When Pete Evans talks about the Paleo diet, his piercing blue eyes widen, his speech quickens and his body language becomes aroused. His hands dance around emphatically as he extols the virtues of living without processed foods, grains, dairy, legumes or sugar.
Tanned, ultra-lean and handsome, with extraordinarily white teeth, the celebrity chef certainly appears a good physical advertisement for the popular “caveman” diet. Like an evangelical preacher, he is intense, animated and emotional.
In the past six months alone, he has urged us to swap our morning coffee for bone broth, filter the fluoride out of our water and put our babies and toddlers on his diet, too (he blames the Australian Dietary Guidelines for the rising incidence of autism in children). Paleo is not simply a fad or a diet, he says, but a profound way of life that has bought him peace, health and happiness.
“I think 2015 will be a dawning for a new generation, a new consciousness, a new way of thinking,” he enthused in a recent video chat with a personal trainer that was posted online. “What was considered extreme, I think, within 12 months will be considered quite mainstream and people who haven’t adopted [Paleo] will be feeling a little bit left out maybe.” He snaps his fingers and shoots a steely glance at the camera.
“It’s going to happen very, very quickly.”
In short, the 41-year-old appears to have found his purpose and he wants to spread the word. Yet not everyone is buying it.
It was when Pete listed “activated almonds” as part of his daily diet (along with emu meatballs, alkalised water and coconut kefir) in a Sunday newspaper column a couple of years ago that people began to twig that something was up with the co-host of the Seven Network’s top-rating reality cooking show My Kitchen Rules.
Pete, an ambassador for global weight loss giant Weight Watchers at the time, had been better known for his award-winning gourmet pizzas at trendy Sydney eatery Hugos Bar Pizza, as well as various cookbooks and magazine columns, including one with The Weekly. His fame was such that he’d cooked for Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey.
Yet now Pete was turning his back on the pizzas that made him famous (flour and cheese are banned by Paleo). He signed up for a 12-month online course with the alternative Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in New York and reinvented himself as a health coach. He copped flak after going public with his new diet, but used
Facebook to retaliate and launch attacks on organisations such as the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia, both of which he criticised for links to big food corporations. Various people who disagreed with him on the social media site claim to have been duly banned, giving rise to a Blocked by Pete Evans Facebook page, which now has about 3500 “likes”.
“I’ve seen many medical professionals gently challenge his ideas by presenting the facts,” says the author of a popular parody Twitter account Pete Evans Caricature, who did not wish to be identified.
“On many occasions, I’ve seen people banned for simply asking him to look at scientific studies. Removing them creates an apparent consensus and a powerful echo chamber for his own voice.”
Yet despite his lack of formal qualifications (the IIN course is not a formal nutrition qualification) and his controversial suggestion that Paleo may prevent autism, Pete enjoys the support of legions of devoted fans and his book Family Food is the biggest-selling non-fiction title in the country.
“Pete Evans is a young, fit and good-looking guy,” observes independent nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, who says she has health concerns about the Paleo diet. “He is on TV regularly, people see him all the time – so I don’t find it that surprising that people take notice of him.”
Which is exactly the problem, according to Susie Burrell, a Sydney-based dietitian, who has had an online stoush with Pete. She believes he wields a disproportionate amount of influence.
“There’s a general issue out there with celebrities giving out information,” she says. “Often they are promoting personal belief systems that aren’t based in science.”
Pick up a copy of Pete’s upcoming book, Going Paleo, and you may get more than you bargained for.
“Food is medicine” is one of his favourite catchphrases, but the book makes some extraordinary one-size-fits-all health claims that wouldn’t generally be permitted in mainstream medicine.
“Cancer remissions/tumour shrinkage”, “total reversal of chronic fatigue” and “cessation of migraines” are in a long list of possible benefits of the Paleo diet allegedly witnessed by US-based co-author Nora Gedgaudas. (Nora is cast as the science expert in Pete’s Paleo program, but is qualified as a holistic nutritional consultant.)
