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The Paleo Diet: What You Need To Know

A cavewoman walks into Coles. “Got any mammoth mince?” she asks. It’s crazy, right? The idea that we should eat like our Stone Age sisters – clubbing animals and foraging for berries – on the surface seems one of the silliest trends of 2013.

Yet increasing agreement among health authorities that our modern, Western diet is killing us (obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease) is surely cause for some thinking outside the cereal box when it comes to what we eat. What would our health be like if we only ate what we could catch, kill or collect?

“It was hideous initially,” says Crystal Fieldhouse (www.eatsleepmove.com.au), who took a 30-day Palaeolithic (Paleo) challenge with her partner, cutting out sugar, grains, dairy and eating lots of vegies, meat, eggs and nuts. “I felt totally deprived and made mental lists of all the foods I was going to eat when we finished. But, by the end of the third week, we were feeling so much better that there was no question of going back to our old eating habits.”

They both lost weight, but more importantly to Fieldhouse, a medical rep, was better sleep and clearer thinking, as well as clear skin and a bloat-free belly. “It fascinated me that we could feel so different just from tweaking the quality of the food we were eating.”

However, it’s the fascination with self-experiment that sends some Paleo eaters to unsustainable extremes, prompting a warning from the Dietitians Association of Australia about how restrictive the Paleo program – which is based on eating a similar diet to our prehistoric ancestors – can be.

Author and media commentator Sarah Wilson agrees. She calls her sugar-free approach to food as “Paleo-ish” – and it’s gaining huge popularity. “Most people intuitively feel we’re on the wrong track with sugar-based eating,” she says. “But we’re exhausted by competing food messages. People just want something that makes sense.”

For Wilson, nothing made better sense than cutting out processed foods and eating more like her grandparents rather than her Stone Age ancestors. It’s not strict and aside from addressing her debilitating autoimmune disease, it freed her from the “blood sugar roller-coaster”.

“I was constantly worried, trying to resist sugar. I used to be resigned to feeling like crap every afternoon. Now, I realise how toxic sugar can be,” she says.

So relax – you don’t need to be gnawing on a mammoth bone to eat Paleo-ish, but gathering from the grocer, rather than the vending machine, would get the nod from your prehistoric forebears.


On the paleo menu

Good news for foodies – eating out Paleo-style is easy, says Wilson, whose eight-week program and cookbook, I Quit Sugar (Pan Macmillan, $34.99), is out now. Steak and salad, anyone? “Greek food is also awesome Paleo,” she advises. For brunch dates, just order eggs and replace toast with extra avo. The struggle for beginners is quick everyday breakfasts (kiss those cereal bars bye-bye). Wilson recommends a good old green smoothie, or try frozen spinach, zapped in the microwave, with an egg and cheese on top.

“Food doesn’t have to be fancy, but for me, cooking is non-negotiable. If we want to have a sustainable planet and clean out our food systems, we have to cook.”


Will it improve my health?

Suffering from type 2 diabetes, arthritis, or PMS? Clinical nutritionist Claire Yates (www.myindinature.com) has seen it all resolved in clients who convert to Paleo. “Plus, conditions that people might have put up with throughout their lives thinking it is ‘just them’,” she adds. Migraines, asthma and allergies can all be rectified by following a Paleo template, believes Yates.


Going against the grain

To a generation raised on a food pyramid with bread at the bottom and a bowl of cereal on the table each morning, it can be hard to digest the Paleo position on restricting grains. The exclusion of a whole food group raises alarm bells with the Dietitians Association of Australia, although spokesperson Kellie Bilinski is also concerned that Australians eat too many processed carbohydrates and refined grains.

“Grains contain anti-nutrients,” explains Yates, “which can cause gut irritation and increased permeability [‘leaky gut syndrome’], chronic inflammation, and reduced absorption and assimilation of other nutrients.” But what about fibre? Doesn’t cereal keep us regular? It’s a non-issue, states Yates. “A person following a Paleo template will eat loads of fresh vegetables, with smaller amounts of fruits, nuts and seeds, all providing more than enough soluble and insoluble fibre in the diet.”


Sugar addicts

If US endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig had his way, sugar would come over the counter in plain packets – as he believes it’s just as harmful to health as tobacco and alcohol. His argument? Increased sugar consumption, from both refined carbs and added fructose, creates so many insulin spikes in the body that it becomes insulin resistant and crucially, leptin resistant. “Leptin regulates appetite and metabolism and is sometimes called the ‘satiety hormone’,” explains Yates. So sugary foods keep tasting yummy, even when you’re full. Ring true? Check out Dr Lustig’s YouTube lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”.


Top Paleo Diet Tips:

The Dietitians Association has expressed concern that women following the Paleo diet might not be getting enough calcium. So, to keep bones healthy, up your serves of kale and broccoli, which trump milk for calcium bioavailability in the body, says Yates.

Meaty matters
Worried about the ethics of meat eating? “Twenty-five times more animals are killed to produce a vegie diet than a diet with meat in it,” claims Sarah Wilson. A big part of Paleo is sourcing ethically produced, wild meat and seafood when you can – and meat producers are onboard. Check out www.target100.com.au, the industry’s sustainability initiative and, in the meantime, go to a farmers’ market and chat to the producers. Get to know what is on your plate.

Is it paleo?
Visit eatdrinkpaleo.com.au and try out Australian blogger and recipe queen Irena Macri’s delicious Paleo dishes, or give her ingredient widget – Is it paleo? – a whirl.

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