What is the Paleo Diet?
What is the Paleo Diet? This is one of the most common questions that I as the Paleo Doctor get the opportunity to answer. What may surprise you is the answer is not the same for everyone. It is not a generic answer that applies equally to all. That is also one of the reasons I enjoy answering this question. It allows me the opportunity to provide a science-based answer to the question, “What is the Paleo Diet?”
To understand the Paleo Diet, one must understand that its simplicity makes it a good dietary approach for many people. The common idea of the Paleo Diet is that it is a mostly meat-based diet high in protein and fat with little carbohydrate consumption. Even though this is the dietary pattern some choose while following a Paleo Diet, it is dogmatic and limited. Can the Paleo diet be a high protein diet? Yes, the Paleo Diet can be a high protein diet, but that is not the primary intention. In fact, the Paleo Diet can be many things. It can be a high protein diet while also being a vegetarian diet. This extreme difference may not make sense upon an initial glance, but a deeper look will help to understand the versatility of the Paleo Diet.
Now you are probably asking, well then what is the Paleo Diet? The Paleo Diet is an eating pattern that focuses on the consumption of foods that would be available in nature if you had to pick, gather, hunt, or fish for your own foods. So therefore, to our previous contrast between a high protein diet and a vegetarian diet, the diet can meet both ends of the spectrum depending on the foods one selects. If someone selects foods that are plants and would be picked prior to eating them, their diet may appear more vegetarian, yet also Paleo so long as the food was found in its natural state. On the other hand, if someone is eating mostly meats, the Paleo Diet does indeed become a high protein diet.
The key to the Paleo Diet is not so much about the balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates as it is about the difference between eating food that could be found in nature in its purest form as opposed to food that is a product of the food industry. Now let me be clear, I am not advocating ignoring the balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. These certainly have a role and most people will find that they do best with a relative balance of these three. However, not everyone is the same. Some find they feel better when consuming more protein in their diet, yet others feel “weighed down” by a higher percentage of dietary protein. There are others that enjoy the way they feel when they saturate their diet with vegetables and fruits. Clearly we are not all the same as human beings and therefore our dietary needs are not going to be exactly the same. This is the primary reason that the Paleo Diet cannot be a one size fits all approach.
Is the Paleo Diet really a diet?
Let’s just cut to the point. The Paleo Diet is not a diet at all. It is a dietary eating pattern. Did our ancestors that lived off of the resources the land provided have a menu to select from each day? Of course they did not. For those that were more nomadic and moved around, they consumed what they could find, both plant and animal. Individuals that lived with in a single geographic region had more control over their food sources, but it still had to be grown or raised. Yet, regardless of the diversity of the food that we have historically eaten one thing is consistent; it was real food that came from the ground or a living organism and was not refined or denatured.
Strict guidelines are one of the reasons diets fail. They are rigid and difficult to adhere to for extended periods of time. Therefore, if you are serious about changing your eating habits and lifestyle, picking a diet to stay on is not likely to work. One of the attributes of the Paleo Diet is that it is not rigid. It offers one of the greatest selections of food of any dietary pattern available. Take the produce section of a grocery store for example. This is one of the largest sections of any grocer. Why you might ask? Simply, there are more unique foods to choose from in that one section of the grocery store than any other section. Just think how many different plants there are that humans can safely consume and derive nourishment from. Moreover, plants are just one aspect of what makes up the Paleo Diet. Others include proteins such as meats, fish and eggs, and fats that come from predominantly nuts and seeds. No other eating pattern can boast such a broad selection of foods to help satisfy the palate as the Paleo Diet.
The Paleo Diet Works for Many Different People and Lifestyles
The Paleo Diet is a good fit for many individuals. Again the numerous foods found as a part of this diet make it suitable for many populations. While it is appropriate for the sedentary individual, it is also ideal for the athlete. The Paleo diet for athletes should be tailored to meet the demands of their activity and provide the precursors they need to support energy production without creating inflammation. Only eating real foods will promote this. In opposition however, the Paleo Diet works for sedentary individuals also. The Paleo Diet for this population will emphasize eating more nutrient dense foods that are not calorically dense, while also providing adequate amounts of protein to prevent loss of valuable muscle tissue. Equally, Paleo Diet foods help those with chronic health conditions transform their body while at the same time providing the basis for maintenance of long term health. This is not a pattern of eating that is meant to be short lived, but rather one that should be followed indefinitely. Many turn to the Paleo Diet for weight loss, but the applications extend far beyond this limited view of the benefits.
What the Paleo Diet is NOT!
