Is it “Paleo?” And is it Real Food?

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This post was originally published on June 10, 2012. It has been updated and republished.

Is that ‘Paleo’?

I get this question in one form or another quite often, usually about some is-it-or-isn’t-it “grey area” food that Paleo eaters are confused about. I’ve been pretty utterly Paleo-fied since ‘aught-eight (that’s 2008; roughly an eternity) so I speak from both experience AND as a person who holds the Paleo/Real Food lifestyle in extremely high regard.

Since Paleo is an easy, simple way to define a Real Food lifestyle (and vice versa) it’s important to understand what these terms really mean to a modern human living in today’s world; to understand which questions are worth pondering and which are – frankly – usually a waste of time and energy when it comes to health. (The whole point is health, right?)

I say USUALLY because some people thrive on being incredibly, sometimes even arbitrarily regimented – sometimes because of extreme health problems, sometimes because that’s just how their brains work. That’s cool, but it’s not me – and if it’s not you either, this is the post for you.

Those who are new to this lifestyle (welcome!) as well as the Old Hats are often perplexed by a few things – like why real foodies also seem obsessed with things like butter, tequila, and dark chocolate. (Today’s not so much about tequila or dark chocolate. I’ll write about those eventually.)

We’ve all been there. These thoughts, my friend, are normal.

But to keep you from spending too much time dwelling in the land of furrowed foodie brows and perplexing Paleo conundrums, I thought I’d write this piece. Because: context.

Context.
Context.
Context.

(Read my book Eat the Yolks for all the context you can handle. It’s not just about yolks.)

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.

Let’s all agree on one thing: the Paleo/Real Food movement, at its best, is all about optimizing physical and mental health using the most nutrient-dense, nutrient-available foods possible. Healthhealthhealth. If you’re here because you want to look different, irrespective of health, I have no clue how to advise you.

By nutrient-available, I mean the foods whose nutrition is actually available to the body. I write at length about this in my book, but to summarize: properly-raised animal products, veggies, and fruits have nutrition that’s easily available to the body via the natural process of digestion. They’ve also got all the nutrition human beings need. Hence, our focus on them.

Nuts and seeds come in a bit below animals, vegetables and fruits on the nutrient availability scale, but that’s cool, because in nature, they’re not as easy to come by anyway (ever tried to get a walnut from tree to mouth? It’s harrd).

Grains and beans and soy have much less available nutrition than all of the above, as they contain constituents that “hoard” the relatively few nutrients they’ve got, and these constituents aren’t broken down by our normal process of digestion. That’s why you might hear about “properly prepared” grains and beans as a safer choice, if you’re really stuck on having ’em (that’s a conversation for another day).

While grains and beans are (obviously) plants, this doesn’t mean they’re supremely healthy; in fact, they require a ton (some a bit less, some a bit more) of preparation before ever getting to our plates. Of course, we don’t grow up knowin’ that because the food companies generally do that stuff for us. We don’t grow, harvest, soak, mill or create those things ourselves any more.

Processed, refined, boxed, bagged, packaged and fat-stripped (as in, “low fat,” “cholesterol free” or “fat free”) foods – even the ones marketed as “healthy” – are total nutrition zeros. This, we know.

Simple, right? In essence, I’m saying forget everything you’ve been told (an easy way to do that is to read my book). The foods that are best for the body are the foods that have always been food. Wild-caught or properly raised animal products and seafood. Vegetables of all kinds (there are hundreds. More than I could get through in a decade). Fruits. Some nuts and seeds. Get all of them, and get a variety, because different foods provide (duh) different good things.

These staples provide everything that grains and beans and packaged “health foods” and pretty much everything else claim to bring to the proverbial table (including fiber) so there’s nothing lost.

Yet somehow, that idea scares the frog-flipping daylights out of folks. It sure freaked the heck outta me at the beginning. My brain screamed a continuous inner monologue of freak-out: “but…what about DAIRY?! What about CHOCOLATE?! Bacon, kombucha, sausage, chia, smoothies, honey, green beans, maple syrup, peas?! IF I EAT A PEA, will I get sent to Paleo prison? What about WINE?! What about gluten-free banana pancakes and almond flour cookies?”

That’s exhausting.

Aaaand this is where I set about answering all the above questions…without answering those questions. (Sigh. I know.) But I hope I’m actually saying something more valuable.

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!
    • That’s NOT (fill-in-the-diet-blank) Approved.

