A Practical Approach to the Paleo Diet, Part 4
The Benefits of Paleo – Why It’s Worth a Closer Look
The “Paleo” designation is both good and limiting at the same time. On the plus side, Paleo is getting very popular and has a good community growing around it – and it’s a very healthy diet so there’s the potential for many people to benefit due to its popularity. On the minus side, it can appear to be a “diet” as opposed to just a broad, general and healthy way to eat. Further, many in the Paleo community mistakenly think of it as a “diet” and approach it as one.
One of the things I work hard to do on my blog, in my book, “The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link,” and in guest posts like this one is to convey the idea that a Paleo eating model is fundamentally healthy and extremely adaptable to individual goals, health issues, athletics and activities and lifestyles. As opposed to “this diet vs. that diet,” I feel the Paleo model is something universal that can guide food choices and lead us to better health, performance and wellbeing.
In that regard, here are the very foundational aspects of Paleo – and healthy diets in general – to keep in mind when you’re looking at your own diet and food choices.
The evolutionary approach to health and diet has some really profound implications. I don’t know when it was FIRST talked about, but it seems to have been popularized by the whole CrossFit/functional movement/kettlebell/Paleo diet community. CrossFit didn’t invent it, but I think that’s where a lot of the widespread awareness started. Obviously, the Robb Wolf/Loren Cordain/Paleo/CrossFit connection had something to do with it as well.
The basic idea is that our bodies are designed by evolution to require certain conditions and be suited to certain things and not others – movement patterns, foods, day/night cycles, etc. You can understand the failure or success of ANY training, diet or health protocol by looking at how we evolved as a species over millions of years, what we evolved to do and how similar the protocol is to how we evolved. The field of Medical Anthropology has done a great deal of work with this approach and it’s my prediction that an evolutionary approach to medicine will be well established in 5-10 years and, someday, will be the way all disease and medical treatment is understood.
From a practical perspective, think of everything in terms of how similar it is to our ancestor’s lives as hunter-gatherers. A diet of meat and vegetables and brief, intense workouts with plenty of rest in between is very much like what we evolved to do. Living in massive stress, eating processed food and walking on a treadmill while watching TV is not.
This is a simple, elegant and intuitive way to understand this fact: A few hundred years of food and medical science is not smarter than a few million years of evolution.
High in Good Fats
I won’t go into the fat argument here. The topic is too complex, loaded and political. Not to mention, the point that fat isn’t the enemy has been made very well in a number of other places. For the Paleo diet, you need to understand that animal fat can be VERY healthy for humans – as long as the animals are healthy and raised in line with their evolutionary requirements. People in the US are fat-phobic and have been brainwashed into thinking “fat makes you fat.”
The reality is, we’ve been eating less and less fat from each decade to the next and the number of fat-free and reduced fat products have increased exponentially. But, as a society, we’ve become fatter and sicker than ever. Obviously, fat avoidance isn’t the answer.
In the meantime, old-time bodybuilders and strongmen as well as the hunter-gatherer tribes studied by Weston A. Price in the early 1900s have always eaten a large amount of fat from healthy animals and benefited from it.
Interestingly, the fat we’ve been TOLD to eat for years – processed vegetable fats like margarine, soy oil, canola oil, etc. – have been shown to be the REAL culprits in many diseases. And the plot thickens…
What are “good” fats?
For the purposes of a Paleo diet, good fats are going to be fats from healthy animals, fish oil, cod liver oil, fat from any fatty fish like salmon or anchovies, avocados, certain nuts and seeds like flax, coconut oil, and dairy fats from grassfed and healthy animals (if you’re using dairy). ALL these fats have in common the fact that they’re NATURAL and unprocessed or minimally processed.
Synthetic fats that are made using industrial processes like soybean oil, canola, etc. are very similar to plastics and your body reacts to them accordingly. Anything with the word “hydrogenated” in it is an industrially prepared and chemically altered fat you should avoid.
Animal Fat is GOOD
I said it above – if the animal is healthy and raised appropriately, the fat from it will be healthy. Our Paleo ancestors very likely didn’t trim the fat off of their meat and neither should you. Weston Price noted in his research that the hunter-gatherer tribes he studied prized the fattiest parts of the animals they hunted and often saved these parts for pregnant women, children and the sick so these special populations would have the healthiest and most nutrient-dense parts of the animals.
I’ve trained myself to like dark chicken meat and the skin and whole eggs. Leave the skinless chicken breasts and egg white omelets (Or, WORSE, Egg Beaters!) for the treadmill and Special K crowd.
Fat WON’T Make You Fat
I said this above too – fat won’t make you fat. In fact, fat might very well make you leaner. This is a massive shift many will need to make in their thinking and I don’t expect you to make it overnight. Some people will never make it because of all the fat-phobic propaganda that’s still floating around out there.
The RIGHT fats will make you leaner, healthier and help your performance.
Some Resources to Learn More About Fat
For some of you, the fat thing is old news and you don’t need any convincing that fat is good for you and can help you get lean and perform better. For many others, this is going to be a massive leap. Paleo works MUCH better when it’s high in good fats. If you try to do Paleo on tuna, chicken breast and vegetables you’re going to have a hard time.
