Given that you've found yourself on this page, you've probably heard about Paleo (Paleolithic), Primal, the Caveman diet – or even the Stone Age diet. Call it what you will, what exactly does this lifestyle involve?
What is Paleo?
As I see it, there are three crucial and interwoven elements to Paleo: Nutrition, Fitness and Lifestyle. Individually, they are all very important, but personally I feel you have to focus on all three elements to achieve optimum health.
The basic philosophy behind Paleo nutrition is to eat as we have evolved to eat. We have been eating meat and vegetables for millions of years. Grain was only introduced to our diets 10,000 years ago. Whilst that sounds like a long time, it is only about 333 generations. Evolution doesn’t happen that quickly. Over the three or four generations our diet has probably had more changes than ever before. We have new foods which we’ve just never eaten before. New foods which are not optimum for our bodies. New foods which have undesirable results in our bodies. In the same time period we have significantly increased rates of modern disease and obesity. Coincidence?
Paleo nutrition completely omits these “foods”. No grains or legumes. Dairy is also often omitted. On the menu: lots of good quality meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, eggs and a little fruit. Simple! So, what’s wrong with grains and legumes?
The short word “Grains” covers a lot of common foods. In fact, for a lot of people on a SAD* diet, it seems to encompass the greater majority of their consumption. Grains include wheat, corn, rye, rice, barley, oats, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and sorghum – and many others. These grains are used in many, many products. Bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits, pastries, crackers – they are all made with grains. The grain is the reproductive part of plant; it therefore needs to protect itself to enable future generations (Contrast this with fruit; which is designed to be eaten. It’s digested seeds are consumed, then spread further to ensure future generations). As protective mechanisms grains contain antinutrients i.e. phytates, lectins, and proteins. This is our problem with grains. Phytates bind to minerals, vitamins and enzymes preventing them from being absorbed in your body. The Lectins found in grains have a significant impact in the gut, resulting in inflammation and poor absorption of nutrients – as well as insulin & leptin resistance. Inflammation appears to be the cause of many modern diseases. Gluten is another protein that causes a lot of problems and is found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and oats (other grains have similar, troublesome proteins). Whilst a lot of people may test negative for the autoimmune disease Celiac, there is evidence to suggest most people do not handle this protein well. Gluten causes gut irritation and inflammation – a lot of people won’t even realise that their problems are caused by gluten. Gluten has been linked to many conditions, such as osteoporosis, irritable bowel, cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, migraines, autism and dementia. Grains are converted to sugar, which requires insulin to bring down the blood sugar level in the blood. High insulin levels result in inflammation and insulin resistance – which can lead to diabetes. Consuming such a high carb load with every meal results in unstable, fluctuating blood sugar levels – this results in hunger which is satisfied by consuming another high carb meal.
Lentils, beans (i.e. kidney, pinto, broad etc), peanuts (they aren’t nuts, despite the name), soy beans, garbanzos and chickpeas are all legumes. Like grains, legumes too contain harmful substances such as lectins and phytates, inhibiting nutrient absorption and causing inflammation. Raw legumes are toxic, so they need to be prepared (by soaking, rising, cooking, sprouting or fermenting) – however, preparation doesn’t entirely negate the harmful effects of the lectins. Soy is particularly bad, since the phytoestrogens content acts like the female sex hormone estrogen. This has been shown to have some damaging effects with healthy hormone functions.
Isn’t fat bad for us?
Fat is an essential part of our diet, from the right sources. The completely wrong low fat, high carb message couldn’t have been more incorrect and damaging. Fat should come from foods like avocado, nuts and coconut. It is the refined SAD carbohydrates that cause problems, not the healthy fats.
If you’re wondering whether a food is a Paleo choice, as a general guide, the fact you have to ask usually means it isn’t. Eat whole, local, organic food where you can. Ideally meat should be grass fed, it’s more expensive, but well worth it. Choose to make meals yourself instead of buying readymade food. Avoid processed foods; real food doesn’t need ingredients. If you go out for dinner, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and ask for them to tweak your meal. It’s too important to be embarrassed to ask. Make sure you know exactly what you’re eating, ask questions and educate yourself.
If you haven’t already, try it!
Everyone should try eating Paleo for 30 days. After trying it for 30 days you’ll see and compare how different you feel, how your appearance has changed and how your energy levels have changed. In the grand scheme of things, 30 days is such a small commitment – which could lead to amazing things. There really is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Fitness is something everyone should encompass as part of a normal, healthy life. Paleo actively discourages chronic cardio. Instead we should move as much as we can, every day. Walk to work (throw in the occasional sprint), take the stairs, move! Strength is really important, but this doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the gym every day, or acquire a body builder’s physique. High Intensity Interval Training is great for increasing fitness and something I do regularly. Hunter Gatherers would be perplexed to see modern man on a machine indoors, exercising for hours on end. They wouldn’t perform any “exercise” for the sake of exercise. Their exercise would all be as part of their lives – hunting animals, gathering food, perhaps even dancing as a social event. They’d have certainly been doing this barefoot too!
Without getting the lifestyle factors right, it is extremely hard to get the nutrition and fitness right. I think there is an argument that lifestyle factors may be the most important factor to leading a long healthy life.
Sleep is crucial, without regular, quality, sufficient sleep the body will not repair and rest. Exercise will be harder and less beneficial. Without sleep avoiding un-Paleo foods, is so much harder.
Stress is another big topic. We evolved with stress prompting a flight of fight reaction (imminent danger from an animal perhaps). Our stress now however is related to factors such as work or money. The stress lingers – our cortisol is indefinitely raised resulting in many detrimental health implications.
Other lifestyle factors such as community, connectivity with outdoors and nature are also very important and can be undertaken from a Paleo perspective.
Most of the Paleo resources come from America and many are fantastic. However, here in Australia and next door in New Zealand we have very few resources. The aim of the Paleo Network is to bridge this gap and provide the resources to help Australia and New Zealand go Paleo.
You can find out more about me here
*SAD is a commonly used acronym in the Paleo community used to refer to the “Standard American Diet”. You know the diet; cereal for breakfast with skimmed milk, sandwich for lunch with low fat margarine on wholegrain bread, pasta bake for dinner made with a jar of reduced fat and salt sauce. Yum. I like to interchange the “American” in SAD for “Australian” or “Anglo”, as from my experience living in Australia and the UK; the typical diet is just as bad as America.
What does Paleo mean to you? How has it changed your life? I’d love to hear your comments, below.