And we’re taught to think that if we don’t live within those rules a million percent of the time, we’ve failed. So much so, that we might as well go live on Diet Coke and Coco Dino-Bites, because EVERYTHING IS RUINED.

This would be fine if it actually solved all our problems. But generally, it doesn’t. That’s why the rules Diet section at Barnes & Noble is stacked with so many, many, MANY books.

Unfortunately, this is a toxic mind-set of on-wagon, off-wagon drama that’s been ingrained in our minds since we were young. We think we like it. But do we really NEED it?

Many of us fell into that obsessive, old-school Diet-minded trap when we went “Paleo” or started transitioning to “just eating real food.” We immediately sought the rules list that would guide us to miraculous changes in body composition (and health, hopefully) without necessarily understanding why we were making these new choices.

That’s what I did, and that’s OK. It’s a great start. Anything that kickstarts a real food lifestyle is fantastic. But living in that place – in that catalog of “approved” foods without the benefit of context to guide us through a lifetime of food choices –  doesn’t enrich the journey much. At least, it didn’t for me.

I found myself thinking:

  • Is dairy REALLY not “Paleo?” What about my butter? (Furthermore, is butter a carb?)
  • Is Dark Chocolate OK?
  • Is Kombucha “approved?”
  • BUT GREEN BEANS AREN’T PALEO BECAUSE BEANS AREN’T PALEO AND SOMEBODY SAVE ME FROM MYSELF!

Unconsciously, maybe we want a wagon to fall off of – because that’s what we know. It’s sneaky, but it’s that toxic “Diet” mentality. And I’m here to tell you – it’s cow patties.

As much as we like to pretend differently, there are no hard-and-fast “rules” set by some Absolute Power floating around in the sky. There are programs put together by PEOPLE, yes; but their rules are just that: their rules.

These rules may be helpful, and they may help us define some positive choices, but they are not The Rules That Apply to Everyone Set Forth for All Eternity by the Omnipresent Great and Powerful Oz. They aren’t even biological laws, necessarily, as any nutritionist familiar with the processes of digestion, assimilation and food utilization can tell you.

Even the “Paleo diet” – as in, the exact stuff a caveman ate – is completely up for debate, because it varied by region, location on this giant, once resource-rich planet, drought, famine, proximity to water, and beyond. From fish to pork to mammary glands (by this I mean dairy), whatever a caveman could find, they’d probably eat it. Their lives were about survival, not improving gym performance, body composition or getting ready for beach season.

Translation: THERE IS NO ONE PLAN THAT’S PERFECT FOR EVERYONE. There wasn’t even “one plan” for that pesky Caveman who now lives, so far as I can tell, in Paleo Debate land.

We don’t have a whole lot of true definitives. We DO, however, have sets of information that are intended to help. These are often known as “30-day programs,” “plans,” or “challenges,” and they generally are designed to teach us, through their “rules,” what we should and should not be eating (or what is or isn’t “Paleo.”) For some people, these are fantastic starting-points.

For others, they become excuses for disordered diet behavior. For the feeling that if you deviate a teensy bit from that information, you’ve done it wrong, ruined everything, fallen off the wagon, or failed.

(FYI: that is NOT what it means. If you don’t complete the challenge like a good little Real Food soldier, it does NOT mean you have ruined everything. It just means you’re still learning, exploring, and finding a place in Real Food land that feels right.)

Here’s the truth: there ARE no rules other than those we impose on ourselves. 

Scientifically, there is no one way to go about a “Real Food” plan. Nor is there one, singular “Paleo diet,” although the “challenges” on the market today and the Trademarked, Branded Paleo Diet (Capital D)(R)(TM) do propose hard and fast lists of rules.

But again, those rules were established by people who are trying to help based on the information they consider most helpful, not by the Real Food Reich or the Supreme God of Historical Re-Enactments.

HistoricalReenactment

When it comes to the Paleo lifestyle in particular, many of us treat it 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 most of what we do – food-related or not – isn’t Paleo. Showers, automobiles, Facebook, beefsteak tomatoes, 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. So what’r we supposed to do? Starve? Give up? Hope that one day Jurassic Park will actually happen and we can hunt down mastodons with Jeff Goldblum and Samuel L. Jackson?

(Hold on to your butts.)

