Let’s talk Paleo/Primal, shall we?
I’ve seen word that some of my rambling (and awkward photos!) here has convinced people to give this lifestyle a shot, which is pretty damn wonderful. In light of it being January, then, at the start of a brand new year, I thought I’d see if I can make the transition a little bit smoother for anyone willing to give Primal a go for the next few months.
This three-part guide, accordingly, will be kind of a mind-dump of everything I’ve learned in the last nine months. The information here is what forms the underlying basis for my own dietary beliefs, and it’ll even come with several links to bloggers I read daily in order to stay current with the latest in nutritional dorkiness.
This first part will start by defining just what the heck Paleo is, talk up some of the bigger ideas it champions, and work in a few of my own ideas on the concept of a diet in the first place. Part two will offer practical tips for anyone thinking of trying Primal as part of their quest for better health. Part three, lastly, will list several bloggers at the front of the Paleo movement and say several flattering things about each, the overall idea being to guide your further reading and research into this exciting field of nutrition.
Ready to get started?
What is Paleo?
Paleo is a return to our roots.
It’s a recognition, in a sense, that the health of the average human has declined pretty significantly since the introduction of agriculture in the Neolithic period of human history (let alone modern food products!). Paleo, accordingly, is a call to step back — to apply modern science and reasoning to the diet and exercise of our Paleolithic ancestors.
That’s a fancy way of saying that we should eat like cavemen, exercise like cavemen, but not live like cavemen, since toilet paper is probably one of the greatest inventions in history.
Paleo, in another sense, is a movement borne on the breath of the Internet. It’s trickling into scientific studies, now, with impressive results, but it’s still very much a product of incredible bloggers and normal folk like me and you. This is, in other words, very much a case of anecdotal evidence. Until the scientific community catches up and starts studying the effect of a Paleolithic diet more consistently, we’re left mainly with the thousands of success stories from people all across the globe.
Got it? Good. Let’s talk Primal.
So what’s Primal, then?
I’ve been asked this question several times, but my answer always stays the same: it’s a more user-friendly version of Paleo.
That’s due mostly to Mark Sisson, the man who created the Primal label and built an incredible community over at Mark’s Daily Apple. The man has a knack for taking complicated health concepts and translating them for the masses, the results of which can be seen in the huge following he’s built over just the last few years.
He has his own take on the Paleo principles, however, and that’s where the user-friendly part really comes in: he allows chocolate. There’s a tendency in certain Paleo camps to be very strict with the diet, nixing things like dairy, (dark) chocolate, and everything fun in life, but Primal takes a more moderate approach that we’ll discuss in full later.
Primal was my first introduction to the Paleo community, so I’ll admit that I’m biased as all hell. I’m also an unabashed fan of what Mark has done for me and for his community overall, so try not to gag if this guide turns weepy midway through.
That said, I’ll refer to the core principles as Paleo except in cases where they’re more specifically Primal. It’s just easier, I think, and they’re similar enough that I’m not doing either a disservice.
And a last big point: Paleo is not a religion.
That might seem odd, but let me explain.
People get passionate about their food. I get it. I get pretty riled up myself when I see the colossal amounts of crap that people like to shovel down their throats on a daily basis.
But here’s the thing: Paleo is changing. Even the core principles are tweaked as more studies are completed and more evidence pours in every week.
Take potatoes, for example. Not even six months back the plain varieties (everything except sweet potatoes, come to think of it) were blacklisted by a lot of Paleo eaters on account of possible toxins and the heavy starch content. That changed, though, when one of my favorite health bloggers did some in-depth research that proved the white potato could be relatively harmless — even beneficial — to a lot of people.
I celebrated by frying up a few Yukon gold potatoes in bacon fat and doing a happy dance around the kitchen.
Again: Paleo changes. I don’t expect, ten years from now, for every idea and every principle to be the same — and that’s awesome. As more and more people study it, exploring the depths of its ideas, we get closer and closer to the picture of perfect health that every single one of us seeks.
Along those lines, Paleo is all about one thing: what works for you. The goal, as always, is strong, vibrant health, and you’re expected to take full control in determining what you need to achieve it. Some people eat potatoes. Some people don’t. If it makes you feel better, then eat it! If it doesn’t, then don’t.
No need to get all dogmatic about it, right?
The Core Principles
Mark Sisson has an incredible guide over at Mark’s Daily Apple that explains the core ideas of a Primal lifestyle. I don’t much see the point of regurgitating that information here, so let’s just call this the study guide — a brief look at some of the bigger ideas and a small list of stuff that you need to know.
First: natural is good.
And, accordingly, natural food is what you eat. This includes meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, and fruit. What this does not include is just about everything we’ve grown to love in life: pizza, pasta, candy bars and Coca Cola.
Remember that part about returning to our roots? It comes in full-force here. Our Paleolithic ancestors survived and thrived with the one thing available to them: natural food. It’s not a perfect comparison, but this also seems the case for a lot of modern-day hunter-gatherer groups, those rare few untouched by Western food culture.
