It’s been approximately 3 years since I started this paleo thing. With so many debates about paleo popping up in internet and traditional media, I thought it would be good to post some of the things I’ve learned so far hoping to clarify a bit of the confusion. Hope not to make it more confusing!
Paleo, like science, started with the observation that ancestral and modern hunter-gatherer populations had low to zero incidence of modern diseases. The hypothesis was that diet, among other lifestyle factors, was directly implicated with health outcomes. It was observed that health declined around the time that agriculture was introduced in our lives. The work of Weston A. Price, Staffan Lindeberg, and other scientists and physicians has indeed shown that when people abandon their traditional diets and adopt a Westernised diet, their dental and overall health is severely compromised.
Armed with this knowledge, the concept of a modern paleo-type diet was born. Dr Loren Cordain is often called “the father of paleo” thanks to the publication of his book “The Paleo Diet”. He is also known to be one of the most prescriptive and strict paleo proponents. I think most of the people who call themselves paleo are way more relaxed than Cordain.
The shortest explanation of paleo is “no grains, no legumes, no dairy”. There are many reasons to avoid those foods (“because they didn’t exist in the Paleolithic” is NOT one of them), including low nutrient density, anti-nutrient content (prevents absorption of vitamins and minerals) and high carbohydrate content(can compromise insulin sensitivity) but the most compelling is: because those food groups are the most likely to trigger an inflammatory response, allergic reaction and/or or digestive issue.
The detailed version of “strict paleo” also means avoiding seed oils, refined sugars, alcohol and processed food in general. This is, in fact, an elimination diet, and that’s why this version is recommended in every single “introduction to paleo” type of program, which typically lasts for 3 or 4 weeks. The aim is to hard-reset your body, “detox” it from offending foods and make it more sensitive so that it becomes easier to identify potential allergies or intolerances. It’s like quieting all the musicians in an orchestra to find out who is out of tune. Of course, you’ll have to ask them to play one at a time.
Paleo food. Looks pretty normal, no?
[There’s another version of paleo that is more restrictive than “strict paleo”, the “autoimmune protocol”, which applies not only to autoimmune conditions but to all conditions that have an inflammatory component (asthma, eczema, arthritis, all “itis”, etc.) This protocol eliminates nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, capsicum, chillies, paprika), nuts and seeds and eggs.]
Food quality is very important. Grass-fed red meats, wild fish, pastured poultry and pork, organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds are recommended over their conventional counterparts if available and affordable. If not, do the best you can with what you have.
It’s not all about the meat!
After the initial 3-4 weeks most people’s health and energy levels improve massively. Personally, I got rid of chronic reflux, knee pain and allergic reactions when eating pork. My mood and digestion improved a lot. I got sick way less often. As a bonus, I dropped a few kilos of body fat. This introductory period is where you learn the HOW TOs: how to read menus, how to shop for food, etc. People also get too excited about the treats, evangelical about paleo and neurotic about finding out if something is paleo or not. It is normal and temporary. (It is also normal that your friends will make fun of you. Suck it up.)
The reintroduction of foods is not necessary in theory but extremely important IMO. Our bodies are a dynamic system. Our needs are laid out by our genetic make-up/ancestry and they change ALL the time. Big life stages (infancy, puberty, pregnancy, sickness, etc.) mean big nutritional requirements; the day-to-day variability in our cells may benefit from tiny tweaks. In short, there is no ONE diet that can apply to all humans. The aim of reintroducing foods is to find your OWN ideal diet. What to reintroduce? Typically people recommend safer grains like corn and rice, dairy (preferably raw/unpasteurised, fermented, non-homogenised and/or organic), some legumes (except soy), regular potatoes. I would say: reintroduce everything you want back in your diet, just make sure it’s one thing at a time. Even gluten? Yes, even gluten. You could be one of the few people on Earth for which gluten does nothing, not even bloating. I’m clearly not one of them.
Some potatoes, some rice, some dairy and some corn are back in my diet
This is where we can say people who are actually doing paleo step out of the paradigm of what is paleo for the outsiders. Most of us call it paleo because it’s where it started. We may as well call it “primal” (if we find dairy is not a problem), “ancestral”, “real food”, etc. Also, most of us are not “just doing the diet”. We factor in physical activity. We prioritise sleep. We meditate. Most importantly, we change as required, not only tweaking what we eat and do, but keeping an open mind to new science and positions.