I’ve heard a lot about the ‘paleo diet’. Is it true that it’s healthier than the way we eat now and a good way to lose weight?
BHF dietitian Victoria Taylor says:
The paleo diet was popularised by a book of the same name in 2002. In the past few years, it’s become very fashionable; according to Google, it was the most searched-for diet on the internet in 2014. Also called the ‘caveman diet’ or ‘stone age diet’, it claims we should only eat foods available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
It’s based on meat, fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and excludes grains, pulses, dairy products, refined sugar and processed foods. Compared with the average western diet, it is higher in protein, fibre and fat, and lower in sugars and starchy carbohydrates. For those looking to eat healthily or lose weight, this diet might seem advantageous. It encourages eating fruit and vegetables and cutting out foods that are processed and high in sugar and salt. All this is positive.
The paleo diet encourages eating fruit and vegetables and cutting out foods that are processed and high in sugar and salt
However, cutting out dairy products and starchy foods, particularly wholegrains, means losing key sources of fibre, calcium and energy. This could affect your health in the long term. As for weight loss, some people do lose weight on the paleo diet. By cutting out large food groups – especially sugary and processed foods – you’re likely to consume fewer calories (energy), but most fad diets aren’t a long-term solution because they are hard to stick to.
Instead, make changes that can become everyday habits, while controlling your portion sizes. So, while this diet is a good reminder of foods we need to eat more of, we don’t need to travel back in time to be heart-healthy. The trick is to pick the best elements and enhance these with our modern advantages.
Nowadays, our meals can be healthy without being restrictive. We can use modern grills, microwaves and non-stick pans to cook food quickly and healthily. We also have access to a wide range of foods, including healthy options like frozen fruit and vegetables, giving year-round variety.
Most fad diets aren’t a long-term solution
There is still some way to go, but our diets have improved in the last 50 years. We have alternatives to saturated fats like butter and lard, such as unsaturated fats and oils, and have moved towards using lower-fat milks.
However, there are also downsides to our modern diet and lifestyle. We spend less time preparing and eating meals, and ready-to-eat products have increased in popularity.
Convenience foods can save time, but they are often high in fat, salt and sugar, and in many cases our portions of these foods have grown. Looking at food labels can help you make healthier choices.
Many manufacturers and retailers now use traffic-light labels on the front of packets, thanks in part to campaigning by the BHF. They are easy to understand and can help you make a quick decision.
It’s important to take time to consider what we’re eating, pay attention to our food and be conscious of how often we choose processed meals, fast foods and snacks over healthy foods.
Planning meals ahead and spending time cooking at home, perhaps with family or friends – even just a couple of times a week – can benefit not only our health but our overall wellbeing.
Meet the expert
Victoria Taylor is a registered dietitian with 20 years’ experience. Her work for the NHS focused on weight management and community programmes for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. She leads the BHF’s work on nutrition.