No. Here’s what we do. We realize that:

There are no absolute rules. There is only information and choices and a framework for making decisions. 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 bossing you around and you punish yourself when you deviate in direct proportion to the wrath you believe should come upon you for disobeying. (Okay, that might be a bit of a reach).

The point is, the Real Food/Paleo/WhateverYouCallIt Lifestyle, lived in the long-term, is about informed self-determination. Not ongoing subscriptions to sets of rules put forth by people who don’t even know you.

And it’s certainly not about feeling sad that you can’t enjoy peas anymore ’cause they’re not Paleo. Or chocolate ’cause it’s not on your 30-day challenge. Or wine because it’s fun and helps you dance at weddings. Or unicorn farts because cavemen didn’t ride mythical creatures.

cavemanunicorn

(Yes, I do think I can be a trusted nutrition expert and best-selling author while saying things like unicorn farts.)

I’m getting out of breath. If you’ve made it this far, you seriously should just read my book.

So FORGET the historical re-enactment. Don’t live your life afraid of breaking “rules.” Don’t worry so much. Make it easy on yourself: just use the lessons of the past, as well as the information you collect as you go, to inform your choices in the present. 

Remember what I said earlier?

…Forget everything you’ve been told (an easy way to do that is to read my book). The foods that are best for the body are the foods that have always been food. Wild-caught or properly raised animal products and seafood. Vegetables of all kinds (there are hundreds. More than I could get through in a decade). Fruits. Some nuts and seeds. Get all of them, and get a variety, because different foods provide (duh) different good things.

So put those things on your plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’d say that’s 90% of the battle.

Expounding on these rules of thumb:

  • Properly raised animal products (so that answers the bacon, sausage and, yes, even dairy questions).
  • Vegetables of all kinds. Yes, this includes sweet potatoes and potatoes and beefsteak tomatoes and other things that grow. (Do you really think green beans and peas are going to ruin everything for you? If so, don’t eat them. If not, enjoy. I surely do.)
  • Fruits. Yes, they have carbs. But carbs aren’t the enemy, as long as YOU feel good eating them. Whole is ideal. Because a gluten-free banana pancake is less a banana than a pancake. Unless it’s literally a mashed cooked banana. Common sense.
  • Some nuts and seeds. Whole is ideal. Because an almond flour cookie is less an almond than a cookie. Common sense.
  • Get all of them, and get a variety.

If you eat enough of those so that you’re full, you can fill in the blanks as you see fit with the chocolate, the wine, the chia, the honey, the maple syrup, and the unicorn farts. Because deep down, you KNOW how much of those you can really tolerate before they start overwhelming your daily diet.

And as you go, keep learning. Because it’s the learning that will super-charge your health, your happiness, and open doors to all the NEW foods that also fill the above criteria that you may not have even known existed.

Here’s something I really enjoyed learning, that changed my food life for the better:

What we know of our ancestors – whether we’re talking Caveman 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. Maybe they didn’t know exactly why, but (whoopty doo for us) modern science confirms that those foods carry the greatest nutrient density! 

Read my book. Read my book. Read my book. (Or listen to it!)

When I learned that, I naturally started eating more of those things, even though – at the time, anyway – they weren’t part of anybody’s Program, Plan, or Diet. (That has changed over the last few years.)

Just think what I would have missed if I’d been stuck to the “rules.” Hooray!

So, remember how I said I was going to answer a bunch of questions without actually answering those questions?

How’d I do?

(Okay, I DO actually answer questions directly sometimes. See below. As with anyone else in the real food world who is asked about particular foods and whether they fit in a Real Food or Paleo plan, these are opinions based on my own years of study. They don’t have to be YOUR rules.)

