I eat paleo.
Some people think that means trying to eat like a caveman. In fact, that’s the most common reply I get when I tell people that I eat paleo. The polite version of this is: “Oh, is that the ‘caveman diet’?” Less polite versions range from smarm (“Cavemen didn’t have [delicious food that paleo folks eat... bacon, let's say], you know.”) to strawman debunkery (“Cavemen actually ate [things paleo folks avoid], you know.” or ”Didn’t cavemen had a life expectancy of like thirty years?”).
I don’t care about eating like cavemen ate. Not exactly, anyway. “Paleo” is an unfortunate name in that sense. It evokes that club-and-tunic image immediately. I remember it did for me, years back, when a friend told me he was trying it out. I thought it was ridiculous.
But I was curious. Enough to learn a little bit more, at least. I flipped through Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution. What a pleasant surprise that was: The book was chock full of real, honest-to-goodness science, backed up by research. Exactly the sorts of things that can get you past my skeptical impulses.
And the overall message wasn’t so hamfisted as “hey, you guys, we should eat like cavemen and we’ll lose weight.” It was more nuanced. I’ll take a crack at summarizing it: “Agriculture is pretty new, relative to the whole timespan of human evolution. Let’s consider the possibility that not everyone is well adapted to all the things we eat in the modern era. Maybe a lot of chronic problems we seem to have nowadays are tied into this somehow.”
I don’t care about eating like cavemen ate. I do care about not constantly being hungry. In my early paleo days, this was the big deal for me. I learned about blood sugar, and how processed carbs — especially grains — tend to wreak havoc on it, and make you eat a ton. I replaced these things with vegetables and meats — good carbs, good fats (and more of them!) and protein — and experienced a sea change in my appetite and my energy levels.
This could be huge news if you’re trying to lose weight. A lot of people tend to think that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and that you just need to cut them to trim down. But getting those calories from a slice of pizza is going to spike your blood sugar and then cause it to nosedive, which’ll then cause you to crave a late-night snack, and, well, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
This reminds me of another common reaction when I tell people I eat paleo. That it’s a low-carb diet, like Atkins. It is and it isn’t. Cutting out grains will cause you to eat less carbs, unless you go out of your way. So yeah, I don’t eat a lot of carbs. But I could. (There’s a wealth of material out there, in fact, on athletic training and how certain kinds of carbs are better at supporting it than others, because some get converted into liver glycogen and some get converted into muscle glycogen. Although there are also plenty of athletes who use fat for their fuel, too. Your mileage may vary.)
So I don’t try to eat a low-carb diet. But I know that if I have a baked potato at lunch, I might have bit of a blood sugar crash at two o’clock. (And when co-workers have those two o’clock crashes after having pizza for lunch, I pat myself on the back for eating my pulled pork & broccoli.)
Wolf’s book recommends an elimination diet. Essentially that means cutting things out of your diet for a few weeks and then reintroducing them to see how you feel and perform. The main targets are grains, legumes and dairy.
I don’t care about eating like a caveman. But I do care about not having to go to the bathroom within an hour of many of my meals. Cutting out dairy and wheat solved this problem for me. Especially dairy. We still go out for custard from time to time (I’ll contend that “eating paleo” doesn’t mean exclusively eating paleo, btw), and without fail, I am in the bathroom with gastrointestinal issues within an hour of enjoying a sundae. (Totally worth it once in a while, though.)
(Wheat is a trickier one. I have similar issues with wheat, but not always. I suspect that it’s related to quantity, although I accidentally had just a bit of wheat today, and I had terrible stomach pains, so I guess I’m less confident about what the deal is there. Still: avoiding it.)
I don’t care about eating like a caveman. But I do care about eating in a way that’s going to support my health and longevity. And I have a strong impression now that the conventional wisdom on nutrition is woefully underdeveloped. This has become a new hobby for me, almost: I’m always eager to read about new nutrition research (or hear about it from my scientist wife, who’ll often read the original research). And I think it’s sensible (I might even call it obvious) for researchers to take an evolutionary viewpoint to help them devise their hypotheses.
This might all be my own strawman, I guess. I don’t get to decide what “paleo” means. But this is what it means to me, and it’s made me healthier, happier, smarter, and even kind of good at cooking stuff.