When it comes to Paleo there is a host of confusion. You may have heard some say salt or vinegars aren’t Paleo compliant and yet others boast brownie, pancake and mac-n-cheese recipes that are Paleo approved. If you’ve ever wondered why on earth someone isn’t eating nightshades on Paleo (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) and yet others are scarfing down a stack of pumpkin pancakes with maple syrup, then you need to keep reading.
Ultimately I believe the confusion around what’s Paleo and what isn’t comes down to this: because it’s a concept not a diet. In a time where everything is studied, refuted, marketed and hashtagged, Paleo becomes an inconvenient topic. It’s highly counter-culture and yet completely rooted in old, old truth.
The Paleo diet is based on the concept that eating according to what was available during the Paleolithic period is more agreeable for our bodies than modern day offerings. According to Dr. Loren Cordain, widely credited for bringing the Paleo diet into the present, “it’s the one and only diet that ideally fits our genetic makeup…” at one point “every human being on Earth ate this way.”
Simple enough, right? Wrong. When taking an anthropological position, there’s a million criticisms one could pose. The Paleolithic period was incredibly long, so which portion best represents it? People lived all over the planet, restricting their access to certain foods, so which is more Paleo: whale blubber or starchy root vegetables? Wasn’t the lifespan of cavemen incredibly short? Why would we want to live like them? Great questions, but do they discredit Paleo on it’s face? I don’t think so, but that’s because I don’t approach Paleo with a desire to replicate history — to relive the life of a caveman. I’m here for other reasons… and I bet you are too.
There’s essentially two ways a person approaches Paleo.
Culturally we need to return to the practices of our ancestors across the board. From sleep to social habits to parenting practices to food cultivation and everything in between, the objective is to head deep into the lifestyle. The intention may come across as being a “modern day caveman” — limiting exposure to electronics, cultivating one’s own food (gardens, foraging, raising animals), and sleeping and waking according to the sun. This person approaches Paleo from a philosophical point of view and reaps the benefits of the lifestyle by enjoying improved health and well-being.
or the second:
A window into the way our bodies work serving as an explanation why so many of ours don’t. The perspective is to revisit how the lifestyle habits of our ancestors (sleeping, eating, moving) may be the key to improving our health today. Often plagued by seemingly minor feelings of being unwell, one explores Paleo principles of nutrient-dense foods that fortify a healthy digestive system and decrease overall inflammation in the body as a tool to become an informed consumer, taking an active role in improving one’s own health and well-being. This person approaches Paleo from a health perspective and adopts the philosophical points of view to the degree it is feasible or practical.
Personally, I see Paleo as a marriage between ancestral practices and modern scientific analysis. We can take what we know from the past and intelligently apply it to the present.
Mindfully applying Paleo principles to our lives is where I think the fog sets in. We like rules when it comes to diets, don’t we? And yet you won’t fall out of a zone, lose points or some how fail in Paleo should you choose to eat something outside of intended perimeters. There’s a high degree of flexibility and a high degree of personal responsibility. And the only real “consequence” (a word I use loosely) here is how you feel after partaking.
If someone introduced themselves to you as a physician, you might ask them what they specialize in. We know that there’s a spectrum when it comes to practicing medicine — that there’s a big difference between a podiatrist and a neurosurgeon. What many have yet to realize is that the same is true for Paleo. An active person with a healthy digestive system and no known autoimmune conditions will have the latitude to eat fairly different than someone riddled with illnesses rooted in systemic inflammation who is seeking to regain health and possibly reduce excess body fat. Yet Paleo serves both of these individuals. This is the crux: it’s up to the individual to determine if they need a podiatrist or a neurosurgeon. However, they’ll be seeing a doctor either way.
Whether your point of view is a philosophical one or you’re here to solve the mystery around why you feel like crap every day, there’s a place for you in Paleo. And chances are it’ll look differently from someone else.
What matters is that you know which one you are, why you’re here and what you hope to achieve. Let others do the same. And then let’s learn from each other.
The good news is that no matter which perspective you have that has lead you to consider Paleo, what we eat pretty much nets out the same. Rather, the spectrum of what we eat nets out the same.
Paleo meals are based on foods that tame inflammation, avoid distress on our digestive system, and are inherently nutrient-dense. All of this translates to supporting, versus compromising, whole health.
Meals are a balance of meat, eggs, seafood, fruit, nuts, healthy fats and a whole lot of vegetables. Foods that are found in nature, foods that are as close to their original form as possible.
The goal of Paleo is to eat what agrees with our bodies and supports our personal overall health needs. With that in mind, the foods avoided are those containing refined sugars, legumes, soy, gluten, most grains and dairy. Oh and, for the most part, processed food. These are known for increasing inflammation, interrupting healthy hormonal function and contributing to digestive distress (among other, more serious health consequences).
Enter the gray areas…
Many companies are getting better and better at producing above-standard snacks, condiments, and the like that do not follow the traditional problematic processing methods and additives—yay for us! This is where that high degree of personal responsibility comes in. Don’t get tripped up on this one. It’s very easy to slide back into relying on convenience foods that could start to edge out more nutrient-dense options. For example, some baked goods use an insane amount of nuts to produce a single serving. Since nuts are high in Omega-6’s, a Paleo-compliant treat could actually contribute to increased inflammation.
Paleo gray areas fall into personal discretion based on how well the items are tolerated. Grains like white rice and high-quality dairy such as organic heavy cream and butter are often tolerated without trouble. However, that doesn’t make them right for everyone nor does it make it ideal for over-consuming by those who can tolerate them. (There’s that mindfulness and personal responsibility part again…)
How do you know if that’s true for you? Well, it’s a good idea to use a program like Whole30, which takes an elimination approach to investigating how your body really ticks. It’s one of the best tools you can have in your back pocket. (You can read about how mine went week by week: one, two, three).
Let’s get down to brass tacks. There are clear guidelines when first transitioning to Paleo in order to clean out your system and start with a fresh slate for reintroductions. In a nutshell (which is totally Paleo), here’s what to eat and what to avoid:
- animal-based protein such as meat, seafood, eggs
- vegetables, including root vegetables (this includes white potatoes with discretion)
- unrefined fats including oils like avocado, coconut and olive, as well as animal-based fats from organic, pastured environments such as beef tallow, lard, and clarified butter (ghee).
- Low glycemic index sweeteners are permissible as appropriate (honey, coconut palm sugar, pure maple syrup)
- refined sugar
- processed food
Over time as your health is restored and you gain a deeper awareness of whether or not a reaction is triggered by various foods, start to tweak guidelines to reflect what you learn. As I wrote in The Frugal Paleo Cookbook, we ought to expect that our plates be slightly different than our neighbor’s if we are truly doing this right. At some point, we should know what our personal template is for taking a Paleo approach to the foods we eat (and the foods we typically avoid).
What you eat while practicing Paleo will ultimately become a reflection of the foods your body requires. It’s a personal statement. A living manifesto of owning your health and choosing your well-being.