There are many, many smart people who have written fantastic pieces—ranging from short and sweet FAQs to entire books with hundreds or even thousands of citations—explaining the Paleo diet and what its benefits are. If you’re interested in learning more about the whys and hows, check out one of the websites or books listed in my resources section (coming soon!). If you’re interested in my take, this is how I see it:
If you’ve ever been to a zoo, you’ve probably thought about whether the animals kept there can really thrive in cages, tanks and enclosures much smaller than their natural habitats would have provided. You may have seen giant cats pacing their cages or wondered how an antelope could possibly have enough room to run in its enclosure. You may have heard about how rare it is for pandas to breed sucessfully in captivity. Or you may have visited a zoo or wild animal park that goes to extra lengths to ensure that the immediate environment in which each animal is kept is as close as possible to that which they would encounter in nature. And whether the facility was large or small, you would expect the zookeepers to feed each animal a diet that most closely approximates what they would otherwise be eating in the wild. In other words, you wouldn’t expect a lion to eat grass the same way you wouldn’t expect a zebra to eat meat.
So what do humans eat in the wild?
Well, we don’t really have a lot of current examples to go on, but it should be obvious that “wild” humans don’t eat Twinkies and McDonald’s. Most people can agree that these things are not good for us, and that while we may be able to digest them, they do nothing good for our health. Humans have been around for 2 1/2 million years, give or take, but highly processed food in its current forms has only been around for a few decades. Even minimally processed food has only been available since roughly the 1950s. So what if we all just followed Michael Pollan’s advice to not eat “anything your great-grandmother would not have recognized as food?” Would that be a “wild” human diet?
Not really. And here’s where the Paleo diet really comes into play. It’s not just processed foods we’re not equipped to handle—it’s all kinds of manmade foods, including those that still seem quite natural. For the vast majority of the existence of human life, there was no agriculture to speak of. Humans hunted animal foods and gathered plant foods. But they did not harvest grains in large enough quantities to make anything resembling bread. They didn’t run around chasing wild cattle trying to milk them. They did not have steady access to sweet foods, since fruit was only available for a few months and honey had to be stolen from its makers. They were not vegetarians by choice—when they had the opportunity, they hunted animals and ate them, nose to tail.
Of course, compared to our lifetimes, agriculture has been around for a long time—about 10,000 years—but that’s nothing compared to the 2 1/2-million-year lifespan of the human genus. While there have been some genetic mutations in certain populations that enable better digestion of agricultural foods (the ability to digest lactose beyond early childhood among people of European descent is one good example), we haven’t changed nearly enough over the past 10 millennia to really be equipped to handle grains, dairy, legumes and all that sugar. And we certainly aren’t equipped to handle them in such large quantities and processed forms. We may not get acutely ill upon eating a bagel with cream cheese (unless we have celiac disease or a severe milk allergy), but these foods are a burden on our bodies in subtle ways that can lead to a lot of inflammation and damage over time.
So the Paleo diet removes these “new” foods while adding more of the ones most of us don’t get enough of, especially vegetables and less popular animal foods like organ meat. In a Paleo diet, you stop eating:
- Grains, both gluten-containing and gluten-free varieties, which also includes corn
- Dairy (A “Primal” diet would allow full-fat dairy according to individual tolerance.)
- Legumes, including peanuts and soy
- Refined vegetable oils (think canola, sunflower, corn, soy, peanut, etc.)
- Refined sugars
You also emphasize the following foods:
- Grass-fed and pastured meats
- Wild-caught fish and seafood
- Organ meats
So why should you care about Paleo? If you’re healthy and feeling great, there may be no reason for you to try it out. But if you have any health problems rooted in inflammation (and most health problems are inflammation-related), you might just be able to improve your quality of life by adopting a Paleo-style diet.
While the Paleo diet is sometimes called a “caveman” diet and the reasoning behind it has a lot to do with what our paleolithic ancestors ate, there is plenty of modern science to back up the claim that this way of eating is health-promoting, with new studies being published all the time. This science focuses less on what our ancestors ate and more on the effects on the body of eating certain foods—especially, but not only, the metabolic effects. If you’d like to delve into the scientific underpinnings more, I recommend checking out Robb Wolf and Sarah Ballantyne, both their blogs and their books. The Internet is also full of anecdotal evidence—testimonials by people with all sorts of health problems who experienced improvement after switching to a Paleo-style diet.
I switched to a Primal diet (meaning I went Paleo but continued to eat full-fat dairy) in 2012 in an effort to get my migraines under control, and within two weeks I was experiencing 75% fewer migraines and had stable blood sugar for the first time in years. I’m not going to move into the wild anytime soon, but ever since I originally made the switch, I’ve been learning to pay attention more to what my primal genes expect me to eat and do on a daily basis, the many factors in my life that are entirely incongruent with those expectations, and what I can do to close the gap as much as possible. Again, without turning into a caveman.