Why Paleo Works

You can thank Melissa McEwen for this.

A recent post at her excellent blog, Hunt Gather Love, lit a light bulb above my skull, encouraging some deep thinking about a subject very near and dear to my heart: why does Paleo work?

Why, as we continue to discover just how comparatively little we know about health and nutrition, does a Paleo-style diet yield such remarkable results? Why, when any modern dieter is surrounded on every side by contradictory ideas on just what the hell we should eat, does Paleo continue to grow by leaps and bounds?

Again: why does Paleo work?

Here’s what I think.

Paleo works — hell, succeeds – because it emphasizes the individual. Paleo asks every single one of us to take the staggering amount of information we have, sift through the pieces, and emerge stronger on the other side — informed, finally, of what we as individuals need to achieve great health.

It asks us, in other words, to realize two things:

1. Our diet alone is the greatest contributor to our health.

2. What we eat is, in the long run, just as important as how much.

Let’s linger on that second point for a moment linger.

Anyone stumbling across the Paleo framework might find themselves a little confused to start with. They might find themselves asking questions about dairy, nightshades, nuts and potatoes, and coming time and time again to the classic response: well, it depends.

I hate to say it, folks, but that’s achingly true. It depends on you. Your individual sensitivities, if you’ll pardon my language, are a pretty damn big deal, and by far the biggest takeaway from whatever impact these Paleo ideas have had on your life.

But here’s the thing: you have to care. You have to experiment, now, and find out what your body desires, whether that’s high carb or low carb or medium carb or — here’s my favorite — none of the above, tailoring your daily intake to precisely whatever your body asks for. You have to admit, too, that what you eat affects your body far more than you can ever know, and then you have to take steps to do two simple things:

1. Eat less (and eat well 90% of the time when you do).

2. Move more.

And that’s it.

That’s Paleo, and that’s why it works. There’s a bit of legwork to start with, sure, as you suss out what ‘healthy’ in point one above means for you, but there’s not a lot of hand-wringing or heartbreak beyond it. Start experimenting. Start exploring. And know, now, what you — yes, you! — need to thrive for every day you have on this earth.

The latest fad diet can’t give you that. Paleo, if I’m being fair, can’t provide it either. But it’s a hell of a good first step, I think, and a gentle encouragement to strike out and discover the rest on your own.

Let’s start walking.

11 Comments

  1. NomadicNeill says:

    One of the first times I came into contact with Paleo was through Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books.

    He writes a lot about a lot about living with uncertainty and it completely fits in with my world-view where we have to accept that we don’t know everything and have to experiment and test everything.

  2. Megyn @ Minimalist Mommi says:

    I have quite a few friends into the Paleo diet, and it just doesn’t work for me. My body CRAVES immense amount of carbs, and I’m a strict vegetarian, so no meat in any future. I get frustrated with all these diets that suggest everyone needs to eat X way. I truly believe that each body is different. Raw veganism may work for some. Straight meat and potatoes for others. I just wish there was some actual RELIABLE scientific data out there. I firmly believe that there is not because no scientist could support a claim that the cause & effect of a diet works with a significant amount of people. What we are left with are poor correlational data that gets skewed to look like cause & effect and leaves us consumers confused and baffled.

    Just eat what your body wants–perfect!

  3. Gianmarco says:

    what about water on paleo way?

  4. NomadicNeill says:

    @Megyn

    I eat lots of carbs and I still class myself as a Paleo / Primal eater.

    The carbs I eat are white and sweet potatoes, sometimes white rice as well.

    I switched to Paleo because of my huge energy crashes but did not need to lose any weight.

    Getting rid of all the other grains (except white rice) solved the problem. The other carbs don’t seem to negatively affect me at all.

  5. Ben says:

    Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more.

  6. Gianmarco says:

    I meant, sipping water help during fasting. during a paleo diet, you need to drink when you need or you need to drink more then you actually want to?
    :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I only drink water when I feel like I need to — either because I’m thirsty, or because I have a random hunger pang that I know will go away within a few minutes anyways. :)

      No need to overthink it, right? Drink when you’re thirsty! :)

  7. Oscar says:

    @Megyn

    You wrote “My body CRAVES immense amount of carbs, and I’m a strict vegetarian.”

    That sounds to me like cause and effect (actually effect and cause). Strict vegetarianism limits the high energy foods that you can eat. I used to eat lots of carbs, now I just eat more protein and fat (from animals) and those cravings are gone. I can do that because of the high concentration of energy in food from animal sources. Other than coconut, I don’t know what strict vegetarian alternatives can provide as much energy as meat and animal fat. Although there are individual differences, as Matt explains in his post, there is scientific evidence that high fat low carb diets work:

    http://bit.ly/eenfeldt

  8. maryanne says:

    I’m a new visitor to your blog, and i like the well-written posts that i have read so far.
    however, i disagree that you have to eat less on the Paleo diet. It does often just seem to happen but it is not required, especially since you aren’t “supposed to” count carbs, calories or anything else.
    Am I misunderstanding something? if so, i apologize. i haven’t read every post on 3NL (yet!)…

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hi maryanne! Thank you for the kind words regarding the writing. :)

      There’s been some debate about the possible “metabolic advantage” of a Paleo (often low-carb) diet, but as far as I know it’s still a theory above all else. At the end of the day, then, you lose weight by doing a multitude of things: eating less, in some cases, exercising more in others, and overall just changing how you approach your health.

      It’s worth noting, though, that the first case — eating less — doesn’t have to be any calculated maneuver. A Paleo diet tends to inherently make you eat less for a variety of reasons (the removal of grains and high-calorie processed food being chief), but it’s not like you need to count those calories to see weight loss over the ensuing weeks. I completely agree that calorie counting isn’t necessary on a Paleo diet, but I’d still say that you need to eat less overall — it just so happens that doing so happens naturally as you reduce carb intake, dip into ketosis, etc. See what I mean? :)