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What is the Paleo Diet?

By José-manuel Benitos, via Wikimedia Commons

…what we find is that if you introduce these Neolithic foods [grains, legumes, dairy] you immediately decrease the amount of vitamins and minerals, basically the nutrition that you were getting from the diet per calorie… So really, calorie for calorie [Paleo] is the most nutrient dense way that you can possibly eat.”
~  Robb Wolf, Paleo Solution Podcast Episode #51

Often definitions for what the Paleo Diet is all about and the ‘rules’ or guidelines for what to eat and what to avoid on a Paleo Diet, start with explanations of what Paleolithic Man (aka our caveman and cavewoman ancestors) might have eaten for the many millions of years before we started cultivating crops, farming animals and refining and processing our food.
And finish with how we modern humans are best adapted to eating this kind of ancestral diet because that is what we have evolved to eat.
It fits our human biology.

There is nothing wrong with that. (If you want to see one of those explanations, here is one I helped to write)

You need to be aware though, that this is no cookie-cutter diet plan that can be delivered to you with a bow on it and a simple “here are the rules” so you can go skipping off to ‘eat like a caveman.’
It will take trial and experimentation on your part to work out what your body will thrive on.

This is because the only diet that is the right one, is the one that works for you.

Here are some reasons why:

  • We cannot possibly know exactly what Paleo man may have eaten.
  • Largely because there was no one diet.
  • Different parts of the world have different climates, terrains, native plants and animals and different traditional peoples with different cultures that ate all manner of different foods. They have each adapted over time to the foods that are local and traditional. In fact, about the only thing that they do have in common is that they don’t eat a modern Western diet.
  • You are an epigenetic mixed bag of inherited predispositions, sensitivities and environmental exposures. Not only that, the 100 trillion microbes that live in your gut have a large part to play in how your body responds to different foods and stresses.
  • You may be able to easily breakdown foods that can be challenging to digest like nuts, dairy, eggs, and some types of vegetables…or you may not.
  • Some cultures and people have adapted to eating foods that have only become abundant since the advent of agriculture (around 10,000 years ago). Dairy, seaweed and properly prepared grains are some examples of these. You may thrive on these foods. You may not.
  • Of all of the varieties of food grown historically, there is only a fraction that is still commercially produced today and there are definitely no woolly mammoths or saber tooth tigers still kicking around. So we need to work within the bounds of what is possible in a modern world.

The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them”  ~  Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

There is a lot of confusion as to what constitutes a Paleo or Primal diet and what does not.
For all of the above reasons and more. You will need to pick your own path.
You will only know what you don’t tolerate and what you thrive on through trial and elimination.

Having said that though, we do definitely, 100% know for sure that:

We humans did not traditionally eat refined or processed foods loaded with sugar and industrialised seed oils. And, it is pretty safe to say that we certainly do not thrive on the edible food-like substances that we find in our modern supermarkets.

Rates of Western diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, allergies, autoimmune conditions and cancer, seem to have increased exponentially since the addition of processed and refined foods to our food supply.

With such a divergence from the real, whole foods that best suit our biology and the adoption of a lifestyle in the concrete jungle that is totally out of kilter with our genetic inheritance, it is no wonder that the incidence of these “diseases of modern civilisation” is predicted to continue to rise.

I suggest we stop trying to define the “Paleo diet” and start thinking about it instead as a “Paleo template”…here’s the key difference between a Paleo diet and a Paleo template: following a diet doesn’t encourage the participant to think, experiment or consider his or her specific circumstances, while following a template does.”
~  Chris Kresser 

Right…So what is a Paleo Template, and how do I get one?

“Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.”
~ John Ryan, quoted by Robb Wolf on his Paleo Solution Podcast

I really don’t like the term “diet” so a Paleo Template suits me really well.
In a nutshell, living to a paleolithic template is about taking a holistic approach to reducing chronic stress and inflammation in our bodies and in our lives.  It is about more than just the food that we eat.

Drawing on the gigantic melting pot of traditional wisdom from hunter gatherer populations, the evolutionary clues left to us by our ancestors and the latest in modern research in the fields of biology, biochemistry, and genetics – Paleo is a back-to-basics approach that pulls back the veneer of comfort and convention and tosses out all of the civilized, processed junk that we have accumulated in our pantries and in our minds.

It is a focus on eating, sleeping and moving in tune with our basic biology to improve our individual health, performance and longevity.

My Paleo template looks like this:

Organic Heirloom Veggies from a local farm gate and Gippsland Grass-fed Beef

  • Eat real food. Eat nutri­ent dense, whole foods.
  • Prioritise fruit and veggies that are, ideally, in sea­son and grown locally in healthy soil or better yet home-grown.  Include starchy veggies and leafy greens but go easy on the fruit.  Ditch the hydroponic crap, there is a reason why it is so tasteless and that is because it is pretty light on nutrients.  Micronutrients = color and flavour.
  • Source meat and fish that is grass-fed or wild-caught. Beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, duck, pork, venison, kangaroo and fish, especially oily fish like salmon and tuna. Go for animals that had eaten their natural diet as they would have been healthier and had better body composition.  That nutrition gets passed on up the food chain to us.
  • Cook or process food by hand, into tasty and nutritious meals.  Enjoy the process and share meals with family and friends
  • Use fats for cooking that are stable to higher heats, like coconut oil and animal fats.
  • I do not weigh or measure food, I eat when I am hungry.  I eat until I am full and I let my body dictate when that is.
  • Maximise whole foods that will reduce inflammation and foods that improve gut health and digestion, like fermented foods.
  • Eliminate or minimise foods that damage the gut and increase inflammation.  This is where there might be some variation depending on food sensitivites and individual gut permeability.
  • Eliminate foods that are regarded as Neolithic Agents of Disease (I wrote about these here and you can find more info about NAD’s on Kurt Harris’s blog here).  NAD’s include cereal grains, sugar and industrialised seed oils (vegetable oils).
  • Get at least 8 hours sleep every night in a pitch-black room.  Find out why this is important here.
  • Get moving. Build func­tional strength and mobil­ity. Lift heavy things with a focus on full body, functional movements like squats and deadlifts. Either move slowly (at a walking pace) or very fast (at a sprint).  Check out Mark’s Daily Apple for more info.
  • Take steps to reduce and manage chronic stress and stressors.
  • Simplify the inputs you allow in your life and filter out the crap. We no longer watch TV, we download documentaries, and watch the shows we actually want to see on ABC iView.  Instead of listening to commercial radio with all of its advertising and hype, we listen to government radio, podcasts or CD’s.
  • Have some fun, practice mindfulness, do things you enjoy. Live, laugh and love.

Remember people, it is not just about what you eat!

All of the above is important in the quest to fend off the many diseases of modern civilisation and to look, feel and perform like a long-lived, young-at-heart superstar.

This Paleo template might serve as a good starting place for you if you are new to this kind of thinking.
It is a matter of just getting started…DO IT NOW!
Then you can build and tweak your template to suit your own individual circumstances.

On the other hand, this template might look quite different to your own Paleo approach and there is nothing wrong with that.
What does your Paleo template look like? Is there anything you have added or taken out of this approach?

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