Updated: Jul 3, 2019
We in the Paleo-blogo-sphere sometimes forget that the world does not revolve around us.
Diet wars rage, tides of public favor (and awareness) ebb and flow, books and blogs abound, and yet many very smart people have still never heard of "ancestral" or "Paleolithic" dieting.
Or, if they did (like me,) mainstream media kept them from looking too hard.
A dear friend requested a "Paleo-for-dummies"-style overview, all in one place. Here is the "big picture." Specifics and execution should come from the resources of your choice.
What is "Paleolithic" dieting?
Eating only foods that approximate, as much as possible, what pre-industrial or hunter-gatherer populations lived on.
In today's marketplace this translates to relying on fresh WHOLE foods that have not been "processed." At least 90 percent of your diet should have no factory involvement, no long list of chemical ingredients, no additives or preservatives.
This is easier than you think. Most days I hit 100 percent.
At first, Paleo seems defined by what you avoid: sugar and most sweeteners, all sodas and sugary drinks, grains and legumes (typically consumed in highly refined, processed items), "food-like" processed snacks and substances, prepared/packaged boxed meals, anything containing industrially "refined" seed or vegetable oils (including canola.)
But yes, there really is life after ditching the bread, chips, cookies, cheesecake, fries, pasta, canned beans, diet or classic soda, and that perennial favorite: Vienna sausages.
My diet for the last three years has been wild-caught fish (including canned tuna, sardines, or salmon), various meats (lots of grass-fed beef), pasture-raised eggs, organic nuts & seeds, and TONS of organic salad and vegetables. Moderate, low-glycemic organic fruit. We drink coffee, tea, and mineral water. Sometimes wine. Lots of olive, avocado- and coconut oil.
"Strict" Paleo devotees avoid white potatoes and most dairy--opinions vary on this. I go very light on these.
Sweet potatoes and squash are okay (easier for me to keep the weight off if I limit these as well.)
If I live large it's with the wine and a little cheese. That's it. Maybe a square of 85 percent cacao chocolate.
And no, you don't have to "go organic" to get started (but think about it later on.)
Why on earth would someone eat like this?
The "S.A.D." (Standard American Diet) is bad for you.
A vast body of literature and research shows that diets high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, industrial vegetable-seed oils and chemical additives actually promote all kinds of illness: obesity, metabolic issues, inflammation and arthritis, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and dementia, heart and circulatory problems--the list goes on and on.
This includes wildly misrepresented "healthy" options like the Mediterranean diet, and anything "low fat / high fiber."
One scientist describes today's state of affairs as a "global pandemic of obesity and chronic diseases from the widespread availability of inexpensive, unhealthy food."
Paleo diet pioneers, like Dr. Loren Cordain, figured out that all of the above illnesses were largely unknown to "ancestral" or hunter-gatherer societies--including the few remaining ancestral populations today. There are even documented instances of these modern populations adopting Western diets, becoming sick and obese, and then curing their ills by reverting to their original way of life.
The idea is to eat the way people did before chronic illness became widespread. (Hint: mostly before agriculture became widespread.)
Is it worth it?
Many Paleo converts experience:
1. Weight loss (between us, my wife and I lost 80 pounds)
2. more hours per day in energy (our productivity soared)
3. reduced or eliminated medications
4. fewer or no regular colds/sniffles/flu (I now have had a cold once a year, at most)
5. resolved or reduced symptoms of chronic disease
Run that "grains and legumes" thing by me again?
Despite what we've been told all our lives, these foods are:
Intrinsically tough to digest (grains and beans don't want you to eat them, after all, and employ many "anti-nutrient" defenses)
typically consumed in highly milled/refined/processed forms, (reducing further any actual nutrition, leaving mostly empty carb calories)
Diets high in grain- or bean (for example, SOY)-based carbohydrates chronically elevate blood glucose levels, contribute directly to intestinal permeability (or, as they say, "leaky gut"), resulting in chronic systemic inflammation. (That is, your whole body acting like it's infected.)
Chronic systemic inflammation is increasingly linked to health problems from obesity and diabetes to cancer, dementia and heart attacks. Elevated blood glucose is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes.
