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I get this question in one form or another quite often. Those who are new to this lifestyle (Welcome!) as well as the Old Hats are often perplexed by a few things – like why we all seem so obsessed with things like butter, tequila, and dark chocolate. (Today’s about butter. I’ll get to the tequila and dark chocolate eventually.)
We’ve all been there – if you’ve asked yourself these questions, you’re not alone!
Today I set about putting your mind at ease. I’m going to rub some coconut oil on your worries. (Then, I’m going to douse them in lime juice and soda water, add tequila, and we’re all gonna have a Paleo party.)
. . .
I tend to combine the three food/lifestyle principles “Paleo,” “Primal,” and “Ancestral,” because they’re all concerned with one thing: optimizing health using the most nutrient-dense, nutrient-available foods possible.
Simple, right? Yet somehow, that idea scares the frog-flipping daylights out of folks. It sure freaked the loincloth-loving heck outta me. What could I eat? What could I NOT eat? Where were the cookies?
Here’s the thing: we’ve been conditioned to want a set of rigid rules for improving our bodies and our lives.
- Food (X) is “allowed,” Food (Y) is “not allowed.”
- Food (X) is “good,” Food (Y) is “bad.”
- Eat this; don’t eat that!
Unfortunately, this mind-set can perpetuate the On-Wagon, Off-Wagon behavior that’s been ingrained in our minds since we were young. It can also perpetuate the idea that there’s a set wildly varying Diet Rules for everybody, from people who like math (coughZoneDietcough) to chicks who like to drink their dinner.
(Truly, there IS one decent, overarching prescription for everyone: Eat Real Food. Of course, there are intricacies to that too. Which is why I’m writing this post.)
Many of us fell into that obsessive, old-school Diet-minded trap at when we went “Paleo.” We immediately sought the rules list that would guide us to miraculous changes in body and health, without necessarily understanding why we were making these new choices. That’s what I did, and that’s OK. It’s a great start, especially since it means eliminating processed, boxed, bagged or encapsulated Junk Food (yep, even the 40-30-30 kind). But living in that place – in that catalog of “approved” foods – doesn’t enrich the journey much.
And we find ourselves asking:
Is Butter “Paleo?” (Furthermore, is butter a carb?)
Is Dark Chocolate OK?
Is Kombucha “approved?”
Unconsciously, maybe we want a wagon to fall off of – because that’s what we know. It’s that toxic “Diet” mentality. And I’m here to tell you – it’s bullshit. There are no hard-and-fast “rules.” There is only information and choices. Yes, it’s true that certain foods are nourishing and others simply aren’t. But a list of yes/no rules without an understanding of the “why” means somebody else is still bossing you around. And this lifestyle is about informed self-determination – not blind execution of somebody else’s trademarked Rules.
Information and enlightenment are easily accessible – start by reading Deep Nutrition, Practical Paleo, The Primal Blueprint, and Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. These are thought-provoking, straight-shooting, reason-providing, perfect texts to get things rolling. (Just for fun, you might want to add my book to the mix.)
. . .
In a way, I blame the fat-phobia/low-fat craze of the 80’s and 90’s, as well as the Veg@n fad, for making us think that health and well-being depend solely on the total elimination of certain Demonic Natural Things.* Animal fat is bad. Animal protein is bad. Rules. Yes/No. Good/Bad. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Time Magazine was wrong in demonizing cholesterol, and T. Colin Campbell was wrong in demonizing animal protein. (He was also wrong about a host of other things, but I’ll stop there.)*Yes, most of us choose to eliminate grains when we have better choices available (’cause they’re processed fairly far beyond their “natural” state, duh) and other Modern Processed Foods, but that’s certainly not in the same camp as eliminating naturally-occurring foods – like animal products – that have been an indispensable part of healthy humans’ diets for millenia AND, unlike modern grains, contain the bio-available nutrients we need to thrive.
