Paleo: still a matter of debate

MANY of us have tried some diets to help us achieve fitness or health goals at certain stages of our lives, such as weight loss or lower cholesterol.

MANY of us have tried some diets to help us achieve fitness or health goals at certain stages of our lives, such as weight loss or lower cholesterol.

When I did my own research about how to eat healthily, I came across the term “Paleolithic diet,” or known as paleo. Believe it or not, it has become extremely popular in the past decade among those who want to shake off unwanted fat or to perform better at gym workout.

Many people say it is the healthiest diet ever and there are hundreds of dedicated websites to post paleo-friendly recipes, nutrition information, and more. But is this diet just another fad? Or, does it actually work?

As its name reveals, Paleolithic diet is to eat as Stone Age hunter-gatherers did some 2.5 million years ago until the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. Following the diet, people should eat whole, real food including grass-fed meat, fish, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds and healthful oils. It sounds not too bad. But if you go paleo, you have to walk away from cereal grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy products, refined sugar, potatoes, processed food, refined vegetable oils and salt! The not-to-eat list is in fact much longer than you would expect.

Just to clarify, what (not) to eat differs a bit from one advocate to the other of the popular diet.

You will easily find many featured books about paleo diet now. For example, “The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health” by John Durant suggests excluding seeds while in some paleo recipes include using bacon, which is labeled as processed food usually.

A major concern is whether the popular diet suits anyone. Marla Sarris, owner and educator of paleo blog, thinks the diet is suitable for everybody. “Whether you’re young or old … suffering from food allergies or not, the diet has a host of benefits it can offer,” said Sarris, who is also executive producer of documentary “Minimalism.”

There are many dairy-free and gluten-free paleo recipes online, which have benefited allergy suffers because many allergens, such as dairy, grains and peanuts, fall in the “Avoid” criterion based on the principle of the paleo diet. Sarris has also shared hundreds of paleo recipes on her website, creating a friendly community for paleo dieters around the world.

It’s believed that the diet can benefit people in many other ways too, such as stabilizing glucose level in blood, burning off stored fat, reducing allergies, balancing energy throughout the day, clearing skin and strengthening teeth, and even improving sleeps.

Sarris suggests vegetarians and vegans “can still follow a paleo diet ... with the proper substitutes.”

The paleo diet excludes grains and legumes — beans, soy, lentils, peas and etc. — which most vegetarians and vegans rely on for their caloric intake.

It’s impossible to go paleo without intake of meat, seafood and eggs due to nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin Bs, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, according to, a website led by Dr Loren Cordain, professor emeritus of Department of Health and Exercise Science of Colorado State University. He is also the author of “The Paleo Diet.”

As one of pioneers in the paleo diet movement, Cordain adopted the diet principle back to 1990.

Take a look at the paleo diet food list. The diet has raised many concerns on nutrition over the past decades already. For example, calcium deficiency as the dairy product is eliminated.

Unfortunately, cereal grains are another “healthy” staple that get removed from the paleo diet. “It’s very unscientific to exclude grains in the diet in terms of alimentology,” said Dr Yang Kefeng from Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine.

“According to the new Chinese Dietary Guidelines issued last year, grains remain as a staple food for people, at least to Chinese people,” explained Yang. Based on the guidelines, a balanced diet should also include large amounts of vegetables, dairy products and soy with moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, and lean meat while cutting down consumption of oil, salt and sugar.

At the meantime, one of the diet’s benefits — enhancing performance in fitness workouts — is another trigger for many people to opt for the paleo lifestyle.

According to Cordain’s book “The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance,” with co-author Joe Friel, the US endurance athlete’s coach, anyone can reach total-body fitness and greatly improve their strength and cardiovascular performance based on the specific guidelines set in the book.

To Sarris, another benefit from the diet switch outshone even more. She started the diet with her husband in 2009. Although it was a soft “ease-in” process, as being 100 percent paleo for 80 percent of the time at the initial stage, she managed to lose about 27 kilograms in weight while her husband lost over 13 kilograms.

That’s why many people follow the diet for its significant effect in weight loss.

But Cordain points out that the paleo diet is “primarily a way of eating to increase health and wellbeing and promote freedom from chronic diseases”.