Here are some resources you can check out to learn more about fats and their role in a healthy diet:
Avoidance of Processed Foods
Avoiding processed foods is just a good idea. It’s incredible how ubiquitous processed foods have become in the US and how many people accept “foods” that are completely refined, man-made and fake as something that’s OK to eat. Think of how many people you know who routinely eat things that come in a box or some kind of paper or plastic wrapper. Paleo does a great job of excluding these types of foods – if it wasn’t available during the greater part of our evolution, it’s not food.
This is actually one of the things that throws a lot of people off when they start a Paleo diet. Virtually ALL of their staples are processed foods and they get a little disoriented when nothing they usually eat is allowed on the diet.
Properly Raised Meats
Putting attention on properly raised meats is another good point within the Paleo diet. Just eating “meat” isn’t really good enough. How the meat was raised is a major question. It makes sense that cows raised on grass, chickens allowed to scratch for worms and bugs and wild-caught fish are going to be more nutritious and more like the foods we saw during the greater part of our evolution than the factory farmed crap that’s in most supermarkets.
Not every author’s version of Paleo is going to obsess about properly raised meats and I understand this. It makes sense to simply move people away from grains, sugar and processed foods and toward meats, fruits and vegetables. Hitting the average person with a lot of technical stuff about grass fed this and wild-caught that is going to be too overwhelming in the beginning.
The Paleo approach recognizes diet, environment and lifestyle as the most important factors in health. It only makes sense that diet, environment and lifestyle are also the most important factors in the health of the animals we eat. We’re only as healthy as the stuff we’re eating and it makes sense to eat the healthiest stuff we can find.
Paul Chek goes into great detail on the topic of meats and other food quality issues in his CD set “You Are What You Eat.” I highly recommend it. The Eat Wild site has some good information on meats as well: http://eatwild.com/basics.html. Beyond that, I highly recommend watching the DVD “Food, Inc.” for a closer look at factory and industrial farming vs. the sustainable, local model.
Because a Paleo diet excludes most or all concentrated carbohydrate sources like grains, potatoes and processed foods, it naturally tends toward lower carbohydrates. This has positive implications with blood sugar regulation and a number of other areas like mood, sleep, fat loss and energy levels. And, because the carbohydrates on a Paleo diet aren’t concentrated, the body has a greater ability to regulate satiety.
Think of it this way: The last time you really overate on carbohydrates, was it with broccoli or sweet potato or was it with a concentrated grain and/or sugar-based food? I don’t know about you, but I can eat cereal or corn chips until I’m sick and sleepy, but I can’t seem to do the same with broccoli or kale. Even fruits like bananas seem to be easy to regulate. If I go crazy on bananas I rarely eat more than three of them.
So, on Paleo, the carbohydrates are naturally on the lower quantity side because the allowed carb sources are low Glycemic Index, high fiber, filling and not prone to over-consumption.
What about organic foods and Paleo?
I consider organic foods to be essential to heath. It’s incredible to me how politically loaded this topic is, though. There are plenty of “experts” who assert that there’s nothing better about organic fruits, vegetables and meats over conventional versions. This is silly.
Now, you DO have to pay attention to details. For example, organic pasteurized dairy can still be crap and organic junk food is still junk food. But, to say that there’s NO benefit to ANYTHING organic is completely idiotic. The studies that “prove” there’s no difference between regular and organic foods are usually the result of well manipulated and subjectively interpreted data and political or commercial motivations.
Many Paleo authors don’t get into organics a lot. I don’t know if this is because they don’t want to scare people out of the diet or don’t want to get into the politics of the argument or what.
The bottom line with organics is this: During evolution our bodies were never exposed to the chemicals and genetic alterations that make up conventional foods and produce. In my world, Paleo excludes things like agricultural chemicals and genetic modifications to foods and animals. Period.
The organics issue is where we begin to leave the “diet” realm and enter the “eating for health” realm. So far, no one has created a diet called “The Local and Organic Food Diet.” (If someone ever does, you can bet that author won’t be invited on the Dr. Oz show.) Once you get into healthy eating circles though, it’s ALL about local, organic foods. This is the realm of farmer’s markets, trips to the farm and small independent food retailers. In fact, whatever diet someone tells me they’re doing, there are two questions that tell me a lot about how much they truly understand about health: Where do you shop and how often? Frequent shopping at small local venues usually means a lot of care goes into the search for food. Shopping twice a month at a regular supermarket usually indicates the opposite.
Something I’ll just throw out here that will probably get me some good hate mail is this idea: When someone tries to argue that a genetically modified, pesticide sprayed and chemically fertilized piece of produce or a factory-farmed, hormone-injected and grain and garbage fed cow is no worse for you than a slowly, organically and carefully raised version of the same food, there MUST be political, monetary or ego motivation behind it.
There are many, MANY things technology and science CAN’T do better than nature and never will…
That’s All, Folks!
I hope everyone here at MyFiveFingers.com has enjoyed this Paleo diet series and gotten some new stuff to think about and apply in their own diet. As always, post your questions in the comments section and get in touch with the editors (email@example.com) if there are other Paleo article topics you’d like to see me address in the future.
Thanks again for reading and all the great comments and questions!
You can read the Q&A with Adam on this article series here.