What about…

  • Dairy? Read this.
  • Chocolate? Very dark chocolate, which is the only real chocolate, is perfectly healthy (it’s rich in antioxidants) and doesn’t even need to be considered an “indulgence.” Chocolate done right – not laden with sugar and gunk (hello, Hershey’s) is so rich that you probably can’t over-do it anyway.
  • Chocolate dairy? You mean chocolate ice cream? Have it if you want it. Have whatever ice cream you want, heck. Just make it the really, really good stuff so you have no regrets – and don’t punish yourself mentally afterward. Just move on. What ice cream does to our minds is way worse than what it actually does to our bodies.
  • Coffee? The good stuff, a cup a day, is an enjoyable ritual if you tolerate it well. You should know if you don’t. Remember, coffee loaded with sugar and white liquid is more sugar-and-white-liquid than coffee.
  • Bacon? From properly-raised animals, cured with salt, spices, and even sugar. THAT is what real bacon IS. (A bit of sugar is part of the chemical process of curing and really can’t hurt you.) Remember: variety. An all-bacon diet is only fine if you’re Burgess Meredith’s character in Grumpy Old Men.
  • Sausage? See: bacon.
  • Kombucha? Isn’t meant to be chugged all day long. It’s powerful stuff, so a bit here and there is fine. If you feel a constant urge to drink it, IT HAS TAKEN OVER YOUR LIFE AND YOU SHOULD BACK AWAY SLOWLY.
  • Chia? If you love it, have some. It’s blobby and fun and won’t hurt you. But it’s not The Missing Piece of the Human Diet, and neither is flax, açai, green smoothies, or any other craze.
  • Honey? It’s a natural sweetener and, in the GRAND SCHEME (as in, in the I eat other things besides just natural fructose so BIG PICTURE I’m going to be fine) it’s a fun addition to tea. And other stuff. If you feel a constant urge to eat it, IT HAS TAKEN OVER YOUR LIFE AND YOU SHOULD BACK AWAY SLOWLY. Remember, things like this, in nature, are a rare find and incredibly special. Treat them accordingly.
  • Green beans? Just eat the damn green beans.
  • Peas? See: green beans.
  • Maple syrup? See: honey.
  • Wine? C’mon. You should know when you’re overdoing it on the wine. #hiccup.
  • Gluten-free banana pancakes? They’re delicious…not every day. More pancake than banana, usually.
  • Almond flour cookies? They’re delicious…on special occasions, not every day. More cookie than almond.
  • Paleo pasta, bread, cereal, scones, crackers, pizza and thelistgoeson? They’re delicious…on special occasions. But not for every day.

The point really is: fill your PLATE (and your belly) with the REALLY good, whole stuff. On special occasions (or, for us, on Friday nights #paleopizza and Sunday mornings #bananapancakes) have something fun, if you want to…and then move on.

As you go, fill your HEAD with information – you can start on auto-pilot, but the journey gets REALLY awesome when you take control of the gears and figure out exactly what works for you and makes you feel healthy and happy.

Cool? If you made it this far, please leave a comment! Thanks for reading.

Be on the lookout for upcoming posts for more information about “grey area” foods: beans, legumes, properly prepared grains, and natural sugars. And be sure to read my current post on dairy!

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Comments

      • says

        Bahaha!! Funny! :)

        Loved this blog. Loved, Loved, Loved it! Of course I love anyone who tells me butter is ok, but what made this blog stand out for me is where you pointed out how the “Paleo” foods we eat today such as grass-fed beef and heirloom tomatoes weren’t really the foods of our ancestors.

        Thank you for a well thought, common sense approach. I look forward to sharing this one!

  1. Michelle says

    Great post! I’m almost a year into this ancestral style of eating, and I remember frantically googling “is x paleo?” in the first few months. My understanding on the reasoning behind paleo foods was shaky, so I focused on the allowed/not allowed list, which seems to be the easiest route for novices to take. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of going from demonizing one food to another, but as I’ve gained experience in how certain foods affect me, I’m developing a personal framework for my diet based the rules of my body. It’s irritating to constantly see people commenting on posts and recipes saying “that’s not paleo!” as if someone has violated a religious commandment, but then I remember my mindset in the beginning. If thinking in terms of paleo/not paleo is the equivalent of dietary training wheels, at least people are starting to ride the bike.

    • says

      “If thinking in terms of paleo/not paleo is the equivalent of dietary training wheels, at least people are starting to ride the bike.”

      I love it, Michelle. You make an awesome point!

  2. says

    Love this! I use grass fed butter in a lot of my cooking and have been seriously considering seeking out a good raw dairy source. I think you’ve given me the inspiration I’ve been looking for. Thanks!

  3. Amy says

    I can’t get past the plain fact that cow’s milk is for baby cows. I have breastfed four kids, and it seems absurd to me that cow’s milk, in any form, is something for human consumption. It’s for baby cows and it has just the right ingredients to help them grow quickly.

    If nature intended for people to use cows for milk, why do human mothers make milk? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I think we were created perfectly to raise our babies, and cows were created perfectly to raise theirs.

