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Paleo Diet Defined

“Chunks of meat on a plate with almonds” is one way a Paleo meal has been described, and it illustrates one of the misconceptions associated with the diet. Many people believe it to be all meat, all the time. Not true. According to Robb Wolf, research biochemist and author of the New York Times Best Seller The Paleo Solution, other fallacies include: Fat makes you fat, meat causes cardiovascular disease, and there’s no fiber in the Paleo diet. Let’s set the record straight by answering the basic question: What is the Paleo diet?

It’s a matter of eating nutrient-dense whole foods. A balanced ratio of lean proteins to healthy fats to carbohydrates is the primary goal. Another is the elimination of all soy, grains, and legumes—all of which are high in lectins that throw off hunger and energy-expenditure signals, making the brain think you’re hungry even when the body has more than enough calories. Sugar, dairy, alcohol, and all processed foods are also to be avoided for myriad reasons. The truth is, the science behind why Paleolithic nutrition is so hugely beneficial is complicated, but the bottom line is: Grain, sugar, and dairy can be difficult for people to digest, which is what leads to autoimmune disease, weight gain, and general poor health, among other issues.

So why are people eating a Paleo diet today? Wolf explains it in terms of what went wrong following the agricultural revolution. Referencing Nutritional Anthropology: Contemporary Approaches to Diet and Culture, he explains that the last 10,000 years—during which time we transitioned from the hunting and gathering way of life to an agriculture-based lifestyle—are marked by an enormous surge in degenerative and infectious diseases and autoimmune deficiencies. In fact, the introduction of grains—and, ultimately, processed foods—into our diet led to a whole host of health complications. “Nutrition and Health in Agriculturists and Hunter gatherers: A Case Study of Two Historic Populations” examines the skeletons of farmers, evidencing an increase in cavities, bone malformations, and infant mortality rates. Furthermore, their bones indicate iron, calcium, and protein deficiencies. By contrast, the skeletons of our hunter-gatherer ancestors revealed that they were virtually free of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, hunter-gatherers had strength and endurance equal to today’s best athletes, as fitness was built into their lifestyle, which was active but marked by long periods of rest. They worked for food and shelter for 10 to 15 hours a week and spent the majority of their time socializing and relaxing. They ate the lean meat and omega-3-rich fat from wild game and fish in addition to diverse plant species and limited rations of fruits, nuts, and seeds.

Reasons to Consider

Going Paleo

Wolf’s work demonstrates that following a Paleo diet optimizes performance, improves overall health, and increases longevity. As one of the most sought-after strength and conditioning coaches in the world, he proves lean muscle, fat loss, healthy joints, clear skin, strong bones and teeth, optimal brain function, and balanced moods result from a Paleo diet. Furthermore, he credits Paleo nutrition with getting rid of bloating; reversing weight gain; eradicating false hunger, inflamed joints, high cholesterol, and risk of major disease; and easing mental and physical malaise.

Wolf’s colleague, Diana Rodgers—owner of Radiance Nutritional Therapy and author of The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook and Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go—points out: “It’s impossible to be a happy, healthy person if your gut bacteria are off. There is a big correlation between depression and diet.”

So What? A Case Study

“Times are changing,” notes Rodgers. “People are realizing it’s not fat that makes you fat, it’s processed foods and sugar that make you fat. And comparatively, grains don’t provide a whole lot of nutritional value.”

Rodgers’s own story is almost a textbook case of why a good many Paleo followers come to the lifestyle: long-term poor health. Rodgers’s childhood was marked by physical pain and suffering. As an infant she was diagnosed with lactose intolerance and given soy formula (a big no-no on the Paleolithic diet). As a child, she had no muscle tone, no energy, she couldn’t focus, and she was constantly dehydrated. (Interestingly, as with so many who opt to go Paleo, she was thought to have IBS.) Eventually, at age 26, she consulted a new doctor fresh out of school. “She asked me a lot of questions—nobody had ever spent that much time with me before.” Then she ran some tests. Again, like so many now-Paleo followers, Rodgers was an undiagnosed celiac disease sufferer. At the time, she was eating a mostly vegetarian diet. “I had just discovered seitan [wheat gluten protein], which I thought was the most amazing stuff. I was eating it breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it’s the exact thing I am allergic to.”