This “Paleo” concept is different, or, at least, it should be. It should be about living well, not being bound by odd, counter-intuitive, or nit-picky rules (violations of which are punished with 40 lashes with a gluten-free noodle). Yes, there are guiding principles, but if you’re really taking control of your own life, you’ll use them as a framework and not prison bars. (Free
Willy Will, right?) Paleo principles are useful. They’re rules-of-thumb. They’re easy guidelines to help you as you get to know your body on Real Food rather than Fake Fuel.
Here’s the thing: many of us look at the “Paleo” lifestyle as if it were a re-enactment of the past. If Cave Men didn’t eat it, we can’t eat it. Tie a bow, put the present under the tree, and stop there. Unfortunately, there are flaws in that line of thinking; not the least of which is that tendency to narrow food choices to the stuff we’re already comfortable with (like, say, chicken, broccoli, and coconut oil) rather than looking at the nutrients we now understand were – and continue to be – critical to human health.
(Never mind the fact that Cave Men would’ve eaten anything had it been available. They weren’t concerned with staying “lean” or getting “thin.” Calories meant stored energy to tap in times of shortage and famine. And we have no shortage of supply in the modern world. But that’s a post for another day.)
If I may point out the obvious: showers, automobiles, facebook, and even the modern grass-fed cow aren’t “Paleo.” The modern chicken isn’t “Paleo.” The modern carrot isn’t “Paleo.” The modern Mango isn’t “Paleo.” None of those things existed alongside our prehistoric ancestors – they’re all products of the forward-motion (and also, the evolution) of our world. And we depend on those things.
So FORGET the historical re-enactment. Use the lessons of the past to inform your choices in the present. That’s what the “Paleo” concept is all about.
What we know of our ancestors – whether we’re talking Cave Men or more recent, healthy, native cultures, is that they valued the most nutrient-dense foods above all others. They valued organ meats, bone marrow, fish organs and eggs, and mineral-rich, fat-filled, cholesterol-dense foods because those foods carried the greatest nutrient density. Those foods kept them alive, fertile, and healthy.
These cultures didn’t know why these foods were best. They just knew they were. Another huge difference between us and Paleo Man: we have the ability to figure out the science-y stuff, like nutrient quantification and utilization. We know where the nutrients are. (And where they’re not.)
They’re in animal products (especially the “odd bits”), seafood (especially the “fishy parts”), and healthy, natural fats. To a lesser, but still respectful degree, they’re in vegetables, roots, tubers, and fruits.
. . .
So what about this question:
“I thought Dairy wasn’t ‘Paleo.’ Why are you eating butter?” (As a corollary to that question, folks often wonder “where will I get calcium?”)
So here’s my answer.
I eat butter because it’s FREAKING DELICIOUS. And it’s nutrient-dense. And it’s delicious. I tolerate it well. And Cave Man would if he could.
Paleo man didn’t eat the same stuff I eat. Paleo man didn’t eat Angus beef, which has a history of just a few hundred years as we know it. Paleo man didn’t eat beefsteak tomatoes – hell, he didn’t even eat heirloom tomatoes. Their meat was different. Their forage was different. What does that mean to us? It means we gotsta think.
No, Cave Men didn’t make butter. They were likely more preoccupied with staying alive than with domesticating wild animals, milking them, and churning their milk into delicious, creamy, buttery goodness to put atop their roasted sweet potato. So, no – Cavemen didn’t eat dairy as we know it today.
Healthy, traditional, native cultures – like those studied by Dr. Weston A. Price – did eat butter. And milk. And cream. And cheese.
How do we connect those dots?
With a perspective beyond the “dos” and “don’ts.” Yes, folks – we’re gonna get hung up on the details. (Remember when being detail-oriented was considered a good thing?)
. . .
First off, let’s get one thing straight: Modern, factory-farmed, pasteurized, homogenized dairy is likely garbage. This is most of what you find at the store. And, by my observation, it’s most of what’s been studied to be detrimental to humans.
That’s vastly different from raw, grass-fed, full-fat, 100% pastured dairy (I’ll call it “RGFFF100PP” for short) from animals eating their natural diet. Learn more about Raw Milk here.
