Dr Carrie Ruxton sets the story straight on the Paleo Diet
Dr Carrie Ruxton is a registered dietician with specialist interests in obesity and functional foods. She has written over 50 scientific papers on nutrition and is a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, an industry-funded body set up to explore the role of red meat in the diet. HealthGauge speaks exclusive with Dr Ruxton to set the record straight on the Paleo Diet.
The paleo diet is often referred to as ‘what cavemen ate’, is this correct?
“It’s our best guess of what cavemen ate using research on the diets of modern hunter-gatherers living in Africa and other developing parts of the world. These communities have no access to farmed cereals, vegetables or processed foods. Instead, their diet includes game, foraged fruits, wild plants and sometimes seafood. Interest in the paleo diet has grown because of the low incidence of obesity, heart disease and cancer in hunter-gatherer communities. While this may be due to the diet, it could also be linked to the high levels of physical activity, low environmental pollution and even the shorter lifespans! This is why we need further research on the claimed benefits of the paleo diet.”
What types of food are included in a paleo diet and what foods are a big no?
“Paleo diets are based on pasture-fed meats, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, honey and nuts. They exclude cereal grains (although some include so-called ancient grains such as spelt), peas, beans, dairy products, potatoes, added salt, added sugar, and processed oils. Many of the allowed foods are very healthy. For example, pasture-fed red meats contain omega-3s which are beneficial for heart and brain health, while eggs contain vitamin D which supports immune function. A high intake of vegetables, fungi and roots will help to boost fibre levels.”
What could a person hope to achieve by switching to a paleo diet?
“While this diet undoubtedly offers benefits, such as a low glycaemic index (for controlling blood sugars), high fibre levels (great for bowel health and keeping you fuller for longer) and plenty of vitamins and minerals, there are some downsides. These include the low intake of calcium (found in dairy products) which may have a negative effect on bone health, and the lack of carbohydrates (which are important for maintaining energy levels). Low carbohydrate diets are fine as long as you don’t exercise much but active people should aim to eat at least half of their daily calories from carbohydrates to fuel muscles. This can be from healthy carbs such as wholegrain bread, rice and pasta – but these are all banned in the paleo diet. Another point is that there is little clinical research on the paleo diet so we don’t know for sure whether it is especially beneficial, or whether the same benefits can be achieved by simply eating a healthy, balanced diet.”
What challenges might a person face in trying to maintain a paleo diet, and how might they overcome them?
“The main challenges are finding the correct foods at your local supermarket, eating enough to be satisfied and curtailing your social life to fit in with the diet. Most people will wonder if it’s worth it. Most foods in the paleo diet contain around half the calories found in modern equivalents, which is fine if you are trying to lose weight but rather inconvenient if you’re not since you can’t fill up on bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and rice. Nuts and seeds could be used as snacks to top up energy and high protein foods, such as lean meat and eggs, are good for staving off hunger. Given that Brits tend to eat out several times a week, either in takeaways, restaurants or cafés, a paleo diet follower would struggle to find anything suitable to eat. A way around this would be to make packed lunches at home or, if you want to eat out, give restaurants prior warning of your dietary needs so they can adapt menu choices. Plain meals, such as meat/poultry/fish with vegetables would be suitable options but the glass of wine would be forbidden fruit!”
Does a prehistoric diet fit in the modern world?
“I personally believe it doesn’t but we can learn much from the ancient world and adapt our modern diets accordingly. This can include cutting down on processed foods, choosing wholegrain cereals whenever possible and eating a high protein diet, containing lean red meat, eggs, seafood and poultry. Use the 5-a-day target for fruit and vegetables as a minimum and switch to nuts and seeds for snacks rather than having biscuits or confectionery. Keep alcohol and soft drinks for occasional treats and, most importantly, take regular exercise. Those cavemen didn’t watch TV or play on Facebook and, who knows, that could be the key to their better health.”