What is Paleo?

Paleo, also known as Primal, Caveman, and Stone Age diet draws its core principles from our hunter-gatherer, ancestral lifestyle and combines those with modern scientific research and a good dose of common sense. The diet has gained a huge following lately and as a result it is often scrutinised, misrepresented, and often misunderstood. The thing about Paleo is that it’s not really a new diet. The lifestyle – yes it’s much more than a diet – has been around for many years.

The movement had a niche following until a couple of books – The Paleo Solution by biochemist Robb Wolf and The Primal Blueprint by former athlete Mark Sisson – hit the best sellers list and spread the Paleo message into the mainstream. There was also original The Paleo Diet book by Dr.Loren Cordain but that didn’t take off as fast and far as the other two, well not in Australia to my knowledge. Then came the dedicated forums, blogs and Facebook pages all over the United States and here in Australia.

What you can and can’t have on a paleo diet.

If you’ve been hiding in a cave, no pun intended, and this is the first you’ve heard of the Paleo diet, here is what you need to know:

1. In today’s world we are largely deskbound, consuming packaged, processed foods, living with chronic stress, and not getting enough sleep – all of which can make us sick, fat and depressed. To achieve optimal health, the Paleo lifestyle draws it’s core principles from our ancestors who ate whole, unprocessed foods, moved more, slept better and stressed less. It’s not about re-enacting the Paleolethic era – in fact most in the Paleo community hate the term ‘Caveman diet’ – but rather recognising our genetic predisposition and applying current knowledge of how different foods and activities affect our body’s functions like metabolism, digestion, insulin sensitivity, and systemic inflammation.

2. We do not run with spears, cook on fire or go foraging in the forest. Sure, I love fishing and berry picking but I get most of my food from fresh food markets, supermarkets, butchers, fishmongers, health food stores and online suppliers. My hunting and gathering goes as far as my backyard where I grow some herbs, lettuce and chilli.

3. We focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods like grass-fed meat, free range poultry, wild fish, vegetables (including root vegetables,) fruit, berries, some nuts and seeds. We avoid grains, legumes, refined sugars and dairy; although dairy consumption really depends on your gut health and whether you have any auto-immunity issues. So, without going into too much detail, we avoid all these foods to control insulin sensitivity, repair gut health, increase nutrient absorption and reduce negative inflammatory effects they cause. Read more about what’s in and what’s out here.

Some recommended reading and programs:
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, a must read!
The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson.
I Quite Sugar: an 8-week program and I Quit Sugar Cookbook by Sarah Wilson.

4. It’s not all meat, meat and meat with more meat. I probably consume as many fruits and vegetables in a day as most vegetarians (a lot of my recipes are actually vegetarian). Many of us also consume healthy dairy like full fat natural yogurt, certain cheeses and butter. Fermented, dairy products have many health benefits.

5. Even though Paleo way of eating skews towards low-carb side, by excluding grains and refined sugars, eliminating carbs is not the name of the game. The problem with the modern diet is the excessive amount of carbohydrates, especially sugar, which leads to a whole bunch of health issues related to insulin resistance, digestive problems and inflammation. While eating Paleo, we still consume plenty of carbs from vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy.

6. We make friends with fat. I remember going through a massive low-fat stage in my early twenties. Fat reduced cheese that doesn’t melt, low fat yogurt with copious amounts of added sugar, skim milk that tastes like cat’s piss – does any of that sound healthy or real to you? Our bodies need good, smart fats, which we are designed to digest much easier than carbohydrates we get from bread and pasta. Saturated fats have been painted as evil of all evil by health authorities and the media but the reality is that not all saturated fat is bad. Paleo diet includes plenty of healthy fats like olive oil, macadamia oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, avocados, butter, ghee (clarified butter), oily fish, grass fed meat, nuts and seeds.

7. Paleo is about maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega 3/6 fatty acids by decreasing our intake of pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids found in refined, seed based oils, certain nuts and seeds, and grain-fed meat. It’s also about increasubg our intake of anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish, seafood, fish oil, flaxseed oil and grass fed meat and fats.

8. We minimise stress. Sure, a small amount of stress is good for you but for most, prolonged mental and physical stress leads to increased levels of cortisol and causes havoc in our bodies. It can affect our weight, immunity, blood pressure, memory, mood, fertility and sex drive.

9. Another way we control cortisol levels and the affects it has on insulin, appetite and productivity, is by getting enough sleep. According to the 2012 Sealy Sleep Census, 96% of 13,089 polled respondents from throughout Australia said they wake up tired each morning, with a mere four per cent saying they feel refreshed. 38% have reported to falling asleep at work or during meetings. Paleo lifestyle prescribes 8 hours of sleep in a completely dark room, with no stimulants or distractions (read ‘iphone and Facebook’) an hour before bed.

10. We stay active with lots of walking, hiking, weight lifting and high intensity, interval training. We play in the sun to get a daily dose of Vitamin D, socialise with friends, travel from place to place, and stimulate our brains by exploring and learning new things.

11. And finally, there is no one-size-fits-all Paleo diet, it’s a framework, which can be tailored to individual needs, goals, body types and sensitivities. It’s about how you feel when you include or exclude certain foods.

View full visual explanation of Paleo

What is the Paleo Diet? – by Robb Wolf, the author of The Paleo Solution

Recommended books to get you started and motivated