    • says

      I agree 98% on your point about breast milk, but the way I often look at it is this: We need vitamins A, D, E and K to be optimally healthy. These nutrients are rich in things folks simply won’t eat, like organ meats and fermented goodies. So raw milk (and, to a much greater degree, BUTTER!) can provide those nutrients – and people will actually eat it! You just NEED those nutrients. I also often look at it as a cost-benefit situation for early agrarians. Did it make more sense, upon the termination of a nomadic/hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to KILL an animal for its liver and a one-time shot of those nutrients? Not really, especially for people who had formed non-mobile settlements with domesticated animals. It would make more sense to have a consistent source of those nutrients through the dairy of domesticated animals (containing many of the same nutrients!) than killing an animal for a one-time source of the same nutrition. It’s not a perfect scenario, but it’s one I understand and really don’t believe has too many down-sides! I actually think a person could conceivably achieve greater health emphasizing raw GF dairy than if that person was more perfectly “Paleo” but using nothing but low-fat muscle meats and vegetables. It’s a spectrum, I guess.

      Technically, egg yolks are for the growth & development of baby chickens…. Yet I eat them frequently :) Somewhat different, yet somehow seems similar enough!

      • AmyA says

        Totally see your point about the egg yolks :) Had never thought about them that way. And, yeah, not a big organ meat fan, either. Although I do love all things fermented.

        Still having a hard time with the cow breast milk thing, and I might always have a problem with it. But I’m willing to try out using ghee — just ordered some Pure Indian Foods ghee and will try cooking with it on occasion.

        Thanks for the input!

  4. Bill DeWitt says

    I’ve actually changed what I call my diet from “Ancestral” to “Pastoral” to make people shut up about butter and cheese.

  5. Aschwin Wesselius says

    I loved this post, it’s so dense with logical insights I have to make sure I bookmark it.

    About the people who ask “is x Paleo?”, these are people who are not sure about themselves. They need black/white rules instead of taking the time to listen to their body and what it needs.

    Jesus said it properly: “The Shabbat is for the people, the people aren’t for the Shabbat”. In other words, guidelines are there for you, not that you have to stick to the guidelines. Making it too black and white, makes you feel guilty when you can’t stick to it. It also makes room for other people who can stick to it, to point to others saying they fail at it. And that’s WRONG.

    Your body is a lean machine and it needs certain stuff to operate. It’s up to you how well you want it to operate or which failures you don’t mind to appear once in a while. And yes, our forefathers knew what’s best to thrive and how to feel good without to much fuss.

    Since I’m on butter, coconut oil and olive oil as the main part of my diet I’m OK with adding carbohydrates, proteins etc. whatever I want without getting a rush or a dip from my bloodsugar.

    Second, I have less troubles with changing temperatures from cold to hot etc. and I think that’s something we’ve got used to: hot? use the AC, cold? use the central heating. While in history people where used to cold and hot weather no matter the season they where tough.

    I’m glad other people are sharing this information so the sooner we can get back to our basic needs.

  6. says

    First, I love you. Second, I use butter daily because it makes everything more delicious. Third, I couldn’t agree more with your point about nothing technically being “paleo”. I always find myself not wanting to say I eat “paleo” because really I just eat whole foods. Keep rocking on Liz!

  7. Bex says

    NIce blog! But I have a question that has been on my mind for a while now…here tis.
    I dont live in the US, I live in Australia (to be exact, on the little triangle island at the bottom).

    There are no CAFOs here. The milk I buy is from a small dairy surrounded by lush (very lush) grass. But it is pasturised, as raw milk is illegal here.

    The butter I buy is mostly from the supermarket, but sometimes from small dairies with proudly grass-fed cows. It contains cream, water and salt and is a deep yellow.

    From what I know, most of our cows are grassfed in Oz. There is so much land, and hence grass, that to do anything else would be silly.

    So….is this butter ok? Its from grass-fed cows, but it is pasturised….what to do??

    B

  8. Jordy says

    “None of those things existed alongside our prehistoric ancestors – they’re all products of the forward-motion (some might call it “evolution”) of our world. And we depend on those things.”

    There is something about this sentence in the above post that irks me. Modern food species are not what existed 30K to 1.6Mya, certainly even red jungle fowl (from which our modern farm chicken was bred) is unlikely to be genetically unmutable and the the extinct Aurochs were killed off in the agricultural era. So while the spirit of the sentence I’ve quoted remains intact that we are not eating things that any paleolithic hominid could have found and vice versa. Modern food and animals are products of both evolution by natural selection and sexual selection, which until hominids gained modern intelligence still includes hunter-gatherers to a certain extent. Following an agricultural revolution, artificial selection and breeding changed edible species into forms more recognizable today.