Take the Kitavans, for example, whose intake of coconut products might make the fat-phobic among us feel pretty unsettled. Compared to the average American, Kitavans consume 55% more saturated fat — probably the most vilified, unpopular macronutrient of our time. Want to know the twist? They exhibit none of the health problems that are rampant in the modern world, particularly diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
This suggests, then, that what they’re eating — natural food, natural fat (including saturated!) — has incredible effects for our health. Their diet, likewise, lacks a lot of ‘modern staples,’ including heavily-processed food products, sugar-laden drinks, and cheaply-produced grains.
Natural is good. Remember that. There’s a trend in America, at least, to shy away from natural food and emphasize something that comes out of a laboratory: low-fat or fat-free concoctions, fake meats, and all kinds of products that our bodies literally never encountered until modern times.
Is it any wonder, then, that we’re facing a health crisis?
With this in mind, here’s a (very) brief list of Paleo principles:
1. Avoid grains. They’re calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food, and likewise must be heavily processed just to be made edible. This preparation process, however, does little to break down the toxins and antinutrients that all grains contain. White rice is the least offensive of all grains, but the rest — wheat, oats, rye, corn, etc. — should be avoided, and not just in their commercial forms (bread, pasta, most processed snacks).
2. Dairy is questionable. Many people possess some degree of lactose intolerance, so try going without it for 30 days and then adding it back in. The results should speak for themselves.
3. Legumes (beans) contain antinutrients similar to grains and should be avoided without proper preparation (soaking). Most commercially-available beans are prepared in a way that makes them edible without actually breaking down the antinutrients within.
4. Stick with more natural cooking oils: olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil. Vegetable oils (corn, peanut, soybean, sunflower, canola, etc.), without going into the Omega 3/6 ratio just yet, should be avoided.
5. Processed food, by and large, is not good for your health. If the ingredient list is longer than five items (or populated by unpronounceable words), then you’re better off avoiding it. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store so that you’ll emphasize fruits, veggies, meats, etc.
It’s worth mentioning, again, that even these five principles aren’t 100% set in stone. If you’re just starting out, I think it’s wise to adhere to them as strictly as possible, but as you do your own research — and as more and more people weigh in on these subjects — you might find yourself deviating in small ways. I myself eat dairy on occasion (pastured butter is a constant companion) and partake in the occasional legumes, but that might change as more research hits the Internet.
Remember: Paleo changes. And that’s why it’s awesome.
Second: conventional wisdom sucks.
That’s a blanket statement, I know, but it’s also a pretty accurate assessment of my feelings for conventional nutritional advice.
Conventional wisdom tells us that fat makes you fat. It also tells us that eggs raise your cholesterol and ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease. It also recommends we avoid all coconut products given their high levels of saturated fats. Sometimes it tells us that meat (particularly the red variety) is bad for your health. It even tells us — and this hurts me inside — that whole grains are the best choice and a necessary part of a balanced, healthy diet.
It tells us, in other words, a lot of things that are most definitely not true. To be fair, a fair few of these ideas have studies that seem to prove their validity — at least until you dig a little deeper and see how incredibly skewed the experiment was in the first place. This isn’t a new thing, either. It dates back to Ancel Keyes and the Seven Countries study, which kick-started the low-fat craze, and continues on through modern times with T. Colin Campbell’s infamous China Study.
Part three of this guide will have a list to several bloggers who have worked tirelessly to debunk a lot of the conventional thinking that dictates modern nutritional thought. For now, though, don’t just assume everything you’ve been told is true — take steps to do research and verify it for yourself.
(And yes, that includes this guide!)
Lastly: diet is a dirty, dirty word
This isn’t specifically a Paleo point, but I think it’s worth mentioning: Paleo, for most people, is a lifestyle above all else. This isn’t something you hop on to lose a few pounds and then abandon back for the waiting arms of pizza and cake. Understanding any of the principles above makes it exceptionally difficult to return to your ‘old ways,’ especially when you understand in full what exactly modern food does to the body.
Paleo, accordingly, is not a diet. A diet implies some magical period where you lose weight, improve your health markers, and then return to your old eating habits, completely discounting the fact that the old ways are what made you unhealthy in the first place.
You don’t need a diet. You just need to be informed.
My hope is that this guide will be the first step towards making that happen. I hope, too, that it’ll come in handy as you follow through with New Year’s resolutions and pursue better health in the coming months of 2011.
Part two will cover the transition period into a more Primal lifestyle. I’ll offer some tips and describe my own experience so you’ll know what to expect if you try it yourself. I’ll describe, too, how eating Primal plays out in real life, painting a more practical picture of what it means to eat natural and avoid processed food.
Wondering how to make the Paleo pizza I posted a picture of on Twitter a few days back? You’re in luck! The next part will include sample meals and recipes — the pizza one included — so you can get a better feel for what Primal eating looks like.
Thanks so much for reading!
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