What is a Paleo diet?
The Paleo diet was popularised in the early twenty-first century by the books of Dr Loren Cordain, and continues to take the culinary world by storm, with celebrity endorsements and high-end Paleo restaurants appearing around the globe. But what is Paleo? Sometimes known as the Stone Age diet, the caveman diet, or the hunter-gatherer diet, Paleo means going back to our foodie roots and adopting the eating habits of our ancestors.
The idea is that the human body is designed to process certain foods better than others, and when humans took up farming around 10,000 years ago, our diet changed so drastically and so quickly that evolution was unable to keep pace. This, it is claimed, means that our bodies struggle to cope with a lot of the things we eat, leading to health problems like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, as well as chronic digestive conditions like coeliac and crohn’s disease.
Paleo means recreating the hunter-gatherer diet of our earliest ancestors, who first evolved during the Palaeolithic era (hence, ‘Paleo’), around 500,000 years ago. This means plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean meat, and lots of fish. Foods introduced by farming are now off the menu, so no crop plants like potatoes, legumes or grains and their derivatives (e.g. bread and pasta) and no dairy products. Later additions to our diet like refined sugar and processed foods are also a no-no.
Followers of Paleo report various health benefits, including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and decreased risk of heart disease, but there are also some causes for concern. Many non-Paleo foods have important health benefits - whole grains are good for heart disease, legumes are rich in vitamin B1, and dairy is an important source of calcium. Some nutritionists warn that a Paleo diet could lead to nutrient deficiencies. As with any diet, if you are thinking of going Paleo, please consult a healthcare professional first.
Is quinoa Paleo?
Quinoa has caused some confusion in the Paleo community. Seeds make it onto the paleo food list, but grains are banned. So which is quinoa? Well, it’s complicated. Quinoa is harvested from the goosefoot plant, which is more closely related to spinach and beets than to cereal, so it’s technically not a grain. Often referred to as a ‘superfood’, it is gluten free, rich in vitamins and minerals, and is one of a handful of plants that provide all essential amino acids.
But is it Paleo? Unfortunately not. Quinoa belongs to a group known as ‘pseudo grains’, which are not actually related to cereals, but act like them in a number of important ways, and this means they are not included in a strict Paleo diet. Firstly, they are high in carbohydrates, making them particularly unsuitable for anyone trying to lose weight, and secondly, they contain several ‘anti-nutrients’, proteins and acids that prevent the body from absorbing nutrients and are believed to irritate the digestive tract.
That said, Paleo guru Dr Cordain has said that it isn’t necessary to be too strict with pseudo grains. They are considered a healthier option than true grains, and some see them as a useful stepping stone while cutting grains from your diet. Others follow what is referred to as an 80 / 20 plan, which means adhering to a strict Paleo diet 80% of the time, and relaxing the rules for the remaining 20%, which would allow for eating quinoa on certain occasions. Plus, if you’re considering a Paleo vegan diet, quinoa may be an acceptable ‘cheat’ to ensure you get enough protein.
Other Paleo foods Ideas
So what can you eat? Almost any fruit or vegetable you can think of (the exception being potatoes), seeds and nuts (excluding peanuts, which are classed as legumes). Oil for cooking or drizzling should be from olives, avocado, or nuts (again, excluding peanuts). Even some alcohol has made it on to the list, with kombucha, non-grain-derived gin, and some wines all allowed in small amounts.
In terms of animal products, the idea is that the animal should live as natural a life as possible to mimic the wild food of our ancestors. Think grass-fed meat and game, free-range poultry and eggs, and hand-caught seafood. Processed meats are out, though, so no spam or hot dogs.
And if your favourite foods aren’t included, there are always substitutes. Sweet potatoes make a tasty alternative to regular potatoes, while cauliflower or broccoli rice can be used to replace grains. If you enjoy baking, you can still use flour made from cassava, almonds or coconut, and for those of us with a sweet tooth, honey and maple syrup can be used instead of refined sugars.
Thought cake was off the menu? Think again. This lemon cake recipe is made from a rich batter of almond and coconut flours with lots of eggs, sweetened with honey and coconut oil, with a hint of lemon zest and a crunchy pine nut topping.
If you’re looking for breakfast ideas, or some tasty paleo snacks, why not try this moreish granola recipe? Swap the oats for tasty almonds and coconut flakes and crunchy, chewy seeds, drizzle with maple syrup and coconut oil, and cook in the oven until golden brown.
For a savoury snack, this recipe for homemade Flackers should do the trick. Made from seeds and seasoned with onion, garlic and herbs, they are rich in omega-3 for a healthy heart, and they taste pretty good too.
Pining for pasta? You can still enjoy spaghetti and meatballs with this delicious zucchini spaghetti recipe. Swap regular spaghetti for crunchy zucchini spirals, and pair with homemade meatballs in a rich tomato sauce for an instant family favourite.