This is a question I get asked a lot, and there are a lot of answers. I like some more than others, but I’ve come up with a definition that I think is suitably broad to be inclusive of the varying forms of the “Paleo Diet” I’m familiar with. There’s also a “Paleo Lifestyle”, that goes beyond just the diet, and I’ll talk about that, too. Also, I’m not trying to pigeonhole myself or anyone else here. When I say “Paleo” I’m not being exclusionary, it’s just the term I’ve come to use for this whole philosophy, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a hardline Cordain-ian or anything. I’m a big fan of Paleo, Primal, Ancestral, WAPF, etc. I think the Ancestral Health movement needs to be a big tent, and that everyone will be better off if we focus on our similarities instead of bickering over our very minor differences. Cool? Cool.
First, the Paleo Diet is an intellectual framework, not an historical recreation (stolen off the Paleo Solution podcast). We’re interested in what works best for us as modern humans, not emulating an historical diet for its own sake. A particular food being “Paleo” in this context means something that follows the guidelines I’m about to lay out, not necessarily something that was available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. Savvy? Okay, let’s move on.
The basic paleo diet is eating quality food to satiety, with a carbohydrate load appropriate to lifestyle and goals.
For this definition, “quality” encompasses a lot of ideas. It means any animals products you use come from animals that are raised humanely and sustainably. Ideally, we’re talking grassfed, which is also known as pastured, because the cows are raised in a pasture, not feed lot. Dairy should be at least grassfed, but raw is even better (raw means unpasteurized). Fruits and vegetables should be raised as organically and locally as possible. If you can shake hands with the farmer who grew them (or you are the one who grew them), that makes you a Paleo Hero. Same goes for all your foods, really. If you buy your eggs from the person who pulled them out of the nest, that’s a very good thing. Quality is also where I’d put the concerns about essential proteins, fats and micronutrients. Eat foods that help you achieve healthy quantities of these things. You want your Omega 3 fat to Omega 6 fat ratio to be in the 1:1 or 1:2 range for optimal health. Sometimes that means supplementing with fish oil, but if you’re eating pastured meats and wild caught fish and avoiding chemically-processed vegetable and nut oils, you probably don’t need to supplement at all. Quality food is good for you, good for your community, and good for the world.
Quality is also where we take into account foods that can be irritating. Grains, especially modern, high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat, are very often irritating to the gut. Dairy (especially grain fed, pasteurized dairy) can also be irritating. Legumes are often irritating. Even nuts can be irritating for some folks. If you have a diagnosed inflammatory or autoimmune problem, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, white potatoes, eggplants) and eggs can be irritating. So determining what counts as an irritant depends entirely on you. If you (like me) feel awesome after eating pastured/raw dairy, then feel free. If you feel kinda sick or feel like it makes your joints hurt or something, then avoid it. Different people have different genetic predispositions to handling food. Some people handle even our modern Franken-wheat like champs (though it is very rare indeed), others (especially people with autism, celiac disease, other autoimmune conditions) can’t have even the smallest amount without having a major reaction. Do some self-experimentation. Go clean (no grains, no legumes, no dairy) for 30 days, and then try adding things back into your diet in limited quantities. Take note of how you look, feel and perform. If that stuff changes for the worse when you eat a particular food, it’s worth avoiding that food in the future. Also be aware that these things affect people in different ways. When I eat something with gluten in it, I get gastrointestinal distress, but my wife doesn’t. Also pay attention to effects of chronic, rather than acute exposure. My wife doesn’t have any immediate problems when eating wheat, but does have skin problems when she eats it, and they only show up days afterward. These sensitivities can show up in different ways in different people, so they can be tough to trace back to the source. Do some experimentation so you can see what happens to you.
