Listen Up! WTF is Paleo? And why you shouldn’t do it.

In my previous post I went over what paleo is to me and why it should be used as an idea and not a diet in itself. Inevitably, in a bid to monetise everything, the term ‘paleo’ has been hijacked by the same diet dogma that plagues the ‘fad’ diet industry. Everyone wants a quick fix in our accelerated culture and people literally avoid anything that is, for example ‘processed’. Terms like ‘low carb’, ‘dairy ‘and ‘gluten free’, rack up the dollars for cook-books, snacks and other profiteers who hurl a bunch of misinformation at people desperate to lose weight. People avoid refined white sugar, replacing it with raw sugar cane, count how many carbohydrates are in a cucumber and don’t eat rice because cavemen probably didn’t eat it. I think this is problematic when people get caught in a constant oscillation between foods that they can and can’t eat – as dictated by the paleo gods – where one week butter is off the menu and the next week it’s being dripped intravenously into your arm. Let’s get through the dogma and focus upon what is actually important in the movement. The words ‘because it isn’t paleo’ are from now forth banned. Not only will you understand the reasoning behind eliminating a certain food you’ll sound less like a dick at a party when you don’t eat the pastry canapé.

First and foremost, you gotta find the foods that work for you. Not everyone can tolerate dairy, not everyone can tolerate brussell sprouts (aka FODMAPs), so the best thing you can do is something called an elimination diet, which aims to find out what foods work for you and your lifestyle. This is recommended pretty much ubiquitously within the paleo community. Why? Because for thirty days you eat foods that are A) easily digested and B) Nutrient dense. These two golden rules mean that any food a person consumes on the elimination diet provides are bodies with the nutrients we need without supplementation and are unlikely to cause digestive problems. Once a 21-30 day elimination diet has been finished, it is time to re-assess and add back some of the food groups you have avoided during the 30 days. For example, you wouldn’t eat white rice on the elimination diet because it isn’t nutrient dense, however it is usually pretty well digested and a good source of carbohydrate for athletes. Once again, it does depend on goals, if you’re trying to lose weight you may cut down on fruit even though it is nutrient dense and easily digestible due to the high fructose sugar content. So basically I’ve said a lot without really saying much. Asses your goals, do the elimination diet, re-asses, see how you feel. Robb Wolf provides a fantastic analogy with clothes. A jumper may fit you great, but look terrible on someone else. This doesn’t make it a bad jumper; it just means different things work for different people! Some elimination diets that are well worth a look at are from Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser and Mark Scissons.

Now here’s the stuff you probably actually want to hear, where I’ll hop off the fence and jump into the grain, seed oil and legume free camp, giving you some guidelines about foods groups. What I look for when deciding on what to eat.

  • Is it Digestible? The foods you eat need to be easily digestible. This means that the nutrients inside are bioavailable and that the food is not going to cause our bodies problems – from gut issues to skin problems to affecting our mental wellbeing. We really want to eliminate foods we know can be the culprit of. Gluten being a prime example.
  • Nutrient Dense? This brings me on to my second point, try and get your calories from nutrient dense food! This to me seems to be so obvious, yet it is always the hardest thing to convince people of. If you think of calories like your budget, you want to spend them wisely. Why eat food that’s not going to satiate or provide adequate nutrients. Diets like weight watchers may work short term but are unsustainable. They’re based solely on calorie counting and putting the body into a calorie deficit; eventually our starvation response will kick in and hunger will win out – often resulting in massive caloric binges, gaining weight and repeating the program because it ‘helped to begin with’. By eating nutrient dense food you can lose weight without ever counting a calorie. Think about carpooling them nutrients and not being the single guy in an SUV blocking the highway. I’ve always heard there is nothing sexier than a thrifty man, so goddamn man, be thrifty with them calories and get the most bang for your buck.
  • Earn your carbohydrates. The carb debate is still a contentious issue and has everyone arguing. How I see it, is that by returning to nutrient dense food, you’ll naturally be going ‘lower carb’ than the typical westerner. However, this does not necessarily mean that you have to go low carb, just me mindful about where you get your sugars. For example, oranges are pretty darn sweet, yet a can of coke has the equivalent sugar content of three oranges without the fibre (that helps to regulate insulin release) or nutrients. So for the sake of argument, yes paleo is low carb – comparative to the absolute excessive amount of carbohydrates consumed in the sedentary western world. This doesn’t mean to say that fruit, tubers or roots are off the menu, rather that my message is essentially this: you need to earn these carbohydrates. Someone sitting in a chair all day, moving minimally and generally expending little energy (i.e. a large proportions of the population) will probably struggle to lose weight if they have a higher carb intake. Whereas an athlete, particularly those doing high intensity training, may benefit from a post-workout sweet potato or some rice. Essentially your carb intake will depend on you – your activity level, weight, lifestyle and so on. I find that if I am not exercising, lowering my carbohydrates and upping my fat intake helps to keep me satiated throughout the day and so I consume fewer calories and feel great. After a morning HIT session, I NEED to eat some fruit/rice/potato or else I feel shaky and unable to focus. Usually carbohydrates would stimulate my hunger and lead to overeating, yet after exercise carbohydrates actually help to regulate my appetite and prevent cravings later in the day. As a side not, very low-carb ketogenic diets are very interesting and seem to be incredibly beneficial for a range of issues, definitely worth looking into if you suffer from an autoimmune condition. Check the (Terry) Wahls protocol for more information –

Above I have outlined my general guidelines when looking for foods to incorporate into my diet and allows for adaptation if my goals change without sacrificing my wellbeing. Because I need to say it sometime, below are a few food groups I mostly try and avoid. They hurt my body, my mind and are completely unnecessary (IMO) in a healthy diet. Just remember, anything they can do, animals and plants can do better.

