What is a Paleo Diet?
A Concept Not A Defined Diet
Over at my daily podcast, The Survival Podcast, I have had a ton of questions about “The Paleo Diet” as it relates to current authors such as Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain and Mark Sisson. I have also had a lot of discussion as to how it relates to the work of pioneering researcher Dr. Weston Price. Questions like, “Does paleo allow dairy?”, “Is alcohol in moderation okay?”, “Can you eat grain if you soak it and call it paleo?” come in by the bucket load.
The first thing we need to accept in order that we may logically examine a paleo nutrition based lifestyle is something very hard for many to conceive of, paleo isn’t “a diet”. Paleo is a concept upon which many different people draw conclusions and develop and evolve a diet. Why is this distinction important? Simply because if you don’t see it this way, you think paleo is a list of what to eat and what not to eat and that list is based on the one author or blogger you choose to follow.
Authors such as Cordain, Wolf, and Sisson have done great work, you can learn a lot from them. They all also have a lot of similar recommendations but quite a few differences. None seems to have any need to bash the work of the other though, because I believe they all see paleo as again what it is, a concept. There is no definitive source that gets to say “A is paleo and B isn’t.” Paleo nutrition is basically an opinion derived from both scientific evidence and extrapolation based on human nature and the behavior of indigenous peoples.
Why is this so important? So that people interested in learning about the paleo concept can give themselves the freedom to examine the work of the many wonderful authors and bloggers. A group of pioneers who are working with and evolving this concept and develop a plan that works best for their lives.
What Did Our Paleo Ancestors Eat?
The fact of the matter is we do not know exactly how humans 10,000 years ago ate; they didn’t leave any a dining hall schedule or hard and fast records behind. Tons of research has been done, actual food stores found ,and we know a lot about what was available; but we don’t absolutely know for a fact that people ate X percent of this and Y percent of that. Anyone saying we do is either a liar, delusional, or a time traveler in disguise.
What we do know is paleolithic people were definitely hunter gathers. We know they had quite advanced technology for hunting and all the tools needed to butcher and kill animals from small to large. People with limited resources don’t develop and put energy into the creation of such implements and not put them to use. From this we know they killed and ate animals.
We also know they gathered wild fruit, tubers, nuts, seeds, and yes even grain. Grain of course is not acceptable according to many on the paleo lifestyle. I personally consider it “not on the diet” but that doesn’t make it “unacceptable” in all circumstances, more on that in a bit. What we can surmise though is as a gatherer you will gather that which is easiest and tastes best first. Nuts are easy to gather when they fall but take time and energy to crack. Wild grains are tiny and take a ton of work to process, so did they eat it, sure, did they make it a staple, not likely.
If I try to go food by food, item by item this article will become a book, many fine books exist on the concept so I have no intention to rewrite one here. My premise is that our paleo ancestors likely got the majority of their calories from stuff they could kill or pick and then easily consume with minimal effort. Anything requiring much energy was likely the equivalent of a “survival ration”. Most of these items store well if simply kept dry and you don’t have to process it right away. This would include a lot of wild grains and many nuts and seeds. Now some seeds are very easy to process, they don’t need hulling and are easily harvested, perhaps more of such seeds were used, we don’t know, all we can do is guess.
Now fruits and berries were likely very highly utilized but were mostly eaten seasonally. Sure you can dry them but there is only so much utility there. Vegetables of the time, which were mostly greens of one sort or another, were likely also seasonal; none store well. Many tubers store well but they can be bulky and likely were used mostly in winter when we believe these quite nomadic people were less on the move.
The World Is A Big Ass Place
Into this we have to add in something many paleo authors seem to not touch on. Paleo people were not just Nordic types in furry vests and the first Native Americans in temperate cold climates. By this time there were people in almost all parts of the world, certainly in all of the world’s climates. Tropics, desert, cool temperate and warm temperate have lots of different foods that would have been available. You can bet people living near a marsh quickly figured out how to eat clams, oysters, snails, etc. They are easy to gather and cook in their own little cooking containers. How many oysters did a person in central North America eat though? How about the tribesman in the African savannah? Do you think he was eating shellfish? Yet, in all but the driest environments, fish was likely consumed.
