What is the paleo diet?
I choose to answer the question with a short description and a collection of FAQ’s. I hope you’ll find it informative – take a look at the links below for more information. The diet has become very popular on the web – thousands of people enjoy the benefits; there are more personal stories every day. People who tried all kinds of diets over the years effortlessly lose tens of pounds in a short period of time, without making all sorts of compromises. Those for whom weight loss isn’t an issue find that paleo cured ailments they thought were chronic – like gout, psoriasis, sinus trouble, acne, constipation … but mostly people just feel good.
The Caveman Diet
The Paleolithic era (2.6 million – 8 000 BC) covers roughly 99% of human technological prehistory, and so the major part of our physical development. For millions of years our digestion system was moulded for animal products, plants and small amounts of nuts and berries. We really haven’t changed much in 40 000 years – and that’s the central idea of the paleo diet. We did not eat grains until the arrival of agriculture 10 000 years ago, and that’s about enough time for our bodies to tolerate them, but not sufficient for making grains healthy.
These are primarily guide lines based on what works for people, and on reasonings in the theoretic approach mentioned above. They are what they are: guidelines. It is in no way possible (or desirable) to recreate the exact diet of the paleolithic man. But if you take a step back and see the bigger picture, you can extrapolate what was generally most important in what they consumed and what was at best unnecessary; at worst toxic.
The guidelines are customizable to each person. Some people tolerate dairy very well, for example. Some are content eating lots carbs like of sweet potatoes, carrots and regular white potatoes; while some take a more low carb direction. Some stay away from veggies of the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers …) because it gives them acne or inflammation. It is not about being dogmatic but to really “listen” to your body, to notice what different foods do to you, how they make you feel. If they make you feel bad, they’re probably not good for you.
What practically all of the paleo community agrees on though, is that the most important step is to eliminate grains and sugar, but you will see versions of the following food list everywhere.
- meat (beef, pork, poultry, mutton etc.)
- organs (heart, liver, kidneys, bone marrow, brain etc.)
- seafood (fish, clams, prawns, oysters etc.)
- non-starchy vegetables (kale, spinach, onions, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus etc.)
- eggs (cheaper than meat and a great source of protein and fat!)
- saturated fats (animal fat, coconut oil)
- fruit (they contain a lot of sugar, and fructose is apparently about as poisonous to the liver as alcohol)
- starchy vegetables (potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, yams etc.)
- high cocoa, low sugar chocolate
- nuts and seeds
- grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, rice …)
- legumes (beans, peas, soy …)
- added sugar
- fruit juice (all fructose and no fiber)
- vegetable seed oils (i.e. rapeseed oil, soy bean oil, margarine – not olive oil and coconut oil, those are terrific)
- lactose and casein rich dairy products
Frequently Asked Questions
Really? Not even whole grains?
Nope. Well, sure whole grains are better in the sense that a little dept is better than a helluva lot of dept, but that doesn’t make dept a good thing. Personally I don’t feel better after a piece of dark rye bread than after a white wheat cake. Same hollow feeling, same stomach ache after, hungry again after a short while, sometimes even hungrier than if I didn’t eat anything. Grains, I’m afraid; are grains.
So what’s so bad about grains?
Gluten is one of the worst offenders. Apparently it causes a low level of chronic gut inflammation in one third of people (citation needed). Inflammation is not supposed to happen under normal circumstances and is the source of a host of diseases. And then you have phytates, a group of chemicals which bind to essential trace elements, hindering their uptake to the body. Ergo: there may be a nutrient table at the back of your cereal pack and it may correct if you do a chemical analysis, but you’ll be nowhere near utilizing then all. I’ve been speculating lately if phytates don’t bind to nutrients in other foods you’re consuming while you have then in your system. You see: the last time I ate a large load of grains I, ahem, pooped vigorously for a couple of days. Not bad shit, just a lot. Made me think that a major part of what I ate just went right though.
But isn’t 10 000 years plenty of time to adapt to grains?
I don’t know. Truly. Opinions are differing, and I am not an evolutionary biologist (though I’ve dabbled in some rudimentary genetics). But I do know this: People are benefitting tremendously from cutting out grains. The paleo/primal model is mainly that; a model. It’s not a scientific theory.
Do you miss grains?
Strangely less than I thought. I used to be a pasta lover; thought I would miss pasta tremendously and slip all the time. But I don’t. Every pasta meal after I changed my diet has been a disappointment. A colorless, tasteless mass in need of too much salt had apparently replaced my beloved al dente. I’m all the happier for it. Real fresh egg pasta can sometimes be tempting I admit – but I’d choose the genius vegetable spaghetti squash any time.
Does paleo work?
Well, that’s up to you to find out – but personally: Oh yes. I feel way better on a paleo diet. My energy levels are so even, you won’t believe it. I don’t have the mid-afternoon downs I used to have after school / day activity.
I’m interested in trying paleo. Where do I begin?
People are encouraged to do a 30 day trial, sometimes called “Whole30”. This could be a good way to start. You follow a strict paleo diet (i.e. the food list above) for 30 days, and see how you feel. If you like it: that’s cool; and your intuition for the diet is by now sufficiently developed that you can easily choose to continue. If you don’t like it: go back to your regular diet. You’ve gotta know, though: most people like it so much they never want to go back.
See section below for good start-up websites.
Good Sources on the Web
Paleo Leap – one of my favorites! Sébastien Noël is the author of “The Paleo Recipe Book”, which you can buy cheaply through the website, in ebook format. The book has hundreds of recipes, the site even more. It’s given me lots and lots of inspiration – the recipes are delicious, the “Learn” section informative, the author willing to share – and the site looks gorgeous (his articles are mostly TL;DR … but nobody’s perfect, eh?). You’ll notice I often cite the site in my blog posts. With the ebook comes an eight-week meal plan with references to the cookbook if you’re having start-up trouble or limited experience cooking with raw materials. With this you don’t even have to think – just look at the plan, make a shopping list from the book, and follow the instructions. Couldn’t be easier!
Elana’s Pantry – the best when it comes to baking! Elana Amsterdam has celiac disease, and has dedicated years to creating well balanced substitutes for people with special food needs, with an emphasis on gluten free/paleo baking. She has an extensive paleo section. I have tried many of her recipes, and can confirm that it IS possible to make delicious baked goods without wheat.
The Bulletproof Executive – Dave Asprey is a self-proclaimed biohacker and nutritionist. He is extremely thorough, but to me he makes so much sense. His food charts are great. He’s put a lot of work into creating them, mainly by consuming scientific articles and experimenting on himself. He calls it Paleo 2.0, or “the Bulletproof Diet”. This is the guy you should start with if you need numbers and case studies.
Mark’s Daily Apple – Mark Sisson has become sort of a guru when it comes to a primal/paleo lifestyle. He blogs about diet, exercise, sleep, mental health and philosophy. He has a lot of products like books, charts, supplements etc. His book and site The Primal Blueprint has gained some attention (and was well-published I suspect).
Robb Wolf – a biochemist and popular lecturer on paleo/primal lifestyle. He has a lot to say about the exercise equivalent of paleo: something similar to crossfit . You should listen to this episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast where Robb Wolf is featured for an entertaining time.