These major health problems come on gradually, hitting us harder after age 50--when we've finally overwhelmed our digestive, circulatory and endocrine systems' ability to recover or rebalance.
The good news: IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO STOP THE ABUSE and restore at least some measure of good health.
Humans lived for thousands of years, healthy and fit, before farmed grains existed.
Due to the absence of grains and sweeteners, Paleo is also the original "low carb" or "low glycemic index" diet. It is also the original "ketogenic" diet. All these diets are increasingly recognized as healthier than the SAD.
Paleo quibblers and trolls have the biggest issue with this grain and legume embargo, and claim that modern processing neutralizes the "anti-nutrient" defenses. They curiously ignore (or don't understand) the carbohydrate overload and elevated blood glucose which result from grain-based food consumption. Many are just unable or unwilling to let go of the "high fiber grains are good for you" mantra we were all raised on.
This idea, that grains, especially "whole" grains, are super-healthy is actually marketing hokum cooked up by the agricultural industry and regulators back when "public health guidelines" were developed. Most mainstream health professionals, including dietitians, still cling desperately to this party line--despite growing contradictory evidence.
If it's such a great diet, why don't I already know about this?
The short answer: Paleo (or any whole-food based, low-carb ancestral diet, including cousin keto) is a very inconvenient truth for the mainstream food and drug marketplace.
Population-wide abandonment all foods introduced by the Agricultural and Industrial eras could threaten a lot of profits. One example highlighted here: a major pasta company has become very nervous about the "low carb" movement, and is cooking up fake science to fight back.
Imagine what would happen if people stopped buying anything but produce, meat, fish, and maybe dairy. And wine.
Imagine what would happen if most people stopped needing constant medical care or medications. Medical corporations are already having this conversation. ("Curing" illness is not profitable.)
Paleo's true impact (and long term health implications) have always been carefully masked and sanitized in the popular media. If you hear about it at all, it's just another wacky weight loss program.
But despite the billions of dollars spent each year to divert your attention back to chips, cookies and french fries...the truth is out there.
You just have to look.
Isn't it really hard to eat this way?
Overcoming addiction is never easy, but certainly worth it.
Most of us start out as carb- and sugar-addicts (in a literal, science-based sense--I know I was.)
Most Paleo novices try a 30-45 day "cold turkey" shakedown period, and pass through a withdrawal phase, often referred to as the "carb flu" (a few days or a couple of weeks of mild lethargy, feeling foggy or underpowered.) During this time your body is re-learning how to burn fat for energy--instead of all that glucose. I got the occasional headache too.
My wife Kathy took less than two weeks to readjust. I took about three, maybe a little more. There are strategies to help with this phase. The book The Whole 30 (see below) is especially helpful.
Once you experience the resulting energy, clarity and weight loss, you should be able to resist temptation easily. Or at least more easily.
There are backsliders...but should you be one? Are hamburger buns, soda or candy bars more important than a dignified, self-sufficient old age?
Well, OK...what if I want to know more?
Please see our resources page. I strongly recommend taking the time to read up on this--before trying it.
The best, simplest, quick introduction to an ancestral, anti-inflammatory diet is still The Whole 30. The same authors also provide scientific background in It Starts With Food.
The Paleo Diet, Revised by Dr. Loren Cordain is a great easy-to-read balance of science and common sense.
For those of you who like heavy science (and there is a TON of science behind Paleo), look at The Paleo Principles by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, a medical bio-physicist now known as The Paleo Mom online.
The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson really helped me with "Paleo in the real world." His website is an incredible, highly searchable resource for Paleo, "primal" and ketogenic diet information.
And yes, everyone concerned with nutrition (and why so much mainstream public "health information" is really just disguised marketing) should read Death By Food Pyramid, by Denise Minger. You will laugh, cry, throw the book against the wall--and then pick it up and finish it.
And don't forget:
DAVID WHITESIDE IS NOT A DOCTOR and does not give medical advice or treatment. He offers information and personal experience only. Nothing you read on this website or blog should be construed as medical advice or as intended to supersede information you get from your medical professional. Following the advice given here or on any recommended resource site does not create a doctor-patient relationship or create liability for David or anyone else. David is not liable for any loss or complication you experience from following any diet or taking any action. You should check with your properly accredited medical professional if you think you are injured or ill.