It’s one of the most divisive diets of all time, but has the controversy impacted the popularity of paleo?
It’s been labelled everything from irresponsible to dangerous, slammed by the Heart Foundation, Dieticians Association Australia and the Australian Medical Association, and seen its self-appointed celebrity spokesperson Pete Evans criticised for his “outrageous advice”.
There’s no doubt about it, the paleo diet is one of the most controversial and divisive diets around, but while health professionals and dieticians almost universally warn against it, its legion of followers still swear by it.
But is that all starting to change? After such widespread criticism, is the tide finally starting to turn?
The paleo diet is based on mainly eating foods presumed to be available to paleolithic humans (cavemen) and so focuses heavily on meat, seafood, nuts, vegetables and fruits, but excludes dairy, grains, legumes, sugar and oils and processed foods.
Is the hunter and gather relevant in 2016?
But while the diet’s basic principle is to ask “would a caveman eat this?” many scientists and nutritionists say there is no validity to the claim that we need to eat like our ancestors.
Lyndi Cohen, dietitian and founder of The Nude Nutritionist, says the advice doesn’t stack up given cavemen only lived to an average age of 33.
“The basic theory behind the paleo diet, that the human body has not evolved to thrive on a modern diet of grains, dairy and legumes, has no scientific backing,” Ms Cohen told myBody + Soul. “Human bodies have evolved significantly since the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago. Without a doubt, our ancestors would have eaten a less refined, more wholefood based diet from which we would all benefit. But cleverly marketed ‘paleo-friendly’ food products like brownies and bread are not exactly the type of food our ancestors would have eaten.”
Further to this, accredited practicing dietitian and nutritionist Nicole Senior adds that while eating fresh, minimally processed foods and more vegetables is a good thing, true paleo eating is unrealistic in this day and age where we buy foods from supermarkets rather than hunt and gather.
“Some food processing is part of the way we eat now but we need to choose wisely to stay healthy,” Ms Senior said. “Most paleo followers are doing their own version and modifying the rules. Paleo has become a marketing opportunity to sell ‘paleo’ foods that are highly processed and anything but ancestral.”
While one of the main concerns about the paleo diet is its exclusion of whole food groups such as legumes, wholegrains and dairy, here is just some of the other alarming advice Pete Evans has given his followers:
• told a woman with osteoporosis not to drink milk
• slammed sunscreen because it’s ‘full of poisonous chemicals’
• called for fluoride to be banned
• wrote a paleo diet for babies cookbook which recommends feeding infants bone broth as a baby formula instead of milk
• claims the Australian National Dietary Guidelines contribute to rising rates of autism, mental illness, dementia and obesity
These outrageous and controversial claims have lead to government agencies, health professionals and organisations publicly slamming Evans, the diet itself and its philosophies.
Here is just some of the criticism:
• Heart Foundation CEO Mary Barry said her organisation would not endorse any “fad, novelty or crash diet” while national policy adviser Beth Thomas said “celebrities like Pete Evans need to understand the responsibility that comes with giving out health advice”.
• The World Health Organisation: A low-carbohydrate diet can cause poor brain function and constipation, increasing risk of bowel cancer. A diet with a high intake of meat also can lead to cancer and heart disease.
• Scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki: “There are major problems at every possible level, from theatrical to practical.” The paleo diet is ‘way out of kilter’ with recommendations from professional dietitians.
• The British Dietetic Association (BDA) listed the paleo diet second in the top five diets to avoid in 2015, only to be beaten from the top spot by urine therapy, the Bear Grylls-endorsed practice of drinking your own urine for “cosmetic, medical or wellbeing purposes.”
• University of Newcastle Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics Clare Collins: “Paleo man is not here today for a reason.”
• Australian Medical Association Vice President Dr. Tony Bartone: “I wouldn’t tell Pete Evans how to cook a chook. We should all stick to our fields of expertise and leave medical treatment to appropriate medical professionals.”
• Australian Medical Association President Dr Michael Gannon: “Get diet, wellness advice from GPs, not Paleo Pete”
• Nutrition Australia: “We support the Australian Dietary Guidelines – which also encourage plenty of vegetables and recommends avoiding ultra processed foods. We also recommend people aim for food variety across all the core food groups.”
