What is eating the paleo diet?

paleo diet pyramid

Paleo Pyramid

Three years ago I made a decision that has made a significant difference in my health. I began a paleo way of eating.

Approaching 60, I was experiencing all the usual stuff that happens with aging such as achey knees, background fatigue, headaches, bloated belly, and putting on a few pounds every year. In addition to lines & wrinkles my body clung to youth with regular outbreaks of acne, along with keratosis pilaris (a condition members of my family have), skin tags, and of course, cellulite. Overall however, there was nothing to complain about compared to my peers and wouldn’t have thought any of this could be changed aside from losing a few pounds. Because: Aging.

When I started this blog, along with writing about gardening, slow food, and sustainable eating and just living generally, I wanted to share how trying to focus on eating only unprocessed food has had a positive impact on my health. In this post from March 2013 I wrote about how I arrived at the decision to make a change. It started out innocently enough as a desire to lose a few pounds for the coming summer and as I learned more, evolved into a quest to know the why & how of food’s affect on our body.

The Paleo Diet has surged in popularity over the past five years, and even more so in the last year as mainstream media acknowledge the health benefits if not the rationale understood to support its effectiveness. There are dozens of books, blogs and experts now espousing the correct Paleo Diet and many of the objections from those critical of this way of eating surround the word ‘paleo’ .

The term comes from The Stone Age Diet: Based on In-depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man published in 1975 by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin. Ten years later Boyd Eaton & Melvin Konner published one of their papers on paleolithic nutrition in the New England Journal of Medicine, and from there the scientific community variously supported or disputed the findings based on the very real reason that we simply cannot know exactly what paleolithic humans ate for breakfast.

While we can draw some conclusions based on the condition of paleolithic and neolithic bone & dental fragments, there is no evidence beyond that and cave drawings of animal hunts as to what could have been on the menu. Not only that, some human populations lived in coastal areas where their food may have been largely sourced from water; others were located inland and subsisted on whatever flora & fauna was available; finally, local conditions such as desert, arctic, and temperate climate would have an impact of the availability of food at a given time of the year or millenia. The common denominator in all of these populations however, regardless of whether their diet was dominated by meat, milk, blood, greens, tubers, fish, etc.: no populations consumed processed food and in fact humans evolved and thrived for hundreds of thousands of years without it.

I’ve read dozens of paleo specific diet books as well as others about nutrition and human physiology, searched Google Scholar for publications, and followed blogs written both by individuals excited about their results and sharing recipes & lifestyle changes, and medical & science professionals (I’m retired, eh?). My take away from all of this reading & research is an interpretation of the Paleo Diet and is quite simple and comes back to no processed foods.

The food stocked in a typical supermarket today would be unrecognizeable to someone time travelling from only 200 years in the past, let alone a human from paleolithic time. Prepared & processed food has come to dominate our modern diet particularly in the past 80 years, to the detriment of our health and to the benefit only of corporations that manufacture it. Part of the problem is a decline in the ability to cook, a basic yet essential skill for everyone to survive. And by ‘cook’ I don’t mean microwave oatmeal.

I’m not the only one to observe this sad situation: Michael Pollan expanded on a 2009 NYTimes magazine article of the same theme and wrote a book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation; then there’s Michael Ruhlman (who has written too many excellent books to list here so just go to his website!); or Harry Balzer, who has been documenting eating trends for decades and suggests the best diet is to only eat what you cook. It’s curious there is growing obesity, metabolic disorders and poor health as a consequence of eating prepared, processed and fast foods, at the same time cookbook publishing is soaring.

The most popular cookbooks not surprisingly, are the product of television celebrity chefs who dazzle with delicious and simple ingredients, presenting to the viewer a beautiful plated meal. One could almost call these cookbook porn, filled as they are with photographs of luscious desserts, perfectly grilled steaks softly glistening with herbed butter, and ethnic comfort foods such as lasagna or risotto.

It has been said we are not what we eat but what we want people to think we eat. A Larousse Gastronomique casually resting on a kitchen island speaks volumes about our palate to guests even though a typical dinner is actually fish sticks and microwaved vegetables. We watch Nigella toss together Lemon Linguine then slip Lean Cuisine pasta in the microwave: we have a love affair with real food but no idea how to prepare it.

