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Dietary Debate – The Misunderstanding of “Paleo”

Dietary Debate – The Misunderstanding of “Paleo” 960 640 Janie

There is an interesting debate going on at the moment between mainstream nutrition experts and the rapidly growing community of real food supporters. A lot of this debate has been amplified because high-profile Australian Chef Pete Evans has become a vocal and powerful supporter of the “Real Food Revolution”, and with his up & coming Series “The Paleo Way” due to screen this summer on Channel 7, he has come under attack from some mainstream nutrition experts who have gone so far as to threaten to arrest him. Some are also suggesting that only qualified dietitians should be able to offer dietary advice to Australians claiming that chefs are not qualified in the world of nutrition (really?)

For those of you who don’t know, the Paleo Way is about eating real food – it is not a diet.

pete evans

Primarily it is about cutting our processed foods and other foods considered to be harmful to us including grains, dairy and vegetable oils, as well as chemicals, pesticides and GMO foods. There is a lot of debate about what Paleo actually is, and thought continues to evolve about this, so most people choose to use it as a dietary template and modify it according to personal needs and beliefs. (As an example at Thrive Health we feel that white rice, unhomogenised full-fat dairy and oats soaked overnight are generally safe for most people who can tolerate them. We also think quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are OK for many people although not strictly Paleo.)

Despite the fact that the paleo movement is really just about eating real food – which seems to be a noble idea – mainstream nutrition experts have been quick to jump on it as the latest fad diet and proclaim its dangers to society (even though we have been eating real food for millions of years!) I just thought I would point out some of the flaws in the mainstream experts’ arguments that I find a little hypocritical.

Argument 1 – No one knows what paleo people ate

paleo-for-pcosThis is true – the fact is we do not know exactly what our ancestors ate, and our ancestors likely ate a lot of different foods depending on where they were living around the globe. But what we DO know is that they did not eat processed foods – modern hybridised grains, vegetable oil, GMO and chemicals. That is really the essence of paleo – it means understanding that our bodies have evolved to eat certain foods and so replicating this type of diet as best as possible is more likely to lead to health. The high prevalence of obesity and chronic western diseases that have emerged only since the introduction of our industrialised food system is surely evidence enough of this.

So the experts are missing the mark on this one.  It is not about exactly what the people of the Paleolithic era ate – it is about what they DIDN’T eat. We have to respect our evolutionary biology and consider the possibility that something newly introduced into our foods may be either downright toxic or requires some time for adaption. With an estimated 80% of the food we eat being a newly introduced foodstuff, we have simply not had time to adapt to this. And it is also unlikely that we can EVER adapt to some of the synthetic chemicals we now ingest.

Therefore it seems pertinent to avoid the things that we may not be able to digest, and may actually be slowly poisoning us. It is an attitude that I wish our food regulatory agencies had, rather than subjecting the entire human population to a gigantic nutrition experiment.

Mediterranean-Diet-Food-PyramidThe main thing I find hypocritical about this point is that the highly recommended Mediterranean diet is in the same basket – people all over the Mediterranean ate extremely varied diets, yet it is promoted as ONE diet high in olive oil and low in animal products.

If you read the history about the origin of the Mediterranean diet in Nina Teicholz’ great Book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet you will discover that the diet they chose to be THE Mediterranean diet is from the island of Crete and happens to be the one that best fit their hypothesis rather than being based on any conclusive science about its health benefits.

The fact that Cretans also ate lots of pig, goat, sheep, lamb, duck, rabbit, horse, buffalo and offal somehow got left off the Mediterranean food pyramid as did the fact that other just as healthy Mediterranean cultures ate a lot of animal products. In Northern Italy, for instance, lard and butter are commonly used in cooking, and olive oil is reserved for dressing salads and cooked vegetables. In both North Africa and the Middle East, sheep’s tail fat and rendered butter are traditional staple fats.

So yes, we know Paleolithic people ate extremely varied diets, but so did the people of the Mediterranean – and that hasn’t stopped the mainstream experts promoting ONE particular “diet” from the mediterannean.

Argument 2 – Paleo cuts out entire food groups

This one is interesting because yes, hard core Paleo foodies do cut out GRAINS and DAIRY, although recent evolutions of Paleo do include variations of these foods.

