Take a look at the people around you. Sit outside a coffee shop and watch the world go by. Look at the commuters on your train. Stroll around your office.
What do you see? People who are tired, pale, overweight, and overstressed. What happened? We’re living in the scientific age. A time when we know more about our bodies than we’ve ever done. More about nutrition than we’ve ever done. More about the effect that food has on our bodies than we’ve ever done. And yet, here we are with obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes figures skyrocketing.
What went wrong?
The benefits of a Real Food Diet
Before we get into the diet, its origins, and what you do and don’t eat, why don’t we start with some of the benefits you might get from eating this way:
- Lose or gain weight. I lost over two stone when I started eating Real Food. Angie actually put on a little weight. The diet helps you get back to the weight you should be
- More energy. Gone are the sugar crashes of days gone by. We both now have steady, even energy, which doesn’t fluctuate throughout the day
- Better mood. With even energy comes an even mood
- Better health. We both rarely get colds anymore, and when we do they’re over quickly. Our resting heart rates have improved, and we are both leaner, fitter, and stronger
- Better looking! My puffy, red-cheeked, chubby face has gone. I’m back to being the handsome devil I used to be (perhaps!). Plus, I’m physically more in proportion than I’ve ever been
- Barely believable benefits. I’ve been asthmatic my whole life. It’s gone. Angie has had IBS symptoms her whole life. Gone. A friend of ours on a Real Food diet has improved her hearing and eyesight. That blows. My. Mind.
These sound a bit like an infomercial’s claims, but they’re not from a book. They are the benefits we’ve actually experienced or witnessed ourselves. So, how do you do it?
Going back to the beginning
The term ‘Paleo’, used to describe a diet, is a double edged sword. On one side, you have a diet that could be the way we were designed to eat. On the other, a label that suggests this is a fad diet like so many that have come and gone over the years. So, even though what we’re discussing here is a paleo/primal/ancestral approach to food, in actual fact, it might now be better to label it a ‘Real Food Diet.’
Origins of Paleo
The diet was popularised by Dr Loren Cordain, who released the first Paleo book in 2002. In it, he argued that processed foods and grains were making us sick, and that our optimum diet, despite the advice from the US government, was to return to the way we ate before agriculture was introduced around 10,000 years ago.
Since that first book, hundreds of others have taken the ideas even further, with Robb Wolf making the diet more accessible, and Mark Sisson delving more into how we can make the diet relevant in the modern world.
The arguments for Paleo
In short, pro-Paleo people argue that this is how we were meant to eat. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors didn’t go to the supermarket and buy Krispy Kremes and Dairy Milks. They tracked wild animals, killed and ate them, and utilised all of the natural foods that were growing in the part of the world that they lived in to supplement their diet.
But more than that, they lived fundamentally differently. They would walk long distances at a slow pace, moving with the herds and seasons. They would spend their days in the sun, sprint and use their strength to make a kill, and rise and sleep based on natural light. They would teach through play, dance and song, and they would relax and laze around to conserve energy for when it was needed. This sounds a little bit like The Lion King, now I come to think of it. Never mind.
Lets compare that to a typical westerner these days.
You wake up to a loud alarm, even though it’s still dark outside. You drag yourself out of bed, exhausted even though you’ve slept for eight hours. You eat some cereal with milk and toast. You commute for an hour or two in the car or on the train, dealing with traffic, delays, and inconsiderate people – all the while your stress levels getting higher and higher. You get to the office and sit indoors all day at a stressful job, picking up a frappe-latte-cino for a lift, before the carb-heavy lunch. More bread. More sugar. A Diet Coke and a muffin in the afternoon to address the slump. You do the same journey in reverse, with all the other grey-looking people, all exhausted. You get home in the dark. If you have the energy, you go for a long run or to a spin class, because that’s how we’ve been told we will keep the weight off, even though it doesn’t seem to work. You collapse in front of the TV until you go to bed late, unable to wind down before another restless night.
It’s quite a difference. And it’s happening everywhere you look.
Making it work in the modern world
Now, we can’t fully return to the ways of our ancestors. I’m not going to go to Colchester Zoo and start tracking a zebra before I kill it with a spear.
