Should we be eating a Paleo diet?

There has much interest lately in the idea that we should be eating as our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate; the so-called Paleo diet, named after the Paleolithic era of our evolution. I like the philosophy behind this. Our genetic makeup has not substantially changed since then, but our environment and our diet has changed dramatically. If we evolved eating a certain style of diet does this give us a blueprint of what our optimal diet today would be?

Let’s first explore exactly what a Paleo diet is. Here we hit the first hurdle. There is no such thing as THE Paleo diet. There were many! Diet depended on geographical location, season, availability of food and so on. The best analyses pool together more than 200 studied hunter-gatherer peoples to try to give us an idea of how they ate. This is one of our great qualities as a species; we are able to adapt to a number of different diets based on what food is available around us. (Unfortunately the modern Western Diet is one we are not coping with well.) However there were of course commonalities between diets and we can use the pooled data as our reference point. In essence our ancestors ate wild food – food they could either gather or hunt for. They ate more animal foods, and therefore more protein, they didn’t eat grains or legumes as they hadn’t yet learned how to prepare these foods to make them edible, and they didn’t have dairy as they hadn’t yet befriended the cow or goat. However it is not correct to say they ate a low carbohydrate diet.

They did eat lots of plant food – greens, seaweeds, wild vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits and even honey. What a treat that would have been! It was not an Atkins style diet at all. In fact analyses show it was in many ways much more similar to a Mediterranean style diet. Both have a reasonable high level of fat, but with low saturated fat and high monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Both have high fibre levels (paleo diets typically had three times as much fibre as our recommendations for fibre today). Both have plenty of nuts, seeds, seafood and leafy greens. These are all factors that modern scientific research has picked out to be healthful. In fact the best estimates show that a Paleo diet was higher in every micronutrient considered, bar calcium. It was a highly nutritious diet.

So should we eat that way today? Well the more appropriate question is could we eat like that today? It’s not a matter of cutting the grains and eating steak and salad for dinner every night. In fact it is practically impossible to eat a truly Paleo diet today. They ate wild meat – today we eat largely domesticated animals. The fat profile of these animals is completely different. Wild meat is leaner, but is higher in omega-3s, and the nutrient profile is influenced by what the animal has been eating. Game meat today is closest to this and interestingly lots of people find they don’t like the stronger taste – well that’s real meat. Paleo Man would also have consumed the whole animal – not just the nice lean fillet. He would have consumed brains (fabulous for omega-3s), liver, kidneys, intestinal contents and heart. He would have consumed lots of small animals (easier to catch), insects and creepy crawlies, plus lots of seafood.

So while we could try to eat more animal food this raises ethical and environmental concerns. We could not feed the world a high animal food diet. The Neolithic period was when we became farmers, some 10,000 years ago. We learned how to grow crops and keep animals that allowed us to feed ourselves more easily and our populations to flourish. We were smart enough to recognise that we could get more of our nutrition from plant foods. We have to recognise that in today’s modern world feeding our planet is one of the biggest concerns of this century.

Today we have a whole bank of evidence showing us how consuming wholegrains, legumes and dairy are largely beneficial to our health. Population data shows lower risk of chronic disease and lower BMIs in those consuming wholegrains. My interpretations of the Paleo data is that we can take some important key messages from this interesting research but put it in the modern context. If we consume wholesome minimally processed foods, limit modern processed foods, move more (our bodies need to move to work properly) and eat a combination of plant and animal food (and you can thrive on an entirely plant food diet with careful planning), then you will have the best health, control your weight and look after our planet.

 

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