Humans have been tampering with their diets for millennia. The earliest examples being for religious or spiritual purposes such as the vegetarianism practiced by Hindus or the kosher regulations followed by Jewish people. The idea of altering what we eat for health benefits originated in the 1700s from noted physician and one of the first dieticians, George Cheyne. He created a vegetarian diet in the hope of improving his health. From then on, diet management to benefit our health has become a mainstay in the public consciousness, spawning a plethora of diets, each with unique rules and theories about what is best for our health.
One diet that has hit the spotlight is the paleo diet, founded by Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner and popularised by Loren Cordain. The key concept is that our current diet is not the best for our bodies and to fix this we have to resort back to the diet of our ancestors during the Palaeolithic period (hence why this diet is sometimes called the caveman diet). In essence this means cutting out anything that is a result of agriculture: dairy, grains, processed foods and sugars, starch and alcohol. Foods that are allowed include fruits and vegetables, lean meats, seafood, nuts, seeds and healthy fats. Followers of paleo claim that besides weight loss, it also causes an improvement in blood lipids, a reduction in the risk of autoimmune and vascular diseases and can be used to treat Type Two Diabetes.
Is there any truth behind these claims? Supporters of the paleo diet cite studies to support their claims. One that is prominently cited is a study conducted in Papua New Guinea, on the hunter gatherer people of the Trobriand Islands. It found that they had an absence of heart disease and Diabetes. Further support comes from a three week trial of the paleo diet at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which reported an average weight loss of 2.3kg.
On the other hand, although there are studies that support paleo there are several issues that flag up. Most significantly, the sample sizes are too small to be extrapolated. For example, the study in Sweden only had 14 participants. Further denouncement comes from the BDA (British Dietetic Association) which in relation to paleo has stated: “There isn’t any proof that it improves health, and its demand that you exclude food groups essential to health such as dairy, grains and legumes could leave people seriously deficient in essential vitamins and calcium, not to mention constipated from the lack of dietary fibre”.
Another concern arises from the key idea of paleo; that the diet of our ancestors is better for us. Evolutionary biologist and ecologist Marlene Zuk, author of the book Paleofantasy (which discusses the link between evolution and diet), claims there have been “many changes in the genome since humans spread across the globe and developed agriculture”. This could suggest that humans are no longer designed for the dietary habits of our ancestors.
Despite these counterclaims against paleo it should still be noted that the diet can cause weight loss and is often used by athletes and bodybuilders to cut weight for competitions; though this tends to be only for a short period of time rather than a change in lifestyle. Also worthy of mention is that many nutritionists do agree that cutting down processed foods is positive to overall health.
So if not paleo, which diet should we adopt? Dr David Katz and Stephanie Meller published a paper called "Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health?" In the paper they compared the key dogmas of modern day diets such as low carb, Mediterranean, paleo and vegan among others. In the paper they concluded that no diet is clearly the best for health; however, there are common elements across that board which appear to be beneficial. For example, all these diets promote consumption of fruits, vegetables and nuts daily. Many of the diets in the paper also have been founded to lower the risk of certain diseases, for instance the Mediterranean diet has been founded to have a favourable impact on heart disease.
To conclude, a diet like paleo could be good for you, if used for a short period of time and if your primary goal is weight loss. If your goal is to improve your overall health, other diets such as the Mediterranean diet may be better. However the best thing you can do before subscribing to a diet is to do your own research and talk to a medical professional. If you are looking for somewhere to start, the NHS has a page which summarises the nutritional advice and pros and cons of the most popular diets: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/top-10-most-popular-diets-review.aspx.