What is paleo?

SHORT ANSWER:

The paleo movement is about getting back to eating and drinking the foods our bodies were designed to for lifelong health and optimal wellness.

Presently humans are severely harming our bodies with what we’re consuming. More and more research is coming out that shows eating processed foods, grains and pasteurised dairy is the root of many health problems – not just the obvious ones like obesity and diabetes, but also autoimmune diseases, thyroid problems, osteoporosis, kidney stones, acne, stroke, IBS, allergies and more.

By eliminating certain foods and eating paleo, it’s possible to reverse life-long health problems, lose weight (and effortlessly keep it off), and literally change your life.

A paleo, or Paleolithic, diet mimics what our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors ate: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, vegetables, some fruit, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils. Everything should be fresh, local and organic where possible. All meat should come from animals that are free-range and grass-fed (not grain-fed) where possible.

Food not eaten includes grains (including whole grains), legumes (such as peanuts, beans, soy and chickpeas), dairy, processed foods and refined vegetable oils.

But paleo is about more than just what you eat: it’s also about lowering your stress levels, making time for sleep, being active and doing things that make you happy. It’s about being in tune with your body, your relationships, and your surrounding environment. (Environment not being ‘the tree outside your house’ but your whole environment – house, workplace, city, activities and so on.)

For a more detailed answer, settle in.

LONG ANSWER:

For most of our history, our hunter-gathers Paleolithic ancestors supported themselves by hunting wild animals and foraging for wild plants. Food wasn’t grown and couldn’t be stored, so every day was a new battle to find food and avoid starvation.

From about 2.5 million years until 10,000 years ago, humans were continually evolving to become smarter and fitter. Our brains were getting bigger, allowing the development of more sophisticated thoughts, movements, tools and hunting abilities.

But around 10,000 years ago, our distant relatives discovered how to sow and harvest plants that had previously just grown the wild. And so began the Agricultural Revolution, the first major shift in human health.

“Agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” – Jared Diamond

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When agriculture came on the scene, it allowed people to give up the nomadic life and settle in one location. People often congregated around a reliable source of food, and then could store a surplus of that food which could provide for larger populations. Cities sprung up, labour became specialised and a class system developed. Quite suddenly, ‘survival of the fittest’ – at least physically – no longer applied. We stopped evolving.

“We are the heirs of inherited characteristics accrued over millions of years; the vast majority of our biochemistry and physiology are tuned to life conditions that existed before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Genetically our bodies are virtually the same as they were at the end of the Paleolithic era.” – S. Boyd Eaton

The second major shift in human health was more recent.

“Up until the 1970s, the obesity rate had stayed fairly constant at around 12% of the adult population. Not great, but not too bad for an affluent society with easy access to food.

“Starting in the early 80s, things changed. Obesity rates began a steady, constant climb until today, where one in three American [and Australian] adults is obese. More than two in three are overweight. Does this seem right?  What changed?

“The short story is that the low-fat diet craze kicked off. People were told that fat and cholesterol were killing them and making them fat. So, to avoid all that fat, they started eating more grains, carbs, and other processed low-fat foods.” – How Agriculture Ruined Your Health (and What to Do About It)

As a result, we’ve been hearing the same message – what paleo/Primal author and blogger Mark Sisson calls ‘Conventional Wisdom’ – for the past 30 years, which is more and more being proven to be untrue: that fat is bad; that we need carbohydrates for energy; that we need 30-60 minutes of exercise a day for weight loss; and so on.

Most people are convinced that that if someone is fat, it’s their own fault because they’re lazy and undisciplined. And that losing weight (or even just maintaining weight) and being healthy is gruelling and exhausting. That it’s calories in, calories out. That we should measure and weigh our food, and have six small meals a day. That we should count calories or points or macronutrients or every mouthful of food. That healthy eating is a chore, hard work and unenjoyable.

diet issues

Doesn’t that seem incredibly – excuse my language – fucked up?

I think so. And a lot of others agree with me.

Paleo, and its close cousin Primal, is a growing movement (and community) where food is delicious, calories aren’t counted, and eating is pleasurable.  Sleep is valued, stress is minimised, and exercise is performed for the body to be functional and strong, not to squeeze into a one-size-too-small dress next weekend.

And the way this is done is simple: eating what our ancestors ate at a time when humans were the fittest, strongest, healthiest at any point in history.

No, we don’t know exactly how every single human from the past ate. But paleo isn’t about trying to perfectly mimic the past. After all, cavemen didn’t have toothpaste, deodorant, iPhones and fitness apps! And it’s not exactly practical for us all to go out and catch and kill our own meat. It’s just about trying to recreate the things we can control like what we consume, how we move and how much sleep so we have the best chance at being as healthy as possible.

And yes, in those times humans had an average shorter life span, but that wasn’t to do with the quality of food. The most common causes of death were the threat of predators, accidents, infant mortality and being at the mercy of the elements that were. (But without these things, there was no reason why people couldn’t live as long as we do now – but without the chronic modern-day conditions that plague us.)

Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that Paleolithic humans actually lived much longer than their more modern counterparts:

 

Period in history Timeline Average age
Paleolithic era 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago 33
Neolithic era 10,000 years ago to about 400 BC 20
Ancient Greece 700 to 500 BC 28
Medieval Britain 400-1400 AD 30

 

And now – for the first time in modern history – children will have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

The leading cause of death in Australia is heart disease, with lung cancer and diabetes – which are all preventable – not far behind. Obesity is severe and prevalent. Children are being born overweight. Food intolerances like gluten sensitivities are rising by the bucketload. The list goes on and on.

