Caveman eating habits are back and the Paleo diet is all the rage. Dr Carina Norris weighs up the pros and cons of entering a food time warp
Thanks to modern medicine, a baby born today has a good chance of seeing out a century. But progress has come at a price. Our bodies are poorly designed for the modern diet of processed food packed with fat, sugar and salt, while nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and nuts have largely fallen by the wayside. These changes have come with an alarming increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer. So in many cases we're living longer, but ‘sicker'. But what if we reverted to the diet our bodies were made for, shrinking our waistlines as well as our risk of chronic illness?
Turning back the clock
This is the main premise of the Paleo diet, also known as the hunger-gatherer or caveman diet, which points out that humans evolved to eat mainly lean meat, vegetables and fruit, rather than highly processed junk food. Even dairy, grains and potatoes didn't feature at all in Palaeolithic times - in evolutionary terms, these are relative newcomers to the plate. The Paleo style of eating is a vast departure from the sort of diet we're used to enjoying, but unlike many other high-protein programmes, it's much lower in the saturated fat that can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
The scientific evidence in support of caveman eating is stacking up. Population studies on the hunter-gatherer people of the Trobrland Islands in Papua New Guinea have found a remarkable absence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A three-week clinical trial involving 14 Paleo diet volunteers at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet produced an average weight loss of 2.3 kilograms, plus a fall in blood pressure. Another study from Sweden's Lund University suggests that a Paleo diet could help control blood sugar, with knock-on benefits for cardiovascular health. Researchers put patients with either glucose intolerance (pre-diabetes) or overt diabetes on a Paleo diet or a Mediterranean diet based around wholegrains, low-fat dairy, fruit, veg and healthy oils. Over three months both groups lost weight, but the Paleo group lost slightly more and, notably, showed much better blood glucose control.
Because it bans dairy, the Paleo diet has come under fire for being low in calcium. But the scientists say that ‘calcium balance' is more important than intake, and point out that the diet is packed with vegetables which have a net alkalising effect on the body, minimising calcium loss and protecting bones.
How does it work?
The Paleo diet starts gently, becoming stricter until you're eating like a true cavewoman. In phase one you're allowed three ‘open meals' a week, where you can break the rules. In phase two you get two open meals, and in phase three, just one (but ideally none). On the upside, you can say goodbye to calorie counting and weighing your food, and it's high in fibre and protein, so you shouldn't feel hungry. But keep in mind that you have to cook from scratch - there are no ready meals allowed and eating out can be difficult. And if you're avoiding dairy, you need to ensure you get regular intake from other sources, such as green leafy vegetables and seeds.
- As much lean meat, fish, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables (except starchy veg) as you like, with an emphasis on veg
- Nuts, seeds and oils (olive, avocado, walnut, linseed, canola) in moderation
- Up to 50g dried fruit a day
- Diet drinks, coffee, tea and alcohol (within health guidelines) are allowed as ‘transitional', until you can phase them out
- Processed food
- Dairy products
- Processed meat
- Beans, lentils and peanuts
- Sugar and sugary soft drinks
- Starchy root vegetables
- Fats (except the permitted oils)
- Salt and salty foods (such as salted nuts, bacon and smoked meats)
Your Paleo plan
- Sliced lean, cold chicken, followed by a slice of melon and chopped pear
- Two scrambled eggs with two large grilled mushrooms
- Half a melon, seeds removed and filled with strawberries and chopped walnuts
- Cold poached salmon steak with watercress, and a chopped pear, apple and two kiwi fruits topped with sunflower seeds
- Two-egg omelette filled with vegetables, and a bowl of grapefruit, orange and blueberries
- A beefsteak tomato topped with two scrambled eggs, and a bowl of poached fresh pears and peaches
- A small cooked, skinless chicken breast with a large mixed salad, scattered with sunflower seeds and dressed with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice; plus a piece of fruit of your choice
- A bowl of cooked prawns with a large, mixed salad; plus vegetable sticks with homemade salsa and guacamole, and a piece of fruit of your choice
- Baked, skinless chicken breast with an apple, pear, cucumber, celery, walnut and baby leaf spinach salad dressed with linseed oil and lemon juice; plus a piece of fruit of your choice
- A grilled salmon steak with cherry tomatoes and a large mixed salad, and a piece of fruit of your choice
