03 February 2016

The most important truths about paleo

There’s an increasing level of attention given to paleo-driven lifestyles these days. For various reasons, as health research pours in and medical spendng balloons, the realities that the decades old condemnation of fat and meat, and the promotion of carb-rich grains are slowly, but surely growing in prominence. Paleo works and the evidence support it. That being said, there are many incredibly strong misunderstandings about what the pursuit of a paleo, primal, evolutionist or ancestral health driven lifestyle means and all of these misunderstandings confuses the case and deters people from understanding the real fundamentals of long-term health. Here are the most important truths about paleo living.


Paleo isn’t about weight-loss

Unlike most nutrition plans paleo is more of a lifestyle approach to stable long-term health rather than a means to losing weight. Sure, the pursuit of one will often lead to the other, meaning if you can lose weight you’re more likely to be healthier, but the priority isn’t on weight-loss, it’s with long-term health. This is a key distinction. If you approach you’ve just set a New Year’s resolution, or pursuing a long historical goal of improving your health, then of course, “losing weight” is a logical first step. This is reflected in the advertising of most programs whether they’re nutrition plans, books, gyms or personal trainers. Losing weight is almost always the first bullet point.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, however this mindset does pose problems. Very simply, losing weight is short term and really, isn’t an absolute indicator of improved health. Paleo style ideologies such as the Primal Blueprint aligns closely with the long-term aspect of optimal health. Start eating the right foods, getting adequate sleep and finding the most effective ways to use physical activity to enhance your health, and your ideals will be met - whether that’s losing weight, gaining muscle, improving moods, enhancing energy and everything else around good health.

If dropping kilos is definitely on the agenda, paleo fundamentals can be geared toward this, but the key is still doing so in a long-term oriented health manner. Rapidly shedding 10 kg in a 6 week challenge, loving the results and positive attention, but hating every minute of the process, doesn’t say much for the sustainability of that path. If it’s a struggle to find the time, you don’t enjoy the food you’re eating, or are hungry and exhausted all the time, there’s a good chance that eventually, you’ll crash.

“Living like a caveman” is an over exaggeration

One of the most common sentiments attached to paleo is the metaphor of the caveman. Cavemen didn’t eat processed foods; cavemen ate fresh and local food; cavemen walked everywhere. Truth be told, “the caveman” does serve as a core symbolic figure of most paleo principles I’ve studied, including the Primal Blueprint which has gone as far as developing a distinguished mascot named “Grok”. That being said, using half-baked and oversimplified reasoning like “live like a caveman” should still be taken in consideration of the real world.

Cavemen didn’t see doctors, perform surgeries, drive cars, have electricity, stoves, computers or the internet. Cavemen also didn’t utilise vaccines or have to abide by 40-70 hour work weeks of various degrees of monotonous structure. If “would cavemen do this?” is your lead criteria for the decisions you make, odds are, you’re missing out on a lot of what the modern world, evolution and incredible human ingenuity has to offer - whether it’s relatively trivial like YouTube, or incredibly vital to health and wellbeing of all levels like vaccinating your children.

While most that follow paleo or primal principles are aware of this, criticisms usually target the oversimplified metaphor. Throwing out core ideals of a healthy diet,  such as estbalishing colourful vegetables as the foundation, because “well, cavemen died of diseases way more so it’s all bogus” is entirely ridiculous.

Reducing carbs isn’t the absolute goal

The reality that carbs should be limited is not the same as saying they need to cut out altogether.  Instead, carbs should be controlled, and the idea of them -- even complex carbohydrates in rice, whole grains and the like -- being healthy should be broken. This does not mean that “the fewer carbs the better”, but instead, that there is a threshold which should not be breached. Below is the Primal Blueprint’s carbohydrate curve. For the average person, daily consumption of 100-150 grams of carbohydrates is the zone of “effortless weight management”. In this zone, your body is able to smoothly metabolise carbohydrates without any excess carbs being converted into sugar, spiking insulin levels and producing harmful triglycerides. Creep above this zone and and insidious weight gain kicks in where te cycle of excess carbs and craving excess carbs kick in and the road to bigger bellies, energy roller coasters and food cravings begin. Consumption of under 100 grams of carbs daily is the path to ketosis where the body learns to burn fat for fuel rather than carbs leading to better muscle tone, better brain development and overall improved health.