    What I think I find irksome about the quote sentence is that while yes, it was artificial selection and breeding that led to modern species (and that is not evolution), to invoke the qualifier statements of “what some might call” with regard to evolution is kind of soft and apologetic for a blogger following a diet/lifestyle based upon evolutionary principles and the very fact of human evolution. Maybe, I’m just being tangential weirded out but felt like pointing it out. In a world, and country (USA), where some people still don’t believe in evolution and for people basing their diet/lifestyle on evolution, I try to not use qualifying or apologist statements when mentioning evolution.

    Kind regards.

    • says

      Hey Jordy…I think ya may have missed a bit of sarcasm there.

      As for being “soft and apologetic,” I assure you, you’re reading too much into it. But you’ve constructed a great argument about something you’re clearly passionate about, so I understand why it irked you. (Were you an English major?!)

      While I do generally follow and advocate a diet based on evolutionary principles, I am also a firm advocate of the “ancestral” model that looks at more recent cultures, “native wisdom,” and nutrient-seeking as modeled by native folk (that’s really more where this post takes ya; or, at least, that was my intention). Evolution, to me, is a foregone conclusion and I don’t feel compelled to argue for it at this time, partially because, as a nutritionist, I tend to hear the general population fretting about the minutae of adaptations and whether something is “Paleo” within the context of foods they’re already familiar with (like chicken, broccoli and coconut oil). It’s just not been as helpful an approach as the ancestral model, which I find no less legitimate and no less robust in body of research. It’s just my orientation – and it doesn’t have to be yours.

      Perhaps my slant is a result of my goals: I’m interested in applying these ideas to populations, and reaching folks with the ancestral model has been more powerful and, in my opinion, no less scientific. Regardless, the “Cave Man” idea is still a good rule of thumb/place to start.

      Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comment!

  9. Danielle says

    Great post, Liz! That’s one of the hardest things to explain to people – Kerrygold on everything! Coffee! Veggies! Sweet potatoes! I will definitely be referencing this article in the future. You explain it way better than I could. :)

  10. Erin says

    Love, love, love this post. I love how you cut through the BS and just lay it out there.

    We’ve been “primal, paleo, whatever” for more than a year and we all feel so much better. Last month, however, I had the opportunity to participate in a Paleo Challenge hosted by our Crossfit box. I hated every second of it…it made me crazy because the rules were, well, RULES: Dock yourself if you had mayonnaise! What? I made the mayonnaise from scratch… Dock yourself if you don’t take your fish oil capsules three times a day? But, but…I’ve tried three different brands (including your favorite, by the way) and they all make me break out really terribly. No butter, no ghee…they’re dairy. Oh, seriously? But, but, it is grass-fed! You guys are insane.

    So, anyway, instead of feeling empowered for taking care of myself, I was just as crazy obsessed as I was when I was an 18-year old anorexic/bulimic. I lost all connection to the intuitive way I’d learned to eat over the past year…guess who didn’t finish the “challenge”? 😉

    It took almost a month of ricocheting around for my body to settle down and tell me what it wanted. We won’t be doing that again.

    Love, love, the Kerrygold butter and Pure Indian Foods ghee. They taste amazing. So, for us, they are “primal, paleo, whatever” and will be staying in our rotation.

  11. says

    Mean Girls quoting = instant love!

    Your posts as well as your well thought out responses to people who don’t necessarily agree with something that you’ve written are really inspiring for someone trying to make it as a new holistic nutritionist.

  12. Jeff says

    I have never commented before, but I had to tell you how absolutely brilliant this post is. It made me completely rethink my train of thought about why I eat the way I do. Especially the part about how the foods we have now differ from what Grok and his family had available to them.

    Everyone, me included, gets so caught up in names and labels because it makes it easier to discern one thing from another. But at their core “paleo,” “primal” and “ancestral” are all different versions of the same thing: eat real food and avoid grains. It all seems so much simpler now. Thanks!

  13. Wendy says

    What a great blog post! I’ll probably share it, because I’m constantly being asked “is that Paleo?” and “are you allowed to have that?” by people who don’t fully grasp that the way I eat isn’t a series of rigid rules, but a series of entirely personal choices made based on some guiding principles that are (as you so eloquently said) focused on “optimizing health using the most nutrient-dense, nutrient-available foods possible”.

