For all the buzz about Paleo, there are a lot of misconceptions about what, exactly, it is. Some of these misconceptions are understandable, some are poorly articulated, and others are just lazy conclusions people jump to.
What we want is for you to find a diet that helps you optimize your health and well-being. For most people, a Paleo approach does just that.
Our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors had it right in terms of food consumption. That’s where the term “Paleo” comes from, as do many of the hypotheses we use to think about nutrition. According to archaeological evidence, our caveman ancestors were healthier, stronger, fitter, taller and leaner than modern man. In theory, eating foods that are similar to the foods we ate whilst evolving will provide a roadmap to vibrant health, longevity and well-being.
“But wait!” some say, “That’s not logical. You can’t say that if cavemen did it, we should too.” And they’d be right. This is just the big picture.
We use this logic as a framework. As a place to start looking at our nutritional research and science. It’s similar to using atomic theory to think about and develop hypotheses around chemistry. Everything we know about biology is based on some form of evolutionary knowledge. Nutrition, as a branch of biochemistry, should be no different.
The point is this: start by thinking about evolutionary history, but follow up with good science, reason, and experimentation.
If we think that hunter-gatherers ate foods that were optimal for their evolutionary genetics and health, then we need to ask, “what did they eat?”
They hunted, so animals were high on the list. They gathered, so accessible plant matter (vegetables, tubers, fruits, some nuts and seeds) were also a part of the equation.
That’s pretty much it.
There’s a lot of variety within those parameters, and it shows in modern tribes. Some have higher carbohydrate intake, and others get most of their calories from hunted, rather than gathered, foods.
Though we don’t have exactly the same methods of acquiring our meals, and since mammoths aren’t on the menu anymore, here are the modern guidelines for the Paleo diet:
● Meat. Specifically, meat and eggs and other animal products from healthy critters such as grass-fed cows, free-range chicken and fowl, and wild-caught fish.
● Vegetables. A variety of greens and tubers and other colored plant matter to get the most micronutrients per serving possible.
● Fruits. Though not as important as veggies, fruits come packed with tons of nutrition and simple carbohydrate for energy.
● Nuts and other healthy fats provide energy, flavor, and nutrients that are hard to find elsewhere.
The main thread that connects these foods (even more so than the evidence that suggests they were the foods eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors) is nutrient density. Whole foods that contain tons of nutrition per calorie.
But just as important as the foods that comprise the Paleo diet are the ones that are absent. Many foods touted by conventional nutritional wisdom are eliminated because of the negative effects they have on many people.
Foods you won’t find in almost any Paleo kitchen include:
● Grains, especially gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Other grains like rice, buckwheat, corn, oats, sorghum, millet, and grain-like foods like quinoa are also eliminated.
● Legumes, like all kinds of beans and peanuts.
● Dairy, although opinions on including high quality (i.e. grass-fed) dairy vary depending on individual tolerance.
From an evolutionary perspective, agriculture is extremely new. Humans have only cultivated crops for about 10,000 years. Like with any evolutionarily novel item, they can either help or harm. Grains do more harm than good to the human organism. The natural defenses that grains produce in order to survive in the wild wreak havoc on our digestive tracts. These natural defenses cause the gut lining, where nutrients are absorbed, to become perforated. The tight junctions that keep your food where it belongs begin to weaken, a condition known as intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.”
This leaky gut can allow particles that your body would normally have no problem with into your bloodstream, where they are recognized as invaders and attacked. Constant assault is what’s known as systemic inflammation: low level, chronic inflammation that could be at the root of everything from allergies to autoimmune conditions.
Legumes are similar, with a host of compounds that negatively affect tissues and systems in the body, even through extensive cooking methods like washing and soaking.
In addition, legumes and the foods made from grains (even whole grains) tend to be rich in one thing over all else: carbohydrate. Excess carbohydrate leads to metabolic issues and weight gain, and difficulty managing appetite. A vicious cycle of overconsuming calories and underconsuming nutritious foods like the ones listed above is highly likely. Energy-dense but nutrient-poor grains and legumes push other, better food choices to the periphery.
