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The Paleo Way : The top five Paleo foods

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Can you get lean, fit and healthy by swapping your modern ways for those of our cavewoman ancestors?

Just like handbags and shoes, diet plans fall in and out of fashion. There fad diets (The Baby Food Diet), reinventions of the same diet (The Atkins and The New Atkins) and those that leave a more lasting impression (the Low-GI diet plan). However, there’s one diet that’s seeing a revival after a very long break – 10,000 years to be precise.

The Paleolithic Diet (Paleo for short) is based on your primal ancestors’ hunter-gatherer diet, before the rise of agriculture when grains were introduced as a staple of our meals.

Type the word “Paleo” into Google and you’ll be bombarded with links to blogs, books, recipes and, communities all shouting loudly about the benefits of this back to basics diet. The rules are simple: if our caveman ancestors didn’t eat it then neither should you. To channel your inner cavewoman, eliminate all grains (yes, that’s cereal, bread, pasta and rice off the menu), dairy (lactose and casein cause blood sugar spikes and are highly allergenic) and legumes (enthusiasts believe lectins contained in beans and lentils hinder digestion and prevent the absorption of other nutrients) from your diet. ‘It sounds like a sacrifice until you realise you can eat pretty much all you want from a long list of tasty foods such as meat, fish, fowl, eggs, nuts, vegetables, fruit and lots of healthy, unprocessed fats,’ says Mark Sisson, former champion triathlete, and author of The Primal Blueprint (Primal Nutrition, 2009) and online blog Marksdailyapple.com. Paleo enthusiasts believe the plants and animal protein our ancestors ate provided all the nutrients – protein, fats, carbohydrates, phenols, fibre, water – they needed to live healthy lives.

Most nutritionists argue that grains have great nutritional credentials, but they’re a big no-no for Paleo followers. While 10,000 years sounds like a long time, they argue that it’s only a dot at the end of our line of evolution, and so our bodies have not yet adapted to digesting the ‘unfamiliar’ protein-structure of grains. ‘The biggest flaw of the modern western diet is the assumption that glucose (from grain-based carbohydrates) is our preferred fuel source,’ says Sisson. Instead, he says we’re genetically programmed to derive most of our energy from stored fat and from healthy fats in our food.

Weight loss is just one of the benefits the Paleo diet claims to offer. ‘The goal is to reduce excess body fat, balance blood sugar levels and reduce toxins and anti-nutrients,’ says nutritionist Christine Bailey (advancenutrition.co.uk). Sisson and fellow Paleo blogger Juli Bauer (paleomg.com) both extol the benefits of the primal diet for reducing bloating, intolerances, blood sugar slumps and even diabetes. ‘Before I started eating this way, I suffered with depression, fatigue and other nasty symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome,’ says Bauer. The carbohydrates present in our modern diets are foreign to our genes and disturb the normal, healthy functions of the body, says Sisson. As a result, he says, inflammation in the body increases and insulin sensitivity is reduced, putting you at greater risk of preventable illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and autoimmune diseases. ‘Case studies and testimonials show people are getting significant measureable and repeatable results that include weight loss, more energy, reducing the amount of medication they’re taking and a lower risk of almost all degenerative diseases,’ says Sisson.

What’s the catch?

Like all diet plans, the Paleo diet has its critics. It’s a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb plan. Traditional nutrition science holds that high-fat diets raise your risk of heart disease, cholesterol and obesity. However, Paleo fans respond by saying that when you fill your diet with natural fats, from nuts (macadamias), avocados, unprocessed animal fats and nut and seed oils (coconut and walnut), you protect yourself from these conditions and encourage your body to burn stored fat for energy. ‘The diet is healthy, but because it can be higher in calories it’s easy to misunderstand, so many think this way of easting is unhealthy,’ says nutrition consultant Ian Marber.

