What is this paleo thing anyway? Many others have described and defined it before me, but this is my blog so I’ll give it a shot.
The name comes from “paleolithic,” or “old stone age,” which is the scientific term for the time before the invention of agriculture, when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Almost all generations of humans who ever lived, lived in the paleolithic.
Depending on where you come from, your ancestors may have switched to agriculture any time between 10-12 thousand years ago and some time in the 20th century (I’m assuming that if you are reading this you are not one of the few actual remaining hunter-gatherers). Other drastic changes in diet and lifestyle happened with the industrial revolution and the transition to a fully industrial food economy in the 20th century.
In a nutshell, paleo involves thinking about modern life in the context of human evolution. That means understanding that we evolved in a very different physical and social environment than that in which we now live. While evolution didn’t stop when we invented agriculture, there hasn’t been enough time for our genes to do a lot of adapting to living in towns, cities, or on farms, let alone our modern industrial civilization. Changing our behavior in recognition of evolutionary realities can generate huge benefits for health and wellness—even as we take advantage of modern wonders such as emergency medicine, computers, and flush toilets.
Most commonly, this translates into a way of eating.
- Real whole foods, generally prepared at home from scratch.
- Suspicion and avoidance of foods unavailable or very infrequently consumed prior to the transition to agriculture. That includes sugar, grains (especially gluten grains such as wheat), industrial seed oils (corn oil, canola oil, etc.), legumes (including soy and peanuts) and highly processed foods in general.
- The majority of food is drawn from high quality meats, vegetables, and seafood. Acceptable foods that are best eaten in limited amounts include fruits and nuts. Spices are fine but tend to be self-limiting
- This usually results in an overall lower amount of carbohydrate than in industrial Western diets, but paleo is not about macro nutrient ratios.
- Most overweight people lose weight when they eat this way, without having to deliberately limit how much they consume, although paleo is not a weight loss program per se and some people have to do more than just eat this way in order to lose weight.
- Some paleo folks choose to fast, either randomly (skip a meal here and there) or according to a specific plan (e.g., only one large meal per day, no snacks).
There are lots of arguments about specifics, such as whether it’s OK to consume neolithic whole foods that many people seem to tolerate, such as rice or whole dairy. The above principles are generally accepted, however. For more information, I’d suggest reading Dr. Kurt Harris’ work.
There are some supplements that may be used to make up for deficiencies in diet or lifestyle. These are not seen as “magic foods,” but instead corrections for important ways in which our ancestor’s metabolic environments differ from ours. That includes supplementing with vitamin D3 when we don’t get out in the sun every day (our bodies normally make D3 from sunlight), magnesium (our ancestors got that from drinking water, but our water systems filter it out), and a few others to adjust for important nutrients our ancestors consumed but which are lacking for people not foraging in the wild.
Beyond food, it translates into living and moving in a more natural way.
- Getting plenty of regular sleep—enough to wake up every morning without an alarm. Our ancestors didn’t have artificial light other than campfires, so it was much easier for them to sleep without today’s modern distractions.
- Fun, playful, functional movement.
- Occasional very high intensity exercise, with enough time for recover, rather than treating workouts as a regular chore.
- Avoidance of long bouts of cardio exercise or anything that feels basically like running in a hamster wheel.
- Lifting heavy things and moving the weight of your body using complex movement patterns.
- Optimizing capacity to do things like walk, run, climb, lift, fight, carry, jump, and swim.
Evolutionary principles can also be applied to thinking about social relationships, group dynamics, agriculture, etc.
There is plenty of disagreement within the community about things like what to call it (paleo, primal, ancestral, etc.), what foods are OK to eat, why people in industrial societies get fat, and so on. While there are a number of respected paleo writers and proponents, the are no “leaders” of a “cult.” Lots of the discussion is based on scientific evidence, although the way science is done nowadays can get people into a “my study beats your study” mentality. I think most of the discussion is healthy and interesting—although of course, people being people, it also gets kind of silly sometimes.
Ultimately, I think paleo will succeed because it works. The medical community will scratch their heads and wonder how all those people could be so amazingly healthy eating “artery clogging” saturated fat and avoiding “heart healthy” whole grains. Clueless fools will make fun of us cavemen types in various ways, but that will fade away. There is already some initial research demonstrating the value of paleo style eating, and there will be plenty more. While nothing will pry the pizza out of most people’s mouths, I think it will be more than just a short-term fad, because it is a profoundly valuable overall approach to human health and wellness.