Millie Mackintosh, Jessica Biel, Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow are all said to eat according to paleo principles and a Victoria's Secret trainer swears by it. But why? Susannah Taylor adopted the cavewoman diet for 6 weeks to find out…
Over the last few years, whenever I have questioned top personal trainers, nutritionists or athletes on how they eat, most of them have responded not with the 5:2 , the Dukan or the Blood Group Diet, but with one word: “paleo”. Justin Gelband, the man who trains Victoria's Secret models including Candice Swanepoel, Irina Shaik and Karlie Kloss swears by it and says it's the only diet that works.
I figured that since many of these people are often ambassadors for optimum health, they were onto something. Since then, I have done a fair bit of research, asked a lot of questions and tried the paleo lifestyle for myself. Here’s what I found out...
What is paleo?
Paleo is short for paleolithic which means of the Stone Age - the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. Paleolithic people or cavemen and women were considered hunter gatherers, and the bulk of their diet consisted of animals and wild plants. Existing before the dawn of agriculture, they didn’t eat any processed grains or dairy. They certainly didn’t know about Mars bars, bagels, Innocent Smoothies, Diet Coke, low fat yoghurts or Special K. Imagine you were on a desert island with a club and a stick and not a Tesco Metro in sight, what would you eat? Nuts, berries, green leaves, fish, meat, birds. That is paleo. One of the most commonly used phrases to describe the diet is ‘If it doesn’t fly, swim, walk or isn’t green, then don’t eat it.”
So first things first: eating the paleo way isn’t new. In fact it’s probably the earliest form of eating known to man, which is why it feels very wrong in a way to call paleo a ‘diet’. I associate the word diet with weight loss, and I’m pretty sure that cavemen and women didn’t have love handles hanging over their loincloths. What paleo is however, is all about simple, fresh, unprocessed, real food, and it is a way of eating that is considered by many experts to work optimally with our genetics to the point where it has the power to act as a medicine.
Decades of research has shown that hunter gatherers typically were free from chronic illnesses and diseases that are epidemic in Western populations.
What can you eat?
Fruits - preferably berries as these are lower in sugar. Nutritionists don't really advise on bananas due to their high sugar content but I ate them when I needed energy for exercise. I also ate avocado by the bucket load.
Vegetables - all green leafy ones, sweet potato, butternut squash, peppers, onions, herbs and salads of all kinds.
Lean meats (grass fed if possible) - beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, bacon.
Seafood - Any. I particularly like white fish and salmon.
Nuts and seeds - almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, walnuts etc. Not peanuts as these are a legume.
Healthy fats - coconut oil, olive oil on salads, eggs.
What can’t you eat?
Dairy - No cows, sheep or goats' milk unless it's raw.
Grains - No bread, pasta, rice, corn or oats. Even quinoa is out.
Processed food and sugars - no cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks, cakes, sweets, crisps.
Legumes - basically any 'dried fruit' from a shell or pod, e.g. peas, beans, or peanuts.
Starches - no potatoes.
Alcohol - we all know what that is...
The Benefits of Paleo
The reversal of illness and disease
When you learn about primal eating, you soon see that the reason nutritionists and athletes promote paleo is because it’s about eating for optimum health, about nourishing every cell in your body, not depriving it in any way. It represents a way of eating that is at the other end of the spectrum to all the refined foods, trans fats, and sugar which many experts believe to be at the root of degenerative diseases today such as obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, depression and heart disease. Paleo expert Robb Wolf writes extensively on his website about the benefits of paleo and shows many fascinating testimonials from people with all sorts of illnesses from MS to migraines, asthma to fibromyalgia, all who have vastly benefited from eating primal, and many of whom have had their illness reversed.
Nutritional expert Amelia Freer , an expert and regular on Get The Gloss eats mostly according to paleo principles too and says, “I really went this way when I started finding out about gluten which is in a lot of grains. Once I removed them I felt so much more energetic and it also sorted out my long term digestive problems.”
Freer also believes that being paleo can be highly beneficial not only for cardiovascular health but autoimmune conditions such as thyroid, arthritis and type 2 diabetes, all of which she says manifest themselves within the gut.
Having eaten the paleo way for about six weeks (and having eaten a lot and never counted a calorie), it seems almost impossible to put on weight with it. Freer agrees. “You can’t really overindulge if you are eating this way, it’s about eating optimally – eating things our body is designed to digest. We have all been hijacked by the food industry that we need more grains and packets of food, and it’s wrong.”
Scientifically speaking, what is happening is that when there is an absence of carbs, our body will take stored fat and burn THAT for energy instead - a process called ketogenesis. This means you can eat more on paleo but potentially lose weight.
Stable energy levels
One of the key factors in eating paleo is the removal of grains, which are proven to cause upset in our system. Removing grains and therefore refined carbohydrates from our diet, takes away the extreme glucose highs and crashes that go hand in hand with eating them.
Build healthy bones and strong muscles
Lean proteins help build strong muscles, healthy bones and optimal immune function.
My paleo diary
For two months, I followed a paleo eating plan. I wasn't paleo perfect 100% of the time (one day I ate chocolate brownies with loads of cream and quite a few glasses of wine, for example), but I would say I followed it 85% of the time.