Description: The Paleo diet is the latest diet to take the health and fitness

The Paleo diet is the latest diet to take the health and fitness

Another criticism is that the Paleo diet omits vital food groups. Elimination diets (where you’re required to cut out whole food groups), such as Paleo, are a challenge, believes Marber. ‘This diet may be hard to keep up simply because it’s not the norm in the mainstream,’ says Marber. ‘Eating out with friends, treats and special occasions all present problems and the temptation to revert back to “Neolithic” eating’

By cutting out grains and dairy you’re restricting your sources of key nutrients, so you’ll need to be more vigilant with your food choices. ‘Dairy contains calcium in an easily absorbed form, but you’ll also find it in nuts, seeds, poultry and vegetables,’ says Marber. ‘Like grains, eating fruits and vegetables will provide excellent fibre, so you’re by no means missing out on these nutrients when following a Paleo diet. It just requires more dedication and though compared to the standard British diet.’

Expense is a big sticking point for critics, too. Money saved on processed food is spent instead on ethically-reared, organic and grass-fed meat. You can’t ignore the research – grass-fed beef contains less ‘bad’ saturated fat, more vitamin A and E, and lots more heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids – but it’s hard to find and is more expensive compared to standard supermarket meat.

For many dieters, portion control is an issue, and the same goes for Paleo. Nuts and seeds are an easy go-to Paleo snack to fill the void of modern-day treats. But, they’re high in calories and fat, so if you’re trying to lose weight and eat too many, you’ll stop your body using stored fat as energy.

The problem with following a diet based on the eating habits of our ancestors is there’s a lot of room for debate and interpretation. The Paleo diet is not a concept owned by a company or a person, like the Atkins Diet or the Dukan Diet, it’s an approach to eating that tries to imitate earliest man. Therefore, a lot of advice online can be conflicting and confusing. For example, while all Paleo eaters cut grains and legumes from their diet, some say a small amount of whole full-fat dairy is Ok. You’ll also find Paleo recipes for muffins, pancakes and breads in abundance online, which the strictest Paleo followers would frown upon.

So how do I start?

If you’re considering converting to Paleo, start with a 30-day strict plan, cutting out all processed food, grain-based carbohydrates, dairy and legumes, says Bauer. A typical day’s diet would consist of eggs and vegetables for breakfast, chicken and avocado salad for lunch, a handful of macadamia nuts for a snack and homemade beef burgers and sweet potato wedges for dinner. ‘After this you could start adding a little dairy (full-fat cream or full-fat hard cheese from grass-fed cows) back into your diet,’ says Bauer. As with any diet plan, preparation is the key to success. ‘In our fast-food orientated world, you have to think ahead and shop smart, as the majority of the supermarket is off limits,’ says Bailey.

Paleo versions of your favorite dishes

Spaghetti Bolognese

Make ‘spaghetti’ from courgette. Using a julienne knife, thinly slice a courgette into strands and place in a steamer for two to three minutes. Top with homemade Bolognese sauce made from grass-fed beef mince, a tin of tomatoes, garlic and onion.

Chicken fajitas

Stir-fry chicken with garlic, chilli flakes, onion and assorted peppers. Add canned or chopped fresh tomatoes and some coriander leaves. Fill two or three big lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture and some slice avocado. Roll them up and enjoy!

That prawn curry with ‘Paleo rice’

Make a Thai paste with green chilli, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lime and coriander. Heat in a pan before adding some raw prawns, vegetables and coconut milk. Squeeze in the juice of half a lime. To make Paleo rice, blitz half a head of cauliflower in a blender until the size of rice grains. In a pan, heat coconut oil and fry crushed garlic with a finely chopped white onion. Next, add the cauliflower, a few tablespoons of coconut milk and your favorite herbs, and stir-fry for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

The top five Paleo foods

Avocado is one of the only fatty fruits containing mainly monounsaturated fat. Avocado oil can be used as a dressing for salads and you can use avocado in savory and sweet dishes.

Description: Avocado

Grass-fed beef is protein-rich and full of iron, zinc, potassium and selenium.

Description: Grass-fed beef

Grass-fed beef

Eggs are cheap, filling and nutrient dense. Try eggs and vegetable frittatas or egg and bacon breakfast cups.

Description: Eggs

Eggs

Coconut milk can be used in place of dairy in your coffee or on top of berries in the morning. Look for canned coconut milk in its purest form – no added sugar or soy lecithin.

Coconut milk

Dried figs are a great way to satisfy sweet tooth if you’re in transition from Neo – to Paleolithic eating. Stick to two ounces a day if you want to lose weight.

Description: Dried figs

Dried figs

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