There were far less people and far more fish and the water was far cleaner 10,000 years or more ago. The work of Dr. Weston A Price showed us, by examining remaining indigenous people, that almost all such cultures used meat in one form or another. If you want to learn more about Dr. Price’s Work check out The Price Pottenger Nutritional Foundation at http://ppnf.org/ they are the official organization that has continued his work. While the PPNF eating guidelines are not 100% consistent with paleo they are a great example of the core of this way of eating. Additionally, they allow us to examine ways to use some foods not generally considered paleo. I will get to why this is important in a bit.
In essence this is what we know, our ancient ancestors ate a lot of meat, they ate pretty much 100% of all edible parts of any animal they killed. Stomach, liver, kidneys, abnormal fat, back fat, eyes, tongue, heart, etc. and it was a huge part of their intake. They gathered edible tubers, edible fruits and berries, edible greens and shoots, some seeds, nuts and in some instances wild grains. We can surmise that a lot of the seeds, grains, etc. were used in extreme moderation simply due to the work involved to make them edible. Paleo eating is built on this concept.
There Is No Pope Of Paleo
Some writers, such as Loren Cordain, who is for all intents and purposes the father of the currently thriving Paleo Community, have recommended lean cuts of meat. I disagree with this and most such authors such as Cordain and his protégé Robb Wolf have moved in the direction of more animal fats over time. Most of the newer writers and bloggers have started out with fat making up a lot of the diet, I agree with this.
The key to remember though is paleo again is a concept; it isn’t “a diet” like say “Weight Watchers” or “South Beach”. Sure some writers have set guidelines but it is based on their interpretation of the concept. Again the reason this is key for you as an individual is that no one gets to tell you exactly what you must and must not eat. Rather you simply look at guidelines and make your own choices and by experimentation determine what is best for you. This isn’t like the ancient Catholic church where the Pope could tell you exactly what you can’t eat on Fridays during Lent. Writers, bloggers, researchers, and scientists within the Paleo community are all to be seen as resources, not authorities.
Some people on paleo take a mostly lean meat and veggies approach. They cook mostly with things like olive oil and focus more on protein. They eat no grains; almost no legumes and no white starches like, say, white potato or rice. They will eat a bit of nuts here and there, tree nuts not things like peanuts that are actually legumes. They eat only grass-fed and pastured meats. Is that paleo? Yes. Is it what I do? No. Do I disagree with their assessment in some areas as to how early man ate? Absolutely. Does that mean they are not paleo or I am not paleo, can any of us be excommunicated by a “Pope of Paleo”? No.
What I Eat – It Ain’t All Paleo
I am not 100% paleo, 100% of the time. I consider myself paleo because the bulk of my diet is made up of foods that I either feel my ancestors consumed, or analogs to them. My ancestors didn’t eat beef from a Black Angus steer, because that animal didn’t exist. But said beef is quite similar chemically to buffalo or kudu, as long as it isn’t laced with chemicals and antibiotics and the animal isn’t fattened artificially on corn. Many things I eat some purists say are not paleo; I disagree, that is my right, I run my own life after all and I think for myself, you should do the same.
Some things I eat or drink I know full well are not paleo. These fall into four categories…
- Items that I feel, based on biochemistry, don’t really do anything to the body that is negative on its effect and contrary to paleo biochemistry, but don’t really do much positive either. One example is alcohol in moderation. I don’t refer to “beer” or really specific beverage. I am referring to the actual ethyl alcohol in any “adult beverage”. The residual carbohydrates in a beer are clearly not paleo and can, in quantity, have a quite negative effect. Yet alcohol is processed differently than protein, fat, or carbohydrate and, if NOT taken to excess, is simply eliminated by the body. It has little to no effect on blood sugar in moderation. This is scientific fact.
- Items that are not paleo but have been prepared in a way to mitigate their negative effects or are not totally detrimental even though I know they are not truly paleo. Let’s go back to beer for a second. Too much beer you get a beer belly, it is all about the carbs. Paleo results in a low carb lifestyle; it isn’t low carb just to be so it just works out that way. The key with beer though is it is grain based; however it is brewed with spouted grains, sprouting grains makes them LESS toxic. Lacto fermentation also makes grains less toxic so I would be far more likely to eat sourdough bread vs. typical bread. Still I am not going to eat fermented grains or sourdough daily, the carbohydrate load alone is counter to paleo biochemistry. I am also aware here that I am making toxic foods less toxic, not harmless. Corn is also on this list for me, old varieties of non GMO organic corn have a true history with humans over thousands of years. It isn’t good for you but a hell of a lot less harmful, in my opinion, then wheat. So I would generally choose a corn tortilla, if indulging, than a flour one.
