As the prehistoric Paleo diet morphs from a trend into a lifestyle, Catering News asks how easy it is to follow in the Middle East, and whether it’s really as healthy as it seems
The Paleo diet is based on foods mainly assumed to have been available to humans that existed during the prehistoric Paleolithic era, consisting of things like vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and fish, while excluding dairy products, grains, sugars, legumes, processed oils, salt and alcohol or coffee. Endorsed by celebrities such as Uma Thurman and Megan Fox, the diet has become almost as household as vegan according to Patrick Ikinofo, executive chef at The Cycle Bistro, which has a menu largely made up of Paleo items.
Given the widely varied interpretation of Paleo, and the fact that some people deem it unhealthy to abstain from grains, The Cycle Bistro offers quinoa in the breakfast section of the menu, which explains why only 95% can be deemed truly Paleo. “We believe that we are Paleo and beyond. So if we use a product, it’s because we believe that it is worthy enough health-wise to be incorporated in our menu,” says Ikinofo.
The benefits of the Paleo diet are very clear to many, with Anette Lind, GM at DinnerTime, which provides Paleo grocery boxes with the ingredients and recipes for a week of home-cooked healthy dinners, commenting: “I would say that you perform better, feel lighter and fresher”. Chef Ibrahim Osseiran, executive chef of Mexican restaurants Flooka Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have menus that are rich in salads, and fish and meat dishes, comments: “The Paleo diet is rich in antioxidant vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat. It’s also naturally gluten-free and low in added sugars, trans fats, salt, and carbohydrates.”
Another advantage of the diet according to Osseiran is that it is easy to follows since “there are no shades of grey”, and no calorie counting or guessing appropriate portion sizes.
“Foods that people are more likely to over-indulge in, such as a rich chocolate brownie, are completely off limits. Therefore, the health benefits, improved energy levels, and generally feeling better, may be less associated with this specific diet and could be the result of cutting out high-calorie processed foods,” he adds.
On the flip side, there are some disadvantages of going Paleo, according to Arjun Bhattarai, head chef of Tribeca Kitchen & Bar, which earlier this year introduced a special Paleo menu, including items such as cauliflower rice, and Paleo banoffee pie with coconut, pecan nuts and chia seeds. He highlights that eating out can be difficult since many restaurants don’t yet offer Paleo options, and the diet is also “difficult to follow at a dinner party”.
“The main barriers for people adopting a Paleo diet in Dubai and the Middle East are the lack of outlets that serve a Paleo menu. I do think that this will change as the region becomes more educated about the benefits of a Paleo lifestyle,” he says.
Lind of DinnerTime also points out that a lack of information on recipes and where to buy ingredients is a barrier for those looking to get on board with Paleo, and Ikinofo of The Cycle Bistro says that this can even be harmful.
“Some people adopt this lifestyle half-heartedly and haven’t educated themselves enough, so end up on some high protein, low carb diet and burn themselves out from lack of energy and vitamins,” he says.
In addition to this, the fast-paced nature of lifestyles in the region means that people often don’t have time to cook Paleo and opt for fast food instead. And even if they have the time, the ingredients for Paleo cooking can be expensive, and difficult to source.
“It’s going to take a while before we have Paleo ingredients easily available at grocery stores and supermarkets,” says Osseiran, who isn’t 100% convinced that Paleo is as good for the body as the celebrities would have people think.
“The diet is heavily reliant on meat, and meat today isn’t as lean as it was thousands of years ago. In addition, adopting a diet from ancient times, when the average lifespan was in the 20s, seems less than appealing when one considers the average lifespan of today, which is in large part due to the eradication of nutrient deficiencies, thanks to fortified foods and dietary supplements. The Paleo diet falls short on some of these micronutrients, namely calcium and vitamin D,” he says.
That said, with levels of obesity and diabetes type 2 skyrocketing in the region, many experts believe that the Paleo diet is here to stay, with more followers likely to catch on over the coming years.
Ikinofo comments: “In only one year I have seen a lot more local followers of this diet and it’s on the rise. I believe it’s about educating our young people so we can avoid all the diseases and health issues that are so widespread today.
Bhattarai adds: “More people in the Middle East are adapting to a Paleo lifestyle as more and more advocates including medical practitioners, nutritionists, fitness and lifestyle coaches and celebrities are openly discussing the benefits. The key in this region, is education, especially in schools.
“More restaurants are starting to focus on healthy eating and this is apparent with the number of new venues emerging that offer healthy eating choices. As demand increases so too will the number of venues that cater to various healthy lifestyle choices.”