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Can the paleo diet work for you?

13 January, 2015
menu options, ancestors

Ever since humans have had the choice between last night’s mammoth and the wild bird eggs which they found not far from their cave, people have put self-imposed restrictions on what we eat. We have never-ending lists of what we should or shouldn’t eat, and when we’re supposed to eat it. It almost makes you crave a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where your meal times and menu options were restricted to when and whatever food was available.

Perhaps this explains the popularity of the paleo diet, a diet where the only restriction is to stick to the foods that our ancestors had access to. The simplicity of the paleo diet is that you can eat whatever you like as long as it’s a food that a caveman may have eaten. For those who are tired of reading nutrition panels and navigating the political and ethical consequences of buying certain products, conversion to the paleo lifestyle almost takes on a religious fervour.

Countless studies tell us that the typical modern diet is unhealthy for us. We're eating too much sugar, fat, sodium and processed foods, and not enough of the vitamins, minerals and fibre that we need to keep our bodies healthy. We don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, and consume far too many calories overall. Restricting ourselves to meat, fish, eggs, fruit, nuts and vegetables sounds like a much needed improvement. But, is a paleo diet the answer?

 red meat, local farmers

A diet without processed foods is not only healthy for us, but it also makes choosing what we eat much easier. You don’t have to read the nutritional panel on a banana to check for sodium levels, or the fine print on an egg to find out whether it has artificial colours or preservatives. Hunting and gathering at the local farmers markets is much better for you than taking a detour off the paleo path and into the nearest drive-through.

However, abstaining from processed foods isn’t enough for paleo enthusiasts or nutritionists. Devotees of the diet argue that our digestive systems evolved on a pre agrarian diet and that is what we should stick to. Flipping the food pyramid on its head, this goes against traditional advice to follow a diet which is rich in whole grains.

Paleo purists cite the evidence of ancient human remains which show that human health suffered as we moved to an agrarian society. Dental cavities increased sixfold, anaemia became more prevalent, and we became more susceptible to infectious disease. Human heights dropped 2 to 3 inches once we started relying on grains for nutrition, and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that we’ve returned to the same heights as our paleolithic ancestors. Devotees claim that the rising levels of obesity, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease - all problems connected with our modern diet - can be addressed by switching to a paleo diet. 

Critics of the diet argue that we can’t possibly emulate the true caveman diet, which featured many animals which are now extinct, such as the auroch, moa, mammoth and mastodon, and that few people would want human flesh to return to our menu selection. Evolutionary biologists argue that the fact that the majority of people can digest milk shows that the human digestive system can, and has, adapted to modern foods. There are also ecological problems in encouraging the world to adopt a paleo diet, both in the cost of providing a meat-rich diet and in providing enough food for over 7 billion people without relying on grains.

While conceding that eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds are all positive moves, the lack of dairy and grains in the paleo diet is a concern for nutritionists. Whole grains are an important source of B group vitamins, fibre and complex carbohydrates. Dairy is an important source of calcium, which is especially important for children and young adults to avoid bone problems later in life. A further concern is the dependency on red meat in the paleo diet, since eating more than 500g per week increases the risk for colorectal cancer. It would also be difficult for vegetarians to eat enough protein on a diet that doesn’t allow legumes.

The paleo diet isn’t a bad diet, but it isn’t a perfect one either. Rather than focusing on calories and meal planning, it encourages us to look at the food we’re eating and consider how far it is removed from its natural state. Shopping with a paleo mindset will steer you towards the fresh fruit and vegetable section of your supermarket, and encourage you to drive past those fast food outlets on the highway. This is a good thing. If paleo thinking gets you choosing whole grains over processed grains and natural sugars over simple sugars, then you’ll probably receive all the benefits of paleo eating, without all the restrictions.


 vegetables, salad

Try these delicious paleo recipes:

Chicken, Orange and Pomegranate Salad


  • 4 Large Oranges, peeled and thinly sliced.
  • 5 tablespoons of olive juice
  • ¼ of lemon juice
  • A handful of chopped coriander
  • 200g pomegranate seeds
  • 4 skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
  • Freshly ground black pepper


- Place the sliced orange in a large mixing bowl. Add your 3 tablespoons of olive oil, plus the lemon juice, coriander and pomegranate seeds. Toss to combine and set aside to marinate while you cook the chicken.

- Heat the remaining olive oil in a non-stick grill pan and sear the chicken over a high heat for approximately 3 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Once cooked turn off the heat and set aside to rest for a few minutes.

- To serve, divide the salad between 4 serving plates, top with the warm chicken salad slices and finish with a few grinds of black pepper.


Butternut Squash and Pumpkin Seeds Salad


  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled and
  •  cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped thyme
  • 1 tablespoon of melted raw honey
  • 225g rocket leaves
  • 120g toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Freshly ground black pepper


  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • ½ lemon juice
  • ½ orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped thyme leaves


- Preheat oven to 220 degrees.

- Chop the butternut squash into wedges and place in a large mixing bowl.

- Drizzle over the oil, add the thyme and toss to coat. Place on a baking tray and cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Every 10 minutes, remove the baking tray and toss the squash so that all the edges become roasted and caramelised. After 30 minutes, toss one last time, drizzle honey, cook for a further 5 minutes, then set aside to cool slightly.

 - Meanwhile, mix all the dressing ingredients together and dress the rocket leaves in a large bowl. Scatter the pumpkin seeds on top and toss with the butternut squash. Finish with a few grinds of black pepper and serve.   


Roasted Figs in Truffle Oil and Honey


  • 12 ripe figs, cut in half;
  • 3 tablespoons of white truffle oil
  • 3 tablespoon  of melted raw honey
  • 3 tablespoon of chopped basil
  • 150g rocket leaves



  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon of  melted raw honey


- Preheat the girl to 180 degrees

 - Arrange figs on baking tray, cut-side up.

- Whisk together the truffle oil, honey and basil in a small bowl and pour this dressing over the figs, reserving a little for later.

- Place the figs under the grill and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the sauce starts to bubble up and the figs caramelise.

- Pour off the cooking juices into the bowl with the reserved truffle dressing and whisk in the ingredients for the vinaigrette.

 -Serve the figs on a bed of rocket leaves, dressed with the honey-mustard vinaigrette.


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