This is a question I get asked sometimes, and until recently I didn’t have a great answer. I guess the reason is that as I’ve learned more, my understanding has increased dramatically, and I realize just how little I knew previously. So when people ask me “What is paleo?” I think I’m going to answer in one of two ways.
The first way would be to say that the paleo diet is a diet that focuses primarily on foods that were available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. That means no grains, no legumes, no dairy. Anything you can hunt or gather in the wild is fair game, and things that taste good raw without making you sick are preferred, even if you do cook them before eating. That means you’re eating mammals, birds, fish, eggs, leaves, roots, nuts, seeds and fruits when they’re in season. Probably insects too, but that’s not overly enticing, so we’ll leave them out. Basically, you’re using history as your guide. Foods are either “Paleo” or “Not Paleo.” The idea here is that our genes are essentially unchanged for the past 100,000 years or so, and any foods that have arisen since then are more likely to cause problems, since we had had insufficient time to adapt to eating them. So you use the historical perspective to guide your choices.
The second way is to say that you eat foods which promote a lean, healthy, strong, functional body and a quick, agile mind. Many of these foods will fit the mold above, but maybe not all of them. Some people tolerate carbohydrate better than others, so maybe their diet will be a bit heavier on starchy tubers. Some people tolerate milk into adulthood better than others, so dairy might not be a problem for them. Some people (though it’s rare) don’t even have any negative reaction to gluten, and notice no difference in how they feel either with or without it. So this way is more of a self-experimental diet. Basic unweighed, unmeasured paleo eating, without any grains, legumes or dairy for 30 days is a great baseline. After that you can start to fiddle. Add back some beans. Try a piece of whole wheat bread or some whole milk and see how you feel. I’m not just saying you should go from a strict paleo diet to eating a loaf of bread one day and use that as your gauge. You will probably feel sick, but that doesn’t mean it was a food sensitivity, it might just be that you binged. Give it a week or two with whole wheat products back in your diet in reasonable quantities. That way, you’ll have enough time to be able to tell if you feel better or worse on a daily basis, and you’ll be able to see if weight keeps coming off or if it starts to come back on. it’s a good idea to get a blood test from your doctor, and get a few measurements in the gym as far as performance goes. Then you try your 1-2 week trial with grains reintroduced and measure yourself again. That way you have something objective to compare to. If you react so badly in the first few days that you don’t want to continue, that’s a worthwhile result, too. This is self-experimentation and while it doesn’t satisfy the rigorous standards to be real science (may not be applicable to all groups, for example) it is certainly useful information for you.
The first way is easier to explain to people, and it’s easier for people new to the idea to keep track of what’s “good” and what’s “bad” even if those terms aren’t really useful in a larger context. Food is good or bad because of the effect it has on you, your community and the world at large. And those scales can slide, depending on a lot of different factors. So let’s not talk about foods being good or bad, or foods being paleo or non-paleo once we have a deeper understanding. Those are simplistic distinctions that are useful to a novice, but they quickly get silly as you learn more.
Paleo is more about food quality than anything else. Most other diets are either based on some magical food (acai berries, grapefruit, green tea, etc.) that is supposed to be the key to health, or they’re based on magical ratios of macronutrients (Atkins or The Zone spring to mind), or they may even be based on how your body reacts to he macronutrient profile of the food (Glycemic Index). What very few of them care about is where that food came from, or how the non-nutritive qualities of the food can affect you.
Okay, I think I’ve mentioned food quality a few times, but what do I mean? First off, I mean the foods that help make you lean, healthy, happy, etc. Those are “good” foods. You should also try to buy things locally and organically as much as possible. Your meats and eggs should be pastured, if possible, or at least organic. Buying them from someone you can actually shake hands with and see their operation is the best option. Buying food that is sustainably grown, bought from small, local family farms, and contributes to your own health is the very definition of a good food. That’s good for you, good for your community and good for the planet. Can’t beat that with a stick. You should also eat foods that promote internal health as well as external. What does that mean? I mean that a six-pack tacked on top of an unhealthy gut isn’t a good goal. You should have a healthy-feeling gut and a healthy-looking gut. If you eat foods that have a higher potential to be gut-irritating, that’s not ideal. Being healthy requires a healthy, functioning digestive system. Eating foods that don’t irritate your gut will help keep you on that track. Eating foods that balance your Omega 3 and 6 fat intake is also good. So that’s one of the reasons to go for grassfed meats and to avoid chemically-processed vegetable oils. Food quality is also about avoiding things that are known to be unhealthy, like trans fats. In the end, if you make good choices about food quality, you’re way down the road to good health.
This is where it’s easier to differentiate a Paleo diet from Atkins or just generally low-carb diets. Low-carb diets are not necessarily Paleo diets and Paleo diets are not necessarily low carb. Blasphemy, right? Hold on a second and I’ll explain. Robb Wolf says the Paleo diet is “carb agnostic” and I like that phrase. What he means is that your own personal body, goals and lifestyle will determine how much carbohydrate you need to eat. For me, I’m relatively sedentary and trying to lean out. I don’t need very much carbohydrate at all, and adding too many carbs to a sedentary body can slow down the leaning out process. For someone who is already lean and healthy and is working out intensely and depleting their glycogen stores, they will need to replete those with more glucose. That means they may end up eating 150-200g of carbohydrate a day. That’s not low carb by anyone’s standard. That’s very moderate carb. What makes that a paleo diet is the type of carb you use to replete your stores. And that’s determined by which foods give you the carbs you need without irritating your gut. Again, food quality is more important than being low carb or matching some ratio or eating one magical food that will supposedly erase all the negative effects of the other foods you eat. The only food that does that is ipecac. You’d have a hard time marketing that diet outside the fashion industry, I’m thinking. Anyway, you eat good quality food most of the time and match your intake to your needs and you do just fine.
While most people eat a Paleo diet that is low carb, that doesn’t mean you have to. Manipulate your diet to match your body, your activities and your goals. Your diet should be dynamic, if nothing else because variety and changing things up helps keep you running in the best form. Also, keep in mind that your body, when healthy, can handle a rough patch every now and again. Once you’ve increased your insulin sensitivity and gotten your Omega 3/6 balance back on track, you will be able to get away with eating foods that might have thrown you off the rails before. This isn’t to say that you have to be 100% on track with all your food choices until you see the dawning of the abs. I’m probably 80% on track most days and I’m still doing great. Remember that it’s what you do the majority of the time that really makes the difference in the long run. So don’t let little hiccups throw you off track. It’s not the mistake that matters, it’s what you do afterward.
So for people who are confused about what the Paleo diet is all about or for people I’ve confused with my ignorance previously, hopefully this will help make sense of it all. Paleo is not necessarily low-carb, it’s not just an Atkins clone, it’s a whole different animal than most other diets you’re likely to hear about. In any case, please let me know if you have questions. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll do my best. Thanks for reading!