Paleo — short for Palaeolithic — refers to the era of human evolution which started about 2.6 million years ago and finished roughly 8000BC, before farming began. The paleo philosophy is based on the belief that many of our modern-day health woes, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity all started when ancient man embraced farming practices and cultivated crops. It claims that, genetically speaking, the nutritional needs of modern humans remain best adapted to the diet of our ancestors and that the human body is best built to deal with food which is sourced from hunting, fishing and gathering, as opposed to foods that have become available since the advent of agriculture. However, believing our genes are nutritionally tied to our cavemen friends leaves scientists still hunting for clues.


The paleo diet is certainly not without its advantages. On the plus side, this dietary approach promotes an increased intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, something our society is clearly lacking.

It also emphasises eating whole foods versus highly processed foods rich in sugar, saturated fats and salt that characterise the modern Western diet. The downside is that it needlessly excludes entire food groups including grains, legumes and certain dairy products.

It also recommends that protein sources be preferably organic and/or grass-fed. Not only is this impractical for many Australians but it’s also downright costly, with one report, based on a US diet model, suggesting a 9.3 per cent increase in income is needed to achieve nutrient targets (except calcium).

Most importantly, the paleo diet pushes an eating pattern far removed from that of our ancestors.

According to leading palaeontologists, it’s virtually impossible to eat only foods which were available to our ancestors because the majority of foods recommended in modern-day variants are the product of modern agriculture and bear little resemblance to the foods our Palaeolithic ancestors ate. When was the last time you saw a woolly mammoth? And even if domesticated animals are grass fed, their flesh is unlike that of wild animals or game meat — kangaroo being the exception.

What’s more, a “true” Palaeolithic lifestyle should also include hours of “hunting and gathering” in the form of physical activity each day.

Yet modern lifestyles mean that we spend most of our daylight hours at work, rather than hunting and gathering and using the self-service check-out at the supermarket just doesn’t cut it.

A ‘true’ Palaeolithic lifestyle should also include hours on end ‘hunting and gathering’ in the form of physical activity each day. Yet modern lifestyles mean that we spend most of our daylight hours at work.


The truth is defining what constitutes a paleo diet is problematic. In fact, the premise of the paleo diet does fall short when you consider that there was no one “paleo diet”— especially when the diet of the modern-day hunter-gather societies varied immensely all around the world.

“Palaeolithic humans ate what was available to them out of necessity, not out of choice” Associate Professor Tim Crowe, from Deakin University’s school of exercise and nutrition sciences, says.

Nonetheless, we can make some broad conclusions. Essentially the diet during the Palaeolithic period tended to be higher in protein, lower in carbohydrate and lower in fat (but with more essential fatty acids), and was lower in sodium and higher in fibre.

However, it is incorrect to suggest that it was a low-carb diet.

The most recent publicised version of the paleo diet by Colorado State University exercise physiologist Loren Cordain, whose website claims he is the founder of the paleo movement, is based on grass-fed meat, poultry, eggs and seafood, fruits and non-starchy vegetables. Fats are not restricted but grains, legumes, potatoes, some dairy products and sugar are off the menu.

Yet despite the belief our Palaeolithic ancestors did not eat grains and legumes, there is evidence that humans were using stone tools more than 30,000 years ago to soak legumes and to roughly grind grains and seeds for use as food. Likewise with dairy.

“You only have to look at how European people have adapted to being able to digest lactose over the past 10,000 years to see how relatively rapidly humans can respond to changes in diet, ” Professor Crowe said.


While the paleo diet was designed to be a lifestyle diet to combat modern-day illness, it has become better known as a weight-loss plan which restricts and eliminates certain food groups.

However, only a few small controlled trials have shown short-term weight-loss potential, leaving scientists questioning its long-term effects. Why? One reason — as with most diets — is that it’s hard to sustain.

A recent search of the published studies looking at paleo diets revealed no more than 10 studies, all with very few participants over very short timeframes — most less than three months. And many people dropped out of the studies, claiming the diet was difficult to follow.

Eliminating whole grains and dairy is not necessarily the ticket to ending disease and ensuring weight loss.

Whole grains are packed with dietary fibre and a wealth of research shows that people who eat more whole-grain or high-fibre grain foods are less likely to be overweight and are less likely to develop chronic diseases.

“Modern processing of grains is far more likely to be the problem to our waistlines, ” says Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, who is internationally recognised for her work on carbohydrates and the glycaemic index (GI) of foods.

Her recent book, The World’s Best Diet, is based on the most expensive study ever done: the Diogenes (short for diet, obesity and genes) study which has given us the answer to the optimal diet composition.

This combines a moderately higher protein intake (22 per cent of daily energy intake, roughly 108g protein based on a 2000-calorie diet) with low-GI (wholegrain) carbs. This combination is proven to prevent weight regain.

The Grains and Legumes Council also recommends following a moderately higher protein diet to include moderate amounts of good-quality carbohydrate foods in the everyday diet.

These recommendations can be achieved by enjoying grain foods three to four times each day, choosing at least half as wholegrain or high-fibre grain as well as aiming to eat legumes at least two to three times each week.

What’s more, if you’re trying to lose weight, including three to four daily serves of milk, cheese and yogurt (with the exception of a lactose intolerance) within a calorie-controlled diet can help accelerate loss of weight and body fat, improve muscle retention and reduce waistlines compared with a diet with less dairy foods.


While there are many health benefits to eating the paleo way (such as the whole food versus processed food argument), some paleo diets advocate a higher protein intake of up to 38 per cent of a person’s daily energy (roughly 187g of protein based on 2000 calories a day) — which is a lot higher than the government guidelines of 15 to 25 per cent (roughly 98g of protein each day).

As for where to get your protein, here is a rough guide:


Egg 6g

150g cooked fish 36g

150g cooked beef 40g

Handful of nuts 30g

1 tbsp chia 3g

It can be pretty hard going to achieve the recommended protein intakes if your diet is without grains, legumes and dairy which also contain valuable sources of protein. For instance, there is 10g of protein in 250ml reduced-fat milk or 200g yoghurt and 16g of protein in a cup of cooked legumes, just in case you’re wondering.

“One major hazard associated with the paleo diet is the high content of red meat” says Steve Pratt, nutrition and physical activity manager at Cancer Council WA. “The consumption of red meat and processed meat is convincingly associated with a modest increased risk of bowel cancer.”

The Cancer Council recommends people eat not more than 455g of cooked lean red meat each week. This means no more than 65g (cooked weight) a day (roughly 20g protein) or larger portions every second day, which is also consistent with the recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Australians.

© The West Australian

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