Dairy is often hotly debated in the Paleo and primal communities. Grass-fed dairy, whey protein, butter, clarified butter and ghee, and whole milk are often edged into the conversation of allowable foods, especially for people who have no overt inflammatory issues. But for the first-time Paleo eater or the veteran, dairy can still cause some problems.
● Dairy carries both lactose and casein, which are hard to digest for the majority of people, even those who aren’t lactose intolerant
● Dairy has a lot of carbohydrates in it, which promotes insulin, which (just like with excessive grain consumption) promotes metabolic and weight management problems
● Dairy promotes growth, both of the things you want to grow (like muscle) and the things you don’t want to grow (like cancers, acne, and body fat deposits)
Side note: a lot of people hear the terms “Paleo” and “Primal” and try to differentiate between them. For the most part, they are the same, but most Primal eaters will keep butter, heavy cream, and hard cheeses in their diet. Both communities share heavily, and most consider the terms interchangeable. They are both talking about modern-informed ancestral nutrition, after all.
One of the things that doesn’t get a bad rap in the Paleo circles, but does in others, is dietary fat intake. Paleo diets tend to include copious amounts of eggs, red meat, fatty fish, dark meat poultry, and bacon, not to mention coconut (the plant king of saturated fat).
Turns out, dietary fat has little to do with body fat. Clogged arteries have little to do with dietary cholesterol. Heart disease has little to do with red meat. As mentioned earlier, healthy animal products are a large part of the Paleo diet. A healthy animal will have healthy sources of fat, and everything from omega-3 content to flavor balances out. Other good sources of fat come from olives, avocados, coconuts, and small amounts of other nuts.
The fats avoided on the Paleo diet are vegetable oils like canola oil and safflower oil and corn oil, which are extremely susceptible to rancidity and oxidization.
All right, I know it’s taken a while to get here. But after all that, it’s actually very simple. Look:
● Eat nutrient dense animals and plants upon which we humans have evolved and thrived
● Avoid harmful foods to which we are poorly adapted
That’s pretty much it.
Guidelines like the ones above can be refined by asking serious questions about the source and health benefits of food. Questions like, “was this food (or something comparable) available to my paleolithic ancestors?” and “could this have been hunted and/or gathered?” will refine perspective and guide hypotheses for a diet. Questions like “is this locally and sustainably produced?” and “was this a healthy animal when it was alive?” can guide ethic- and health-focused dialogues and decisions on what to eat for dinner.
You can ask these questions about every piece of food you eat, if you wanted.
We want vibrant health, strength, and well-being. Chances are, you do too. Your food has a profound impact on every aspect of your life, and can unlock the healthy body you were supposed to have.
Most people have some sort of adaptation period, where not all of their dreams are fulfilled. The first week might be great, but then the second makes you want to tear your hair out and your friend’s head off. Or maybe the first two days feels like one giant headache, and then you see the light on the third. It varies highly with the individual, but we (as with most Paleo resources) recommend giving Paleo (or any diet you are trying) 100% effort and compliance for a month to get all the demons out.
And when those demons leave, it all starts happening. Balanced hunger signaling that gets you eating the right amount. Level blood sugar for consistent energy, which some people find annoying during their 2PM post-lunch blood sugar crash. Optimal body composition and fitness through proper hormonal activity. Not to mention you can have good steak all the time.
Meat, fish, fowl, eggs from healthy animals. All kinds of nutrient-rich vegetables, tubers, and fruits. Add a few nuts and good oils, and remove all of the inflammatory grains, legumes, and dairy, and you’re set.
For most people, this is the recipe for success. But what’s most important is to find what works for you. How Paleo would you go (or have you gone) in order to optimize your health? Have you thought about paleo dessert? If you’d like to try it, check out our store to see the best paleo desserts on the planet. Thanks for reading!