The Paleo/Primal lifestyle is based on the belief that our bodies have adapted to eating certain foods over a course of millions of years, and that the last 10,000 since agriculture was introduced is too recent to affect complex adaptation in our bodies (yet). This is overly simplistic, but it helps to get the immediate gist. Basically, what our caveman ancestors hunted or gathered: meat, fish, fowl, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. Of course, we live in the modern world, and it would be extremely difficult to actually live like this–and who’d want to? Also, it’s impossible to actually eat what they might have eaten because our food has evolved too. So in actuality, the concept is about eating whole, clean foods, and cutting out all processed foods, as well as grains (including corn) and legumes (including peanuts) in order to thrive as a healthy individual. The makeup of macronutrients is naturally lower in carbs than what is recommended by conventional wisdom, and there are some studies by paleo-anthropologists that show that our ancestral macronutrient ratio was not high in carbs.
Regardless of whether you believe the premise re: whether we’ve adapted or not, the tenets can help you become healthy and fit. How can cutting out processed garbage be bad for us?
I first heard about this back in my college days (in the late 80s) as I was lucky enough to be an anthropology major at Emory University when Dr. Melvin Konner and his wife Marjorie Shostak taught there. They published a book called “The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living.” I remember at the time thinking it made so much sense and while I tried to eat healthy in my 20s (was a big whole foods health nut in the early 90s), I slipped and began eating processed food again. Thankfully, some of their precepts stuck with me and I luckily never fell for the ‘low-fat is good’ meme.
Fast forward to today, and it’s now one of the hot ‘diets,’ popularized by the likes of Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and Dr. Loren Cordain. I hate to look on it as a diet though, and more of a lifestyle, as it incorporates more than food, and is a way to live your life to be healthy. It’s especially helpful to anyone suffering from an autoimmune disease, as you can follow the paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP) elimination diet for 30-60 days to pinpoint exactly what foods you adversely react to. Other people who may benefit: those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, PCOS, IBS, adult acne, ADHD, chronic fatigue, or just want to lose belly fat/excess weight or are generally feeling mentally and physically sluggish.
The difference between Paleo and Primal?
Paleo is generally for those who follow a stricter plan, some even being super strict (i.e. if a caveman didn’t have access to it, they don’t touch it). Primal is the term used by Mark Sisson and is a little looser: after doing the 30-day strict paleo, slowly reintroduce items to see if you have a reaction. If dairy doesn’t affect you, then it’s fine, etc. Personally, I follow the Primal precepts as I think it makes more sense–you’re the best judge of what your body can handle. There are certain populations that have adapted to dairy (descended from herders) so there’s no reason to avoid any health benefits from non-processed dairy if you aren’t lactose intolerant. This is how I picture it:
You might be surprised after 30 days, what your body can’t handle once it’s been detoxed. I had a bad reaction to Mich Ultra (my usual go-to beer) after I was able to start adding things. I need to experiment and see if it’s the gluten or the chemicals present in most American beers that caused it.
Bottom line is: there is no magic list of what you can or cannot eat for optimum health. Do Paleo for 30 days and then use it as a template and experiment to find out what you’re able to tolerate. Also, you might discover that most of the physical issues that have plagued you are gone but for a few. So then you do the opposite and cut out some Paleo foods to see if that helps. You might discover that you do not do well with nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, etc). In the end, you might find that what works for you isn’t totally Paleo. That’s why I like using the term Primal, coined by Mark Sisson, because it’s all about allowing for that experimentation, whereas in the Paleo movement, those who also believe in experimenting can cross swords with those who believe in strict Paleo or nothing.
So what does it look like?
Here’s Mark Sisson’s Primal Pyramid, so you can visually see the types of food and indulgences he recommends (and their ratios)
Isn’t this just another low-carb diet like Atkins?
No. It shares a similarity in that both think the daily recommendation of carbohydrates is too high, but that’s where it ends. Atkins makes no distinction about the kinds of carbs and also has a much lower recommendation than most Paleo/Primal advocates. Therefore it severely restricts carbs from healthy sources like vegetables and fruit. Also, its core tenant is all about carb restriction and pays no mind to the kinds of toxins you may be ingesting via food additives. Eating primally is all about regulating your insulin while eating as ‘clean’ as you can–choosing food that’s as natural as you can get it so that your body is as healthy as it can be. Atkins is about losing weight while Paleo/Primal is about being healthy and staying that way. I did Atkins, and I lost weight, because yeah, restricting carbs does the trick, but it didn’t change my overall lifestyle to the degree where I’m all about eating real food. It’s only lasting effect was that I stopped making eating bread a habit (which was good).
Isn’t this just a fad diet?
No. This is getting back to how our ancestors ate, even the ones only a few generations back (the wheat and corn we’re eating is not the same). It’s not a diet, it’s a way of living, comprising not only your diet, but regulating your stress, and getting adequate sleep, sunlight and exercise. Some are on it actually to bulk up, or they’re at their right weight, but want to optimize their lean mass. I started it to lose weight, I admit, but then, unlike any other diet I’ve done in the past (Hollywood, Atkins, Weight Watchers) the way I looked at food and eating shifted in a fundamental way: that this is how I need to eat to be healthy, not just something to lose weight. It quickly became a lifestyle change for me.