To help better answer the question “What is the Paleo Diet”, it is important to ask what it is not. The Paleo Diet is not the standard American Diet. The standard American Diet has contributed to an increase in all chronic disease, from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to cancer and autoimmune conditions. These are relatively new burdens on mankind that are directly affected by the diet. The consumption of refined, genetically modified or processed foods creates inflammation through multiple mechanisms that ravage our body. There is no long term possibility of health when these foods are the norm in the diet. They are certainly not Paleo Diet foods. Unfortunately when you take inventory of most of the foods in the average grocery store, these are “foods” that come packaged and boxed in ready-to-serve containers. They are laden with chemicals and preservatives that the average person cannot even pronounce. Therefore, if your food contains more than one ingredient, for example zucchini, beef, or grapes, there is a very high probability that it is not a Paleo Diet food. Paleo Diet foods are going to have single or limited ingredients and are not shelf stable for long periods of time. In fact, most of them should not even have a label. This is one of the best tests to use to determine if you are eating Paleo Diet foods.
Paleo Food Fails the Test
One of the examples I like to use with my patients to illustrate the significance of living Paleo Diet food is what happens when you leave it on the table at room temperature for an extended period of time. If I place a few foods on a table with some being paleo diet foods and others being those commonly found in the standard American Diet, there is a significant difference in the state of these foods after sitting on the table for 30 days. Let’s be specific. For the Paleo Diet foods we will place a chicken breast, a tomato and a banana on the table. From the standard American diet we will use items that are common staples such as pasta, oatmeal, and cereal. Now again, if we let the foods from each group sit for 30 days and come back to examine our foods, we will find the outcomes much different. The Paleo Diet foods will have putrified and rotted. They will likely have opportunistic organisms such as fungus and bacteria on them. In contrast, the foods of the standard American Diet will look no different. They will be just as they were left. That should strike you as problematic given the same opportunistic organisms that had access to the Paleo Diet food also had could have selected the “foods” from the standard American Diet. Yet they choose not to consume “foods” that are refined, highly processed, lacking in nutrients, and contain preservatives and possibly chemicals in them. Therefore I ask you, if an opportunistic organism will not eat food from the standard American Diet, why should we. We shouldn’t! We should only eat foods that have the ability to supply nutrients and other living cofactors that our body depends on.
If the food that you are eating does not fail the test of sitting on the table and spoiling, rotting or putrefying after 30 days, there is a very strong chance you are not eating Paleo Diet foods.
Ignoring the Critics
Anyone can have an opinion and therefore there will be critics. The Paleo Diet is no exception. However, what I have found in talking to those that question the Paleo Diet, or ask, “Is the Paleo Diet Safe”, is there is often a lack of understanding about what the Paleo Diet is. At this point you should be able to better answer, “What is the Paleo Diet?” And if this is the case, one of the things that you have taken away is Paleo Diet foods are real foods. They are foods that you might find in nature if you were out living off of the land. Real foods are what the human body thrives on, not processed foods or those that have been manipulated in some manner. Therefore I ask the Paleo Diet critic, “Are you better off eating real foods or “foods” that are degraded and limited in nutritional value, often with little fiber and an imbalance of carbohydrates and fats?” No one can realistically say they are better off eating “foods” that make up the standard American Diet as compared to real foods. Therefore the Paleo Diet food critic must acknowledge that those foods which provide the body with what it needs are also the foods we should logically be consuming. These are Paleo Diet foods.
Equally, the argument comes up that the Paleo Diet is not a sustainable diet. This is almost comical given that foremost, the Paleo Diet is not a rigid diet as we discussed earlier, but more importantly it is the dietary pattern that man has lived on since the dawn of this earth age. As a species we have eaten foods that we could grow and raise or gather up. The makeup of our body has not changed, therefore why should anyone even consider that foods that are not real or found in their natural state would be a better option. In short, regardless of the argument posed by the Paleo Diet critic, there is little creditable evidence that will show that eating a varied diet of whole foods in their natural state to meet someone’s individual metabolic needs is not the best dietary pattern.
Are you still asking, “What is the Paleo Diet?
Are you still asking, “What is the Paleo Diet?” Hopefully at this point you have a better understanding of the significance of this eating pattern. Simply stated, the Paleo Diet is an eating pattern that focuses on eating a variety of foods in their natural state while at the same time avoiding those foods that are a product of the modern food industry. Moreover, the ability to modify the eating pattern to support an individual’s metabolic needs without sacrificing eating the real foods we depend on makes the Paleo Diet ideal for all populations. Is the Paleo Diet for athletes? Is the Paleo Diet for weight loss? Is the Paleo Diet for those suffering from chronic diseases? Is the Paleo Diet for the healthy person with no ailments? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic YES! The Paleo Diet is inherently what we should be eating. It is the real food diet that our body thrives on. And best of all, you can make the Paleo Diet what you need or want it to be for your individual needs.
Paleo Diet Foods
After going through a more detailed explanation to answer “What is the Paleo Diet”, I also wanted to provide some helpful links that will guide you towards consuming Paleo Diet foods and free you of the risks associated with the standard American Diet.
Foods Broken Down by Major Macronutrients