    We really have been conditioned to let someone else call the shots and tell us what we have to do to lose weight, get healthy, eat right, and so on and so on. Which I suppose is why people are so nonplussed when they ask me how I’ve lost the 50 pounds (and counting) and all I say is that I stopped eating processed crap and started focusing on eating the best food I can get. Or when someone (usually my husband or my mother) asks, “can you have that?” – like tonight when I expressed a desire to have an ice-cream cone at the end of a hot summer day – and I reply that I can have whatever the hell I want.

    Going paleo was enormously liberating for me, because it’s so self-guided, so individual, so n=1, that it made the whole concept of “cheating” on a diet completely irrelevant. I am accountable to exactly nobody else, for the choices I make about what goes down my gullet. I am the one who loses or gains the weight, the one who feels better or worse, the one who knows what works and what doesn’t, what pushes me in the right direction, and what pushes me in the wrong. I am in charge. I am the boss of me. I do not CHEAT. I CHOOSE. It’s a completely different mindset from the old-skool, toxic Diet mentality. And it’s freaking awesome.

    If what you’re doing is working for you, whatever that looks like, then you’re Doing It Right. And that is also freaking awesome.

    • Jen says

      Wendy, I loved this response. I’ve been Paleo for almost a month now, and until I found this article, I admit I was getting frustrated with figuring out what I “could” and “couldn’t” have. This article, and your comment, really crystallized the way my thinking on this has evolved.

      • Wendy says

        Thanks, Jen! I’m delighted and flattered that my words resonated with you. Liz’s article helped crystallize my thoughts on the subject, too. I don’t know how to make it any clearer to the people whose thinking is still mired in the old way of thinking, that someone else knows better than they do what is good for them, and that if only they follow the rules properly, everything will fall into place. Evolved thinkers, unite!

  14. Aschwin Wesselius says

    I’m so sorry for the people ‘out there’ who mistake the word diet for short-period, rule restricted, timely framed, calorie counting way of stuffing or the lack of exactly that.

    Diet means life style, a way of life in the matter of feeding the body what it needs and avoiding the things it doesn’t need. And yes, that’s about choices, not limited options. That’s about helping the body, not training the body to cope without something.

    I myself am trying to figure it out what works for me. I try to set myself free from the three meals a day mindset, to the ‘my body tells me it needs a lot of fat right now, because it’s getting shaky’ mindset.

    The fact that I struggled over 15-years with hypoglycemia and what to eat at what time and in which amount and am now discovering the power of satured fats is in one word awesome. If the satured fats that I consumed the last months would gain me weight, I should have weighted some 200+ pounds by now. But I don’t and I’m glad I dared to make that choice.

    I’m eliminating stuff from my diet and am looking to things to add that I can afford, that I like, which I know of that make me feel better in the long run etc. And I eat at the times I want to eat. The last problem is dinner, it’s a hard one with tough choices to cut through. But I’m sure that time will tell that we as a society will return to a moment where food is important and that we accept our different needs and wants at the table.

  15. coley says

    just another comment to say bravo. :)

    i did have a funny conversation this week about how it’s so nice to eat real food ….. a great home cooked dinner, maybe a little dessert ….. all “paleo” of course. you feel full and satisfied, but not guilty. seriously, it’s kind of weird. my whole life after a big, delicious meal you still have that internal monologue giving you a guilt trip for eating “x.y.z.” but, if you follow your approach as you discussed today and learn what about nutrition and healthy eating; and what real food is and cook at home …… we eat these amazing meals at home, and i don’t have any guilt! but, it’s an adjustment. my brain plays it over and over in my head looking for that fatal error of eating something bad. i have to keep telling myself, “self, it was all good. just accept it. and enjoy it!!!” i was never a “dieter” which makes it even more poignant (for myself at least) ….. that it is that engrained in all of us to still think about food in a context of good or bad. just another part of the paradigm shift when you give up s.a.d. and start to follow primal/paleo/wapf/ancestral living!!!! :)

    happy happy sunday. hugs.

  16. eric the viking says

    Great post – it’s not uncommon for friends and coworkers who see me eating butter or drinking coffee (or drinking coffee with butter in it!) to say “I thought you weren’t allowed to eat X.”

