“Paleo” is short for Paleolithic, but the name is actually less important than the power of the overall approach.
While the term “Paleo” has gained traction in the mainstream media and on bookstore shelves everywhere due to the improved health of those who follow the lifestyle, you could call it “Primal,” “Grain-Free,” “Real Food,” “Whole Food,” “Nutrient-Dense,” or “Ancestral.”
Whatever name you choose, the “Paleo” way of eating is simple: Mimic our ancestors, who suffered from fewer chronic diseases than modern populations. This doesn’t mean that you’ll recreate a caveman’s food landscape, of course. Our food supply and our environment are different from our ancestors, so we must adapt as new information comes to light.
Click here to download the Paleo Eating Basics PDF.
My approach to explaining a Paleo type of diet is less about demonizing the foods we look to avoid (grains, legumes, pasteurized dairy, and refined foods) and more about helping you to understand how food should work in your body.
I also think it’s important to look beyond the notion of Is it Paleo? and consider including traditional foods that add deep value in nutritional content – foods like organ meats, broths, fermented vegetables and other goodies, and fermented cod liver oil.
Once you know how your body should be working with your daily dietary inputs, evaluating if that is in fact happening is the next step. If you are not digesting food well and your blood sugar regulation is off, then eliminating specific foods (as outlined below) is my recommendation as to how to get it working properly. In my book, I get into a lot more detail on how digestion and blood sugar regulation should work, and how you know if they’re not – but I imagine most of you reading this are at least somewhat aware of how both of those situations feel.
From my perspective, the Paleo lifestyle is most importantly about:
1 – eating whole foods that provide optimal, nutrient-dense fuel for your body and
2 – avoiding processed, refined, nutrient-poor factory foods.
This means avoiding grains, legumes (beans), refined sugar, and pasteurized dairy products.
People believe eating whole foods is hard and limiting, but it isn’t. It may be an adjustment at first, but it’s simply a matter of eliminating foods that don’t promote health in your body. Though making these changes can be confusing and a bit difficult at first. Trust me, it gets easier!
Once you’ve tackled basic food choices, it is critical to make sure you maintain proper digestive function and blood sugar regulation, then to understand what to do to reach your own personal health goals.
Paleo is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s a way of eating that is appropriate for all human animals. In other words, you are a human animal, so there is a Paleo “plan” that is right for you.
Making paleo work for you
Before you can land on the best nutritional plan for you, it’s important to understand the basic principles behind this ancestral, real-food way of eating.
1. Eat whole foods.
If a food is not in its whole, natural form, chances are that it has been refined and is a less than optimal choice. When we intellectualize our diet and remove ourselves, as human animals, from the complex web that defines nature, we fight against our birthright of health. When you eat food as provided by nature, it actually promotes health, healing, and immunity against future ailments.
2. Avoid modern, processed, and refined foods.
These include grains, pasteurized dairy products, industrial seed oils (like corn, cottonseed, soybean, canola, or rapeseed), and artificial or refined sugar and sweeteners—especially high fructose corn syrup. If it has to pass through a factory before it is edible for you, reconsider whether or not it is actually food. More likely, it is an “edible product” or “food-like-substance.”
3. Eat to maintain proper digestive function.
Your requirements for digestive function may be different from someone else depending on your constitution. Essentially, you must determine which foods your body cannot tolerate and stop eating them. For example, some people can tolerate dairy, or the occasional grain-based foods. When you experience symptoms of food intolerances, it is your body’s way of telling you that you are disrupting your digestion.
Why is it so critical not to disrupt digestion?
The ability to fight chronic, and even acute, disease states begins in the digestive system (the gut).
Sixty to eighty percent of the immune system is within the gut.