Also, using the word ‘diet’ is problematic, because it implies that it’s something done short term and that it’s restrictive, when actually it completely changes how you look at and relate to food. It’s like you can’t ‘unknow’ this stuff. And when you stray, cuz you will, oh man, will you feel it immediately because your body can no longer tolerate that food. And since you’re filling up on protein, good fats, and carbs from fruits and veggies, then you’ll be satiated and it will be hard to overeat. If you want to shed pounds, this is good because you’ll naturally consume less calories because the ones you are eating are so nutriently dense. You don’t have to count calories and carbs (yay!)–just eat Paleo foods and you’ll naturally hit the optimum range of macronutrients. I only counted my macronutrients for about two days to make sure I understood what I was eating and was surprised I wasn’t eating enough fat and protein, so that helped me adjust. Never been hungry, and the pounds are dropping off.
The other nomenclature problem is the word ‘paleo’ itself as it immediately makes people think we’re trying to be reenactors or something, which then leaves it wide open for nay-sayers to counter argue with strawmen (‘the foods aren’t the same, you can’t know what they actually ate’, etc). Really, all this lifestyle means is to Just. Eat. Real. Food. Read labels. Avoid the nasty, chemical-laden processed food. Avoid meat from animals who themselves aren’t eating real, whole foods they were meant to eat, and who are humanely treated. It also means to include play, and natural movement into your daily life, and to get adequate sleep, and more.
But grains and legumes are a real food!
Kind of, and this is where it can get confusing and frustrating. And just because something’s a real food, doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat. There are poisonous mushrooms and other foods out there, and no one advocates eating them, or including them just because they’re a real food.
Also, most of the ways you are eating them have been processed to some degree to make them digestible, often with a load of nasty chemicals and toxins and sugar to make them appealing. And that’s the thing–grains are designed not to be digested. Grains are the seeds of grasses, and seeds, like nuts, evolved to not be digested so that they can grow another plant. Every living organism has a defense mechanism to ward off predators and have also evolved ways to propagate themselves. Some plants want to be eaten (like fruit) so that you can poop out the seeds. But the seeds themselves were designed to not be digested (though there are a few species that have evolved to digest them).
But the thing is, humans have not had enough time, and not enough intense selective pressure, to effect such a complex adaptation to make grains digestible (after all, we can still reproduce before the negative effects take their toll). It’s certainly possible to make them digestible via fermentation, but it’s very time consuming. And really, when you look at it, there’s nothing nutrition-wise that you need from grains. Nothing. It is not a nutriently dense food. You can get so much more nutrients, and for less work (and less calories), by eating meat, fruit and vegetables. Why go to the trouble of making them digestible? In the vast array of wonderful foods you can eat that have more nutritional bang for their caloric buck, why waste your time and money on grains? Especially when they could be contributing to health issues like inflammation?
Also, the wheat we eat today does not resemble even the wheat our great grandparents ate. In the 1960s, a new dwarf variety was created to produce a higher yield and unfortunately this new wheat has less minerals, but the same amount of phytates (which means less minerals that can be absorbed since phytates are bound to minerals in the food). It also has more of the type of gluten protein that reacts badly for those with celiac.
Try cutting it out for 30 days and then see how your body reacts when you reintroduce them. You might be surprised.
Keep in mind too, that optimum health is all about controlling your insulin, and grain-based foods are carb bombs that make it so easy to wreak havoc with insulin sensitivity. To me, it’s just too much trouble, and easy to go wrong with insulin-wise, so I don’t bother.
But what about the fiber?
You can get that in your fruit and veggies. For example, there’s 14 grams of fiber in your average avocado, plus it has many more nutrients than you can get in an equivalent serving of grain.
But what about nuts and seeds?
Above I talked about why grains aren’t good to rely on as a staple because they were not designed by nature to be digested (since they’re seeds). So then you might wonder why nuts and seeds are allowed. From what I understand, there are other beneficial nutrients you can derive from nuts and seeds that make them a useful tool in your food arsenal, but also, keep in mind that nuts and seeds are near the tippy top of the Primal/Paleo food pyramid–they are something like an indulgence and not something that makes up the bulk of the food you eat. The problem with grains, is that Conventional Wisdom emphasizes making food out of this grain seed that takes up a bulk of what you ingest. It’s so easy to overeat the stuff. (It’s also easy to overeat nuts and seeds, so be aware of this when you eat them).
Some in the community do go ahead and soak/sprout their seeds and nuts as a way to get the most out of them (by getting rid of the phytates and enzyme inhibitors), but I haven’t had an issue with the small amount I eat, so I’m personally not doing this. I just make sure they’re either just a topping on my salad, or an occasional snack (handful). I don’t make them into some foodstuff that comprises a major side dish, and any Paleo baking that uses the flour I keep to a minimum too.
Eating fat will just make me fat(ter)
Maybe. But it’s not because of the fat. It happens if your eating and exercise habits are such that you are eating that fat along with massive amounts of processed carbs so that you invoke a spiked insulin response and your fat and carbs (converted into glucose) get immediately shunted to fat cells. However, if your body’s insulin sensitivity is healthy and you’re not combining that dietary fat with massive carbs, then that fat gets converted to energy and lots of other useful things in your body.
Also, the fat needs to be good fat, and contrary to what we were told, it’s not vegetable oils and other processed oils. Excessive amounts of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) is harmful because it tips the scales in the Omega 3 vs Omega 6 equilibrium we need (PUFA are high in Omega 6). So good fat is–ready for it? Saturated fat! Along with some monounsaturated fat. Bacon and eggs are back in, baby! In fact our body needs healthy fat to function optimally.
One of the problems with the taboo on fat is that many folks try to eat healthy by buying low-fat and no-fat products like yogurt, etc., when those things are loaded with processed sugar, which is horrible for you. Recent studies now link sugar to heart disease, not saturated fat. Plus sugar has no nutritional value, and in return for its ride through your body, it spikes your insulin, which is not what you want. Maintaining or achieving your ideal body composition is all about managing your insulin.