RGFFF100PP dairy from animals eating their natural diet is nutrient-dense (thanks, science!) and filled with fat-soluble vitamins (FSVs) like A, D, and even some K2.
Remember what I said before?
What we know of our ancestors, whether we’re talking Cave Men or more recent, healthy, native cultures, is that they valued the most nutrient-dense foods above all others.
RGFFF100PP dairy from animals eating their natural diet IS nutrient-dense. And those nutrients are in the dairy fat (the butter). Many people swear by its healing properties. Yes, cow’s milk is for baby cows. Yes, milk is cow boob juice. But us top-o’-the-food-chainers have a long history of consuming the various emissions and in-to-out contents of the animals we eat. Just read this book for a whole chapter on recipes using Milk, Eggs, and Sperm.
It’s modern dairy that causes problems. It’s the skim milk we once poured over Fruity Krunchy Pebble Smackers. It’s the Ultra-Pasteurized White Water we once chugged with trans-fat and gluten-filled cookies. It’s the part-skim pre-shredded mozzarella we once ate in our stuffed-crust pizzas.
Many of the nutrients found in RGFFF100PP dairy – and the nutrients we sought as we evolved – are the same nutrients found in liver, bone marrow, and the fermented contents of animals’ intestinal tracts. Are you gonna eat those things every day?
Probably not. So where ya gonna get ‘em?
. . .
In my opinion, optimizing a Paleo-style plan means seeking those ancestral nutrients. Too often we get stuck in a chicken-broccoli-coconut-oil-is-Paleo/all-dairy-is-bad/almond-flour-in-everything existence, and we miss out on those nutrients that were truly responsible for keeping people healthy throughout history.
Interestingly, gut bacteria actually produce Butyrate, a fatty acid also FOUND IN BUTTER, from soluble-fiber carbohydrate (like, for example, sweet potato). You’re gonna get your butter, by hook or by crook.
Stephan Guyenet, PhD, writes about some of the amazing properties of Butyrate here.
I’ll go so far as to say that vitamins A, D and K2 are still deficient in many “Paleo-style” diets, and folks NEED to seek them deliberately and enthusiastically, whether through organ meats, RGFFF100PP dairy, or a blend of Butter Oil and Cod Liver Oil. (I ONLY recommend this stuff. And I’m not paid to do it.)
There are many food intolerances at work in many folks, even to Paleo-friendly foods like eggs or nightshades, so if you don’t tolerate dairy, don’t eat it. Your call. You may find that clarified butter or ghee (butter with all milk solids removed) is tolerated just fine. Whether you incorporate dairy or not, get those FSVs from somewhere. Chicken, broccoli and coconut oil ain’t gonna cut it in the long-term. Neither is almond flour Paleo “Bread.” Trust me. I’ve been at this for awhile.
The Paleo lifestyle should be one of deep thought, continued learning, and valuing context. In a way, that sucks – we want an easy, rules-based existence. We want a simple Label with simple Laws. And, in a way, this is simple: Eat the most nutrient-dense, nutrient-available foods possible. Eat a variety of them (ie, don’t give up all other sources of nutrition in favor of, say, dairy just ’cause some Cave Girl said it was ok).
Use the lessons of the past to inform your choices in the present.
Eat unprocessed foods - animals, seafood, veggies, roots, tubers, healthy fats, and “traditional foods” when you can. Keep the crap off your body too. Have fun with it.
Did you make it this far? If so, leave a comment. Are you a Butter Believer? Have YOU written on this topic? If so, please share!
. . .
Be sure to check out my Good Nutrition in 100 Words post.
Here’s some of the stuff people (MUCH smarter than I) have written about fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2. (I stole pretty much everything I know from them.)
The Fat-Soluble Activators (Vitamins A and D)
The X-Factor (pretty much everything you could hope to know about K2, by PhD Chris Masterjohn)
Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox
Is All Butter Created Equal? From Mark’s Daily Apple