Among other popular diets, for example, low-carb diet also leads to great weight loss and improvement in key biomarkers such as triglycerides, insulin sensitivity, fasting blood glucose and insulin level, according to article titled “23 Studies on Low-carb and Low-fat Diets – Time to Retire the Fad” by Kris Gunnars, a nutrition researcher with a Bachelor’s degree in medicine, who is Chief Executive Officer and founder of health website Authority Nutrition.

So if you seriously consider trying to be a paleo dieter, think again. How long will you commit yourself to stick to the meal plan? Does it actually what your body needs? Will the diet switch work for you and your body? How are you going to monitor your nutrient intake? Personally, I am just happy to see so many dairy-free recipes shared on the paleo websites.


Loren Cordain: Professor Emeritus of Department of Health and Exercise Science of Colorado State University and author of New York Times’ Best Seller “The Paleo Diet.”

Marla Sarris: Owner and educator of paleo blog and executive producer of documentary “Minimalism.”

Q: Vegetable oil and legumes are normally regarded as healthy food. Why should they be avoided in the paleo diet? Most nuts and seeds are in the green zone but not peanuts, why’s that?

Loren Cordain: Not all vegetable oils are necessarily unhealthy, only those containing high concentrations of an omega 6 fatty acid, called linoleic acid, should be avoided.

Healthful vegetable oils include olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil and macadamia nut oil. These oils typically contain high concentrations of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and reduced levels of linoleic acid.

On the spectrum of plant foods, legumes are not nearly as nutritious as are fresh vegetables and fruits.

Legumes contain a variety of anti-nutrients (phytate in particular) that reduce absorption of divalent ions (iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium) in a dose dependent manner.

They also contain other anti-nutrients such as saponins which can irritate and damage the gut lining and lectins (phytohemagglutinin) which may interact with the immune system.

Peanuts are actually legumes and have been routinely used to induce atherosclerosis in rabbits, rats and primates.

Q: Diet is always connected to fitness. Do you think the paleo diet can make a gym workout more effective? Why?

Marla Sarris: Absolutely! If your diet is on target, you will have more energy: both mentally and physically. In turn, it will help all aspects of your lifestyle, including fitness.

The paleo diet optimizes insulin regulation, muscle synthesis, proper androgen production, and provides the nutrients necessary to recover from a strenuous workout. Basically, if you’re eating a paleo diet, you’ll get bigger gains, faster, with reduced downtime between workouts.

Zhu Jing / SHINE

Oven baked chicken with vegetables


For the sauce:

1.5 tbsp maple syrup

1/3 cup of coconut aminos

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp chilli powder

2 tbsp chopped onion (or 1/4 tsp onion powder for a smooth paste)

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp dried parsley

1 tsp dried basil

For the dish

2 chicken thighs, including drumsticks

1 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch pieces

1 medium purple onion, sliced

3 cup of broccoli florets

2 1/2 tbsp olive oil for roasting vegetables

Ground black pepper to taste


  1. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, mix all the sauce ingredients until well combined.
  3. Coat the chicken with the sauce on both sides and leave for 10 minutes (or longer if you like).
  4. Meanwhile, toss the sweet potatoes with 1/2 tbsp olive oil well in a sauce pan. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste.
  5. Arrange the chicken and sweet potatoes in a large roasting tray and roast for 20 minutes.
  6. Toss the remaining vegetables with the rest of the olive oil and sprinkle with ground black pepper.
  7. After 20 minutes, arrange the vegetables around the chicken and sweet potatoes and roast in the oven another 10-15 minutes. (Please put the tray near to the bottom as vegetables will cook down quickly. )
  8. Turn chicken once to cook evenly and stir the vegetables a little to prevent from burns.
  9. Put the tray on the top shelf for the last 5 to 10 minutes or longer to get the chicken and vegetables browned to your preference.
  10. Serve and enjoy.


You can replace the coconut aminos with 2 tbsp melted coconut oil and 1/4 cup of soy sauce and use salt to season your veggies if you don’t strictly follow the paleo diet. Sweet potatoes and broccolis can be first boiled for a softer texture.

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