Could eating like a caveman improve your health? Nutritionist Christine Bailey reveals why many are making the switch.
If the thought of ditching staples like pasta, rice and bread sends you into panic then you may be surprised to learn that the Paleo diet is not only growing in popularity but may offer some significant health benefits too.
What is the ‘Paleo’ Diet?
The Paleo diet is not just another diet. It is a lifestyle; a change in the way you eat and live. In fact it is really more accurately described as a Paleo Movement, because we know that a lot of the ill health in the western world comes from the contemporary choices we make. We were never designed to eat refined sugar, never designed to spend half our lives sitting down or live in isolation without community. The Paleo Movement addresses both lifestyle and dietary aspects to this. The Paleo Diet was originally based on the research led by Dr. Loren Cordain and others. It is a wholefoods diet that focuses on nutritionally dense, natural foods.
The paleo or ’caveman’ diet centres on the types of foods most likely to be eaten by our prehistoric ancestors. It avoids grains, processed sugars and starches, dairy and legumes and instead focuses on lean protein, healthy fat, fresh fruits and vegetables. With a focus on unprocessed, nutrient rich foods the paleo diet is often adopted to improve overall health, combat chronic health conditions including autoimmune diseases, boost weight loss and enhance energy and resilience.
Within this framework there are variations in the diet. For example many people with autoimmune conditions find the paleo approach beneficial but may make certain variations by excluding a number of additional foods, which may promote immune activation and inflammation.
Those following this style of eating believe that our bodies are not genetically designed to eat modern day staples such as grains and processed foods. In fact grains were only introduced into our diet around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. In other words, throughout the main part of our evolutionary history, we ate no bread, bagels or pasta and therefore have not adapted well to consuming large quantities of them. In their book The 10,000 Year Explosion anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argue that rather than improving our health, shifts in our diet with the advent of agriculture were associated with poorer health. The advent of grains and their consumption in our diet in particular has been linked to the growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes and inflammatory conditions. In addition the increase consumption of gluten containing products has also been linked to the rise in gluten related disorders.
WHAT DOES THE PALEO DIET INCLUDE?
The following are included in the paleo diet:
Grass-fed red meats
Grass fed / organic poultry
Shellfish / seafood
Fermented foods (kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha etc)
Quality fats and oils (e.g lard, duck fat, olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
Honey, stevia, coconut sugar (moderation)
Herbs and spices
Water, herbal teas, green and black tea (moderation), green juices and smoothies, coconut water, Nut and seed milks
WHAT THE PALEO DIET AVOIDS
Grains including gluten and non-gluten grains (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, oats, corn, quinoa, rice, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, teff, wild rice, sorghum)
Beans and Legumes (including peanuts and soy)
Processed fatty meats (e.g hot dogs)
Soft drinks, sodas, fruit juice
Sugars, syrups and artificial sweeteners
Processed foods / ready meals
Refined vegetable oils
There are a number of potential benefits associated with following a paleo diet. Firstly the paleo diet may improve overall energy levels and nutritional status, due to a greater micronutrient content than a standard high carb / sugar diet. The greater focus on protein supports muscle building and repair, blood sugar balance and may promote healthy weight loss if needed. Protein is also important for a healthy immune system as well as nourishing skin, hair, joints and bones.
Various research papers support the notion that the Paleo diet was much richer in a range of micronutrients including antioxidants, vitamins and phytochemicals. A review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also suggests that reduced salt and a greater intake of vegetables keeps the body more alkaline. This may be beneficial for bone health as well as improving exercise performance by reducing the build up of lactic acid.
Additional benefits of the paleo diet include a focus on grass fed meats and fish. These contain a number of health-promoting fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA known for their anti-inflammatory properties. These fats are vital for cognitive function, cell health and metabolism. Being rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients it has been found to be useful for certain inflammatory conditions including skin conditions and asthma.
But it’s often improvements in digestive health that is often most noticeable. Grains particularly those containing gluten (wheat, barley and rye) can be a common trigger for digestive symptoms. Simply removing grains and gluten from the diet may significantly improve how you think and feel.