A dietician put her on a gluten-free diet, which she loathed. “I was so addicted to processed foods. I had toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner…” Eventually, she transitioned to eating gluten-free processed foods. “It did help. It was like going from black and white to color. I couldn’t believe you could not be in searing pain.”

By this point, she was a marketing manager at Whole Foods in Swampscott. One of her responsibilities was to test and approve gluten-free foods. Despite avoiding gluten, she was still prediabetic, and her triglycerides were much too high, as were her cholesterol levels. “I couldn’t go more than two hours without eating.”

Eventually, she found herself living at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, where she managed the farm stand. She recalls how customers asked questions for which she didn’t have answers. Ultimately, she decided to go back to school to study nutrition with the Nutritional Therapy Association. “They are very into whole foods—butter, whole milk, whole grains, meats.” For her final assignment, she read and reported on Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution. “I decided to give it a try, even though the idea was so scary to me.” Today, she sees that revolutionary book as a good introduction to the idea of trying the Paleo way of eating for 30 days.

Challenges When Switching to Paleo

Cost comes up as an inhibiting factor. People want it to be “convenient, easy, and cheap,” the very reasons processed foods came along to begin with. Americans, as a percentage of income, spend much less on food than most other countries, according to Rodgers. “Crappy food is artificially cheap,” she says, noting people have a hard time spending more on high-quality food. Their priorities are elsewhere. “Being proactive about your health is just not something our society values very much. It’s a definite mental shift for a lot of people.”

Buying grass-fed meat, for example, does cost more than conventional meat, but Rodgers recommends leveraging the cost by buying less expensive cuts and buying in bulk from a local butcher. “If you value your health, it’s an important change [to make].”

Another stumbling block: Sugar and gluten activate the opiate receptors in the brain, making them addictive. As with any addiction, it can be hard to break. But there are ways to enjoy sweet treats now and then.

For many people, giving up all alcohol is also a roadblock. For those who end up following the “80/20” regimen—80 percent of the time is devoted to a strict Paleo diet, and the other 20 percent is more lenient—plant-derived spirits like tequila, vodka, and gin mixed with lime and seltzer are the lesser of the evils when consumed in moderation.

Sometimes, too, spouses and families, who are not necessarily looking to make the same change, can make it tough. Rodgers recommends “doing it quietly for yourself first—don’t try to get the whole family on board immediately.” She sets clients up with strategies for success, like slowly introducing new ways of preparing dishes—for instance, making pasta with meat sauce for the family, and zucchini pasta for themselves. “You can still make it work and make everyone happy,” she tells them. “The key is to make it a gradual process. Once results start to show, it is often the case that spouses follow suit.”

And, yes, the amount of planning and prep work can be daunting. Like anything worth doing, it takes effort. And commitment.

It’s About More Than Food

Sure, the “diet” piece of being Paleo is huge, but it’s really a whole lifestyle—one that includes a lot of exercise, sleep, relaxation, and play time—you know, all those things that make you feel good. Many Paleo followers incorporate ancestral movements into their exercise regimes—the idea being that, in combination with foods that fuel healthy muscle growth, things like squatting, jumping, lifting, sprinting, etc. are responsible for the strong, lean bodies common among our Paleolithic ancestors.

In Rodgers’s words: “In my practice I always talk about sleep, exercise, caffeine intake, stress management, meditation. There are so many pieces to it that are not about diet. We don’t end up talking about nutrition until the very end of the consult. Paleo is bigger than diet—it’s a whole commitment to being proactive and taking the reins of your health for yourself.”