Eat like your ancestors for a longer leaner life?
The Paleo diet, which involves eating only unprocessed natural foods has gained global popularity. But this simplified, prehistoric eating plan is not without controversy, writes Gillian Fitzpatrick
The 5:2, corset, day-on-day-off, Montignac, and juicing diets are all jostling for our attention in a crowded marketplace. But it's clear that rising above them all is still Paleo: the undeniable weight-loss champion of 2013, as well as this year's frontrunner.
Also christened the 'caveman plan', it banishes grains, dairy and sugars in favour of 'natural' foods including meat, fish, veg and some fruit: in short, food you could hunt and gather. Advocates claim you will not only be leaner and stronger, but your likelihood of contracting cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's will all be greatly reduced.
But Paleo has also undeniably benefited from the celebrity endorsement that is usually required to make a diet an international success story. Actresses like Megan Fox and Jessica Biel are fans, as are singers Miley Cyrus and Tom Jones. Meanwhile, reality TV's Jack Osbourne follows the plan in a bid to counteract the side effects of his multiple sclerosis (MS).
But eating like our prehistoric ancestors is not without its problems: for one thing, our 21st-century lives are wholly un-caveman like. Surely strives to emulate eating patterns from tens of thousands of years ago is irrelevant to modern living; nothing more than another dietary fad?
Pat Divilly, a well-known Galway-based trainer and nutritionist, disagrees. Indeed, Pat says that Paleo is far from a flash-in-a-pan. "I love this way of eating! I'm most certainly not into fads and anything that requires people to part with an arm and a leg to get results. Paleo may be a fad for some people, but the principles are life-long.
"It's about getting back to basics, eliminating dairy and grains - there isn't a body that won't profit in some capacity."
Pat adds:"I've witnessed clients come off medication for chronic conditions: arthritis, asthma, skin problems, heart problems, high cholesterol, anti-depressants - if you concentrate on and prioritise what fuel you're putting into your body, you will be amazed by the results."
Following on from the 2013 release of 21 Day Jump Start, Pat has now penned Naked Paleo - Food Stripped Bare, which was released last week.
"This is the way we've been eating for years. I actually have had some older people who tell me 'wait, this is nothing new; we used to eat this way as kids'."
He adds: "Even doctors are coming around now - the health benefits are huge. You can't just indefinitely use drugs to cover up a deficiency; you need to tackle the source too."
Although Paleo has been around in some form for some 40 years (The Stone Age Diet by Walter Voegtlin was published in 1975), it is only since US scientist Loren Cordain re-released his book The Paleo Diet in 2010 that the movement really took off.
Not that Paleo is without its critics; like any new diet plan that captures global attention (and we've definitely been here before with Atkins, Dukan and South Beach) experts warn of the potential pitfalls. In particular, the diet can result in calcium, and vitamins B and D deficiencies. It's also potentially lacking in antioxidants and fibre. And the World Cancer Research Fund says diets such as Paleo, which contain a lot of red meat, contribute to higher bowel cancer rates.
Sarah Keogh holds a degree from Trinity College Dublin in nutrition and dietetics, as well as a masters in European food regulation. She currently runs the eatwell.ie clinic from Dublin's Lower Fitzwilliam Street.
"There are elements of Paleo diets that I'd applaud," Sarah tells Health & Living. "Things like cutting out junk and highly-processed food and replacing all that with more fruit and veg is only a good thing."
However, she adds that not all elements of the diet should be similarly championed.
"Firstly, it's a misconception that cave people from prehistory didn't eat grains - they did. And fibre is a hugely important aspect of any diet. In particular in Ireland, we tend not eat enough good-quality cereal fibre.
"And while it's been well-documented that the likes of wheat bran and whole-grains fight colorectal cancers, what is less well known is the ways in which fibre also fights breast cancer."
Sarah continues: "I'd be wary of telling anyone to cut out dairy completely, especially young girls and teenagers. Yes it's possible to get calcium from other sources, but you'd have to consume massive amounts of, say, broccoli to get a comparable intake."
She, furthermore, has some words of warning for those just looking to lose weight quickly: "I read one study recently that said it doesn't matter really what diet you actually follow - you just have to stick with it.
"So serial dieters needs to stop getting on board with every new dietary fad and instead follow one single plan."
It's an interesting point - not least because earlier this year a European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition study suggested a Paleo-like diet has health benefits but may not help dieters to keep off excess weight. Those taking part in the research often did well early on in their diet plans but struggled later on.
An accompanying exercise programme helps with weight management, of course. Indeed, no in-vogue diet programme would be complete without an associated workout routine for enthusiasts to embrace collaboratively with their new eating plans. For Paleo, this comes in the form of CrossFit, a high-intensity workout that focuses on short, extreme bursts of running, jumping, squatting, hoisting and pulling. Hours spent aimlessly pounding away on a treadmill or spinning on a stationary bike it is not.
Colm O'Reilly is the founder of CrossFit Ireland and has a BSc in sports management from UCD. Far from being just another gym, his Sandyford-based facility addresses areas such as overall health, nutrition, stress and recovery.
"The general principles of Paleo are sound," Colm explains. "Most people eat too much processed sugars, too much bread and pasta - even too many spuds, which I know is a controversial stance in this country!"
CrossFit's popular 30-day Paleo challenges permit only the most stringent of Paleo eating plans.
"A group of guys might club together at CrossFit and decide among themselves that they're going to do a strict, 30-day of Paleo to shed weight and get in shape. Or at times we've run our own more structured month-long programmes."
