Surely you’ve heard of the Paleo diet by now. It’s a way of eating reminiscent of what our caveman ancestors would have likely gorged on: lots of meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – and pretty much nothing else.
Yes: no sugar, grains, legumes or dairy and, depending on which camp you sit in, no alcohol either. Gone are the cheeky chocolates, bakery treats, Mexican fiestas and sparkling champagne.
In short, fun food is out.
Such austerity is for good reason, argue Paleo supporters. Our modern eating habits are killing us. Containing more processed, packaged and commercially produced foods than ever before, our diets are causing a raft of disorders and diseases at an alarming rate, from autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes to rampant obesity. Something is certainly up, and Paleo proponents believe our diet is to blame.
While humans were adapted to a hunter-gatherer diet during the Paleolithic era (which lasted around 2.5 million years), Paleo purists argue our bodies have not properly adapted to eating modern foods like wheat, sugar, chemically processed vegetable and seed oils. They’ve only been in our diets for the last 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture – a mere blip on the radar of evolutionary history.
It makes sense, if you think about it. And the benefits – from fat loss, improved moods to more energy – certainly appeal.
Yet Paleo is not without its critics. The jury is still out on saturated fat, which the Paleo diet encourages in high order, and high meat consumption has been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. A reduction in fibre in the diet has also been associated with constipation.
Another concern is the elimination of entire food groups that form part of a healthy diet. Dairy products, for example, are packed full of nutritional goodies like calcium, vitamin D and protein, while legumes, such as beans and chickpeas are affordable and nutrient-dense plant-based sources of protein.
Despite the naysayers, and putting aside my fears, I decided to embark on an adventure with Paleo for an entire month.
I lived to tell the tale. And here’s my major takeaway: it’s not as bad, or as hard, as you might think.
I love breakfast, it’s my favourite meal of the day and pre-Paleo I couldn’t imagine a grain-free brekkie that would satisfy my morning hunger. But with a bit of preparation and research (there’s an abundance of Paleospiration websites), I surprised myself.
Instead of muesli and toast, I regularly breakfasted on an omelette with spinach, mushrooms and chicken breast. If I’d worked out that morning, I would add sweet potato or pumpkin – baking batches in advance each week saved time. To satisfy my ‘bread-like’ cravings, I alternated with yummy grain-free Paleo breads like coconut bread, almond bread or sweet potato bread – they’re as yummy as they sound.
Lunch was typically a salad, making sure I had enough protein from meats, seafood, nuts or eggs (although I tried not to eat more than two to three eggs in a day) to fill me up for the rest of the day. Dinner followed the ‘meat and three veg’ pattern which, depending on where you grew up, may sound familiar. Snacks stayed simple: nuts, veggies, mouthfuls of coconut oil and ‘accepted’ treats like Paleo brownies – dates, cacao and nuts blitzed with coconut oil.
PALEO IS NOT NO-CARB
Although Paleo is low-carb, it’s not no-carb, and there are plenty of ways to eat enough carbs while eating Paleo. As an endurance runner I made sure I supplemented my diet with plenty of carbohydrate from starchy vegetables (although potato is strictly out on Paleo) and fruits.
Did you know that one cup of sweet potato has almost the same amount of carbohydrates as two slices of white bread (27 grams versus 30 grams)? One medium potato has 37 grams of carbohydrates; and the trusty banana has 27 grams? Depending on your exercise levels, ensure you pack enough ‘good’ carbohydrates in the form of fruit and vegetables while you’re experimenting with Paleo and you won’t feel hungry or like you’re missing out.