Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021

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Stencil art in Los Angeles, by graffiti artist Banksy.

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Stone age science?

The Paleo diet has become hugely popular in recent years, gaining cult-like status in some circles. Short for paleolithic, the controversial diet is based around the idea that you should “eat like a caveman.” After all, the logic runs, the hunter-gatherer life is what we’re genetically geared towards, and our modern reliance on staples like wheat, potatoes and dairy has been more about convenience than health. Could it be that the cavemen were the sophisticated ones, and the rest of us are primitive by comparison?

What is it?

The modern Paleo diet is based on scientific articles first published in the late 1990s by Dr Loren Cordain,1 a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University. The proposed diet consisted mostly of vegetables, fruits, nuts and some honey as well as animal products like lean game, wild fowl, eggs, fish and shellfish. The popular version of the Paleo diet includes these foods and encourages the consumption of grass-fed or wild animals as the source of the animal protein. The diet also asks you to eliminate grains, pulses and legumes, dairy, processed foods, sugars, salt, potatoes and refined vegetable oils.

Diet of our forefathers?

Recent archaeological studies on the diets of early humans show that there was not one particular type of diet.2 Diet varied greatly depending on geographic location and time of year. For example, Inuit populations ate mostly meat as very few vegetables and fruits were available. However in Africa, early man consumed almost equal amounts of animal foods and vegetables and fruits.3 Some populations were feeding primarily on grasses and sedges, and other evidence exists of root-vegetable consumption.4

Can Paleo be healthy?

Contrary to popular belief, eating Paleo does not necessarily involve consuming mounds of processed meat and little else. In its pure form, this diet can be high in fibre, low in concentrated sugars, and contains an abundance of lean proteins, B vitamins and beneficial phytonutrients. It’s also less acidic than our current diet, which may reduce the incidence of osteoporosis and sarcopenia.5 If you go Paleo, ensure that you are consuming grass-fed animal proteins and wild fish to ensure the most favourable balance of fatty acids. Add in plenty of vegetables, fruits and nuts, and consider supplementing where the Paleo is lacking: vitamin D.

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