“Satiety” just means you eat until you’re full. No weighing, measuring or calorie counting. No starving yourself. Eat when you’re hungry and keep eating until you stop being hungry. Protein and fat will be major parts of your diet and they fill you up quickly and keep you full longer than carbohydrates do. This is your good, solid baseline for health and body composition. This is easy to do, and people can do it long term. People generally don’t do well long term when they have to be hungry all the time or they have to weigh their food and count their calories. They’ll spin out and have crazy sugar binges and all sorts of nonsense. After you get lean and healthy, and if you’re really looking to push yourself to another level, performance-wise, you can look into Intermittent Fasting, but I really think people tend to want to jump into that before they’re ready. Skipping a meal because you got busy or just weren’t hungry is totally normal and fine. Specifically planning not to eat even if you are hungry and could be eating is a different deal. There are also times for certain people where their goals might require that they eat more than they would otherwise want to. Those are both for people looking to maximize performance once they’ve gotten to a healthy baseline, though. For most of us, just eating good food until we’re full is plenty to get us lean and healthy.
Eating an amount of carbohydrates appropriate to your lifestyle and goals is what makes the paleo diet different from traditional low carb diets, to my mind. The quality concern is also a very big part of what differentiates it, but that’s a caveat you could tack onto most any diet. Many diets suggest eating a certain percentage of your daily calories from each of the three macronutrient groups, but those ratios are fixed. I think recognizing that carbohydrate serves a purpose, and using it to that purpose, is really awesome. So, for example, if you’re just trying to get lean and healthy and you’re not doing a lot of intense exercise, you will probably want to keep your carbs pretty low. If you’re doing Crossfit or interval training or anything that really hammers your glycogen stores, you will need to eat some carbs to replenish those. Make sure you’re still following the ‘quality’ idea, and eat non-irritating carbs like sweet potatoes and bananas. The best time to eat those carbs is right after your workout, so your body can get the nutrients it needs back into the appropriate cells to help them repair quickly.
That’s pretty much it for the basics. Except to mention that you’re not a bad person if you shoot for perfection and only manage to eat good foods 90% of the time. That’s still huge, and you’ll notice a ton of great changes in your life. Don’t beat yourself up if you have some ice cream at the company picnic, or eat some crème brulée at a nice restaurant. What you do most of the time is what matters, and your lean, healthy, non-irritated body can handle a few bumps in the road. Also, don’t use your inability to be perfect be your reason for doing something completely wrong. If the bacon at the pancake social isn’t from pastured pigs who get pedicures and massages every day, that’s not a reason to eat a bagel. If you can’t find or afford 100% grassfed beef all the time, that doesn’t mean your next best choice is a bag of croutons. Do the best you can as much as you can, and if you do fall off the wagon, hop right back on again. This is a lifetime deal, so one little hiccup is no reason to quit.
That covers the diet part pretty well, but what do I mean by a “Paleo Lifestyle”? Here’s the definition I’ve heard in a few places and like the best:
Eat real food, move your body, go to bed.
We covered real food up top. Moving your body means you take walks sometimes, you go hiking, you lift heavy things, you sprint, you play, you chase your dog or kids around in the park, you climb a tree, you go swimming, you do some yoga, or you have some intimate relations with the consenting adult of your choice. You do something physical every day, or as close to every day as you can. If you have a desk job, go take a walk around the building every few hours. Stretch your legs, get some sun on your face, then go back to your desk. If your favorite thing in the world is doing an hour on the elliptical machine next to a bunch of sweaty strangers, I won’t tell you not to. I would just suggest that maybe you’re weird, and the things you like are weird. If you like Crossfit or some kind of high-intensity bootcamp thing, that’s also great. I would just suggest that you should keep it to 2-3 days a week and make sure you get plenty of rest between sessions.
That brings us to the third point. People don’t sleep enough. Your body needs a lot more sleep than you’re getting, probably. Ideally, you should be sleeping in a pitch dark room, 8+ hours a night, and waking up without an alarm. Practically, that can be tough. But the closer you can get to that ideal, the better off you’ll be. Sleep makes you happier, healthier, leaner, and all the rest. Sleep is awesome, and that’s a hard thing for me to admit. I used to sleep 5-6 hours a night and think that was great. Since I started really focusing on getting more sleep, I’m getting more like 7-8 hours a night and I’m feeling so much better in every respect. I’m leaner, happier, and more energetic. I bet you will be too, if you really make quality sleep a priority.
Okay, that’s about all I have. Thanks for reading! If you have questions, please feel free to post them in the comments. I’m still learning, and my understanding of these issues may change, but this is the very best information I’ve been able to get from a whole mess of quality sources. It’s revolutionized my life, and I think it can do the same for yours.