There is immune tissue that follows the entire length of your small intestine. You’ll learn more than you ever thought you needed to know about this in the digestion and leaky gut sections of my book. If your body constantly suffers from digestive irritation, you set the stage for suppressed immune function in all other areas. This can result in a condition as innocuous as seasonal allergies or a problem that is much more aggressive like diverticulitis, eczema, psoriasis, or a number of inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
4. Eat to maintain proper blood sugar regulation.
The amount of time it takes before your hunger kicks in again after a meal and how you feel (besides hungry) entering into your next meal are critical signs of how well your blood sugar levels are managed. If you’re hungry and eating every two to three hours and feeling shaky, weak, or starving entering into each meal or snack, you are probably not eating the right balance of food for you.
Figuring out how much protein, fat, and “good carbs” you should eat will help you to maintain well-balanced blood sugar throughout the day while comfortably eating roughly every four to six hours.
5. Follow a plan that will help you reach your own personal health goals.
People often ask me if I think a Paleo diet is right for everyone. Since Paleo is about is eating healthy food and avoiding unhealthy food — i.e., eating whole foods as opposed to refined foods—then, yes, I think it’s 100% right for everyone. Still, it would be a huge misstep to say that we can and should all eat exactly the same foods.
Does that mean you can try to create a nutritional plan based on what your specific ancestors ate?
If your bloodline is 100% pure, you could try, but it would still be challenging to find the same foods that were eaten so long ago. Most of us, at least in the United States, are a mixture of different bloodlines from around the world, so it would be impossible to trace the diet of our ancestors.
Instead, the Paleo concept is based on estimations of what humans of past generations would have eaten, as well as the nutritional and dietary history in many parts of the world.
We can guess what different animal and plant foods would have been available in different climates on different terrain and with varied access to bodies of water. If we were to attempt to recreate early natural diets with 100% accuracy, though, we would have to stretch to find the indigenous plants and animals that were available in the past.
While I propose that there are certain foods that should be considered optimal and included as part of your nutritional landscape, you may very well experience vibrant, long-term, and exemplary health eating foods outside of these recommendations. Someone who eats processed foods and maintains excellent health is hardly the norm, however. Unfortunately, in my experience, this kind of exemplary health is far from what most people are experiencing in the modern world.
Ask yourself some questions.
Beyond your ethnic heritage, you can evaluate your upbringing and foundational nutrition (or lack thereof), as well as your genetic predispositions to health or disease to the best of your ability.
Then, answer these questions regarding your current health status:
- How do you feel most of the time?
- What is the status of your physical fitness or athletic performance?
- How is your body composition in terms of how much fat you have compared to muscle?
- How are your moods?
- Does your energy level fluctuate throughout the day?
- How is your appetite?
- Do you have food cravings? For sugar? For carbs? For salty or fatty foods?
- Does your skin look healthy, clear, and glowing?
- How is your vision?
- How is your dental health?
- Do you have regular bowel movements?
- Have you been diagnosed with a specific health condition?
If you answered all of these questions positively, congratulations! You’re in a very small minority, and you can skip ahead and search the web for Paleo recipes, or simply use the over 100 easy recipes in Practical Paleo to get going on changing your food.
If you simply want to improve your overall health, reviewing the one-page guides throughout my book (most of which are also available here on the website for free download) and following the recipes will get you well on your way.
If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t give a positive answer to all of the questions, which means you would benefit from evaluating your current approach to health and nutrition and working on a plan that’s a bit more customized for you.
If you have an existing health condition, set of symptoms, or a specific health goal, read all of the chapters to learn how food operates in your body. Then, proceed to the 30-Day Meal Plans in Practical Paleo to find an approach that may be best for you.
You can identify which plan is right for you by reviewing the introductions to each meal plan, as well as the set of conditions and/or ill-health symptoms that each meal plan is designed to support. In the meantime, my Paleo Eating Basics chart will give you a basic rundown of which foods to eat and which to eliminate for a Paleo lifestyle.
Get more information on choosing a meal plan that’s right for you from this podcast episode.
Click here to download the Paleo Eating Basics PDF.
Some of my other favorite, “What is Paleo” posts:
from Cave Girl Eats, (or her awesome, “Is it Paleo” post, or her Good Nutrition in 100 Words guide)
from Primal Palate
from Kurt Harris (Archevore)