But, we can mimic aspects of the palaeolithic existence to express our genes differently. By that, I don’t mean that we can change our genetic code, but we can give it different inputs. How about an example…
Think of an iPad. The iPad itself can’t change, but what you do with it can. You can have different apps, different programs, and you can run it differently to better utilise it as a machine. The argument for Paleo is that we can give our body the stimuli it is expecting by returning to the way we were meant to be.
For example, we can eat food similar to what they ate. Grass-fed beef, vegetables, fat. We can exercise in short, intense bursts, adding long, slow hikes as much as possible. And we can use the sun, both to help us get Vitamin D and to guide us when to wake and sleep.
So, to be clear, it’s not about living like a caveman. It’s not about just stuffing your face with meat. It’s about eating things similar to what we, as a species, were designed to eat. The theory being, this switches on the right genes, switches off the wrong ones, and helps us return to something more like we used to be – slim, athletic, and not plagued by a whole host of ever-increasing preventable diseases.
Okay. Got it so far? Awesome. So lets look at the food in a bit more detail.
- Meat, fish, fowl
- Nuts and seeds
- Tubers (sweet potatoes and yams)
In each case, you’re looking for the absolute best quality possible. Grass-fed, organic beef and pasture-raised chickens. Wild-caught salmon, and eggs that were laid by a happy, pasture-raised hen that was free to peck around. We want to eat animals that were eating what they were meant to eat too. And we want those animals to have been in their natural environments. Do you think cows were meant to be shoved in a factory, squished together, fed grain and then pumped full of antibiotics? Me neither. A cow surviving on a grain diet produces very different meat, with an almost entirely different composition, than grass-fed. When you can, go grass-fed (with your butter too!).
Fats are an important part of our diet, and contrary to conventional wisdom, fat does not make you fat. Make grass-fed butter, olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil an important part of your diet. Gary Taubes’ book ‘Why We Get Fat: And What to Do about It‘ can explain why better than I will ever be able to!
Let me give you another quick example which might make you think about it differently. What would you feed a lion? I’m guessing you’d say big hunks of meat. You know they’re a predator. You know they eat other animals. You know that’s what they were designed to eat to be healthy and survive, so that’s what you give them. And by the way, when was the last time you saw an out of shape lion on a documentary?!
Now, lets say you had a human in a cage. What would you give them? Bread? Muffins? Cookies? Milkshakes? Or would you try and give them the food they were designed to eat to thrive? We’re hunters, so that probably means meat. We’re gatherers, so that probably means natural things that grow in the earth, like vegetables. Make sense?
So it’s carbs that make us fat, and not fat?
Yes! Ten points to Gryffindor. Let me try and explain this as simply as possible. When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar. Your body then has to process that sugar, as it doesn’t want all that sugar swimming around in the bloodstream. To do this, it releases insulin from your liver. The insulin tries to get the sugar out of your bloodstream, shoving it anywhere it can to get it out of the way, which means one of four places:
- If you’re running or lifting weights, the insulin will direct the sugar to your muscles to give you more energy. That’s why you see tennis players having a banana (a high sugar fruit) and long distance runner’s scarfing down those gel-pack monstrosities
- If you’re not doing anything, then the insulin will try one of two places. First, your muscles actually store glucose in the form of glycogen. So, if you’ve been working out and lifting weights, you might have used up some of your glycogen stores, so some of it can go there
- At the same time, insulin will also take its sugar package and knock on the door of your liver, as that can also store glucose as glycogen. Again, if you’ve been active, you might have made some room
- No luck so far, Mr Insulin? Well, then that glucose still has to come out of the bloodstream, so how about those fat stores? Perfect. The kicker? Higher insulin levels will encourage a faster rate of glucose converted and stored in adipose tissue. That’s fat, to you and me
Conclusion? Carbs = insulin = fat.
So, if you’re not exercising and are relatively inactive, your body just sends carbs to your fat stores. And over time, it’s this constant glucose/insulin/glucose/insulin cycle that we put ourselves through on a high-carb high-sugar diet that leads us to develop Type 2 Diabetes.
It’s not just about weight gain – introducing the effects of inflammation
Grains, as we’ve just discussed, cause a high insulin response in your body. But, grains, legumes and some dairy also have ‘anti-nutrients’ – things that go on to wreak more havoc in your body through inflammation, a weakened immune function, and by preventing you from digesting your food properly. Ouch.