The rationale to cut out these types of foods is not so much based on the foods themselves, but on what humans have done to these foods. The pasteurisation and homogenisation of dairy products destroys many of the nutrients and damages others which is why it is off the paleo food list. However many real foodies opt to source raw milk (which is currently illegal to sell for consumption in Australia) – because raw dairy is real living food, full of nutrients so is an acceptable real food to many people. Many cultures have been consuming raw dairy products for thousands of years.

Foods high in carbohydrate, isolated on whiteModern wheat is another food that has been tampered with by humans by forcing it to hybridise with other species and irradiating it in laboratories to produce variants with higher yields and improved pesticide & drought resistance. The wheat we eat today is a completely different species with more chromosomes compared to what we ate in the 1980s in Australia, and actually contains many completely new proteins never before seen by the human body. Yet it was released into our food supply without any testing. Recent science is now uncovering some of the health issues associated with consuming this modern wheat, including autoimmune diseases, cognitive issues and digestive issues to name a few. And like diary, some real foodies choose to eat the traditional wheat called Einkorn although this is not strictly paleo.

So it is not about cutting out entire food groups, it is about cutting out problematic foods that may be harming us.

So it seems to be a prudent decision to omit these foods from the diet because there is growing evidence that they are detrimental to human health and experience with clients shows that when people remove them from their diet – especially modern wheat – a huge variety of health symptoms start to improve or resolve completely. Also, it is extremely easy to get the nutrients that these foods are well known for from other foods that are much safer, so cutting them out is not a problem.

The thing I find hypocritical about this point is that many mainstream health experts promote highly processed foods. Many of these people who seem to have an issue when people cut out “whole food groups” (who defined the food groups anyway? Isn’t there just food and non-food?), don’t seem to have any issue when people cut out food altogether and instead eat food-like substances.

impromyA perfect example is the new dietitian-prescribed CSIRO endorsed weight loss product called IMPROMY which are meal replacement shakes. The ingredients on these shakes are shocking and this is about as far away from real food that you can get.

upgoAnother recent example is when a well-known anti-Paleo Australian dietitian promoted Sanitarium “Up & Go Oats to Go” as a “good option for children who don’t eat breakfast”. (Although interestingly the post was later edited to say “an option for children who don’t eat breakfast”).  Here are the ingredients:

Filtered water, wholegrain oat flour (3.1%), skim milk powder, cane sugar, fructose, soy protein, inulin, banana puree (1%), milk protein concentrate, vegetable oils (sunflower, canola), mineral (calcium), flavours, food acid (332, 300, 330), vegetable gums (460, 466, 407), honey (0.1%), stabiliser (452), salt, vitamins (C, A, B3, B12, B2, B6, B1, folate)

As far as I can tell the only real food found in this product is filtered water – you can bet the honey has been damaged through heating and that the oats weren’t prepared properly for consumption by soaking to neutralise toxins (remember when it used to say to soak the oats overnight on the box?).

How can a dietary expert on one hand oppose paleo because it cuts out whole food groups when on the other hand promote a product like this that seems to contain no food groups at all?

Many mainstream experts seem to defend their opposition to paleo with their university degrees and claim superior knowledge in nutrition, but the wisdom of the crowds is becoming far more powerful. With the instant availability of information on the internet now and social networking, the crowds are learning at a rapid rate from each other and, more importantly, they are open to learning. Many experts on the other hand unfortunately seem to be stuck in whatever they learned at university and are unable to see past that.

However I am pleased to see a small but slowly growing group of dietitians and nutritionists embracing the paleo lifestyle of eating real food – whether or not they agree with the original paleo concepts many agree that the fundamental thought behind paleo – which is to eat real food – can only be good for the health of Australians. Some examples include Dietitian Cassie and Informed Health, and there are plenty more…

I get the feeling that this debate will become more and more heated, especially when The Paleo Way airs in summer. Like all changes, there is often a period of conflict and unrest before a new paradigm is accepted and it can take some time. Just ask Gerard Krefft who was sacked as a curator from the Australian Museum in 1874 for supporting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 2014 he received a posthumous apology and had a room named after him in the museum. That’s how long it can take for a change in paradigm to be accepted.

In the meantime the best (and really the only) choice is to take responsibility for your own health and just eat real food.