Critiquing the paleo diet
I’m throwing this out there. I’m not claiming to have studied it in any depth. … Just giving you a heads-up on what a relatively new bunch of dietary zealots are up to: they’re scraping their knuckles on the ground and spearing woolly mammoths. It’s called the “paleo diet” and, on the face of it, pretty straightforward: if cavemen and their dragged-about women didn’t eat it, nor should you.
It’s not clear whether rubbing a couple of sticks together to start a fire is a required part of the diet. It is clear though that there’s a long, long list of things followers of the diet aren’t allowed to eat. A list that will shatter many people’s assumptions about what food is healthy food. Among the “out” ingredients: legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and soybeans (that means tofu too); grains such as barley, corn, rice, even quinoa; yoghurt and other dairy products; and starchy vegetables such as potato and sweet potato. (In: fish, poultry, red meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, weeds.)
''As relative newbies that weren’t part of our diet until the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, these foods can cause many health problems now dogging the industrialised world because, according to Paleo philosophy, we haven’t adapted to eating them,'' wrote health columnist Paula Goodyer of the paleo diet.
Paula ultimately comes down on the side of eating a balanced whole food diet that includes a mix of grains.
''It's the hype right now in certain Montessori circles,'' one Sydney mother tells me. ''Not a slice of bread or hot-cross bun in sight! The poor little chickens. It's kind of Michael Pollan meets Atkins strangely enough.''
Here then, a selection of random things I’ve discovered about this stone-age relic:
1. For the believers, Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour is the place to be on May 12 for the first-ever Australian Paleo Weekend and its workshops, lectures and demonstrations. Wear your best bison skin.
2. And the sort of things you’ll be cooking over the coals of your caveside fire? Think almond-flour waffles with pomegranate. Roast beets and sautéed stems. Savoury paleo biscuits. Do not, whatever you do, think about flour, sugar, milk, cheese, a glass of wine.
3. Think Noma is the only thing you need to know about Danish food? Think again. One-Michelin-starred Danish chef Thomas Rode Andersen, who claims ''bread is the devil'', has opened the takeaway restaurant Pæleo in Copenhagen. According to The Guardian: ''The menu includes meatza, essentially a meat pizza turned upside down with a base of organic ground beef topped with baked tomatoes, pickled mushrooms and parsley pesto. For the hot dog, the sausage with wild leeks comes in an egg-based wrapper, while the risotto is made of small kernels of celeriac shaped to look like long-grain rice.'' (At Andersen’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Kong Hans Kælder, he takes some liberties with the paleo diet’s restrictions.)
4. Paleo-people have pin-ups. Former US Taekwondo champion Dr Terry Wahls, for example, who claims to have overcome Multiple Sclerosis with a hunter-gatherer diet. In a fascinating TEDxIowaCity talk in November last year she said: ''The hunter-gatherer diet has more nutrition than the American Heart Association diet, more nutrition than the American Diabetes Association diet, more nutrition than the USDA food pyramid diet.'' She recommends: ''Three cups of green leaves, three cups of sulphur-rich vegetables, three cups of bright colour, grass-fed meats, organ meat and seaweed.''
Paleo-exponents claim the diet offers a multitude of health benefits: better sleep and digestion, weight loss, reduced pain, stabilisation of blood sugar levels, and elimination of asthma, eczema, allergies and behavioural disorders.
5. Regardless of any health benefits it might have, it’s going to spike some people’s blood pressure. Take the prolific, acclaimed American food writer Michael Ruhlman. Last week, he received an email from a reader of his blog that made his blood boil:
''…The kind of boil my blood gets when I’m at a restaurant and I hear a woman, grilling the server suspiciously, saying, ''I’m allergic to lactose” and then later says, ''Ooo, could you wheel that cheese cart over here? Gawd, I love Epoisse.''
The reader wrote to Ruhlman with a problem: she was hosting a wedding lunch for her daughter but more than a few of the close friends and family members on her invitation list embodied ''the evangelical wacko dietary fads that consume a certain slice of the upper middle class. … Is there a polite way to tell them that we are happy to include them, however we will not be custom ordering meals to suit paleothic [sic] metabolisms and if they insist on maintaining their gluten/lactose/sugar/casein/fat-free diets, we would be happy to see them AFTER lunch for toasts and speeches. I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve had enough family dinners ruined by their food proselyting [sic] that I have no interest to give them a forum at what should be a joyous time.''
Ruhlman’s reply: ''I would serve whatever the hell makes your daughter happy … We have reached such a pitch of food idiocy it makes me want to scream.'' (It’s worth reading the comments section at the bottom of Ruhlman’s post.)
(PS: You’ll also know you could be dealing with a paleo-person when you hear buzzwords/phrases such as: ''Wheat is the new tobacco'', ''sugar is the devil'', ''barefoot running'', CrossFit, ''insulin-resistance''.)
I considered it. For less than a minute. Perhaps the paleo diet could help me shed those few unwanted kilos. Perhaps it might give me a glow in my cheek, a spring in my step and a glint in my eye. But the fervour to believe and observe are absent (for me at least, have always been absent when it comes to any sort of dietary creed).
And there’s something about the paleo thing that makes me squirm a bit. It strikes me as a profoundly self-centred and selfish approach to nutrition. Globally, so the World Health Organisation website helpfully tells me, cereals (wheat, rice, oats, quinoa, millet et al) supply about 50 per cent of the world population’s dietary energy supply.
In developing nations, that figure is even higher. With its reliance on flesh, the paleo diet is a dietary option for only the affluent. (Let them eat cake!) And isn’t the expert opinion that we need to reduce our consumption of meat for the planet’s sake? Or did someone find an undiscovered population of woolly mammoths…