- Items that are beneficial to my health and don’t take away from the good that paleo does in any way. These are mostly fermented foods but fermented foods that are also paleo. Cabbage is a vegetable, it is on the consume list and, when fermented, it has a very positive health effect. Yet I know full well sauerkraut wasn’t being consumed in 10,000 BC. I put yogurt (real whole milk yogurt, there is no such thing as true yogurt that is low or no fat) in this category as well, along with things like kefir. Also included in this group would also be fermented pickles and escabeche. Escabeche is one of my true loves, the ingredients are all paleo but it is also fermented goodness. Classic escabeche is just fermented carrots, jalapeno, and onion cut in strips and fermented in salty water. I add garlic and sweet peppers to mine. I consider such fermented foods as “paleo friendly indigenous foods”. They came later than the paleo period but use paleo friendly ingredients and are rooted in indigenous cultures.
- Items that are just not paleo and frankly not good for your health. Last night I ate some brisket tacos. I did so with plain old everyday flour tortillas. I put sharp cheddar on them, green tomatillo salsa, and I ate fricken four of them. I had no guilt, no ill effects, and no one took my “Justice League of Paleo Card” from me. Why did I eat that? I wanted it and damn it tasted good. Given the rest of the week I had eaten almost 100% solid it really did me no harm but I also know it isn’t “approved”, it is cheating or more to my way of thinking a comfort food to be eaten in extreme moderation. On rare occasions I truly indulge and go off the reservation. Last Thanksgiving I ate a huge pile of white potatoes and stuffing. I won’t do it this year, not because I want to be “good” but because I felt like crap last year. This year I will do some roasted sweet potato (Japanese Purple) and make stuffing from smoked sausage and chestnuts. I bet I will enjoy it more.
Here is a typical day, this is what I actually ate two days before writing this.
- Coffee – I consider it neutral and not “un-paleo” others disagree.
- Heavy organic cream – Again neutral, I would prefer it from raw milk but can’t find it in my area.
- Pastured eggs with blue cheese and left over brisket – I call that paleo.
Afternoon – Nothing I just wasn’t hungry, this happens all the time now. Some days I don’t eat anything until 5 pm, and have no cravings or ill effect, this is not planned.
- Chicken wings made with my own special chili and garlic oil on the grill, solid paleo.
- Roasted carrots fine on paleo, especially as few as I ate.
- Grilled green peppers absolutely paleo approved.
- Two small pieces of dark chocolate, not paleo but no big deal in my opinion.
I drank a few beers too and that isn’t paleo but I don’t care, I am happy with my results with paleo eating at the core of my diet.
First, let me tell you about the before version of Jack Spirko. At the heaviest I ever weighed myself I was 283. I know I was fatter at my fattest; I was losing weight before I was willing to get on the scale and look at my real predicament. I would estimate my weight at its worst at about 295 but I was too ashamed to weigh myself at the time. I am a former Army Airborne solider and never really accepted that I was fat until I had really gotten bad. Worse physically I was able to perform pretty well, in shape types often sucked wind if I hiked with them while I was fine. That was dangerous it led me into a false sense of feeling I was okay.
I was not okay by a long shot! I was killing myself! My blood sugar was nuts, if I failed to eat I would end up shaky, sweaty, sick, and mean as hell in a state called hypoglycemia. My blood pressure went in spikes all the time. While I could endure hard work I didn’t want to do it I just did it when I had to. I was on track for a heart attack by age 50 at best and likely close to type 2 diabetes, if not already there.
While I am now, as I put it, 90% paleo, 90% of the time, I didn’t start that way. My approach was to go 100% paleo approved (my version) with very little alcohol and dairy for 60 days. In that first 60 days I ate at a caloric level where the numbers say I should have gained weight but I didn’t, 20 pounds tumbled off in the first two months will I ate literal slabs or bacon and 1 pound plus fat laden rib eye steaks.
