Eating smarter will help you hit your health and fitness goals faster – but which diet is the ideal one for you? Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness assesses the evidence and asks the experts so you can make the right nutritional decisions.
Paleo is short for Paleolithic – the period of human history from which this diet plan borrows its ideas. It’s a way of eating based on only consuming foods that would have been available to our caveman-era ancestors, based on the idea that our modern diet – full of trans fats, refined carbs and easy-access sugar – is to blame for everything from cancer and Alzheimer’s to depression and infertility.
Fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts and seeds are all on the menu, while dairy, sugar and starch are off. The most argued-over omission? Grains and legumes, which many Paleo advocates say contain “anti-nutrients” that can block the absorption of minerals and vitamins, as well as causing digestive issues.
Reasonable. Several studies comparing Paleo with a typical American diet have linked it to increased insulin sensitivity and improved lipid (body fat) profiles – and a 2016 paper linked the diet to reduced inflammation, something often thought to be associated with cancer. Then again, almost anything’s better than a typical American diet.
Getting more protein, veg and healthy fats is no bad thing, and cutting out sugar’s unlikely to do any damage. For many who lead sedentary lifestyles, the reduced carbohydrate consumption is also likely to aid weight loss pursuits. Tackle Paleo properly by eating grass-fed, free-range meat, and you’ll benefit from its improved hormone profile and omega 3:6 ratio. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to eat some vitamin-packed offal occasionally.
Paleo fans are largely backing away from the “our slow-evolving bodies haven’t adapted to agriculture” argument that helped launch the movement, because it probably isn’t true: there’s decent evidence that different populations have evolved to eat the foodstuffs cultivated over the past few thousand years.
Similarly, the Paleo-approved foods available in your local supermarket don’t bear much relation to what a caveman ate – everything from asparagus to yams has been selectively bred for size and taste, sometimes at the expense of nutritional value. And not all Paleo dieters make a distinction between processed and unprocessed meat – not ideal, since the WHO has linked processed stuff like bacon and sausages with a slightly increased cancer risk.
You also have to remember that the Paleolithic humans had an average life expectancy in the mid-30s. Food was certainly no medicine in this case.
The Expert Verdict
“What I like about the Paleo diet is that, at its core, it advocates cooking from scratch and shuns overprocessed foods,” says nutritionist Yolanda Hinchliffe. “It also promotes local and seasonal foods and sustainably raised proteins. I think it’s a good basis for a diet – but watch out, because it can become too restrictive. And eating to a guideline rather than listening to your body’s needs isn’t the best way.”
Tim Hart, nutritionist and elite PT at Third Space Canary Wharf, agrees that – despite the caveats – Paleo offers extensive benefits.
“The principles of the Paleo Diet are sound,” Hart says. “It makes a lot of sense to include in your diet fresh cuts of meat, heaps of veg and healthy sources of fat. These foods are rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which can fend off disease, fight inflammation and aid recovery from exercise.
“Paleo has been wrongly grouped with fad diets that exist more for a marketing purpose, but the foundations of eating Paleo will help you form the basis of a sustainable nutrition plan.”
Hart also thinks that we tend to look at the idea of processed food too simplistically.
“Of course, foods such as whey protein, nut butters and olive oil are processed, but we need to consider what’s meant by ‘processed’ in this context. All forms of cooking and preparing food involve processing. The key is in the extent of processing – there’s a difference between cooking from fresh and eating out of a packet.”