    I try to explain that I didn’t join some sort of cult that strictly dictates what I’m allowed to eat. I eat real food that makes me feel good, and that the most important aspect of healthy eating is to have a healthy relationship with food. I really appreciated your point about good food/bad food, allowed/non-allowed, on-wagon/off-wagon for that reason. I’ve found that it’s hard for many folks to get past the “toxic diet mentality” (second most common thing said to me is “how long are you doing the Paleo diet?”).

    Anyway – thanks for the post!

    • says

      Thanks, Eric…that toxic diet mentality sneaks into EVERYTHING. It’s becoming more and more apparent as I realize that *I* get to dictate what I choose to eat, do, like and believe, and I don’t have to subscribe to some official set of “rules.”

  17. says

    [Marked as spam by Antispam Bee | Spam reason: Server IP]
    I love this! There are still so many people that think paleo is a “Fad Diet” not unlike the atkins diet. Even though technically, paleo/primal/whole food is a “diet” and way of eating, I almost never use the word “diet” because… well of what all the stuff you just said in this great article.
    I think I found a new favorite page to link to when asked the question “But isn’t paleo just a fad?” Thanks! love it.

    • says

      Thank you Melissa! I’m so glad you think so! Unfortunately it’s a sound-bite culture, and everything this movement is about is NOT sound-bite-friendly (well, it is – “just eat real food” – but we’re so confused about what real food actually is that more explanation is ALWAYS required!) I’m convinced that’s why there are so many “Paleo” books coming out – it takes work, honesty, and MORE than a sound-bite to explain away decades of misinformation and diet obsession!

  18. Angel Roberto says

    Hi Liz!

    Loved this article! I have a few questions though: So NO Dairy? Of any kind? What about Greek yogurt? How do you feel about Almond Milk, Goats Milk and do you suggest drinking coffee black or what could be put into it?

  19. Courtney says

    Great post! I’ve recently stopped following many “paleo” sites and blogs just because of the things you talk of in this post. I jumped on the bandwagon a few years ago and was tickled pink I could recreate all my guilty pleasures by using almond flour and honey and kept in my same sugar dependent state and that’s what 90% of the new paleo cookbooks are about these days. Sad because so many people think its healthy because its “unrefined” or “natural”. A half a cup of honey isn’t optimal for anyone :-/ Paleo is just as full of buzz words as the low fat craze. I wouldn’t give back this journey to optimal health for anything but now I know it’s really about REAL FOOD, nutrient dense and clean. Thank you for staying true to the cause, whatever it ends up being!

    P.s. I LOVE BUTTER and I’ll never go back to life without it.

  20. Ruth Mota says

    I am a newborn ” baby Paleo”.Decided to start the “Paleo Diet” yesterday after reading through different diets online.I never thought I would end up doing a diet as I am a eat what is good for you^type of mindset girl.
    But as I came across your page and read your articles I see the “Paleo”s a lifestyle more than a diet itself.And I like that a lot.I am not being very strict and Yes I am still drinking milk in my coffee and cereal and don’t believe in giving up on dairy completely as it is a great source of Protein,good fat and vitamins and energy.I have full cream milk that is not pasteurized.The only down side is that this kind of milk doesn’t last long(max 3 days in the fridge),but it’s worth it for the nutrients and I HATE skim milk and low fat because it just tastes like water (tasteless).Though I love water :)
    I also want to keep other stuff in my diets that might not be “Paleo” but that I love eating and that are not all that bad.But I am cutting out bread,pastas,rice,refined sugar,sweets,cakes,cookies,fizzy drinks,super market fruit juice,etc.
    I get it. The ” Paleo ” mindset is about living and eating healthy like our ancestors.I believe in eating and living healthy.Also will definitely get your book on “skin” solutions.Have battled with eczema and wide pores for a while.

    Thank you for all the insight Liz!

  21. Tahlor says

    Thank you for this post! We are just jumping into this paleo lifestyle and I have been so hung up on what is a yes/no food and transitioning our 3 (picky!) children!

  22. says

    Easiest way to look at this is to recognize pretty much nothing we have access to is actually paleo. Not even close really. A large majority of the fruits and vegetables we are exposed to simply did not exist in paleolithic times and have been hybridized and cultivated from different species of plants the same way we now have shih tzu’s from grey wolves.
    Even modern cows which are a staple of protein for many paleoers never existed then. I think it’s best to stop calling it paleo and be focused on getting real, whole foods as local and as organic as possible.

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