We’ve seen a number of fad diets crop up in the last few decades, and one of the latest to capture the hearts of the health-conscious is the paleo diet. As the name suggests, the paleo diet promotes a way of eating inspired by the palaeolithic era - before agriculture when early human societies were still hunting and gathering. It can be traced back to the 70s when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin wrote a book called The Stone Age Diet which touted the health benefits of a primitive, high protein and meat-centric diet.
By 2002, the term “paleo diet” was coined and trademarked by health scientist Loren Cordain who wrote a book of the same title describing the benefits of following a diet and lifestyle that rebukes the modern, sedentary habits of today in favour of a more active and “ancestral” way. Paleo foods include lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds while foods like dairy products, grains, potatoes, legumes, and all processed foods are to be avoided. Today, there are even paleo-friendly restaurants to feed devout followers.
The reasoning behind the paleo diet is, like with many dietary choices, contested. It’s drawn from the idea that the human body is genetically unadapted to the diet that developed once agriculture emerged, called the discordance hypothesis. Followers believe that the shift to having grains, dairy, and legumes as dietary staples is one of the main causes of chronic diseases and obesity today. A paleo diet often goes hand in hand with regular physical activity and prioritises drinking water whilst cutting out alcohols and sugary drinks.
Those choosing to follow the paleo diet may do so to lose weight or simply improve their overall health. Proponents claim that eating paleo can reduce inflammation and the risk of chronic diseases, stabilise blood sugar, lead to weight loss and more balanced energy. Certain randomised clinical trials have shown that compared to the Western diet, there are indeed benefits to eating more lean meats and fish and fruits and vegetables. However, there is no concrete evidence to ascertain whether eating strictly paleo is a significant health improvement. There are different versions of the paleo diet, of course. Some may choose to be stricter in their dietary choices and others less so; legumes like peanuts might be eaten by some, while others will accept wine and dark chocolate for their higher nutritional value.
As a grain, oats are by default considered off-limits for followers of the paleo diet. However, oat lovers can find some solace - in 2015 an archaeological dig in Italy discovered a piece of rock from the palaeolithic era that experts think was used as a pestle to grind up ancient grains like oats and millet. Those oat flours would have been used for oat cakes and porridge - and would mean that our cavemen forebearers did eat certain grains. For paleo followers wishing to imitate what our palaeolithic ancestors ate as best as possible, this new discovery would allow for the inclusion of oats.
There are concerns about the paleo diet not being balanced enough. It is possible that the exclusion of healthy sources of fibre and nutrients like whole grains and legumes can, in fact, lead to a higher risk of heart disease. These foods not only promote physical health but are also staples in many culinary cultures and often, more affordable. Many paleo-friendly products like grass-fed meats and organic produce are indeed expensive, which leads many to consider the diet too elitist. Following the paleo diet can also lead to vitamin D and calcium deficiencies if the appropriate alternatives to dairy are not included, as well as an overconsumption of protein and red meat. And mentally, the categorisation of foods as “good” or “bad” can be problematic and result in anxieties or eating disorders.
But the main criticism of the paleo diet is that the very hypothesis it is founded on is debatable: data for what early humans ate is incomplete and circumstantial, and it’s highly unlikely that our digestive system is the same as it was in the paleo era. The theory can easily oversimplify how humans have evolved and ignores cultural and geographical contexts that have made different groups evolve in separate ways around the globe. Recent analysis of the human genome shows that humans have in fact evolved more rapidly over the centuries than previously thought in response to changing diets. Plus, there’s been plenty of archaeological evidence that early humans did eat legumes and wild grains before the advent of farming. And while the paleo diet tends to vilify foods made from grains like breads and pastas, supporters of local and resilient food systems point out that the real issue with wheat comes from the processing of the grains used in industrial wheat products - highly refined wheat from nutrient-void GMO grains are to blame for health problems, while more diverse and ancient wholegrains are actually pretty beneficial.
Nonetheless, some of the general paleo recommendations are in line with what most nutritionists advise - eat more whole foods and vegetables, choose better quality animal products, and avoid highly processed foods. The most important thing is to choose a diet that is balanced and works for your body, rather than approaching food choices with a “good” vs “bad” mentality. All of that goes hand in hand with a lifestyle that includes regular activity and staying well hydrated.
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