So how was it?
I already ate quite a low carbohydrate diet; I rarely ate a sandwich at lunch, or a huge bowl of pasta for dinner. Cutting out grains therefore wasn't really the issue for me (although I can imagine if you ate a high carb diet and suddenly switched to paleo it would be much tougher). For me it was the dairy that was hard - I gave up my beloved lattes the first week and as a result felt shocking with very low energy; my body and head felt like lead. This may have been the caffeine withdrawal but you also forget about the sugar that’s in milk (lactose is a sugar).
As I exercise three to four days a week, I realised that I probably wasn’t taking in enough good calories. After speaking to personal trainer Steve Mellor from Freedom2Train (who is also all for eating paleo), I upped my food intake and immediately felt better. One day, after an early morning boxing session, I came home and ate three eggs and three pieces of bacon. Another day I ate an entire packet of green beans with my chicken for dinner. You really do feel as if you can eat as much paleo food as you like.
Lunch was pretty straightforward as there was a salad bar near work and I would choose chicken or fish with loads of vegetables, leaves, and salad, and for dinner I’d generally eat fish or meat with roasted or stir-fried vegetables (sometimes omelettes). My biggest annoyance however was buying fresh food that then goes off in the fridge and then having to buy more.
As for snacks, I mostly munched on fruit such as apples, berries and nuts - sometimes a banana if I was going training (too much sugar in it if you are not exercising). I have also discovered Nakd bars which are wheat and dairy-free, which gave me just the right amount of energy for a training session.
It was the breakfast options that I found hard to swallow - literally. Really hardcore paleo eaters will eat chicken or salmon for breakfast, probably with a handful of nuts (I literally can barely stomach a cup of tea before 9am let alone fish, so this absolutely wasn’t an option). Coyo yoghurt has really saved my life however - it’s a particularly tasty, creamy, coconut based non-dairy yoghurt that no paleo eater will survive without. I would eat this with a handful of cashews, blueberries and cinnamon which is delicious and very filling.
Breakfast on-the-go was hard too and I would often find myself in Pret-a-Manger staring at the shelves trying to find something I could eat (wraps, porridge, those breakfast bowl pots with berry compote are all out of bounds), so I would invariably leave with two boiled eggs (they sell them in a pot) which I would have with a banana and their Naked Nuts much to my colleagues’ horror. I have to admit that eating boiled eggs at your desk is pretty grim - this is when food became totally functional and not much of a pleasure.
Areas I failed at
If you are a die-hard paleo fanatic you shouldn’t drink milk (unless it’s raw or unpasteurised, e.g. straight from the udder), and while I cut out the lattes, I just couldn’t stop having milk in my tea - it’s a habit of a lifetime I am not willing to break. Other areas where I cheated? Dark chocolate - every day at night bar none. Oh and white wine (sometimes a gin and tonic) every Friday and Saturday without fail.
Did I starve?
Absolutely not - if I was hungry I would eat nuts and blueberries, and there is a limit even to how many of those you can eat before you can’t eat any more.
What results did I see?
If I may say so myself, my skin looked pretty darn good. While I’ve never had acne, I would normally have some sort of spot on-the-go. Any bumpiness totally disappeared - it’s almost as if my skin had been cleaned from the inside out. Somehow the pores even looked cleaner. The experts reckon this was down to the fact that I was not just eating macronutrients - the big blocks of proteins, good fats and carbs - but the micronutrients too - the fibre and nutrients that are essential for great skin and cellular repair.
As for my body, I read a quote from Hollywood paleo eater Jessica Biel that said, “It just leans you down and slims you up and takes that little layer of fat, skin and water-weight right off your body”. I don't own any scales but I fit into a smaller dress size and definitely felt much leaner and firmer - it’s as if everything has been cleaned out and sucked in.
Another strange side-effect was that my senses were heightened dramatically. Herbs and spices became a taste sensation. Apparently, according to Amelia Freer, this was not unusual. “I had to change my perfume when I went Paleo, my sense of smell particularly changed!”
Would I carry it on?
I will continue to eat as cleanly as I can - I think cutting out all processed food is the way the world will have to go in order to cure disease and prevent obesity. My advice though is to cut back a food group at a time - start with cutting back on grains first for example, and then dairy as it's a big deal doing it all at once.
Don't think however that I will be doing Paleo to the point of extremism - if I go to a friend’s house and they serve up pasta or potatoes I won’t refuse it, and I will continue to go and drink wine at the weekends, eat chocolate brownies and add some parmesan back onto my salads.
I may be eating paleo, but it doesn’t mean I’m perfect.
For more paleo info
Books: The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sissons (£11.99, Amazon ) - a slightly more realistic view of eating primal. You are allowed cream cheese for example as well as dark chocolate!
Cooking: These were recommended to me by Amelia Freer - Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo (£28.99, Amazon ) and The Functional Nutrition Cookbook by Lorraine Nicole and Christine Bailey (£24.99, Amazon ).
Read Peta Bee's piece on the paleo vs alkaline diet debate here