Dr Stanton’s view is that some of the claims about the Paleo diet could be dangerous.
“If people think they can just follow Paleo and they don’t need treatment for medical conditions, there could be serious consequences.”
To bolster Paleo’s credibility, Pete gets fans to write personal testimonials about their health transformations on the diet, which he uploads to his Facebook page.
It’s not just adults Pete wants to see “go Paleo”. Also due on bookshelves in March is Pete’s cookbook Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way For New Mums, Babies & Toddlers, which he co-wrote with the author of a baby recipe website and a naturopath, and includes a do-it- yourself baby formula made from blended livers, a baby building broth and oils.
“I think this dogma could be dangerous when it’s done with children,” says Dr Stanton, who considers many children would struggle to meet fibre requirements without wholegrains because of the volume of vegetables required. “It’s not fair to the child.”
Susie Burrell is also sceptical. “Specifically with kids, who are burning a lot of energy, wholegrains are important because they are a great source of fibre, essential acids and B vitamins,” she says. “Dairy, of course, is important for bone development.”
Among other concerns experts have expressed about Paleo are that it may lead to an unhealthy and anti-social fixation with food and that it isn’t supported by quality long-term research (in contrast, the federal government’s recently reviewed Australian Dietary Guidelines, regarded as the basis of a healthy diet by most health professionals, are based on more than 55,000 scientific studies).
“Every dietary recommendation out there is there for a reason,” says Susie. “It’s not there because someone thought it was a good idea. It’s based on hundreds of years of evidence.”
Yet it’s not just the Australian Dietary Guidelines that Pete believes we have been duped by. He’s got a few theories (his critics call them conspiracy theories) on autism, fluoride and possibly vaccination, too.
Pete believes we have been fooled by Australian Dietary Guidelines (government-approved nutritional advice), which he has publicly linked to mental illness, dementia and autism.
On Facebook last year, Pete wrote, “Why has our rate of autism jumped from 1 in 10,000 children in 1974, to 1 in 50 in 2014 [the official figure is closer to 1 in 100], where do you think it will be in another 40 years if it is escalating at this rate? This has grown rapidly since the guidelines have been in place!”
Leading experts on autism have dismissed his claims, saying there’s no evidence diet causes autism. They say the current scientific understanding is that autism develops in the womb and is a complex spectrum of disorders caused by 300 genes and multiple other factors.
His new baby and toddler cookbook recommends removing fluoride from our drinking water, avoiding “carcinogens” in sunscreen and throwing away non-stick pans and plastic containers.
Last year, Pete posed in an anti-fluoride T-shirt for controversial West Australian group Fluoride Free WA, prompting frustration from the Australian Medical Association, which described the group as a “vocal hodge podge of conspiracy theorists”, and the Australian Dental Association, which said “it’s always disappointing when people use their celebrity in a way that is not useful to society”.
Furthermore, Pete has hinted that he may have alternative views on vaccination, promising to cover this in his TV show, The Paleo Way. In the UK last month, he filmed a segment with Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, who has criticised mass childhood vaccination programs.
Of course, all of this begs the question: how does Pete’s new role as Paleo posterboy gel with his most lucrative job, as a judge on the top-rating reality show My Kitchen Rules?
Surely his strict new diet alone precludes him from even being able to eat all manner of foodstuffs prepared by the show’s contestants? He has assured journalists he does eat the contestants’ dishes. Yet behind the scenes, TV bosses are said to be concerned about his behaviour, which included a reported meltdown at the show’s media launch in Perth, during which one guest says he stared down the crowd before walking out.
“They are sick to the gills of him going off about the diet stuff, particularly with linking [foods] to autism,” an insider says. “They think it’s inappropriate for a star to be going on about that kind of stuff. I think there’s a strange dynamic between him and [co-host chef] Manu Feildel now, too.”
