What is Paleo?
The paleo diet has grabbed headlines for years – in fact, according to a recent Green Chef survey, it’s also the diet that Americans are most willing to try in 2018 – but many still don’t know what it entails.
If you’re one of those people, you’ve come to the right place.
Paleo isn’t a fad or a fashion statement – it’s common sense.
It’s in Our Genes
Humans have been around for well over 100,000 years. Yet it was only with the dawn of the Neolithic Age around 10,000 years ago that agriculture brought grains, dairy, and processed foods to the human diet. In the scope of evolutionary time, this is a blip on the map.
Homo Sapiens evolved as hunter-gatherers consuming a diet of fresh, natural ingredients. This evolutionary history is present in humans today in the form of DNA. Foods that are healthy for us to eat – like fresh fruits and vegetables – are foods consumed by our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. Our bodies just haven’t caught up to the technological advances of 2,000 B.C. – let alone 2017.
Many scientific studies into the causes of common modern ailments implicate the contemporary diet. For example, Schüz et al. found links between diet and cancer (2015), research by DiNocolantonio suggests that refined carbohydrates and sugar may be responsible for increased rates of heart disease in Greenland Eskimos, (2016) and Anand et al. found a strong link between diet and cardiovascular issues (2016).
Fact is, our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t suffer from these ailments as we do. The human body isn’t built to consume the processed foods that make up so many modern meals.
The Ancestral Diet
Hunter-gatherers ate a rich diet consisting of fresh meat, seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and berries. These foods provide all the nutrition necessary for the active lives they lead. The grass-fed meat available before factory farming was rich in protein and relatively low in saturated fats. Meanwhile, healthy fats such as Omega-3s came from oils, nuts, and eggs. Similar trade-offs (or trade-ups) can be found throughout the paleo food pyramid.
Traditional nutritional wisdom has it that carbohydrates are essential to living an active life. According to this story, carbohydrates are what gives the body energy – that’s why you may have been told to ‘eat pasta’ the night before a game or race. Unfortunately, carbs are a big part of the problem. Carbohydrates get converted into glucose – sugar – as they break down in the digestive system. While our ancestors did eat some carbohydrates in the form of tubers such as sweet potatoes, their carbs were mostly on the lower side of the glycemic index. Today, many staples, such as processed cereals, white rice, and pasta, have a high glycemic load. This is one reason why many people suffer from high levels of blood sugar.
Our ancestors consumed a relatively tiny amount of carbs compared to people living today. But, they didn’t have to worry about running out of energy. Why? Because their bodies found another energy source – fat. Once carbohydrates exit the body, the liver begins burning fat in a process known as ketogenesis. See an excellent breakdown of keto from Tim here.
Because the paleo diet doesn’t include carbohydrates, fat becomes the body’s energy source. Without carbs, preservatives, dairy, and processed sugars, the body and mind operate at full potential. That’s the promise of a meal plan tailored to the needs of the human body, instead of advertising.
But How Does It Make You Feel?
A typical paleo meal is much more filling than a typical modern meal. Contemporary diets are filled with low-quality carbohydrates that come from grains. After you eat a sandwich with a side of chips, for example, it won’t be long before you’re hungry again. That’s because the nutritional content offered by bread doesn’t stack up to vegetables and meat. Paleo meals provide a wide variety of the proteins, fibers, and healthy fats necessary for an active life, without driving calorie counts too high.
Where to Start?
For the beginner, eating paleo may seem a bit daunting. Luckily, there’s a simple rule to follow: eat things that our ancestors would have eaten – unprocessed, natural foods. A non-exhaustive list can be found below.
- Grass-Fed Meat
- Fish (Wild-caught), Shellfish, and Fish Eggs
- Vegetables – Land and Sea
- Oils (Olive, coconut, avocado, etc.)
- Nuts & Seeds
It’s worth noting that some food items which might seem ‘natural’ are to be avoided on the paleo diet, for various reasons. Here are some of them:
- Dairy Products
- Beans/Legumes (Not counting snap peas and green beans)
- High Omega-6 Vegetable Oils (Sunflower, Corn, etc.)
- Refined Salt
Of course, everybody – and every body – is different. It’s important to enter paleo with the knowledge that there might be some tinkering up ahead. It’s not meant to be a strict regime.
If you’re thinking about going paleo, consider trying it for 30 days. That’s enough time to see the benefits – more energy, clearer thoughts, and less hunger. It’s only natural.