What is “Paleo” exactly? No really, what is it?
Paleo is such a buzzword at the moment, and as you trawl the Internet it seems that there are a whole load of conflicting ideas about what it actually is. In conversation, people often have said to me, “Oh yes, that caveman diet – lots of red meat!” or even, “Oh, it’s just glorified Atkins isn’t it?” and then, more often than not, whether online or in person, a discussion, or worse, an argument ensues about what Paleolithic people actually ate; whether there were more carbs than protein, or whether they ate honey, or whether they just grubbed around for roots and berries.
Well, I was also caught up in that way of thinking for ages, blatantly ignoring the obvious… Paleolothic man didn’t have much of a choice about what he ate, because the planet just provided it, and what the planet provided depended upon the latitude and the season. If he was in Africa, he’d have had a very different diet than if he was in the northern hemisphere.
We have become so used to the word “diet” that to most it generally means some sort of rigid eating plan. You “must” eat this, and you “mustn’t” eat that… But generally such ideas are memes – irrelevant constructs based on some sort of man-made theories and trotted out by various “diet gurus” according to their individual brainwashing. And this way of thinking is even infiltrating the usually more progressive Paleo community… “You musn’t eat carbs…” “Sweet potatoes are the only “safe” starch…” “Eat tons of coconut oil…” etc.
Well, some of this sort of advice can be rather useful, particularly if you have an inflammatory or autoimmune condition. In this case, usually the gut bacteria is simplified and the gut wall is damaged, and avoiding inflammatory foods such as wheat, omega 6 fats, nightshades and dairy can go a long way to resetting the immune system. Believe me, I speak from experience. But does this make it Paleo? Not necessarily.
If we really want to jump on the Paleo bandwagon we need to look way beyond diet itself, and even then we can only really make educated guesses. If we are to assume that certain evidence is correct and that we did evolve as hunter/gatherers in a time when we were healthier, then we need to look at what the lifestyle of a hunter/gatherer might have entailed. Again, we are making educated guesses based on bone records, common sense and extrapolating on the study of modern day hunter/gatherer people. Mark Sisson has written very well about this in his two books, and Dr Jack Kruse has made some extraordinary connections, so with a hefty nod to those chaps here’s how I’d distill the essence of Paleo…
For a start, diet… Well, the world has changed enormously since we roamed the plains or the coastlines, rudimentary weapon or fish hook in hand, so we really can’t expect to eat what our ancestors ate. The soil was different; the minerals and vitamins were more plentiful in the (pesticide and fertiliser-free) food, which was teeming with beneficial bacteria. However, we can do our best. We can ask ourselves what the planet would provide, at our locality, and at this time of year. Common sense really – eat seasonal, locally produced, organic food. And for the vegetarians out there – Paleolithic man had probably not been silly enough to invent restrictive religious/spiritual dogma that forbade meat eating (where a lot of that meme can be traced to), so he was unlikely to feel much sympathy for the animal he was about to spear. Mrs. Caveman would also not be very pleased if he came home empty handed because he took pity on some cute little wild boar at the last moment. No, we’ve always eaten meat. We’d have starved without it in a lot of places. So, diet is fairly simple – eat what nature gives you. Wonderful as coconut oil is as both a food and a medicine, and I eat a ton of it, if you lived in England like I do, you’d never have found it… or bananas… or mangoes. So, I don’t reckon those foods are even “Paleo” for me, but they are if you live in Hawaii.
Then we have the enormous amount of non-diet related disconnects we have these days. We don’t feel the seasons on our bodies – we spend the whole time inside to avoid the winter and flood our systems with artificial light. We wear shoes so we are disconnected from the planet’s electrons and the planet is disconnected from ours. We use vehicles to get about so we don’t have to use our poor under-muscled legs. We starve ourselves of community spirit by spending hours a day chatting on Facebook etc to people all over the world who we might never meet, but we don’t even know our neighbours’ names.
As you can see, we are very far removed from Paleolithic man, and every decade that goes by we are getting even further from him. It’s no wonder that our bodies are in a massive crisis and the wave of cancer and other diseases becomes more and more like a tsunami, opening up opportunities for Big Pharma to fill us full of dangerous drugs, which certainly weren’t part of Paleolithic man’s diet.
But there is one thing above all that I think separates us from nature and how we used to be, and the clue is in the animal kingdom. It’s our inability to live in the present, which I believe is the major cause of stress, and stress is the major cause of disease and unhappiness. I might be wrong, but I very much doubt if a cheetah or an antelope are particularly concerned about their pensions, or if they worry that they will be able to pay for their kids to go through college, or if they feel guilt at lying around in the sun in the long, carefree interludes between their life and death confrontations with each other. Animals are the epitome of spontaneous action in action; they are one with creation – no judgement, no self-imposed stress.
We will never go back to Paleolithic times, barring a holocaust of some sort; we are stuck with the modern world and all its stressors, so we have to adapt. One of my favourite sayings is applicable here, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” However, I’d substitute “health” for “life” for the purposes of this article.
So, my conclusion? The “Paleo diet” is generally nothing to do with Paleolithic times, and generally I reckon it’s a complete misnomer. However, if we learn to be present, to pay attention to the perfection of every moment we live without always wishing ourselves into tomorrow or hankering after yesterday, we might just take a step closer to the health that our Paleolithic ancestors (allegedly) enjoyed. We will never get rid of bills, traffic jams and other “worries”, but we can certainly change our attitude towards them and be kind to ourselves instead of reacting to them with a torrent of stress and worry. Very seldom does anything turn out as badly as we fear it might, so don’t waste your health worrying about what probably won’t happen.
Chill out, enjoy the present and you might just become an urban caveman.
Find out more in my book, Pure Activity.
Originally posted 2014-02-14 11:55:02.
Saul HoughFebruary 14, 2014
Well said and written Phil. I will follow your website with interest.
Very best regards and good luck.
Phil EscottFebruary 14, 2014
Thank you! So good to have you as my first comment… 🙂
MagsApril 24, 2014
Very interesting – I am eager to learn more