• Dieticians Association of Australia spokesperson: “There has been criticism directed at the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet encourages foods high in protein to substitute for many carbohydrate food choices and this is not only controversial, but incorrectly glorified as being advantageous for health. Dairy foods, grains, legumes and some processed oils recommended in the ADGs are excluded from the Paleo diet. These foods contain beneficial nutrients, and are high satiety food choices. Excluding whole food groups is not wise, and strict followers may risk falling short on key nutrients.”
• Jillian Skinner, the NSW Health Minister: Pete Evans is a celebrity who “knows nothing from a specialist point of view”
• Celebrity chef Ed Halmagyi: “Paleo, in fact almost every fad diet, is bunkum. Pure, vaudevillian distraction with absolutely no merit.”
• Jamie Oliver on the Paleo diet: “”There’s a lot of bulls*** around at the moment… the reality is, these very specific diets are quite unsustainable.”
Barely a week goes by without a new critic of the diet, so surely some of this bad publicity and skepticism is starting to rub off?
What the experts say
We asked five nutritionists and dieticians for their opinion and nearly all of them agreed that interest is starting to wane given the negative attention. It seems the tide is starting to turn on the paleo diet.
“There is some recent market research which suggests the popularity is waning and in favour of other philosophies such as the Mediterranean diet. Food trends come and go (eg Pritikin, Scarsdale, Atkins etc) and this one will too. People already do their own versions of ‘moderated Paleo’ to suit themselves – it’s not really a sustainable option for many, and it is quite an expensive food choice.”
“Like our ancestors, food trends are constantly evolving to keep up with the environment. It feels that the tide is turning on the Paleo diet as health seekers turn to a more plant-based diet. The Paleo way of eating has been incredibly popular for several years however it seems people are losing interest in following a diet that restricts whole foods groups. Whilst the Paleo diet may soon be replaced by a newer and more fashionable diet (probably endorsed by another celebrity), I hope that the trend to eat more seasonal, whole and unprocessed foods is here to stay.”
“All the flak Pete Evans has copped recently for his wacky ideas is taking its toll. Most people can see it’s extreme. Diet fads come and go and ‘this too shall pass’. Any extreme diet has a limited lifespan because it all gets too hard. In my experience paleo followers tend to be young and have time and money to pursue paleo as a lifestyle choice in the quest to look good. When it comes time to feeding a family; forget it. Paleo is on the wane but there’s still money to be made so it’s got some time to run yet.”
“I think, particularly in Australia, people are wary of the term ‘paleo’, given all of the negative attention it has received. In some regards, it unfortunately has been portrayed as quite “faddy”, which is increasing scepticism. This is why many are preferring to head down the path of “ancestral health”, “whole-food eating” or even using the term “JERF” (Just Eat Real Food). While ‘paleo’ in itself might be waning, I think the focus on eating whole foods and avoiding packaged and processed “food-like-substances” is here to stay (hopefully). I think the paleo diet (or any other way you want to refer to it) will continue its popularity, given the vast array of positive health benefits so many people are noticing.”
“The Paleo Diet is one of the hottest diet trends around, mostly due to celebrity followers and gym goers. There are even paleo cafes – not that they existed in paleo times, nor did the coffee they serve! Any modern reconstruction of the diet is more likely to be based on ‘fashion’ than science.
So why then, given the diet has been universally slammed, does it still have such a dedicated following?
Apparently, it has much to do with Paleo Pete.
“Great marketing by a good PR team with a celebrity chef,” says Nutrition Australia’s Aloysa Hourigan.
Adds Nicole Senior: “It’s example of celebrity-led dietary tribalism. Celebrity culture and low science literacy has meant style has triumphed substance in the diet wars.”
The British Medical Journal ran a study in 2013 which found that even when diets are considered harmful, people still trust celebrities with their health. Further to this, researchers at McMaster University and the Harvard School of Public Health celebrities are often perceived as having greater credibility and sway than doctors, despite having little if any medical knowledge or expertise.
So while Pete Evans continues to dig himself out of nutrition holes and proclaim “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me”, nutritionists advise that you should exercise caution when considering adopting the paleo way. Take the good advice (avoid processed foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables) and leave the bad (cutting out whole food groups such as grains and dairy) and you’ll be on your way to positive health.
September 28, 20161:13pm