The first week I felt like crap as I withdrew from all the carbohydrates and processed foods. It was exactly like breaking a drug addiction. In fact, I believe modern processed food and the combination of high carbohydrates with refined sugar and fats is a drug. It causes the exact same things to occur as any illicit drug would. When you eat it you feel good, soon you feel compelled to eat more. When negative thing start to happen (declining health and getting fat in this case) people continue to do it. People in this state have withdrawal symptoms with even modest fasting times. And like me, when they quit, the detoxification is almost identical to drug withdrawals.
Those first 60 days happened almost three years ago. Over the next 10 months I continued to lose weight. By the end of that year I was down to 210 pounds. Considering I didn’t do a lot of exercising and that I was 190 pounds at 19 when I was in the Airborne; that’s pretty amazing. The big question though is always, not how much you lose but do you keep it off. I am happy to say over the next two years not only did I keep it off, I am now about 205, so I have slowly continued to lose weight.
You Have to Be Strict in the Beginning
I briefly discussed my path above to point something out that is very important. If you read what I eat you might come to the wrong conclusion. That you can be as lax as I am now and lose a lot of weight or correct dietary based illness or both. Likely you can’t. In the beginning I followed Robb Wolf’s book almost to the letter. My only departures were I ate fatty meat because I knew already it would work better and I drank likely a few more adult beverages than Rob would have approved of, though I drank almost no beer. I mostly enjoyed dry wines and Robb’s famous Nor Cal Margarita’s in the beginning.
After 60 days in I also didn’t just become as lax as I am today. At that time I was still addicted. I was still massively tempted to go down to a place like Cracker Barrel and shovel biscuits, chicken fried steak and white gravy into my pie hole. For another few months I avoided most restaurants and, if I did go, ordered things like steak fajitas and asked the server not to bring me chips or tortillas. I knew if they were on the table I would eat them. At this point, I began enjoying some beers again, sticking to lighter varieties for a while. I started to eat more cheese and some dairy and waited to see if it had any negative impact. I continued to get in better shape and had no ill effects. I continued at this level for about another 3 months.
After that I began letting myself have a bit of bread once a week if it popped up. I didn’t plan it like, okay Thursday is bread day. That is bad for the mind; you convince yourself you are sacrificing. But if I was at a steak house and they brought out bread and if I was in the mood I had a slice. I would on rare occasions have some rice and beans at a Mexican restaurant, but never ate them all, just a bit. I would eat almost all my meat and vegetables first and by doing so I would never really want the entire portion anyway.
Along the way something strange happened, my appetite declined and any trace of my former issues with hypoglycemia disappeared. When I was eating without thinking, I was already eating rib eyes, for example. I would eat one with broccoli and a huge potato and perhaps a big piece of garlic bread. Now the potato and bread were gone, and yet I found myself with a third of my steak going into the fridge for use in tomorrow’s breakfast. Then, as previously mentioned, I began fasting on many days with no intent of doing so, I just only ate if I felt like it. Yet none of this happened overnight. It was a long process and a great journey.
Thoughts on Exercise
People are amazed when I say I didn’t exercise and I didn’t in the way most people think of the word but you might have to. First and foremost, we are different beings you and I, you may not respond as well as I did or as fast as I did and may need something to kick on the furnace. The truth though is likely I didn’t have to hit the gym due to my lifestyle while this was occurring. We had just moved to a homestead in Arkansas. My days were spent cutting timber, splitting logs, digging gardens and taking walks with my dog up a very steep road over about 2 – 3 miles a day.
Today it is much the same. We are in Texas and have a 3 acre homestead. I walk the entire property multiple times a day seeing to our animals. I do a lot of work in the garden, I build a lot of things, I swim in our pool, and frankly, in the summer, sweat my ass off. Let me say I believe that unless you have specific goals as an athlete this is the ideal way to get “exercise”. Our paleo ancestors didn’t do cross fit or run on tread mills or stair masters. They certainly didn’t work out to “Buns of Steel”, etc. They ran, they walked, they hunted, they moved heavy objects but all energy extended had a purpose. That gave their lives purpose, and that, my friends, reduces stress. If you want to be paleo; take walks, focus only on things you can actually affect, turn the damn news off and tune into something positive. Getting active, getting outside, and relieving stress is a huge part of paleo.
