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Unless you’ve been living in a cave (OK, maybe a bad analogy), you have probably heard of the Paleo diet.

It is without doubt the diet in Vogue and has been for the past few years; ever since Dr Loren Cordain penned the book of the same name and told people to flip the nutritional pyramid on its head, drop grains and welcome ribeye steak and butter into their lives. The book, and the ‘movement’ have been met with both positive and negative feedback, and a lot of both is well justified.

After all, any diet which promotes wholefood nutrition is great, but the naysayers are correct – there’s nothing paleolithic about eating vegetables invented by man-led cross breeding or buying meat from a supermarket.

In my opinion this is a silly counter-argument. The paleo diet was never supposed to be a historically accurate re-enactment, but putting that aside, do you REALLY need to avoid bread?

What IS Paleo?

Paleo dieting takes a huge number of different iterations which is probably one of the main problems with talking about it: Nobody has actually confirmed what they mean when they say they eat paleo. That said, the standard application seems like it can be summed up as such – avoid grains, most starches, some fruits, dairy and any other foods which would have been unavailable prior to modern cooking and farming methods including refined things, cooked legumes and any artificial flavours or colours.

This is where I have an issue.

The Paleo diet as written is an exclusive diet; that is a diet which restricts food choices because of ‘rules’. Grains, beans, dairy and in some circles other foods like nightshades are restricted for all people, despite the fact that these things can be highly nutritious and nourishing for the body while only being problematic for a minority – the ‘carpet bombing’ approach is advocated over only eliminating specific problem foods, if you have any at all.

Why is that a problem?

The truth is that the vast majority of people DON’T have a food intolerance or allergy. Cutting foods out unnecessarily can potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies (granted, if one is eating a lot of fruit, vegetables and meat this is unlikely) but removing foods long-term, especially dairy and gluten, CAN in fact lead to an intolerance developing. If you suspect you have a food issue, seek the advice of a relevant professional such as an RD or Gasteroenterologist and undergo an elimination protocol. If you don’t get gassy when you drink milk, there’s no need to not drink milk.

Furthermore, a rigid dieting approach is not only unnecessary, it could potentially be counter-productive. Restrictive dieting (as opposed to flexible approaches) are pretty closely related to subsequent unhealthy food relationships and behaviours (1). That’s not me saying that paleo dieting causes eating disorders or anything remotely close to that, but it IS me saying that rigidity in dieting may not be a good thing.

What about the positives?

This above drawback removes from what I think is, actually, a near perfect system. Through the elimination of the above food groups, paleo supporters are forced to eat the kinds of foods that will, in general, nourish your body pretty damn well. Cutting out the above means that you eat meat and fish, vegetables, some low calorie fruits and a load of nuts. Do that and you’ll be eating protein, micronutrients, fibre, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients and very little else. The calorie levels you eat are, generally, pretty appropriate, too, because it’s hard to overeat when you’re not allowed to eat most things.

The last bit, I have a hunch, is more the case in the USA than in the UK. The USA food environment is incredibly poor and therefore a switch to the paleo diet would make a far greater impact, in my opinion, across the pond. That’s just my personal thoughts, though.

So that’s all good, but due to the fact that the diet is laid out as a ‘don’t eat this, this, this and this’ kind of plan, it creates an environment for failure. You can’t go to an Italian because you’re eating paleo. You can’t have a beer because that’s not paleo. No birthday cake for you, we’ll put a candle in an avocado.

I think we need a middle ground.

My way

Michael Pollan said it best when describing the best way for a person to eat who is interested in health and longevity:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

Broken down that means to:

  • Eat ‘real food’ most of the time. I don’t need to really go in to what he means by that, though of course I can see the hyperbolic comments already…
  • Keep your calorie intake appropriate.
  • The focus of most of your plate should be plants. Vegetables, fruits, tubers etc, with an appropriate portion of starchy non-tuber carbohydrates, meat and/or dairy for your goals/needs.

This does NOT make any recommendations to cut things out. It’s an inclusive diet which promotes variety, and I think it’s the way that most of us should go.

By focusing on meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and dairy (depending on personal tolerance) you are able to maximise your health, physical performance and mental performance every day. You don’t need to give it a name and you don’t need to adhere to certain rules.c Rather than an exclusive diet which avoids this or that, why not take paleo as an inclusive diet which means you emphasise meat and fish, you emphasise vegetables and fruits and you emphasise eating things as ‘naturally’ as possible – but you also bear in mind that some other foods such as grains – and even processed foods - can be included in moderation without causing any harm or inherent fat gain, too.

I like the Paleo approach, but I feel it is misapplied. By adopting the approach above you can hit a happy medium and take charge of your own health and vitality without feeling unnecessarily restricted or causing yourself potential problems down the line. When it comes down to it, a diet which has more variety (especially one which is mostly whole food based) is a healthier diet than one which blacks out large sections of what is available, no matter what the reasoning for this is.

Once you have a great variety of foods in your diet, by identifying certain foods which you react to you can become infinitely healthier without removing things for no reason. This targeted approach, when needed, is both more effective (you are using precision to target issues rather than just hoping for the best) and easier to stick to.

I’ll call this Paleo Dieting Mark 2, and I think it could be just what we need.