about getting back to basics and removing all forms of processed and man-made foods that we have come to rely on in our modern world. The ideas behind Paleo are actually quite good but it is not for everyone. I have personally previously followed the Paleo diet. I started it as a bit of a test – if I was going to suggest a certain approach to clients, then I needed to know what to expect. I followed it, albeit not strictly, until I got pregnant with bubs number 3 and suddenly wanted all the pasta and bread that I could get – no wonder the weight pilled on hard and fast. The diet itself is quite easy to follow. I was never hungry, I never felt deprived and I actually had a whole lot of energy. Sugar and chocolate cravings subsided and I looked and felt good. All the things that we have heard followers discuss in the current affairs programs. I have had many clients who have had success with Paleo and who have turned their health around. I have nothing against the diet and I truly feel that it, like many other dietary approaches, has its place. What I do get frustrated with is that this has really become the next fad diet which is the very thing that its “author” Dr Loren Cordain was critical of. It has been picked up by the masses and it has somewhat lost its credibility and essence as a result.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually believe that the Paleo diet holds some great fundamental suggestions which force people to look at the way in which western diets and lifestyles have changed over the years and are resulting in some very disturbing health trends. What I don’t like is the way in which so many have latched on to these concepts and have really, lost the message of the diet in its entirety. The number of “Paleo friendly” desserts that have emerged is just one example. It seems that many would believe that you can have your cake and eat it, quite simply because it is Paleo. Perhaps they never really understood the key ideas of the diet in the first place.

The Paleo diet has some great ideas. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the actual diet (by Loren Cordain) is quite balanced and based on some key advice;

  • Eat good quality sources of animal protein
  • Eat fewer carbohydrates – carbohydrates should be eaten from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables
  • Eat a large amount of fibre from non starchy vegetables and fruits
  • Eat moderates amounts of fat, with more good fats than bad fats
  • Eat foods with high potassium and low sodium content
  • Eat foods rich in plant phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants

Looking at these key points, the diet really is commonsense. The core concepts are the basis for most healthy eating plans – eat more natural foods, less processed and refined products – get back to basics. So why is there so much attention on the so-called negative aspects of the diet? Ultimately I think what has happened is that it has, quite simply, gained too much attention. There are so many people out there promoting it and confusing the message of what Paleo actually is. The key points have been blurred in the confusion of the diet and it has been caught up and become tangled in the trendiness of it all. Whether passion has gotten in the way of delivering accurate and understandable messages, or whether it has been manipulated to prove points on either side of the boxing ring, it is fast becoming another source of confusion for those looking to improve their health.

Certainly there is the issue of eliminating some “core food groups” which many critics don’t agree with. The Paleo diet removes all forms of dairy, grains, gluten, alcohol, caffeine, refined sugars and refined carbohydrates. Some argue that this is highly restrictive, and removes vital nutrients that we now need, due to evolution. Do we really need these or is this just something we have come to accept? Others argue that it is too disciplined and can drive an obsession with food, bordering on eating disorders.

Looking at the key points of the diet, it is really not at all a big deal. It is quite healthy and balanced but many would have you believe that the diet is heavily reliant on red meat and protein. This is simply not true. While animal sources of protein are a part of the Paleo diet – it is suggested to be eaten in moderate amounts, about the size of your palm, and alongside a good amount of vegetables. In fact, the emphasis is really on the vegetables rather than meats and there is nothing wrong with that.

So what is my opinion? I personally hate giving diets a label. I believe that we need to get out of the mindset of “following diets” and change our attitudes to make lifestyle changes and eat to nourish our bodies and minds and in that sense I guess we could learn something from our Palaeolithic ancestors. There is so much confusion out there because everyone has a different opinion on what you should do, how to do it and why, but lets face it, the honest truth is, we already know what to do. We were born knowing. It is the food industry and our society who have caused this mass wave of confusion. Our bodies have an innate ability to know what it needs. Wholefoods provide the body with the nutrition and fuel that it desires and these foods are what make our bodies function optimally. If you emphasis fresh produce over processed foods, if you eat foods that make YOU feel good, satisfied and nourished, if you are functioning well – physically and mentally than you are doing OK. If you have the energy to support daily demands of life, if you wake up feeling refreshed after a good nights sleep and if you are eating a good range of nutrient dense foods than that is the most important thing you can do for your health.

Food should be consumed to provide nourishment and energy. To help us to survive and flourish. It should not be a source of contention, of judgement, argument and elitism; it is quite simply something we do to stay alive and hopefully we do that well. So whether you want to call it Paleo, Clean or Pure, the focus should really just be on nutrients and providing OUR bodies what they need to function optimally. And remember, what works for one may not work for all. So don’t judge others for their choices. They are doing what they feel is best for them.

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