A couple of years back, 45-year-old Muthukumar weighed 120 kgs. He was teased and advised to reduce his weight. To lose weight, he started running and working out in the gym. Additionally, he started diet control and avoided non-vegetarian food that had fat. But, it all went in vain and also took a toll on his health.
That was when he finally resorted to find a solution on Google. His searches took him to the Facebook page ‘Aarokkiyam & Nal Vaazhvu’ (Health and Wellbeing), where he got introduced to the fancy diet called ‘paleo’.
The page, which has nearly six lakh followers, claims that around 3.5 lakh people are following the ‘Paleo’ diet and have 1.5 lakh success stories. Without any commercials in print, TV or radio, the diet has become a buzzword among fitness enthusiasts.
“The scientific name for paleo diet is ‘low-carb, high-fat’, or LCHF, diet. It is all what the diet about. Instead of calling the diet scientifically, we choose the word ‘paleo’ so that common people can understand. It is based on a diet that humans followed during the Palaeolithic age,” said Dr Dharani, founder, Orbito Asia.
The LCHF diet is followed widely in western countries and is known by names like ‘caveman diet’ or ‘stone age diet’.
Orbito Asia, a chain of paramedical lab, provides special diagnostic services for people interested in following the paleo diet. Similarly, there are several other diagnostic centres that offer special ‘paleo package’, which includes blood tests for diabetes, gout and several other conditions.
“Whoever wants to follow paleo diet, we advise them to get a blood test done first. These tests cost between ₹1,500 to ₹3,000. Only then, we prescribe the diet plan. Ideally, results can be seen after following the diet for at least 100 days,” added Dr Dharani.
Paleo culture in Tamil Nadu
Paleo was introduced to the Tamil diaspora by Neander Selvan, a business administration professor at the University of Wisconsin. A decade back, he was diagnosed with diabetes and like others, he started following the doctor-prescribed diet and worked out in the gym, besides being on medication. But nothing helped him.
He then learnt about LCHF diet through articles published in various scientific journals and started the ‘Aarokkiyam & Nal Vaazhvu’ page on Facebook in 2012. The diet consists mainly of meat, which has high fat. For those who are not used to non-vegetarian food, Selvan has introduced a ‘veg paleo’.
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Besides popularising the diet on social media, paleo supporters also conduct meetings across Tamil Nadu. During these meetings, they discuss a variety of topics like how the corporate world has taken over the health of the people. Promises like reducing obesity, controlling and ‘curing’ diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, PCOD and thyroid problems are also made during these meetings.
“Neither me nor my family visited a hospital in the last four years. And this is all because we follow paleo diet. Others may think paleo is just a kind of dietary form, but for the followers it is a lifestyle. One must start the diet as early as possible,” says Muthukumar, who is now a paleo mentor.
Weight loss and combatting diseases
The followers of paleo diet are of two kinds — one, those who to lose weight and two, those who want to control diseases like diabetes, says N Chokkan, a Bengaluru-based writer who followed paleo diet. “I followed paleo to lose weight, which I did. Thereafter, I relaxed a bit in following the diet, but still I managed to maintain my weight,” he said.
According to Chokkan, one of the reasons why Paleo is benefitting a larger section of people is that most of the food items prescribed in the diet should be prepared by us. “For instance, Paleo is against factory products. If you like potato chips, paleo advises you to prepare it yourself. This way, you can choose the potatoes and the oil you want, and you will be sure there are no added preservatives. The concept of organic farming are just an extension of this diet,” he said.
However, he is cautious about the affordability factor. “Fat-rich foods are expensive. For many, it may be difficult to follow such a diet three times a day. So instead, they can reduce the intake of cereals and eat more vegetables,” he added.
Why nutritionists are cautious about paleo
Though the diet is believed to be beneficial by many, nutritionists are cautious about it. One should ask themselves what they are going to do with the diet system after achieving their goal of weight loss, said Sudha Vasudevan, senior scientist and head, department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics Research, Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai.
“If an individual stops following paleo after achieving the goal of weight loss and goes back to normal diet, there are chances that they will again gain the weight they had lost. So, people must ask themselves whether they are going to follow paleo even after reaching their goal. Also if they continue, they will be at a risk of developing heart problems and fatty liver,” she said.
An adults consumes an average of 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day and at least half our population follows a sedentary lifestyle, she said. “So, if we follow the caveman diet, we need to carry out physical activities equal to that of the cavemen, and failing to do that will add unhealthy fatty acids to our body,” added Vasudevan.
“Hence, we advise people to reduce their intake of calories instead of restricting their food choices. Most of the time, paleo diet does not suit our culture. Many of us eat rice, vegetables and fruits every day, and meat once or twice a week. One cannot eat meat every day, unless the person can afford that regularly. The diet we follow should also be environment friendly as well. So it is better to check before following any diet system whether it is culture specific, economically viable and whether it will provide sustainability. We need long-term studies to gauge the benefits of paleo diet,” she added.
There have been instances when the ‘Aarokkiyam & Nal Vaazhvu’ page on Facebook received threats of legal consequences for their alleged false propaganda.
“In order to counter these threats, we asked the paleo followers whether they ever developed any complications due to the diet. But, we didn’t receive any such complaints. There are people who discontinued paleo because of reasons like affordability. But none have discontinued due to its alleged side effects,” said Coimbatore-based physician Dr Hariharan.
He added that the diet system is not for the poor. There is no need for diabetes patients to stop their regular medicines while they are following paleo diet, said Hariharan.
“For the last 60 to 70 years, we have been eating regular food items like idly, dosa, etc. Hence, we are now affected with diabetes, obesity, hypertension, etc. To prove the benefits of paleo diet scientifically, it will take another 20 years. This is actually a study period,” he said.