Paleo Diets: Forests and Trees
Have you heard about “Paleo” diets? Are you curious about trying this unconventional nutritional strategy? Perhaps a friend, coworker, or acquaintance at the gym has mentioned that eating Paleo is great for weight loss, digestive health, supporting fertility and ameliorating the symptoms associated with autoimmune conditions. And maybe you’ve even started looking into what Paleo is all about. You may have even bought a couple of books, scanned a few websites, and listened to some podcasts about it.
With all the information available on the benefits and drawbacks of different Paleo diets, you may feel like you’ve got everything straight and are ready to jump in, or it may seem like you’re getting mixed messages that are leaving you confused, overwhelmed, and ready to give up before you even start. But don’t worry, there is no need to despair!
The Paleo concept is evolving (no pun intended), and several different variations on the general theme have emerged over the last few years. A true Paleo diet is one that excludes the foods our Paleolithic ancestors either would not have eaten at all, or would have eaten in extremely limited quantities, and certainly not in the processed and preserved ways we consume them today. These generally prohibited foods include all grains (not just gluten grains), dairy, and beans/legumes.
Some practitioners suggest this strict approach as a sensible starting point: take 30 days to “reprogram and reset” your body, and then, gradually add back in some of the foods you eliminated and see how well you tolerate them. As you reintegrate these foods, ask yourself: Do they cause digestive upset, skin eruptions, and/or allergic effects? While some practitioners support this month-long trial as the best introduction to this new way of eating, others have a more relaxed approach that doesn’t require the removal of dairy, for example (although they favor raw, unpasteurized, and cultured dairy when possible). And still others have created programs that emphasize whole, unrefined foods that include grains and beans, provided someone does well with that amount of carbohydrates.
The differences among all the diets that are at least somewhat related to a Paleolithic profile can be enough to intimidate any nutritionist, let alone a layperson who just wants to lose a few pounds and wake up without joint pain in the morning. So what’s a newbie to do?
When in doubt, focus on the forest, not the trees. What all of the Paleo diet permutations have in common is an emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods—foods that your great-grandparents would have recognized as foods, such as meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds; as well as traditional cooking fats, such as olive oil, beef tallow, lard, coconut oil, and butter or ghee. They all recommend against highly refined grains, refined and manmade sugars, chemically extracted vegetable oils, and generally anything that comes in a box or bag with a long list of ingredients, many of which you can’t even pronounce, much less identify.
The proponents of the different approaches to these ancestral diets agree that while we may never know with absolute certainty what Paleolithic man ate, we do know what he didn’t eat: imitation chicken and sausages made out of soybeans, sugary breakfast cereals peppered with fluorescent colored marshmallows, granola bars embalmed with corn syrup and drizzled with caramel, and anything breaded and fried in hydrogenated oils.
If you’re interested in exploring the ancestral nutritional approach, don’t get caught up in the minutia. Once you’re farther along in things, you can tinker with the details, but when just starting out, you’ll get exciting results by simply eliminating or at least cutting way back on refined sugar (and liquid sugar—drop the juice!), gluten grains and most vegetable oils. If weight loss is a goal, you will likely benefit from lowering your total carbohydrate consumption, even from foods that aren’t necessarily cautioned against – like potatoes, parsnips, and other starchy roots and tubers. Other health conditions will require additional modifications to the strategy, but at the beginning, if you’re not quite sure where to start, you can’t go wrong with these basics. And remember, nobody’s health ever got worse by eating less sugar!