Back to Basics

It might sound crazy, being told to eat as your prehistoric ancestors would. But in a world of processed food with a diabetes and obesity problem, fans of the Paleo diet see it as a back-to-basics approach that will make you feel good, be healthier and even live longer. So is Paleo all it’s cracked up to be?

Paleo feature

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 wildebeests and foraging for berries – on the surface seems one of the silliest trends of 2013.

But increasing agreement among health authorities that our modern western diet (and its consequence, obesity), is killing us  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 ate nothing but what we could catch, kill or collect?

“It was hideous initially,” says Crystal Fieldhouse (eatsleepmove.com.au), who took a 30-day Paleo challenge with her partner, cutting out sugar, grains, dairy and eating heaps of veg, 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 Crystal, 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 Dieticians Association of Australia, who are concerned about the restrictive tendencies of Paleo.

Author and media-type 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 but aside from addressing her crippling auto-immune disease, it freed her from the “blood-sugar rollercoaster.”

“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.”

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 grannie.

On The Menu
Good news for foodies – eating out Paleo-style is easy, says Wilson, whose I Quit Sugar 8-week program and cookbook is out now ($34.99, Pan MacMillan). Steak and salad anyone? “Greek food is also awesome Paleo,” she suggests. For brunch dates, just order eggs and replace toast with extra avo. The struggle for beginners is quick every day breakfasts (kiss those cereal bars bye-bye). Wilson recommends the 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 Make Me Well?
Suffering from type 2 diabetes, arthritis, PCOS or PMS? Clinical nutritionalist Claire Yates (www.indinature.com.au) has seen it all resolved in clients who convert to a Paleo approach. “Plus conditions that people might have put up with throughout their lives thinking it is ‘just them’,” she adds. Migraines, asthma, allergies and IBS can all be rectified following a Paleo template, believes Yates.

Going Against the Grain
To a generation raised on a food pyramid with bread at the bottom, a bowl of cereal on the table each morning, it can be hard to, ahem, digest the Paleo position on restricting grains. The exclusion of a whole food group raises alarm bells with Dietician’s Association of Australia, though spokesperson Kellie Bilinski is also concerned that Aussies eat way too many processed carbs and refined grains. “Grains contain a lot of anti-nutrients,” says Yates, ”Which can cause gut irritation and increased permeability, chronic inflammation and reduced absorption and assimilation of other nutrients.” But what about fibre? Isn’t that cereal keeping us regular? It’s a non-issue believes Yates. “A person following a Paleo template will eat loads of fresh vegetables, with smaller amounts of fruits, nut and seeds, all providing more than enough soluble and insoluble fibre in the diet.”

Sugar Addicts
If endocrinologist Robert Lustig has his way, sugar would come over the counter in plain packets – seeing as it kills more Americans than tobacco. 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 Lustig’s YouTube lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.”

Calcium Quota
The Dietician’s Association is concerned about women getting the calcium they need eating Paleo. For healthy bones, keep up your serves of kale and broccoli, which actually trump milk for calcium bioavailability in the body, says Yates.

Meat Much?
Worried about the ethics of meat eating? “25 times more animals are killed to produce a vego diet than a diet with meat in it,” says Sarah Wilson. A big part of Paleo is sourcing ethically produced, wild meat and seafood where you can – and meat producers are on board. Check out target100.com.au, the industry’s sustainability initiative, and in the meantime, get thee to a farmers market and chat up a farmer. Know what’s on your plate.

Is it Paleo?
Google eatdrinkpaleo.com.au and try out Aussie blogger and recipe queen Irena Macri’s ingredient widget. Vodka? Paleo. Peanuts? Not so Paleo.

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