Hands up if you know someone who's "gone paleo". Yep, thought so. This diet is like a new religion. If the mainstream churches could tap into some of what the paleo people have got going on, they could fill up those empty Sunday pews.

But what does it mean? What is paleo - and should we all be doing it? The basic theory of the paleo diet is that we should eat like our ancestors did in the Paleolithic era, between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. Advocates say humans haven't evolved to our modern lifestyle.

In practice, the paleo diet seems equally defined by what is left out, as it is by what is included. Off the menu are dairy products; all grains including wheat, rice and corn; legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils; processed foods and refined sugar. Hardcore paleo people also avoid potatoes and peanuts.

What do they eat? Non-starchy veges; grass-fed meat; fish; eggs; nuts; seeds and fats including lard and coconut oil. It's typically a low-carb diet, higher in protein and fat.


But the paleo diet may be in need of some re-branding. There's significant doubt that what today's paleo dieters eat actually resembles what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. In her book, Paleofantasy, evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk says it would be nearly impossible to replicate a true Paleolithic diet today, since most of the plants eaten then no longer exist. It's also likely some Paleolithic people ate foods on the paleo "banned" list, including grains.

A true Paleolithic diet would have varied depending on the location, the season and the opportunities people had to eat.

Paleo people didn't eat for health. They ate to survive. Zuk also dismisses the idea that we stopped evolving 10,000 years ago. We're constantly evolving, and it can happen quite quickly.

Whether or not the name is misleading, is the paleo diet healthy? Nutritionists' opinions vary. Most say the diet has positive aspects. A focus on fresh, whole foods, lots of veges and no processed foods. These are good ideas.

If someone who had been eating a diet heavy on refined carbs and sugar and light on plant foods switched to a paleo diet, it would probably be a good thing.

However, the diet does arbitrarily cut out many nutritious foods. Some people have problems digesting some grains - those with Coeliac disease, for instance - but for most of us whole grains are healthy and useful, providing important types of fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Likewise legumes, although a problem for people prone to IBS, are essential ingredients in some of the world's healthiest cuisines. Dairy foods contribute calcium, protein and vitamins, and make delicious yoghurt and cheese. There's no reason to eliminate these foods.

It strikes me that when you need to refer to lists to tell you whether a food is allowed or not allowed, you're not thinking naturally about how to eat. It's not sustainable or sociable, and it's potentially a gateway to disordered eating.


Another downside to paleo has less to do with the diet and more to do with the cult-like devotion it inspires. Many paleo converts seem evangelical about their regime, to the point where they appear to be of the view that anyone not following paleo is a misinformed idiot who eats nothing but processed junk food.

They are also prone to pouring scorn on trained nutrition professionals for being "behind the times" on the latest research. This is not fair, and simply not true.

A final note of caution: the paleo diet is open to misinterpretation. I'm pretty sure the paleo cupcake I ate the other day wouldn't have featured in a hunter-gatherer's life.

Ditto the paleo brownie, cookie and cheesecake recipes to be found online. And don't get me started on the paleo people who think bacon is a health food.

If this trend goes the way of many before it, the era of paleo junk food is nigh. And then we are right back where we started.

Niki Bezzant is Editor-in-Chief of Healthy Food Guide magazine. She is a passionate cook with a lifelong interest in health and today begins a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday.