Friday, December 12, 2014

Thoughts on Paleo

Ever since I first gave up sugar back in April, I've been learning more and more about the interesting and somewhat cultish world of Paleo living. I say 'living,' because while most people focus on the diet aspect, it really is a way of life. I'll admit, I was not favorably predisposed to Paleo from the start. It just seemed too restrictive, too isolating, too expensive.

For those unfamiliar with Paleo, it's a lifestyle that's meant to mimic our 'paleolithic ancestors'--before they settled down to grow crops, before sugar was processed down to neat little white cubes, before animals were husbanded, etc. Paleo typically eschews all grains, legumes, dairy and most sweets, but it's reach extends beyond the kitchen. Delve deeper into the Paleo world and you'll start slathering your body with coconut oil and doing CrossFit in the noonday sun in Vibram five-fingers. And maybe going to bed earlier than your kids.
Image: paleogp.com

Honestly, there is a lot of wisdom and good hard science in many of these practices. It just seemed like such a radical departure from normal life. How can people live this way?

Well, I decided to try it.

Over the summer I did a little Paleo experiment. I can't say I went whole-hog primal. There will be no oil-in-the-noonday sun for this very white girl with a history of skin cancer, but I did eliminate grains for a while. I whittled my dairy consumption to a splash of (grass-fed, raw) cream in my coffee. I took greater pains to source local foods. I read Paleo books and cooked from Paleo cookbooks and listened to Paleo podcasts. I went outside for limited periods without sunscreen and went to bed at sundown. I didn't trade the barre for CrossFit, but I still learned a lot.

Things I REALLY like about Paleo:

The emphasis on whole, real, unprocessed foods. This seems to be the heart and soul of Paleo, and it's wonderful. I think it's pretty safe to say that just about everything is better as close to it's natural state as possible--healthier and better-tasting. I have come to redefine what I even think of 'processed foods.' Truly, I suspect the lion's share of most people's health transformations on Paleo is due to ditching all the refined, processed foods.... even those we don't think of that way.

Learning to think outside the grain box.
I've really enjoyed making 'rice' from cauliflower, 'noodles' from zucchini and carrots, and putting sauce over spaghetti squash rather than actual spaghetti. Yes, it's more work than boiling a pot on the stove, but it also yields significantly more nutrients for far fewer calories. And speaking of calories...

I haven't even thought about calories. Once you remove grain and most sugars from your diet, you can pretty much eat your fill of what's left without fear of putting on weight. In fact, you might even lose some. There are lots of great Paleo cookbooks to help you put together some really delicious dishes.

Using the whole animal. Last time I talked about nose-to-tail eating, and it's is one of my favorite things about ancestral diets. And we don't have to go back far in history to find people using the whole animal. It really breaks my heart when I think of all the good food that has been wasted by our picky, fat-phobic society over the years. There are minerals in those bones! Crazy concentrations of nutrients in those organ meats and skin! We could probably end world hunger if only we could get back all the egg yolks that have been flushed down garbage disposals. Nose-to-tail is healthy and so efficient, all of which you become aware of when you are...

Buying local, quality, and yes, somewhat more expensive food. Paleo introduced me to far more high-quality food, all the nutritional benefits contained therein, and the advantages of getting it locally. So much of the food in our big supermarkets is not from local farms, which is hardly surprising given the short growing season in New England. But shipping food here from California is hardly sensible or efficient, nor is it likely to be especially fresh. I've been amazed how much longer the local produce lasts. I've actually stopped buying produce at all from Trader Joe's. So much of it has been spoiled, and they were selling cranberries shipped in from Wisconsin. Really?? Massachusetts is the largest cranberry producing state in the country, and we're getting cranberries from Wisconsin? Ridiculous!

Also, buying local contributes to the local economy and reduces fuel use. The farm from which we've been buying our milk estimates that 68 cents of every dollar spent at the farm goes right back into the local economy, versus only 14 cents for milk bought from the grocery store. Let's face it--no one running a small-scale local farm is getting rich. They do it for the love of it. I love supporting them, and getting fresher, better quality food.

Things I don't like about Paleo:

The Dogma. Like any movement, there is dissent in the paleo ranks. Some adhere rigidly to the most minute tenets of the faith, while others are open to a degree of wiggle room. I have pretty much no patience for the purists. I mean, that's fine if that's what they want to do, but I really don't care what cavemen ate. The idea that everyone should eat this way because we're not adapted to a host of common foods strikes me as absurd. My food landscape and way of life is so radically different from that of a caveman. I just can't get worked up over restricting myself to what cavemen ate. Or didn't eat. Which brings me to...

The Restriction. Yes, Paleo is restrictive. There is so much to eat on Paleo that you might not even consider, but you're still limited, far more so than I feel the need to be. As it turns out, there are very simple ways to prepare certain grains and legumes, making them both easier to digest and more nutritious, which I'll talk about another time. I find these preparations work great for our family. So why would we not expand our diets to include them? Maybe I'll revise my opinion on this point someday, but for now, I see no need to completely eliminate all grains or legumes.

Many of the Paleo authors and bloggers I've read have very dramatic stories of healing and wellness thanks to adopting a Paleo lifestyle. A lot of people have gotten their lives back--sometimes quite literally. I would strongly encourage people with digestive issues, autoimmune conditions or other health challenges to try Paleo for a couple of months and see how they do. It is a radical departure from the way most people eat, but it is doable, and there are so many great resources out there to help.

However, our family is mercifully very healthy. I do still limit our grain consumption, simply from a nutrient density perspective. I'd rather fill us up with lots of vegetables than grains, no matter how properly prepared they may be. But we do not struggle with digestive distress or any other particular condition. We can eat a wide variety of whole, unprocessed, properly prepared foods (yes, even beans and rice!) with no negative effects, and for that, I am very thankful! But I'm glad I tried Paleo. I've acquired a collection of great recipes that are now in regular rotation.

Has anyone else really given Paleo a fair shot? Any thoughts?

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