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“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.
(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?”
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.
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.
(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.)
- 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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