There is a growing disconnect between food and our ability to prepare it, from knowing where one’s food comes from to being able to identify different vegetables, cuts of meat, basic ratios of cooking, and having the knowledge to get it to the table. Add in reductionist thinking about food and nutrition as a percentage of a given daily value, only a vague understanding that certain foods provide specific nutrients, hyperbole around superfood trends, and the disconnect becomes a gaping and unbreachable chasm for most people. Life is too busy, kitchens are for show rather than an efficient workspace, and homemade mayonaise? Who does that?

Of the many observations from reading recipe books circa 300+ years ago, and about food traditions across cultures, the most striking was the respect for knowledge of food & nutrition. Hippocrates (c 460 – c 370 BC) is quoted as saying ‘Let food be thy medicine’ and historically this was taken seriously. Before it became commonplace for corporations to prepare and serve food, being a good cook, making the most of what was available, knowing how to raise meat, vegetables & fruit, and where to forage in times of drought, was critical to survival. There is a huge body of folklore surrounding food not just as sustenance, but as healing such as the well known chicken soup for a cold, or more obscure nettle tea for a spring tonic.

In Western culture with modern man-as-machine medicine, treatment of illness approaches the body as distinct working parts. Only when it becomes obvious there is an association of problems affecting many organs or the entire body (i.e., Metabolic or Autoimmune Disorders) does it become apparent parts of our body don’t function in isolation. Still, conventional medicine treats the various symptoms individually rather than looking at the root cause.

Other, older cultures around the world have a belief that the body should be treated as a whole and health is not just about disease, it’s about wellness. There is a connection between the body and the brain, a communication between our gut & our mind 1)http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/11/18/244526773/gut-bacteria-might-guide-the-workings-of-our-minds and our skin is a remarkable indicator of what’s going on inside our bodies. Holistic medicine traditions have embraced this knowledge as a given such as with Chinese practitioners, Ayurveda of India or the North American aboriginal that share the belief in balance within the body.

So what does all this have to do with eating Paleo?

Taking a step back to examine what we are eating and why, where it comes from, and how it affects our well being: these issues are also part of what eating Paleo is about to me. There is a growing movement to eat local, raise one’s own food (and have the right to do so), awareness of how food animals are treated, and concern for the contradiction of a society suffering from malnutrition when there is plenty. Once the pounds and inches melted away, I began to experience other changes totally unexpected that continue to the present day.

The first noticeable change was in my knees; one morning about three months after changing the way I ate there was no achey joint as I went down the stairs. It’s easy to be aware of something that makes itself known with a stab of pain, quite another to suddenly realize there’s nothing. Just knees that bend like they’re supposed to. In addition, where I formerly wouldn’t be able to do a deep kneebend to pick up a grandchild, now I could.

From that first awareness, over the months and years I began to note other changes: the absence of my lifelong nemesis acne; what used to be regular headaches now maybe one a year; the bloated belly that disappeared along with the muffin top; keratosis pilaris on my arms & legs disappeared; skin tags stopped appearing and existing ones continue to disappear; a rash that had come & gone on my face several times in 2010 and I worried was lupus (several family members have this) has never reappeared; after three years cellulite in my thighs has diminished to the point it’s no longer apparent; and where previously I had night blindness, driving at night is no longer a scary proposition. These changes didn’t happen instantly and my body is still adjusting; in addition, living with family who do not eat a paleo diet means there are many compromises, not to mention my own weakness for dark chocolate. Oh, and butter tarts.

The weight and inches have stayed off, and does so effortlessly. There is no feeling of starving or denying myself; if I’m hungry, I eat. The food choices are what’s important (butter tarts are a rare treat!). In the beginning, it was a big change that was supported by the motivation to lose some weight. Over time the desire or craving for things that formerly were something I couldn’t live without has gone away. The impact on how I feel, positive results from a checkup with the doctor, and how this way of eating aligns with my philosophy of wellness and life, makes eating paleo the decision for me.

What is it like eating paleo?

There are a number of books and blogs about the paleo diet and I’ve included some of the ones here that were helpful to me. As mentioned, the most useful guideline has been to simply avoid processed food. There is a great deal of information about why a food or food group is to be avoided, and books & people who do an excellent job explaining the reasoning.

The biggest hurdle to eating this way is living in a society that is built around convenience, prepackaged food, and fast-food. Walking into a grocery store with a perspective shifted away from that is an eye opener. Going to a farmers market is more satisfying both because of the quality of the food & everything one needs to eat paleo is there.

For me eating paleo has built on an existing love of cooking from scratch and sustainable self-sufficiency: homemade stock, batch cooking of spaghetti sauce, home cooked meals, growing greens & herbs, vegetables & berries, sourcing farmgate meat & eggs, and getting creative with baked treats without sugar or grains. It has not been a stretch for me to avoid prepared food because I have always preferred to eat homemade bread, pasta, salad dressing, yogurt or baked goods.