He still exerts influence, nevertheless. The Seven Network agreed to air Pete’s recent vanity project The Paleo Way, in which he travels the world interviewing and cooking with people who agree with Paleo. Yet it put the show to air in the non-peak timeslot of lunchtime at weekends.
Despite recently declaring on his Facebook page, on which he has more than 700,000 “likes”, that he wished journalists would “do some investigative journalism”, Pete has repeatedly declined an interview with The Weekly since we started asking in November last year.
When we tracked him down at the star-studded Sydney launch of My Kitchen Rules in late January – to offer him a chance to explain Paleo, in person, in the pages of the country’s biggest magazine – he declined. “No,” he said with a forced grin, turning away. What about next week? we persisted. “No,”
he replied. Any reason why not? “No.”
The following day, his book publicist asked us to send a list of questions by email, which we did (you can see them at aww.com.au). A few hours later, we were informed that Pete would not be replying.
Stacking his diet with liver, kale and coconut water hasn’t been the only big change in Pete’s life. In 2011, he split from long-term partner Astrid Edlinger, with whom he has two young daughters. Fame, it was reported at the time, had changed him. Early in 2012, he went public with his relationship with his now fiancée Nicola Robinson, an ex-glamour model known for her racy magazine covers in her native New Zealand. (There also may have been a wedding: Pete calls her “my wife” in his latest book.)
It was Nicola who introduced Pete to Paleo. “I can remember Nic was sitting next to me reading [Primal Body, Primal Mind by US author Nora Gedgaudas] one night and I felt a sudden jab in my ribs,” Pete writes in Going Paleo. “She had this look in her eye and I knew she had stumbled onto something powerful.”
The book was a revelation for the couple, who renounced their former party-loving lifestyles. Nicola, the ex-wife of millionaire Auckland Warriors rugby league club owner Eric Watson and former girlfriend of Sydney nightclub boss Justin Hemmes and ex-All Blacks star Matthew Ridge, is understood to be even stricter with her diet than Pete (even if she is still said to have the occasional Paleo-approved tequila while he is a teetotaller).
Within weeks of his new relationship becoming public, it emerged Pete had ended his business relationship with his brother Dave Evans, with whom he had been business partners at Hugos Group, running a string of popular restaurants and nightspots frequented by the likes of Paris Hilton, Beyoncé and Elle Macpherson. It was a bold move: together they had won coveted Chef Hats and even a Best Pizza in the World competition.
In Going Paleo, Pete says, “I made the decision to not only examine my diet and lifestyle, but also to step away from every negative personal and business relationship that I was giving energy to and to consciously invite positivity into my life.”
Three years on from their parting of the ways, Dave Evans tells The Weekly he is “on good terms” with his younger brother – and winning awards without him.
“I own a pizza restaurant – of course, I’m not Paleo,” he says, laughing, when asked about his own diet. Dave says he supports Pete, who has converted their mum, Joy, to Paleo and has since become more aware of his own carbohydrate intake.
“[Pete] has picked a good target market,” he says. “He has sold more of his current book [Family Food] than any of his previous [pre-Paleo] ones.”
Meanwhile – and in an irony that is lost on no one – Pete’s ex-partner Astrid has found her calling running House of Chocolates, a colourful confectionery shop in Sydney’s Bondi that sells a vast range of sweets and distinctly un-Paleo ice-cream. When The Weekly visited House of Chocolates, Astrid would only say she and Pete had an amicable relationship. Astrid refused to confirm it, but friends say her role at House of Chocolates privately causes Pete some angst, as sugar is at odds with his diet.
So what is the Paleo diet? It’s based on a theory that we should eat like our Paleolithic or cavemen ancestors because our bodies haven’t evolved to digest modern foods, so it bans grains, dairy, refined sugar and legumes (beans, peas, lentils and some nuts). The modern Paleo diet is fat (from coconut oil, animal dripping and avocados), grass-fed organic meat, nuts and vegetables, with occasional treats of seasonal fruit.