The Paleo Diet for Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmunity is a process in which our body’s own immune system attacks our own cells, tissues and organs. Examples of autoimmune diseases include coeliac disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, and Vitiligo. Autoimmune diseases all share a common link – damage to the intestinal lining. Sometimes referred to as ‘leaky gut’ or intestinal permeability. A leaky gut arises when the gut lining is damaged and some of the contents of the gut leaked into the bloodstream resulting in an immune response. This can result in generalised inflammation, production of antibodies and autoantibodies, which attack the cells, and tissues of the body. The gut can become leaky for a range of reasons – linked to the consumption of certain foods (gluten, grains, dairy etc) and lifestyle (e.g high stress, medications). The paleo diet addresses the underlying triggers for leaky gut by removing the key food triggers and focuses on healing the gut to reduce the inflammatory response.
The Paleo Lifestyle
The paleo approach is not just about diet but a whole lifestyle approach. It means modelling your life after your ancestors in order to promote optimal health and wellness. The expression of our genes is not just influenced by what we eat but how we live our lives too. Exercise, sleep, stress reduction, socialising with others are all important aspects of the paleo lifestyle.
Most people’s lives are very sedentary yet our ancestors would have been moving through the day. Sometimes this would have been gentle exercise and at other time much more intense. Keeping active enables us to burn energy easily and support muscle mass. Aim to move regularly through the day and make time to include both gentle and higher intensity exercise. Get outdoors as much as you can too – this will boost your level of vitamin D and can be an effective way to relieve stress
The paleo lifestyle also acknowledges that we are social and spiritual beings. For optimal health and wellbeing it is important to spend time with friends and family who share common goals and values. Having a sense of community, a spiritual belonging and living with a sense of purpose are key aspects of a healthy fulfilling life.
What Do I Eat?
Try and base your meals around high quality protein, healthy fat and plenty of colourful vegetables. Eat fruit in moderation.
Eggs are a popular for a paleo breakfast. Whether you like them poached, as an omelette or scrambled add a selection of vegetables alongside. Often those on a paleo diet will eat leftovers from the night before – so a piece of fish or chicken / steak with vegetables is a great breakfast option.
If you can’t face cooking you can make up a simple salad with smoked salmon and add some avocado or olives for healthy fats. Green smoothies are another quick and easy option. For a more ‘carb’ fix try chia puddings, paleo granola, nut cream or coconut yogurt with berries and nuts and seeds. You can also make up paleo breads, muffins and pancakes using almond flour and / or coconut flour.
Paleo Lunch and Dinners
Lunch and dinner options are interchangeable depending on preferences. A colourful salad with protein is light and energising. If you need a little starch add some baked sweet potato. Soups are great for warming options but always ensure sufficient protein in the meal. For a starchy substitute try spiralised courgette and carrots or kelp noodles instead of pasta. Alternatively make up a batch of paleo breads or savoury muffins and serve alongside some protein and vegetables.
For something more substantial your paleo dinner should focus on lean meats, fish or seafood and a variety of vegetables. Slow cooked casseroles are an excellent way to make the more of cheaper cuts of meat. Add in some fermented foods too – fabulous for supporting gut health. Try raw sauerkraut, kefir, homemade yogurt, kimchi or kombucha.
You should only snack if you really need to – this may be important if you exercise regularly for example. If you do need a snack it is best to keep them simple. This could include a handful of nuts and seeds, some fruits, vegetable sticks with nut butter, beef jerky or a smoothie. Other examples are homemade paleo breads and muffins, canned fish such as tuna, salmon or sardines, hard boiled eggs, cooked meats, coconut, avocado, olives, sauerkraut or a glass of kefir.
Missing your carbohydrates? Then try some of these paleo alternatives
Christine’s Paleo Chocolate Bread
A great recipe for breakfast, lunches and snacks. Nutrient rich the protein from the nuts also helps stabilise blood sugar and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Paleo, Grain-Free, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Suitable for Vegetarians, No Added Sugar
Makes 1 loaf
4 bananas, medium
60g coconut oil, softened
1tbsp lemon juice
125g almond butter
60g coconut flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
2tsp baking powder
1tbsp ground cinnamon
2-3tbsp cocoa powder
- Heat the oven to 180C gas mark 4
- Grease a 2lb loaf pan and line it with greaseproof paper.
- Combine the banana, eggs, lemon juice, coconut and almond nut butter in a food processor.
- Add the coconut flour, soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cocoa powder and blend.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes before turning out