I no longer get so hungry I want to gnaw off my arm mid-afternoon as I did before eating paleo; in fact, often lunchtime goes by now and about 2 o’clock realize I’m hungry. Breakfast is usually a couple eggs and sometimes bacon, leftover steak or ham, as well as fruit. And espresso. My favourite lunch is a classic Cobb salad: layers of mixed greens, grilled chicken, diced hardboiled eggs, avocado, bacon, & tomatoes all laced with a lemon vinaigrette. Often now, lunch is simply something leftover from dinner, or homemade broth, canned tuna, or sardines.

A paleo diet of unprocessed foods consists of eggs, poultry & meat (ideally pastured grassfed animals), fish & seafood, vegetables, fruit, some nuts, and specific fats (coconut or olive oil, animal fats such as lard, tallow, schmalz and ghee which is butter with the milk solids removed). While pretty much anything from the animal kingdom is included, from the plant kingdom grasses and legumes are not eaten including the oils processed from the seeds of these plants (canola, corn, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, peanut, etc).

Many people are surprised at the exclusion of dairy products because some are able to easily digest the sugar (lactose) and protein (casein). It was decades ago I gave up drinking milk because it upset my gut but continued to eat cheese & yogurt until trying paleo.

Now if I eat anything dairy, within a day my skin will break out into acne and I experience intestinal bloating. While some may be able to handle it, I cannot and would never have known my body via my skin was reacting until it was taken away. This approach is used with an elimination diet to test for intolerances or sensitivities: remove suspect foods for a few weeks and then see if there’s a reaction when eating them again.

The government approved diet demands the inclusion of bread & pasta as well and its absence from the paleo diet is viewed as dangerous and ludicrous as is the use of animal fats. My personal view on this is that saying grain products are a food group is like saying poultry is a food group. Wheat & other grasses such as corn or rice, and legumes such as peanuts, peas and soybeans are part of the plant kingdom. The paleo diet does not eliminate all plants, only particular families of plants. There are hundreds of other plants from which to choose, most with more nutrients and fibre than rice, corn, wheat, soy or processed products manufactured from them.

Corn, soybean, cottonseed and canola are the top GMO crops and whatever confidence one may have that consuming these would not affect humans, there’s growing evidence the pollen from these plants is decimating bee populations, and creating a class of herbicide resistant superweeds. Little bee rant there.

Taken together, the foods eaten on a paleo diet are nutritionally more dense per calorie. What is more, this is the way people ate until 100 years ago before corporations began supplying our food, for instance selling margarine & Crisco (hydrogenated cottonseed oil) and villifying natural fats such as lard & butter. Fats that people ate for hundreds, more realistically thousands, of years with the main cause of death being infectious diseases.

Personally, having this incredible feeling of well-being is better than any food I used to claim would be impossible to live without.

Paleo Pyramid photo credit www.livingpaleo.com

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/11/18/244526773/gut-bacteria-might-guide-the-workings-of-our-minds

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About Leslie

Trying a little bit of everything: writing, learning Wordpress & basic coding, cooking, playing with grandkids, travelling, gardening, making soap & body treats, and getting older. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Leslie:

    Interesting blog on the Paleo diet. Other than eating potatoes and squash, I am wondering how one gets their carbohydrates if they don’t eat grains.


    • Creating a diet based on a paleo template depends a great deal on the individual: his/her ancestral background and lifestyle for instance. To respond to your question, carbohydrates are present in pretty much every fruit and vegetable to varying degrees, although many people have the impression the only sources of carbs are grain or dairy foods. Fruits, being higher in natural sugars, have more carbs than vegetables and among vegetables, roots & tubers have more carbs because they are a storehouse of energy for the plant. So it’s easy to include carbohydrates in meals just by eating fruits & vegetables. The next question people ask is how many carbs, because paleo is often misconstrued to be a no-carb way of eating. Rather it’s a low carb and only individuals who are undertaking a strict diet for health reasons will be eating no-carb: it requires a real commitment and is not meant for the long term as is a more balanced low carb approach. Carbohydrate requirements vary by individual based on activity level (an athlete requires much more than a sedentary person), and women require more than men. I’ll just add that people worry a whole lot about carbohydrates and protein and too little about the fat in their diet–personally about 40% of my caloric intake is fats (healthy fats).