  • Cereal Grains containing gluten – Indigestible, inflammatory and lack nutrients
  • Seed Oils – Inflammatory and can easily be replaced with olive oil and cooking fat.
  • Most stuff that comes in a packet. How non-committal is that? by this, I’m referring to easily accessible, hyper-palatable calories. These foods are designed to make you binge (see below). Potato chips are an obvious culprit, even if they are gluten free. As a side, I think nuts are a grey area. In their natural state you probably wouldn’t binge on a heap – imagine the time spent cracking a bowl of walnuts! So even though nuts are generally healthy, be smart with the quantity due to the calorie content and easily accessible nature.

There is way, way too much to say about the above in one blog post, but expect something in the future. To start with:

In limbo we have legumes. I personally avoid them as I think they taste gross, make me bloated, are a pain in the ass to prepare and aren’t really nutrient dense. However, they can still probably be incorporated into a healthy diet if you just can’t keep away from your Mexican food. Here’s Chris Kresser’s take on it and coincidentally paleo dogma, written in a far more eloquent and intelligent manner than myself:

Now here’s a question. What about dairy? That’s for you to answer (Hint: Is it digestible [for you]? Is it nutrient dense? Are the nutrients bioavailable?). The problem with dairy is that a large amount of people actually can’t handle it, so obviously, for those who can’t, it isn’t a necessary part of diet – you can get your calcium (along with your magnesium) intake from vegetables. If you have done an elimination diet and feel great eating dairy then I don’t really see a reason to leave it out. It’s got a good nutritional profile and tastes great, I love the occasional bit of cheese as an afternoon snack with some apple and salami.

Thanks for reading, I hope to have given you a brief overview of where I’m at with the thinking behind my dietary choices. In future I really hope to get into the nitty gritty of what I eat and what you can too, in order to really nourish your health.

Our Past and Our Present – Understanding Paleo in a modern context

infographicI have never thought of the paleo movement as simply some ‘rules’ regarding nutrition but rather an idea that can provide a template to holistic health. Often referred to as the ‘caveman diet’ ‘ancestral health’ and a ‘hunter gatherer’ way of life,  the principles of paleo come from an evolutionary perspective, a way of living based upon the biology of our bodies – referring to our mental and physical adaptations through natural selection over millions of years.

The idea is to return to the way our ancestors lived before the Neolithic agricultural revolution around 10000 years ago – a period in history where pockets of the human population began transitioning from a hunter and gatherer lifestyle to one of agriculture and settlement. The argument is that our bodies evolved to eat, sleep and move in a certain way.  By returning to a model of our ancestors we shun the foods that factor into diseases of contemporary western society including Type 2 Diabetes, Depression, Obesity and Cancer1,2. This is not to say that the western diet is the sole cause of these illnesses but it unequivocally contributes alongside our sedentary, stressful, sleepless lifestyle. We simply do not see the same rates of chronic illness in other populations. By adopting a primal way of eating and living we can attempt to prevent, alleviate and even reverse some of these chronic conditions.

Where did we all go wrong?

For millions of years humans followed a nomadic existence, wondering from place to place on look for resources hunting game and gathering wild plants. Although there is no consensus on a ratified human diet, the general consensus is that we mostly ate plants and animals, as well as some nuts/seeds, berries, fruits and tubers. There is evidence to suggest that hunter-gathers ate some form of grains (wheat, barley, rye and so on – yes bread) but it is unlikely they were a staple of their diet3. Grains take time to cultivate and must be processed before they are consumed (milled and cooked) – raw grains are at best poorly digested and were probably resorted to as ‘starvation’ food4.

There are many theories as to why humans took up agriculture and settlement as opposed to their previous nomadic existence. Nevertheless the shift towards agriculture fundamentally changed how human societies operated. In brief, settlement allowed for the selective breading of cereal grains, including types of wheat and barley that would have a high yield and lend themselves to retaining an edible seed for longer. This allowed for a surplus and meant settlers could stay put even if there was a draught or an event that would slow crop production. Although the semantics may emphasis the cultivation of crops, animals too became domesticated and selectively bread to fulfil certain roles, that is, dogs (there is evidence to suggest this happened pre-revolution) for herding sheep, cows for milk and so on.  As populations rapidly grew within the settlements, technology evolved and labor roles diversified and specialized. It is from these communities we can trace the beginnings of some of the most detrimental aspects of society for human health2,5,6.  Laboring on these farms was backbreaking work, whereas it is seen in modern hunter-gather populations that a work week consisted of no more than 8 hours7. The rest of the time is spent playing and socializing, the importance of which is often forgot about. Our current western lifestyle is crippling us, mentally and physically. It’s crazy that it is ‘normal’ to work a forty hour work week, pop six pills a day and lose self- sufficiency by the time we’re seventy.

In order to catalyze change, what I believe we can do is work within the systems we live with in – not ditching our jobs to live in the wilderness in a true hunter gatherer fashion (I mean, you can if you want to). We must re-arrange our priorities in order to optimize our health and happiness, without sinking money into ‘Mr Weight Watcher’s’ bottomless pocket. Addressing our health without the need for drugs, surgery or ‘diets’, sustainably improving the quality of our lives. What I am arguing is that we must not forget about our past and the important role the evolution plays in our biological development. Addressing our health without the need for drugs, surgery or ‘diets’, sustainably improving the quality of our lives. This blog aims to track my personal journey and hopefully act as a resource for others, maybe offering some guidance to holistic wellbeing.