You’re probably familiar with some of these anti-nutrients. Gluten is one, lectins are another. Gluten is found in lots of grain products, and over time can cause a pretty scary bunch of inflammation-related diseases. Things like skin issues, joint problems, reproductive issues, allergies and a lot more.
Lectins are proteins built into grains and legumes designed to stop you eating them. Think of them as a hedgehog’s spikes. Yes, you can eat the hedgehog, but it’s gonna hurt! Same with lectins. They mess up your immune system, damage the protective lining of your gut and over time will lead you down the path to ‘leaky gut syndrome‘.
With that in mind….
Foods to avoid
After reading tons of books, studying nutrition, and researching as much as my small brain can allow, I think that the two most damaging substances are sugar and wheat. Whenever I’m telling someone about this way of eating, that’s where I start. The easiest way to think about what to eat in general is if it grows or it lived, eat it. If it came out of a factory, don’t.
- No grains – that means wheat, barley, oats etc
- No legumes – beans, lentils, peas, peanuts and soy
- No sugar – found in so, so much. Time to start checking packets
- No processed food – that includes bread, muffins, biscuits, cakes
- No trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils – found in most processed foods. Includes things like margarine, vegetable oils
We’ve already discussed the damage that grains can do. Sugar could be one of the most toxic substances out there, and trans-fats are there to do a great job of messing your insides up – that’s why there’s so much fuss in supermarkets and restaurants to highlight products that don’t contain them. Your body literally doesn’t recognise them – they have been adjusted at the molecular level to contain a hydrogen atom that your body is not expecting. That means they just go around causing damage. Trans-fats have been linked to obesity, immune system dysfunction, birth defects and problems with bones and tendons. Scary stuff.
No carbs? So where does my energy come from?
Well, vegetables are carbs, so it’s not a no-carb diet. But, the chances are, if you are eating a Real Food Diet, you will be pretty low-carb.
By focusing on protein and fat as the lion’s share of what you eat, you’ll find that you’re not as hungry as you used to be. And if you keep your carb intake low enough for long enough, you get into a fat-burning state called ketosis, where our bodies take stored fat and utilises that for energy.
What!? Using your stored body fat for energy? It’s just as awesome as it sounds. Less carbs means that there’s less glucose floating around in your system. Which means less insulin spikes. Which means your body will start burning fat as your fuel source.
Criticisms of Paleo
Of course, there are a ton of criticisms of Paleo, and many of them make sense. For example, how can we really know what life was like for our ancestors? How do we know exactly what they ate and how they lived? How do we know the exact difference between our ancestors from Africa v Greenland? There’s a lot of conflicting study and opinion, but I think it’s safe to say that the hunter/gatherer diet, no matter where they were in the world, didn’t include Coco Pops, Pret sandwiches, and pasta and sauce from Tesco.
Paleo also relies on the argument that what we need from a diet hasn’t evolved at all in the past 10,000 years, but how can that be? Surely there must have been some evolution. And if we are constantly evolving, and grains make up the majority of our diet these days, then surely we will evolve to be able to eat grains? There’s some big questions there, but not too many answers.
A more realistic criticism of Paleo is the expense. Suddenly you’re buying organic fruit and veg, grass-fed meat, and a whole host of expensive, high-quality foods. Angie and I certainly noticed our food bills go up when we started. A lot. But now we’re at the stage where they’re coming down again. We’ve got smarter about getting the most out of our food (for example a slow cooked chicken is good for a roast, some bone broth, a chicken curry, and some lunch meat – it goes a long way!), and we make sure we plan our meals so that nothing goes to waste. It takes more effort, but it’s cheaper and more sustainable. Nothing bothers me more than throwing away good food. One other thing. We don’t buy asthma medication, IBS pills, paracetamol, rennies, and all sorts of other nasties. That’s money we spend on food.
Finally, there’s the constant media reports that meat is bad for you. But, those studies are not only mostly observational (fill in a form, please. And you will be honest, won’t you?), but they also include all types of meat. A hot dog from a tin is not the same as organic, grass-fed steak from your local farmer. But it is in those studies.
