The Paleo diet has exploded in popularity. Between the thousands of paleo blogs, books, podcasts, and celebrities, and coverage in traditional media, it’s everywhere.
There are more sources weighing in with their own advice than ever before. And it can be difficult for newcomers interested in going Paleo to sift through all the seemingly conflicting information. How’s a person to make sense of everything?
I’m going to distill Paleo eating down to its five most basic and essential principles. If you read this article and nothing else, you’ll have a decent handle on how and why to eat in accordance with our evolutionary history. At the very least, you’ll be able to hit the ground running and improve your diet, health, and performance right away.
1. Eating like our ancestors makes sense—and makes us healthier
For at least 200,000 years, humans were hunter-gatherers subsisting on wild plants and animals. The grains that form the bulk of our modern diets weren’t readily available in large amounts until we developed agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. And fossil records confirm that human health took a hit with the advent of agriculture. Agriculturalists were shorter than and had more cavities, smaller brains, less muscle mass, weaker bones, and shorter lives than the hunter-gatherers that preceded them.
Just as zoological nutritionists base a zoo animal’s optimal diet on what that animal eats in its natural habitat, so should we use the “wild” human diet as the starting point for determining a healthy way of eating. We’re all organisms subject to the laws of natural selection. We may have developed the capacity to alter nature, but we’re still subject to its influence on our physiology.
2. Eat actual food
As much as our grain-heavy diets are evolutionary aberrations, the last 100 years have marked an even greater divergence from our physiological needs: the rise into preeminence of processed junk food. At least people who eat pasta at home and bake their own bread are eating real food. They’re there at the inception of that food, and food it is indeed. But fewer people are cooking than ever before, instead relying on food created in a lab by PhD chemists whose primary goal is to trigger hedonic hotspots in your hypothalamus so that you cannot—literally—resist buying and eating more of it.
The starting point for going Paleo has to be real, actual, wholesome food. Fruits, vegetables, tubers, animals, seafood, nuts, seeds, and healthy sources of fat come without nutritional labels or ingredient lists, contain all the micronutrients your body needs to thrive and function, and should form the foundation of your diet.
3. Become a fat-burning beast
Humans are great fat burners, in theory. Even the leanest among us carries tens of thousands of calories in the form of body fat. And when times get lean, or we haven’t eaten for a few hours, we’re designed to tap into that body fat to provide the energy we need to function, think, and perform.
Unfortunately, too many rely on sugar—carbs, glucose—for their energy needs. Their bodies never learn to burn fat because there’s a steady drip of easy energy coming in, and the machinery necessary to metabolize and access fat grows weak with inactivity. Eventually, it turns off, and we can’t burn the body fat we already have.
There is a way to reactivate the fat burning: start eating fat.
Embrace full-fat whole foods like eggs, nuts, and avocados. Eat fatty steaks (not just the lean ones), wild salmon with the skin on, and dark meat. Keep healthy fats in your fridge and pantry, like grass-fed butter, coconut oil, macadamia oil, extra virgin olive oil, and red palm oil, and cook with them.
4. Dial in your carb intake
Many people think that going Paleo means banishing carbs from your diet forever. That’s a misconception. What is important is dialing in your intake—matching your carbs to your activity levels.
As I mentioned earlier, glucose is excellent short-term fuel. We can store a few hundred grams worth in our muscles for instant use during high-intensity movement, plus a hundred or so in our livers for systemic energy needs. But to justify more carbs coming in, we have to burn the stuff we’ve already got. We have to move, and move fast.
Most people living in industrialized societies aren’t burning the carbs they’ve got stored. They’re working at a desk for eight hours a day, driving home for an hour, sitting on the couch for another few. This inactivity makes them insulin-resistant, meaning their bodies must produce extra insulin and burn less fat when they eat carbs.
Eat carbs when you need high-octane fuel for high-intensity activities, like CrossFit or heavy weight lifting. Don’t eat carbs just because; eat them because you’re actually active you need the energy so they won’t go to waste.
Eat carbs when you need them, not just because you want them.
5. It’s not a religion.
Start thinking about your lifestyle in evolutionary terms, eat real—not processed—food, stop fearing healthy fat, trim the excess carbs from your diet, and go from there. If you start with those essentials as the foundation, and keep an open mind without binding yourself to any dietary ideology, you’ll be able to pivot when things stop working and arrive at a happy place. Dairy not officially Paleo-approved? So what? If you can tolerate it, eat it. Need a few more carbs to keep up with your CrossFit training? Eat them. Feel better with less meat and more vegetables? That’s fine—you’re still eating Paleo.
Paleo eating isn’t a rigid prescription. It’s just a great tool for analyzing food and how it affects your health, performance, and well-being. Use it as needed, but don’t let it control you.
Now, you can certainly drill down into and immerse yourself in the details of all this Paleo stuff. You can buy the books, subscribe to the blogs, listen to the podcasts, and many people find that incredibly rewarding. But the five principles detailed in this article are enough to improve your diet right here, right now.
Photo credit: Premshree Pillai via Flickr