Not sure if you’ve noticed, but I tend not to use the word “paleo” a whole lot when I talk about nutrition these days. Sure, I use it to name recipes sometimes – that is purely for the benefit of google search engines. But, in terms of describing how I eat, not so much any more. I used to. A lot. And it is probably the reason some people I know well are permanently inoculated against ever trying it, but that’s another story.
Yes, I eat “paleo” in terms of its contemporary nutritional definition. It’s a catchy, easy-to-remember name that defines a way of eating and makes it easy to find resources online, and to easily identify nutritionally like-minded people. BUT, as a term, I dislike the fact that it can almost sound “fad-ish”, is often referred to as a “diet” and is also, quite frankly, a little limiting and misleading. It also causes a lot of people to conjure up images of me running around like this on the weekends:
As much as Sham would love that, if we look at its strict definition, the word “paleo” (in reference to nutrition) refers to eating foods that were available during the Paleolithic era. Whilst this is a pretty good way to loosely describe eating whole, unprocessed foods, avoiding modern man-made products, and trying to adhere to a more in-tune-with-nature lifestyle, I think we can all agree that NOTHING we eat nowadays can actually strictly be called “paleo”. That tomato you’re enjoying in your salad? Not around 2 million years ago. Nope, not even that heirloom tomato. That mango? Those carrots? No, not even the purple ones. That Angus beef? Definitely not part of your standard cave-man’s weekly hunting expedition. It would be impossible to actually mimic how humans ate during that period because we’d be hard-pressed to find ANY foods that existed in their exact same form all those years ago.
This is why it irks me so much when people sardonically point out things like “paleolithic man didn’t eat butter, you know”, and then tell me that therefore I shouldn’t either. This is something many paleo critics will site to try to poke holes in the paleo way of living – focusing on the literal semantics of the terms and completely losing sight of the fact that it is not actually about replicating the same foods and life-style as that of cavemen. I understand it. I took it pretty literally when I first “went paleo”. I needed a hard and fast set of rules to follow. Eat this. Don’t eat this. NEVER eat this. Etc. And it is useful to some extent. Cheat sheets listing “approved” or “unapproved” foods are easy to follow and can take away the necessity of having to think too hard about it all. Which is why you can barely type the word “paleo” into google without being bombarded by a gazillion info graphics similar to this:
Not so say this is not useful, but as helpful as it might be, it also takes away from our autonomy and ability to make our own nutritional decisions as opposed to (often blindly) following a list of rules.
Saying you eat (or don’t eat) foods because cavemen ate (or didn’t eat) them doesn’t mean a whole lot in and of itself. There are many foods they didn’t eat simply because these were not available to them. This little piece by Matt Lalonde is really worth watching. What DOES make sense, however, is looking at the principles these early human beings (and more recent healthy traditional societies around the world) used when deciding how to nourish themselves. If we observe how healthy societies sourced their food, we can start to see certain commonalities in their nutritional approaches which, in my opinion, ought to guide our own thinking when it comes to nutrition today.
What are these commonalities?
They all chose to consume the most nutrient-dense foods available to them. They ate whole, unprocessed foods, as close to their natural state as possible. They chose nutrient density over empty “filler” foods that simply filled their stomachs, and their diets were free from processed inflammatory foods like sugar, modern grains, soy and industrial seed oils. They ate healthy fats, fermented foods, the “odd-bits” from animals, raw unpasteurized dairy (where available), and obviously ate foods that were locally grown and in season.
So when people want to know how they should eat, I hesitate, these days, to throw out a perfunctory “eat paleo”, as a quick and easy response. I’d rather challenge them to make their own decisions based on the above principles, which clearly “work” if we observe how healthy those people eating this way were.
Paleolithic man, for example, would not have eaten butter. They didn’t exactly have time to domesticate and milk a cow, separate the cream from the milk and then churn it into the deliciousness we call butter. But, if we observe healthy traditional societies over the centuries, we can see that animal fats (such as butter) formed a staple part in many cultures’ daily nutrient intake, and where butter was scarce, other foods, with similar nutrient profiles were consumed in order to obtain the same fat soluble vitamins so vital to our health.
And so, if you ask me the question “Is butter paleo?”, in terms of strictly sticking to the paleo rule-book, I would have to say no. But this is where we need to use some judgment. Pastured butter is an incredibly rich source of essential nutrients (many of which are commonly deficient in people), and so I would HIGHLY recommend including it as a healthy fat source. Plus it makes food taste delicious.
So, instead of handing you a list of Dos and Don’ts, I would challenge you to weigh things up for yourself and come to your own conclusions when it comes to nourishing your body.
Questions to ask yourself:
Is it unprocessed, unrefined, and as close to its natural state as possible? Could you potentially hunt/gather/produce it by yourself in your kitchen? Is it a dense source of bio-available nutrients, or will it just fill your tummy and displace foods that are more nutrient-dense? Will it make you less healthy? Is it an inflammatory food that could potentially damage your gut or lead to systemic inflammation?
Within this frame-work, you can then be the judge of which foods to pick, and which are probably best avoided.
No, cavemen did not eat dairy. And most modern dairy (all the ultra-pasteurized, low-fat, grain-fed stuff found in most supermarkets today) is pretty much just garbage in terms of nutrients or any benefits to the body.
But, if we go through the line of questions above, we can see that raw, full-fat, 100% grassfed dairy is probably a pretty good addition to the diet.
It is very close to its natural state (I could make you some butter right now if you brought me some raw cream), is a very dense source of some incredibly-good-for-you fat soluble vitamins, and raw dairy fat tends to be very safe for most people in terms of being non-allergenic/non-inflammatory.
That said, here is where some common sense comes into play. Does it agree with YOUR body? If so, it is a wonderful food – eat it. If, however, you experience bloating, gut-issues of any kind, skin issues, congestion etc, then maybe it is best avoided. In which case, you may want to start loving liver, bone marrow, and the fermented contents of animals’ guts in order to get those same essential nutrients.
Following this logic, this is also why I strongly advise people to avoid grains. Cavemen did not eat grains, but again, this just isn’t a good enough reason for us not to eat them. However, if you follow the above thought process you will see that they are highly processed in order to be edible (I could NOT easily pick/grind/refine a bunch of wheat to make my own pasta in my kitchen), they are a very poor source of bio-available nutrients (compared with meat, organ meats, fish or vegetables), and they are FULL of inflammation-causing substances such as gluten. This is especially true for all modern grains.
And so, next time you ask whether you are “allowed” to eat this or that, maybe try to rephrase the question, and instead ask yourself whether it is a dense, and bioavailable source of nutrients, if it will make you healthier or less healthy, if it will displace a food that is potentially more nutrient-dense, and how close it is to its natural state.
Using this logic, you will not go wrong, I promise you.
Use the lessons of the past to inform your choices in the present.
Eat simple, real, unprocessed foods – animals, seafood, vegetables, roots, tubers, healthy fats, and fermented foods.