In a nutshell, the Paleo diet (or, as I like to think of it, the Paleo template—the word “diet” tends to mislead folks into thinking this is nothing more than a temporary weight-loss program) is based on the notion that for optimal health, modern humans should go back to eating real, whole unprocessed foods that are more healthful than harmful to our bodies.
Here—in comic form—is my condensed “elevator pitch” explanation of Paleo (from my cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans):
Admittedly, the “caveman” label makes this sound like a weird fad diet, but trust me: it isn’t. Over the past 200, 000 years, humans have biologically adapted best to whole foods: plants, meat, seafood—all of them packed with the nutrients our bodies evolved to thrive on.
Agriculture came on the scene a mere 10, 000 years ago—a tiny fraction of our evolutionary history—and there simply hasn’t been enough time and evolutionary pressure for humans to completely adapt to eating modern foods like wheat, sugar, chemically processed vegetable and seed oils, and other “Neolithic” foods. It’s not a coincidence that many modern diseases of civilization—including autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and rampant obesity—have accompanied the global spread of industrialized food. That’s why the Paleo approach emphasizes returning to a more ancestral approach to eating.
But here’s the thing to keep in mind: we’re not trying to precisely replicate cavemen diets. Yes, a few Paleo die-hards may approach their diets this way, but there isn’t just one definitive, monolithic, one-size-fits-all “Paleo diet.” Some Paleo eaters choose to go super-low-carb, while others of us (me included!) are happy to munch on a baked potato or a bowl of white rice every now and then. There are Paleo eaters who can’t imagine life without dairy, and more orthodox folks who refuse to touch even a pat of butter with a ten-foot pole. The Paleo tent is big enough to fit a host of different approaches, but the core tenets of ancestral eating remain the same:
- Eat whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense, nourishing foods. Prioritize grass fed and pastured meats and eggs, wild-caught seafood, and vegetables. Enjoy fruit, nuts, and seeds in moderation.
- Avoid foods that will harm us by causing systemic inflammation, wrecking our guts, or derailing our natural metabolic processes. Abstain from toxic, pro-inflammatory foods like gluten-containing grains, legumes, sugar, and the laboratory-concocted Frankenfoods found in the middle aisles of your neighborhood supermarket.
Physicians, biochemists, nutritionists, and other researchers are starting to come around to the benefits of ancestral nutrition, and people who adopt a Paleo-like approach to eating are reporting significant improvements in their general health, body composition, and energy levels. Most importantly, there’s evidence that folks who eat this way are reducing their risks of numerous diseases and disorders that are associated with the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.).
I know what you’re thinking: how can this be healthy? Many folks seem to think that eating Paleo means going super-duper low-carb and consuming gobs and gobs of meat and animal fat. But for me, Paleo looks more like this:
Yes, high-quality proteins and fats are part of the equation, but so are lots of vegetables and even (gasp!) carbohydrates. It’s not like I dumped all the grains (which, let’s face it, aren’t naturally nutrient-rich) and processed junk off my plate and replaced it with bacon. Instead, I replaced it with vegetables and fruit—and I replaced the low-quality, CAFO-raised, steroid-injected meat I used to eat with grass-fed and pastured meat, eggs, and sustainable seafood. In other words:
I do my best to avoid lab-concocted Frankenfoods and ingredients that are more likely to be harmful than healthful, and prioritize real, whole, nutrient-packed food instead.
Have I convinced you to try eating Paleo? Good.
My blog, podcast, cookbook, and iPhone® and iPad ® cookbook app are intended to help you translate the “rules of the road” into delicious, easy-to-prepare meals for you and your family. Here, you’ll see the way I eat on an everyday basis, and my recipes, too.
In case you’re wondering, I cook entirely gluten- and soy-free, and steer clear of legumes and refined vegetable and seed oils. But I’m not “Paleo perfect, ” nor do I want to be. Sometimes, a bit of sugar will creep into my diet (in the form of super-dark chocolate bars that I keep tucked in the back of my pantry), and I’ve been known to cook with high-quality, full-fat butter from grass fed cattle.
Still, for the most part, my eats are “clean.” For me, that means following the rules of the Whole30® — the nutritional re-set developed by my friends over at Whole9.
Certainly, if you’re on a weight-loss journey, suffering from an immunological disorder, or committing to a 30-day dietary re-set (like the Whole30), a super-strict, orthodox approach to Paleo may be the perfect starting point for you. I’ve done a couple of these Paleo re-sets myself. But as a general matter, my diet is not about strictly, slavishly, and mindlessly mimicking the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors. Rather, the way they ate simply gives me a starting point from which to decide how to eat in the modern world. I make my choices by considering the health risks and consequences of the foods I eat.
Plus, I’m a food fiend. As a modern cave-foodie, I follow these three basic rules:
1. Follow the Paleo roadmap as closely as possible.
Yes, there may be an occasional detour, and every now and then, some gastronomic off-roading can be fun and well worth the indulgence. But we need to keep moving in the right direction, which means avoiding dietary potholes like gluten, soy, added sugar, processed junk, and other inflammatory and gut-wrecking foods as much as possible.
2. Simple and quick does the trick.
Cooking becomes an overwhelming chore when we get too wrapped up in complicated, time-consuming recipes. To be practical and sustainable, ancestral nutrition has to be easy. As a working mom, I’m always on the lookout for shortcuts in the kitchen, and often rely on modern conveniences that cavemen never enjoyed, like slow cookers and food processors. (I also appreciate indoor plumbing, for what it’s worth.)
3. Last but not least: It better be crazy-delicious.
Too many folks think the Paleo approach to eating is about deprivation, and that all we eat is ground beef with a side of steamed broccoli. “I can’t go Paleo – there’ll be nothing I can eat, ” skeptics say. But what they mean is that they can’t conceive of Paleo food being anywhere near as scrumptious as their weekly meals at the local greasy spoon, or as satisfying as the crinkly bag of half-eaten fluorescent cheese poofs on the floor of their car. To get people to maintain a Paleo lifestyle, it’s important to show how the food that fuels them can be healthy AND insanely good.
A few additional things to keep in mind:
- The Paleo diet is not a weight loss cure-all. If years of unhealthy eating have wrecked your metabolism and you’re carrying around extra body fat, switching to a Paleo lifestyle will certainly help your body composition and overall health. But the point of eating Paleo is not to shed as many pounds as possible so that you can fit into the jeans you wore in high school. This nutritional approach is about optimizing your health and wellness – not transforming you into a waiflike size zero runway model with that special heroin-chic je ne sais quoi.