Followers of this blog know I’ve been a staunch supporter of the Paleo diet. For a long time, I’d told everyone who would listen that the Paleo diet was the one and only path toward vibrant health and wellness. My fervor had tempered a bit in the years that followed, and I think this progression is relatively common. Going Paleo full bore tends to result in a fairly dramatic change in life quality for those who are accustomed to the Standard American Diet (SAD). Empty Your Cup, and leap into Paleo with everything you have, and your body will rejoice. Used to a steady diet of the calorie dense but nutritionally bereft foods that make up the SAD, the sudden influx of extremely nutrient dense foods on the “approved” list of the Paleo diet, combined with the proscription of all bread and grain-containing foods results in the Life Change Perfect Storm of Calorie Reduction + Improved Food Quality. Is it any wonder that people experience dramatic improvements due to this diet? This says nothing of the improvements those with gluten intolerances or allergies experience. And so people become exceedingly passionate about this dietary philosophy. They become emotionally invested and occasionally become ersatz Paleo missionaries. As long as the discourse doesn’t turn ugly I think this is both understandable and laudable. If a diet has changed your life, why wouldn’t you want to share?
But even Paleo thought-leaders such as Dr. Kurt Harris and Robb Wolf have conceded that carbohydrates are not inherently unhealthy, evil, or fat-causing. As with so many other factors, context matters. And as with any other dietary trickery, far and away the most important variable is always overall caloric intake per day. If Paleo is carbohydrate agnostic, as most of the Paleo leadership now acknowledges, then Paleo’s “value proposition” is now “a diet made up of real, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, and bereft of toxins, allergens, and anti-nutrients.” This is an excellent value prop!
But… (Part 2)
Paleo can hardly own the concept of real, unprocessed foods. Furthermore, doesn’t context matter when discussing toxins, allergens, and anti-nutrients? For an alcoholic, no amount of alcohol is acceptable. For my part, I will feel free to have the occasional drinky drink and feel no remorse for it. Similarly, an individual suffering from Celiac or a gluten allergy cannot eat bread. But if one doesn’t suffer from either?
Gluten is bad for everyone!
Well…is it? There is proof gluten is problematic to Celiac and Gluten Allergy sufferers, but there is only a lot of supposition about the potential long term effects of gluten consumption in non-reactive persons. If gluten causes no noticeable symptoms when a person, nor is there any testable reaction at a doctors office, why would I advise anyone to strictly avoid it, upon pain of death? It seems a leap of faith I’m not willing to make.
Even if there’s no reaction, there’s an opportunity cost of less nutrient dense foods!!!
This is a fact. Using the same comparison I made above, an alcoholic can drink no alcohol at all, but a non-alcoholic can feel free to have a drink or two without impacting his or her health. By the same token, alcoholic drinks cannot make up a large percentage of this persons caloric intake without impacting health. While bread has more nutritional benefits than alcohol, it must still “crowd out” more nutrient dense foods in an iso-caloric diet. If you’re a perfectionist, this might be unacceptable for you, and that’s a laudable commitment. However, I wonder how much of a real difference this is going to make in the long term. Does every meal you put in your body have to be a perfect blend of fibrous vegetables and wild meat? Perhaps washed down with home made kombucha? Will the occasional sandwich have even a 1% impact on your biomarkers of health?
So Paleo sucks?
Not at all! Paleo is an amazing diet philosophy that I would recommend to anyone who wants a turn-key solution. If you just want to know what to eat and what not to eat, with hard and fast rules, and you want to be healthy and happy, Paleo will do it for you. However, I incorporate rice, oatmeal, sugar, and grains into my diet (mindful of overall calorie intake and maintaining the macronutrient levels I’m after) and therefore can no longer truly consider myself “Paleo.”
My advice to everyone reading this blog is to undertake a full, strict 30-day Paleo Challenge. That means 30 days of 100% compliance…you can do it. You can do anything for 30 days, and I don’t want to hear that you can’t. After that, slowly add back in those Neolithic foods, one at a time, checking for any reactivity. What should emerge is a tailored diet of your own, minus any of the foods that you react negatively to. For some of you, this will resemble a strict Paleo diet still! Others, like me, are afforded a bit more dietary latitude.