Critics say the science doesn’t stack up. There’s evidence our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate any food they could get their hands on, including grains, in some cases. Scientists have discovered their diets varied widely according to their environment, their plant and meat foods bore little resemblance to what we eat today and they died very young.
Like the Atkins diet, Paleo is both low-carb and high-fat, so followers are likely to lose weight rapidly – as Pete has demonstrated – when their bodies switch into a state of ketosis, resorting to fat instead of carbohydrates as a primary source of fuel. This often causes bad breath, fatigue, constipation and dizziness. Weight loss brings a host of health benefits, but long-term, a ketogenic diet may put you at risk of kidney damage, osteoporosis and heart problems.
Dr Stanton has a big concern. “If you follow a Paleo diet, you are simply ignoring the fact that you could reduce your risk of bowel cancer and maybe other things, too, by having wholegrain and legumes,” she says.
Still, Paleo is making Pete a lot of money. His cookbooks are being published overseas. Following in the footsteps of celebrity gurus such as fitness trainer Michelle Bridges and I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson, Pete has launched a $99 online program called The Paleo Way. His new national tour costs $164 for a day-long workshop or $184 for premium seats, and he endorses cooking equipment, T-shirts and coconut water.
Pete isn’t short of self-belief, issuing the media a challenge to help him transform catering at Australian hospitals before posting photos of himself giving his Paleo cookbook to sick kids at Sydney Children’s Hospital at Christmas.
“If he wants to overhaul plane food or jail food, great,” says Fiona Willer, an accredited dietitian and nutritionist who was bemused to be banned from Pete’s Facebook page before she’d even left a comment there. “But there are teams of dietitians trying to make meals as nutritious as possible for patients, who have specific needs. People who are undergoing chemotherapy are not going to sit down to a steak.”
Sarah Wilson, who includes Paleo recipes in her cookbooks, believes Pete is too extreme. “Too many people like to lump me in with Pete Evans,” she tells The Weekly. “I have problems with some of the things Pete says, too. Becoming militantly anti-legume, for example, is [in my view] ridiculous.”
Paleo is not the first strict diet Pete has tried. About 20 years ago, he was a committed vegan. “I was fanatical about it,” he told alternative medicine proponent Dr Joseph Mercola in a recent interview. “But it didn’t work for me. I lost a lot of weight, I became quite anaemic and pale, and I just didn’t have the energy that I do now.”
Those who know him well aren’t surprised that he has become so ardent in his devotion to the Paleo diet.
“He is very single-minded – he throws himself in completely,” says one friend. Illustrating the depth of his beliefs, when asked in an interview with Bookworld what is the most dangerous thing he’s ever done, Pete replied, “Probably eat dairy, sugar and grains”.
In a later question, he gave a wry smile when asked about his beliefs. “At school, I used to believe in religion. Not anymore,” he said.
Maybe that’s because he has a new one now.
To read the highlights from our year long Pete Evans investigation, see the following links:
- Pete provoked criticism last year when he blamed a rise in autism in children on Australia’s official healthy eating guidelines.
- Concerns about health risks from recipes in Pete’s impending book Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies and Toddlers first emerged when The Weekly consulted qualified nutrition experts in January
- Patients were warned not to quit medication in the hope of being cured by Paleo following extraordinary health claims promoted by Pete - including “cancer remission/tumour shrinkage”. “Food is medicine” is one of his favourite mottos
- Days before Bubba Yum Yum was due to hit book shelves, The Weekly exclusively revealed the book would be shelved because of concerns babies could become ill or die as a result of its DIY infant formula
- The questions Pete refused to answer as part of The Weekly’s magazine investigation into the Paleo movement.
- Pete is an ambassador for the Mindd Foundation, which he has promoted on Channel 7 and social media. Here’s what The Weekly discovered about that.