The most important thing is to remember that this is all dependent on the rest of your lifestyle. This curve aligns pretty closely with how my weight fluctuates. I have comes to love knowing that my weight stays the same even if I feast on roasted chicken, ribs or a wonderful medium-rare steak and all the beautiful vegetables I can handle, but soda and popcorn combo at the movies means I’m a little heavier the next day. Of course, I’m not elite athlete. If I were to return to my running and basketball training days, and even more so if I was competitive, the curve would may need to be adjusted to accommodate the greater demand for fuel.

Meat isn’t the foundation food.

As much as the rhetoric around paleo and primal living professes a long love affair of bacon, the prominence of meat, fish and fowl has been largely overblown. Even though the Primal pyramid has animal products at the base, vegetables are the most important component of healthy eating. For those that are into counting calories, animal products represent the bulk, but in terms of volume of food, or the space on the plate, colourful veggies reign supreme.

Meat fish and fowl are essential for many reasons. Everyone knows protein acts as the building blocks of muscle strength, but it’s lesser known that the fats as well, including the falsely maligned saturated fats provide satiety and the essential slow-burning energy source the body prefers as well as optimises cell and hormone function. There’s no need to steer clear of chicken thighs or cut fat off your steaks - not only is this delicious, but it’s actually best for you.

Paleo is too expensive

We live in a budget driven culture and it is because of this that adjusting to higher initial costs of healthier food of a paleo variety may the most difficult task. Fresh, local, grass fed or free range animal products from a local butcher is likely to be more expensive than highly processed, hormone-fueled products that have been forzen and shipped in bulk across thousands of kilometres before getting to your big box grocery chain. Per net weight, in-season colourful vegetables have a higher price tag than mass produced bread, crackers and pastas. Unfortunately, there isn’t really much of a path around this. The whole reason food is highly processed and injected with harmful ingredients and additives to begin with, is usually to make more for cheaper with growing profits at a higher priority than health or sustainability.

So, while paleo, or primal modifications to one’s nutrition may be more expensive in a vacuum, it’s best again to adjust the mindset. Increased consumption of healthy vegetables, animal products and quality fats provide more satiety meaning less food can be purchased in volume. While pastas, breads, crackers and chips an frozen junk foods are cheaper, they lead to more cravings which in turn lead to more grocery shopping. My parents always used to half-joke that, growing up, the cereal-budget alone was equal to an extra 5 years of early retirement. There is also the reality that in the long-term, a healthier lifestyle means less spending on doctor’s consultations, medication, surgeries and expensive health care bills in the future. When the other option is increasing the likelihood of needs tens of thousands of dollars in medical treatment as we age, a few extra dollars a day is our preferred choice.

There’s an incredible amount of flexibility to paleo
Above all else, the worst misunderstanding surrounding a paleo lifestyle is that it is strict. Yes it is built on fundamentals as all lifestyle approaches are, but inherent in these is a realistic and practical need for adaptability. One thing that is often ignored when the “caveman” metaphor is used is just how big the world in which the caveman, or cavemen lived.

Our ancestry traces back to all sorts of different landscapes, climates and environments - desert, arctic, tropical, prairie, coniferous forest, and everything else literally under the sun. Indigenous tribes in west Africa would have a completely different lifestyle than the peoples traversing northern Europe or South America. Those in arctic environments would’ve had to thrive on fattier animal products from cold water and wouldn’t have much options for colourful vegetables. Aboriginal peoples of the South Pacific would have lived off of more insects, fish and tropical fruits than those in the mediterranean. This is what evolution is. Foods themselves don’t have to be consistent, but the fundamentals are - fresh, local and in-season.

There are plenty of excellent paleo and primal resources that can be found with simple Google searches. I am a personal favourite of MarksDailyApple.com by Primal Blueprint founder Mark Sisson, but if you’re interested for an approach more personal to me, I’ve written a short series on what primal living means in our house here and keep a Google+ collection of our efforts on being healthy forever here.