That said not every person out there can live on their own little homestead doing construction projects, digging gardens, and working with livestock. Many are busy professionals who can only get a work out if they schedule time and do conventional exercise. If that is you, so be it. Still, make time to simply take walks. If you can find a place with hills and get off pavement, even better. If you have specific athletic goals then, of course, you will need to exercise. If you want to be ripped and cut and lean like a person on a magazine cover, you also will need to do a lot of exercise in a more conventional form. Yet I am convinced by my results if you simply want to be healthy, in shape and happy, all you need is an active lifestyle. Let me say though if exercise isn’t distressing for you and you enjoy it, don’t stop doing it either.
The best guideline I have come by for what is or isn’t paleo food is this one.
Consider what you have to do to make wheat edible. Cut it, thresh it, winnow it and you still have rock hard seeds unfit to eat. They must be then ground, cracked, soaked or cooked in some way or perhaps sprouted to make them edible. Folks that is not food meant by nature for humans! What animal does this for any food it naturally consumes other than us? The answer is none.
As previously discussed, some tolerate grain pretty well, but it is toxic. Soaking, fermentation and sprouting make grain less toxic, but it is still toxic to humans. Almost every food that is a no-go on paleo and primal eating universally will fit this bill. What about meat? Meat is good raw and it is quite digestible raw. It is only modern cultural bias and health concerns of parasites that make cooking meat necessary.
So my view is, if something isn’t a food you would eat with little to no preparation, it isn’t paleo. These foods are your building blocks. The other concern is too much sugar. While fruit is something early man ate, remember there were no orchards or Whole Foods Markets to run down to. Fruit wasn’t something you could eat every day and they certainly didn’t eat the same varieties every day. It was eaten seasonally so mimic that, especially early on.
To me, the way to move into this lifestyle is to first follow a proven method with some modifications if you see fit but keep pretty close to a proven plan. Fix what is broken in your body before cheating and eating things that don’t pass the “would I eat this in its raw form” test. If you want to experiment with fermented and sprouted grains, fine; but at least try the baseline first for, say, 60 days. You can do anything for 60 days; most people would gladly spend 60 days in jail in return for a million dollars, so 60 days without bread and rice ain’t going to kill you. If it works well, stick to it until you get closer to being truly healthy. Then slowly add different things back, stick to naturally grown things, no processed crap. Only try one or two things at a time as you reintroduce things. That way if something goes off kilter you can easily figure out what it was.
In time you will refine your personal dietary regiment and by doing it this way you absolutely will stick to it. You may very well find yourself eating more in keeping with the guidelines of people, who follow the work of Dr. Weston Price, or you may find yourself eating more like Robb Wolf or Loren Cordain, but you will find what works for you. That is indeed the key.
The reason though for going all in at first is because trust me most people don’t know how sick they are. Most don’t really know how fat they are either. You need that cleansing time, that break down and rebuilding and cold turkey addiction breaking period so you can actually know what healthy is again. Once you do you will be able to ascertain that some food or substance is a problem for you very early on.
My contention is most people that don’t clean out before adding back, end up failing, often with Yo-Yo diet-like symptoms. They lose weight, look good, gain it all back and more and it becomes harder to lose the next time around. Frankly let me tell you I did this weight loss thing about 12 years ago. The story you just read isn’t my first battle with weight. In the 90s, I discovered Protein Power by the Doctors Eades. I was fat, not as fat as this last time but overweight. I went on Protein Power and it worked great but, within a year, I was fat again and began the slow gain that took me up over 290 pounds.
I firmly believe that not trying to make “low carb pancakes” as people on diets that are only low carb do is a big part of why my success this time is permanent. I don’t count carbohydrates, I don’t feel deprived, I eat food designed for humans to consume it. Yet I had to break the food addictions first. I had to strip it down to true caveman level stuff and only then did I slowly and purposefully find my way to what works for me.
Just remember Paleo is a concept; eating in a way that mimics our early ancestor’s diet, the diet we are genetically designed for. Start at that foundation, get active, give it time to work, and adapt it to your life once you have regained your health.