“What can we do to fix all this?” is a loaded question. There are no easy answers. But one crucial, undeniable element is what we’re eating and drinking.

SO WHAT IS PALEO?

the real food pyrmaid

So down to the good stuff. What can you actually eat? Quite a lot, actually.

Here’s what’s on a paleo menu:

  • Meat, poultry and seafood (eg. chicken, beef, pork, turkey, all grass-fed, and fish, squid, shellfish, etc)
  • Vegetables (excluding white potatoes, which aren’t recommended for their poor nutritional profile and high carb load compared to other starchy vegetables like pumpkin)
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Some fruit
  • Healthy oils, eg. coconut and olive oil.

All produce should be locally sourced and organic where possible.

What’s left out?

  • Grains (eg. bread, cereal, pasta, rice), plus ‘grain-like’ or ‘pseudo’ seeds (eg. quinoa)
  • Dairy (eg. milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice-cream)
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, soy, peas and peanuts)
  • Anything processed (biscuits, frozen meals, soft drinks – pretty much anything packaged)
  • Added sugar
  • Vegetable oils (canola oil, margarine).

But it’s also more than that. It’s about implementing other factors that promote overall wellbeing. This nice list from Paleo Australia pretty much covers it:

  • Eating nutrient dense real food that provides you with all the vitamins and minerals you need to thrive
  • Avoiding foods that have the capacity of making you sick
  • Listening to your body (if you always react to something negatively, you probably shouldn’t be eating or doing it)
  • Living an active, not sedentary, lifestyle
  • Sleeping eight hours a night (and making sure it’s good quality sleep)

paleo health benefits

 

SO WHAT IS PRIMAL?

‘Primal’ eating is a slight variation of paleo, which is probable a bit more my style.

It’s a template designed by Mark Sisson. What you can and can’t eat is similar to paleo, but it allows (and sometimes encourages) more flexibility for dairy (if a person tolerates it well, though it should be raw, fermented and full-fat), dark chocolate and some alcohol (eg. red wine).

It’s a very holistic approach, with ‘10 Primal Laws’ for overall health and wellbeing. I thoroughly recommend Mark’s book, The Primal Blueprint, which details these. But in short, the guidelines thing like ‘eat lots of animals and plants’, ‘get adequate sunlight’, ‘move frequently at a slow pace’ (walking), ‘lift heavy things’ (weights) and ‘play’ (have fun!). And all of those, together, are what makes for a healthy, happy, long life.

RESOURCES

Here are my absolute top resources for more information. For a more detailed list, click here.

Websites: The Primal Blueprint is a great starting off point and What is Paleo? is an excellent summary
Book: Why We Get Fat (And What to Do About It) by Gary Taubes
Documentary: Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead by Joe Cross
Recipe book: Everyday Paleo Family Cookbook by Sarah Fragoso
Favourite recipes: Paleo lasagna and granola by Eat Drink Paleo
Article: What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? by Gary Taubes. This isn’t about paleo – it’s a comprehensive background into grains and the grain industry – but it’s something I would recommend reading the most

FINAL NOTES

Finally, I thought I’d point out the most important thing to keep in mind when researching (and implementing) paleo: that it’s a template, and it should be made to fit your circumstances. There is no one “perfect paleo diet”.

There are some very die-hard, restrictive paleo views that seem weird, too hard to implement, expensive, or downright crazy that many people don’t believe in. It’s these extremists that make the rest of us look bad. But, as with everything, you’ll always get those people.

For example:

  • When he published The Paleo Diet, Dr Loren Cordain only recommended lean meat and no salt. It’s now accepted among the paleo community that fatty meat (if organic/grass fed) is the way to go, and salt (in reasonable quantities) is fine.
  • Some people are downright insane! One blogger I know of purely exists on red meat cooked in lard (animal fat), organ meat, eggs, and broccoli. That’s it, 100% of the time. No fruit, treats, alcohol, eating at restaurants, nothing. Ever. Each to his own, but that’s extreme, and not representative of most paleo/Primal folk!

In addition, some people are ‘paleo purists’: they’ll only eat meat that’s guaranteed was grass-fed and salmon that was wild-caught; they’ll activate their nuts every time (soaking them in water overnight and then drying them out to make them easier to digest – I do this as much as I can, but not always) and make their own chicken broth, mayonnaise and tomato relish from scratch.

While these are all ideal, they’re not absolutely necessary. We can only do so much with the time and money we have! It’s not about perfection: it’s about starting with little changes, educating yourself, then making more informed choices. It’s about trying doing your best.

In general, I like to keep it very simple. It’s always important to focus on the source and quality of your food, but I’m not going to freak out if my steak at a nice restaurant isn’t cooked in coconut oil.

If I just stick to the food categories I can: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and healthy oils, then that’s a pretty fine job!

The last thing I want to add is that paleo isn’t a product, it’s not selling a product, it’s not a service, and it’s not a subscription. It’s simply information that you can either choose to implement into your life or not – for free. No-one profits from it – except you. Living in a world where so much of our food choices are caught up in politics (I thoroughly recommend the article about the food industry, What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? by Gary Taubes), taking control of our own health through the choices we make is vital.

 

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

For exactly what to eat and what to avoid on a paleo diet, see What Should I Eat on a Paleo Diet and Why?

To start trying a paleo diet out for yourself, visit my How to Meal Prep page.

Think your kitchen will be bare if you remove dairy, grains and legumes? Nope! See my Paleo Food Staples post for how to stock up your fridge, freezer and pantry with paleo food.

To start researching for yourself, my Resources page has an awesome list of people, websites, blogs, books, recipes books, documentaries and lectures.

 

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