What is the Paleo diet, really – and should I try it?
Chances are you've probably heard of “the Paleo Diet” – it's been a widely talked-about and researched dietary approach for some time. The concept of Paleo eating entered the nutrition conversation in the 1970's, but really started gaining popularity in 2002 with the publication of Loren Cordain's book, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. Still, it's understandable if you're not completely clear on what it entails, and you may be wondering if there's something truly useful and practical behind what some consider yet another fad diet. When wellness and nutrition concepts gain popularity, they can often become muddled or misinterpreted, so we want to break down in a clear and concise way what Paleo is all about, and how it could be a helpful and healthful approach to eating for you and your family.
A Paleo-style diet is based on the concept that as long as human beings have been on earth — prior to the agricultural revolution — they were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers who subsisted on a variety of unprocessed food that they were able to catch or that was growing in the wild for them to harvest. This resulted in a nutrient-dense array of protein and fat, as well as vegetables, tubers, nuts, honey, and whatever else happened to be growing or available where the human beings lived.
Part of the reasoning behind an attempt to emulate this preagricultural style of eating is the argument (widely supported by research and the growing rise in cardiovascular and metabolic disease and rampant obesity) that our bodies are not able to cope with our modern diet, one that is highly processed and full of vegetable oil, sugar, and grains. So, it stands to reason that a diet more closely resembling the one on which our bodies have evolved to thrive will result in better health than following the current mainstream approach of fast food and hyper-palatable, highly-processed food-like products.
Since the concept of the diet has been in the health and nutrition world for years (and of course, has existed as the only way of eating for thousands of years before that!) there is plenty of research on the benefits of Paleo-style diets, including a reduction in risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, and improvement in things like sleep, digestion, mood, and body composition.
So what exactly does Paleo eating look like?
Contrary to what some believe, this is not an overly meat-heavy diet, or an attempt to eat (or live) exactly like our cave-dwelling ancestors did. The aim is to eat as many single-ingredient foods as possible, which really encompasses all animal protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and even things like honey, maple syrup, and the occasional treat made from these ingredients. Some folks strive to eat local and seasonal, although that's not always realistic or practical, depending on where you live. Paleo eating will look different for different people, as we all have our preferences, goals, and intolerances. Some of us will enjoy more carbs from fruits and vegetables, some of us will eat more or less red meat, and some of us might make Paleo pancakes on the weekends: these are all versions of Paleo eating.
Paleo eating is also not necessarily a low-carb diet, as it's often described, although when you eat less processed foods you generally find yourself eating fewer carbs overall. Generally speaking, a Paleo plate will feature some form of protein – like eggs, fish and seafood, poultry or beef – along with a non-starchy green vegetable and a healthy fat source like avocado, nuts, or olive oil. You can also add some starchy veggies like sweet potato or fruit. Some Paleo or Primal advocates also enjoy high quality, full-fat dairy like butter, cream, and cheese.
It's worth noting here briefly a few other terms you may hear in conjunction with, or interchangeably with Paleo: the Whole30 diet, for example, is a month-long elimination style diet that helps you remove things like vegetable oils and sugar, and can be beneficial for many looking to lower inflammation and determine which foods are best for them, but it is not the same as Paleo. The keto diet focuses on a diet rich in healthy fats and very low in carbohydrate, even unprocessed carbohydrates – this is another dietary approach that can be beneficial for some, but not all, depending on your physiology and goals. We'll talk more about the keto diet in a future article.
Is Paleo really a good idea for most people?
The answer, when talking about ideal diets, is always “it depends,” but it's fair to say that for the majority of people currently eating SAD (Standard American Diet), a switch to Paleo-style eating would be a beneficial one. Some folks with specific chronic illness or intolerances may need to make additional tweaks based on what their bodies need. Options include eating higher or lower fat, removing possible inflammatory foods like dairy, nightshades, or fermented foods, or considering low FODMAP or AIP style diets. But generally any move towards less sugar, vegetable oils, and overly-processed foods is going to promote better health.
OK, but is it realistic?
This depends on how “strict” you want to be and what your current diet and lifestyle is like. If you enjoy a lot of grains, sugar, and processed foods, the Paleo diet may seem restrictive initially (although, once you get over the difficulty of habit change, you may find significant improvements in energy, digestion, and overall health). However, if you already aim to eat whole foods and avoid inflammatory foods, you might be surprised at how sustainable, simple, and diverse this approach can be. Even if you skew more pescatarian, or more plant-based, (or you really like soup), you can certainly fit your individual preferences into a Paleo-style approach.
While it's easy to list rules and the strict “do's and don'ts” of a particular diet, for a truly personalized and sustainable meal plan, we each have to find the foods and way of eating that works best for our body, our goals, and our preferences. We believe that most of us can do this within the framework of the Paleo diet.
Is there more to Paleo than just food?
The Paleo approach is actually more than just food; it's an overall approach to living a lifestyle that is more aligned with how our bodies are evolved to thrive, even within the context of a more modern lifestyle, with all its comforts and temptations. In an effort to emulate the resilience of our ancestors, Paleo advocates also encourage lots of easy, low-level movement, functional strength training, time outdoors in the sunshine, an active approach to optimal sleep in line with our circadian rhythms, fostering good relationships, and stress management. Whether or not you opt for a Paleo style of eating, most of these lifestyle factors are pretty good ideas for everyone — and they all deserve their own articles, coming soon!