- A lean turkey breast steak baked with cherry tomatoes, button mushrooms, courgette slices and onion wedges; serve with steamed broccoli and asparagus; and finish with a bowl of red berries and melon with slivered almonds
- A baked fillet of white fish seasoned with dill and lemon juice and topped with a poached egg, with steamed broccoli and a large mixed salad; plus a baked apple stuffed with raisins
- Spicy beef and vegetable stew with steamed cabbage and broccoli; plus a mango, puréed, and topped with a tablespoon of slivered almonds
- A spicy grilled chicken breast with a mix of stir-fried vegetables; plus three slices of fresh pineapple and a chopped pear
- A lean grilled steak with grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and a large mixed salad; plus a banana baked in its skin, served with a large handful of raspberries or strawberries
Snack on these foods whenever you feel hungry between meals
- Fresh fruit
- Raw vegetables
- Almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts (but try to limit your intake of these if you are trying to lose weight)
- Unsalted sunflower seeds
- A hard-boiled egg
- Cooked prawns
- A few slices of steamed or boiled skinless chicken breast
- Slices of lean cooked beef
- Avocado (in moderation)
- Slices of turkey breast
My journey into the world of nutrition has shown me that ignorance can be bliss as the learning process has at times been scary. I've tried a raw food diet, the Zone diet and the Zone-Paleo, before finally settling on the Paleo about 18 months ago.
For me, Paleo is a lifestyle, rather than a strict diet. I've read about Paleo extensively and I'm confident with how it fits into my life. Paleo allows me to eat what and how I want within some simple ground rules - for me as an athlete, this is great as it stops any unhealthy food habits developing. I follow either the 80:20 or 90:10 principle - this gives me the opportunity to indulge in things I crave now and again. But even then, I ‘think' rather than ‘munch' impulsively. I try not to be impulsive when I have a craving - I'll have a glass of water and wait for an hour; if I'm still craving, I'll choose the best possible option.
I've definitely learned to think through less-than-ideal food choices, while being careful never to feel like I've deprived myself. I really missed bread at the beginning and I do sometimes crave bread and cheese, but when I have occasionally eaten bread, I've found that it's never as nice as I remember and it usually leaves me feeling bloated.
The Paleo eating method also supports my training. As an athlete, I can comfortably manage the demands of my hard training and recover well and find that my muscle soreness is massively reduced compared to when I trained on a poor diet. I almost never get sick, and if I do, I find that my body thrives. I've also lost a substantial amount of body fat, without it affecting my training, My hair and skin are so much healthier, too.
The great thing about Paleo is that it isn't restrictive: it's a diet in the Greek-root sense of the word - a way of life. All of the macronutrients are present in my diet - protein, carbs and fat - and I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to meet my carbohydrate, fibre and nutrient requirements.
There are struggles, of course, for example, flying is tough on the Paleo diet unless you bring your own food. I've become pretty skilled at eating out, though. Most restaurants offer a Paleo-friendly option - steak, fish and veggies are a good start, with fruit salad for dessert.
If it's a party or evening that I know will be tough, I will try to stay Paleo, but I'm not excessive about it - a bit of bread, cheese or rice isn't ideal, but it's not going to kill me. Any diet has to fit into your lifestyle - if it doesn't it becomes unsustainable. As for shopping in Dubai, I buy all my staples such as oil, coffee and nuts, at the Organic Foods & Café each month on its 20-per-cent-off day. I opt for grass-fed, free-range and wild-caught protein sources whenever I can and buy fruit and veg as fresh as possible. Most supermarkets here can meet these needs.
Any diet change should be stress-free, and shouldn't be hard to maintain. With Paleo, I suggest planning a breakfast you love, then adapting your usual lunch and dinner to make it more Paleo. One of my favourites is spaghetti bolognaise: I use a Juliette peeler to make ‘pasta strips' from raw carrot and courgette with a bolognaise over the top - it's just like spag bol. I strive for tasty food, filling, but not too heavy - I like to feel fuelled by my meals, rather than weighed down by them. I feel great and I am healthier than I have been in years.
My typical day
- 500ml of water when I first wake up
- Breakfast of eggs cooked in olive oil with rocket, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and fresh black coffee
- Lunch of steak, fish or chicken with salad or vegetables
- Dinner of a protein dish like beef stew, Spanish chicken or bolognaise over a baked sweet potato
- Snack on beef jerky, fruit, nuts, dates and raw chopped veggies