The past two decades have welcomed a parade of fad diets. Year after year the fitness world brands a new food category persona non grata. From fats to complex carbohydrates, BMIs to glycemic indices, knowing what element of a diet to focus on when is half the battle. The Paleo Diet simplifies its approach to healthy eating by observing the human diet of a simpler time; it has since become the gluten-free toast of Hollywood. By Priya Kumar
At first glance, it’s counterintuitive. Advocates of the Paleo Diet assert human beings have evolved to consume food just so. It posits that our carbohydrate-rich, synthetically processed food is not what we are genetically built to consume. The foodsupply chain has evolved much faster than our bodies; the food it produces is thus unhealthy. Overlooking the fact that our caveman forbearers tended not to live past the age of 30, devotees of the diet swear by its efficacy. It has even gained momentum with the A-list set including Miley Cyrus, Kobe Bryant, Megan Fox and Matthew McConaughey.
Named for the Paleolithic Era, what we know colloquially as the “Stone Age”, the Paleo Diet roughly follows what human beings would have eaten from 2.6 million years ago to 8,000 BC. This period pre-dates the agricultural revolution. In essence, any food that could have been hunted or gathered is acceptable under Paleo’s strict guidelines.
Fruit, vegetables and meat are Paleo Diet staples. At first glance, it appears to be a close cousin of the Atkins Diet (read: low-carb eating). This is incorrect. Under Paleo, dieters can consume root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots, which are denied under Atkins. However, dairy and related products—an entire food group—is restricted. For some diehard preachers of the diet, even salt is off-limit (although others claim sea salt is allowed).
Perhaps the trickiest constraint of Paleo is its omission of legumes. Legumes include kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and even peanuts (which is not actually a nut). These guidelines have proven especially problematic for vegetarians, as legumes are a primary source of protein in their daily intake. That said, nuts are on the menu. Sugar is a huge no-no, but a little honey from time to time is okay.
There appear to be as many critics of the diet as there are advocates. Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk debunks what she sees as myths propagated by the Paleo lifestyle in her aptly titled book Paleofantasy. She emphasizes that diet has been a key part of our evolution and the introduction of calcium-rich dairy and agriculturally nutritious whole grains have led to positive changes in our health and lifespan. “We and every other living thing have always lurched along in evolutionary time, with the inevitable trade-offs that are a hallmark of life,” she poignantly says in her book.
Critics aside, there is a certain element of the healthy human diet Paleo gets right and most nutritionists agree. Cutting out processed food heavily modified from their raw state and laced with preservatives to ensure a long shelf life are out. And foods with a low-glycemic index are highly recommended, as they won’t make your sugar levels spike the way a piece of bread or candy bar would. Ultimately, even Paleo enthusiasts concur the key to diet success is moderation. Many have established an 80/20 rule. If the diet is followed to perfection 80 percent of the time, there is still 20 percent for the rest. Eating well should not be seen as a short team solution, but instead a sustainable lifestyle change.
Fruit and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
Legumes (including peanuts)