He continues: "These sort of challenges work because they have a defined beginning and end, and if you really put your mind to it, most diets are manageable for 30 days.
"There is also the sense of shared suffering and there's support if you're having a rough day. If you're in it together you're less likely to want to let the team down by reaching for a biscuit or a bag of crisps."
Indeed, the CrossFit website, crossfit.ie, has a messaging board facility brimming with tips for those following a strict Paleo plan. Recent suggestions include asking for more veg instead of spuds at weddings; bulking up on meat and salads at parties so you're less tempted to reach for dessert later on, and bringing your own snacks such as nuts to social events that might not cater to the Paleo devotee.
However, Colm says, while 30-day challenges are a great way to shock your body and lose weight fast, a more measured approach is certainly preferable. "Most people get to the end of the month and they binge on pizza, chips or curry washed down with loads of beer. Far better to make, small, gradual changes that are sustainable.
"That approach is always going to ultimately be more successful than an extremely strict short-term diet plan."
One woman who has now made a business out of Paleo eating is Denise Keane, a Roscommon-native who lives in Co Meath with her husband and son."Three and a half years ago, I was working in administration when my then seven-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was a bit of a shock and made me consider the family's diet that bit more closely."
Denise said that at the time she was following the typical low-fat, high-carb diet that official government guidelines recommend, but still felt less than her best.
"I was eating plenty of brown rice, brown pasta and wholegrain breads. I thought I was doing OK - not least as I was running around 25km a week. But I still had a muffin top, and I still felt very bloated. I was about a size 12 which I know is not fat but I didn't feel like I was in peak health."
Denise explains that she went online to research alternative diets. "I stumbled upon the Paleo plan," she says, "and it was a light-bulb moment - it all just made so much sense to me."
Denise tried it out and hasn't looked back since. She says that within a week, her friends and family were already commenting on her appearance - telling her skin that her skin was glowing and that she looked fantastic. "And my stomach was finally flat!" Denise adds.
She began her blog - irishpaleogirl.ie - to document her progress and post up a selection of her tried-and-tested Paleo recipes.
"When I began the Paleo way of eating wasn't known outside of the US," Denise explains. "Even in the UK, there wasn't a lot of information. So I began the blog to spread the word."
Inspired by what she learned, she qualified as a nutritionist and is now about to open her own practice at the Dublin Holistic Centre on South William Street. She also drives her own 30-day Paleo challenges via her Facebook page - which has close to 15,000 Likes - something which she describes as "pressing the reset button". "It allows your gut to heal and get rid of the toxins that cause cravings.
"The first seven days are tough, but then you hit your stride and reap the benefits."
Denise has just returned from a Paleo conference in London: "It's the first time one has been held outside of the US," she explains. "Paleo just doesn't mean diet - it means also good-quality sleep and reduced stress levels. I view Paleo as a lifestyle; it's not only about food."
A diet that encourages us to view food in its raw, simplistic form is certainly to be commended. Convenience food isn't so convenient if it's causing a host of health problems, after all.
Only time will tell whether Paleo is here to stay - or whether it will fizzle out when the next dietary superstar of the moment arrives. Until then, it's clear that more and more advocates are embracing their inner caveman.
Pat Divilly will be signing copies of his book, 'Naked Paleo - Food Stripped Bare', on Saturday, November 8 at 2.30pm, in Dubray Books on Grafton Street in Dublin.
• Megan Fox: The 28-year-old lost her baby weight following the birth of her second child in February by following a Paleo plan. “I cut out all bread and those sort of carbohydrates,” she said. “No crackers, no pretzels, no chips. Nothing
unhealthy,” she said.
• Matthew McConaughey: The Oscar-winning actor (44) has largely eliminated processed grains and refined sugars from his diet. His weight dropped to nine and-a-half stone for Dallas Buyers Club by eating eggs and chicken breast. “I have a job where I like to look good and be as healthy as possible,” he has explained.
• Jessica Biel: A big fan of exercise and working out, 32-year-old Jessica says of Paleo: “It just leans you down and slims you up and takes that little layer of fat, skin, water-weight right off your body.”
• Jack Osbourne: The reality TV star turns 29 later this week. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012 and turned to Paleo to tackle his symptoms. “I look at MS as inflammation, so I try and eliminate foods that cause inflammation: dairy, gluten, grains.”
• Tom Jones: The Welsh singer lost two stone in five months following the Paleo plan in 2010. Now 74, he said that Paleo “tells you to get back to the way we used to eat when we were hunters and gatherers. Eat anything that’s natural, meat, fish, veg, which you must eat raw as much as possible. And it worked, I dropped 35lbs.”
Sweet potato brownies
1 sweet potato, boiled in lightly salted water, drained and mashed
3 eggs, beaten
60ml maple syrup
1 vanilla pod, split in half, seeds removed with a sharp knife
60ml coconut oil, warmed
35g unsweetened cocoa powder
65g ground almonds
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp baking powder
45g dark chocolate chips
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
2. Grease a square baking tray.
3. In a medium bowl combine the sweet potato, eggs, maple syrup, vanilla seeds. Gradually add the warmed coconut oil while whisking.
4. In a separate bowl, add the cocoa powder, ground almonds, salt and baking powder.
5. Mix the dry ingredients gradually into the wet ingredients stirring continuously until everything is combined.
6. Mix in the chocolate chips. Pour the mixture onto the baking tray.
7. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the edges start to come away and a tooth pick inserted into the centre of the baking tin comes away dry.
(Pat Divilly, Naked Paleo)
Health & Living