And of course, by eating all of that organic, grass-fed, local meat, you’re going to raise your cholesterol and quite possible instantly keel over and die. Or maybe it’s not as straightforward as that…
Contentious issues in Paleo land
Oh lordy, where to start. There is always debate, and sometimes it gets quite rude. However, debate is a good thing. In Cordain’s original book, he argued for lean meats. Now, we know more about fat, so Paleo land has embraced fattier cuts of meat. The debate worked. Still, it can be frustrating and difficult to know what to do. Here’s a few that come up regularly:
Strictly speaking, dairy is off the menu. According to some, dairy contains ‘anti-nutrients’ that do more harm than good.
However, it is allowed on the primal diet, and there is definitely a scale. On one end, you have pasteurised skimmed milk from an antibiotic-laden factory cow. On the other, organic, raw, milk from grass-fed cows. They are not the same thing.
Our approach to food does include a little bit of dairy in the form of full-fat organic Greek yoghurt. Angie tolerates this better than me, so I rarely have it. Helpfully, we have also found that coconut milk does a good job in most recipes which require milk or cream.
This is a trickier one to get your head around. Fruit is primarily fructose. Fructose is sugar. Sugar spikes your body’s insulin response when you eat it, like I explained earlier. Conclusion? Fruit makes you fat.
But it’s not quite as easy as that. Fruit contains a lot of vitamins and antioxidants. It would definitely have been part of a hunter/gatherer diet. But, the fruit we have today is different to what we had back then. It is sweeter, more abundant, and is likely to contain toxins from pesticides.
We have a fairly healthy approach to fruit. Angie will eat berries and an apple everyday, while I tend to focus on just berries. Blueberries are my favourite as they have the most nutrients with the least fructose. Personally, I would argue that if you are aiming to lose weight, you should restrict your fruit just to berries, and not have too many each day. That said, if its a choice between a banana and a muffin, grab the banana.
Again, a difficult one. On Primal, you can go ahead and have a glass of red wine. Robb Wolf would rather you had a margarita. In any event, beer and alcopops are off the menu.
We still have a glass of red wine every now and again, and we both get a lot of pleasure out of it. But, I would say that alcohol undoubtedly does more harm than good, so choose a great red and enjoy it, but it’s time to give up the stuff that is just destroying your liver.
So…..this big list of foods here….are they Paleo?
Difficult question. Chances are, the answer is no. Did they have olive oil in Paleolithic times? No. Is it good for you? Yes. Did they have olives back then? I have no idea.
What about grass-fed butter? Er, I don’t think a caveman was churning his own, do you? But, grass-fed butter should be a cornerstone of your diet.
You see, that’s why ‘Paleo’ is a difficult label. It’s better to say I eat a ‘Real Food Diet’.
Where do I start?
I think there’s two approaches. But before you decide which one is right for you, I’m not going to tell you to try a paleo, primal or Real Food diet. You have to decide for yourself.
Do the reading. Lose a day in the Marks Daily Apple archives. Listen to the Underground Wellness podcast. Talk to some people that have been eating Paleo for a while. Then make your mind up that you’re going to try. And do it.
Decided? Try one of these approaches:
- A little at a time. That might mean cutting down from four Diet Cokes a day to three. It might mean just changing your dinner first, then dinner and lunch in a few weeks. It might mean cutting out the morning muffin and replacing it with a banana. Start with the junk food and make small, gradual changes. You don’t have to dive straight in, but once you’ve decided, just go for it. Make junk food, sugar and wheat your first targets, then start shooting
- Just go for it. This is what I did. I made the choice, read as much as I could, got super-excited, then went for it. Cut out everything bad, flood your body with veggies, great meat, fat and protein, and see what happens for just one single month. You will be amazed at your transformation.
How about a nice conclusion?
Glad you asked. Ahem. Over the past 100 years, our food has gradually been replaced by things that appear to be food, and so we put on weight, have no energy, get arthritis, diabetes and heart disease – things that didn’t exist way back when.
Paleo, primal, Real Food, or whatever you want to call it, is a way of eating that is trying to change that.
You may think it’s a bit wacky. You will probably wonder what you will eat once you give up your reliance on carbs. There will be people who think you’re crazy. But, there are a lot of people out there that have tried it and are reversing all sorts of health issues. Just check out some of the success stories that are out there from people who have given it a go and discovered life-changing benefits.
Ready to try and see if it will work? Give it a go. If it doesn’t work, then at least you tried. If it does, you may have just found the path to a healthier, happier and more fulfilled you.