What is the Paleo Diet?

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Modern Diet

The Paleo diet is based on the idea that humans will be healthiest, happiest, and strongest if we eat the foods that our bodies are biologically best adapted to digest. In the light of evolution, it’s fairly clear what these foods are: from the beginning of the species up to the Agricultural Revolution (around 10,000 years ago), humans slowly evolved to thrive on a diet of meat, vegetables, and fruits.

We didn’t start eating grains, legumes, or dairy as staple foods until we switched from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to living in permanent agricultural communities. 10,000 years seems like a long time for an individual person, but on the timeline of evolution, it’s quite short; it isn’t nearly long enough for a system as complex as the human gut to adapt from a diet based on meat to a diet based on grains and legumes.

Trading in meat for grains and legumes was not ideal, but humans are an inventive and adaptable species, and we quickly developed cooking methods to make up for the digestive enzymes and other processes that our guts don’t have naturally. Traditional preparation methods (such as soaking, sprouting, and fermenting foods before cooking them) take a lot of the harm out of grains and legumes. They still aren’t great, but they’re a lot less bad.

In the past 50 years, though, we’ve abandoned those methods. Instead of traditionally fermented sourdough, we eat Wonderbread. Instead of sprouted tofu, we eat sugar-laden soy “hot dogs.” The modern diet is completely divorced from the way humans were designed to eat, and our bodies are paying the price. Without even the protection of traditional cooking, we’ve become increasingly overweight and unhealthy on a steady diet of refined flour, processed sugar, and toxic seed oils.

Introducing Paleo

If this is the modern diet, then what is Paleo, and how can it help? The Paleo diet is a return to our evolutionary roots. It emphasizes meat as a staple source of calories, along with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. It’s tempting to define Paleo by what it’s not (avoid grains, avoid legumes, avoid dairy…) but defining a diet based on real food as nothing but a series of limitations is missing the point. A better question would be, “what is the Paleo diet?” – and the answer is simple: a way of showing respect for your body by eating real, unprocessed, and nourishing foods.

To be acceptable on the Paleo diet, a food has to meet two criteria.

First, it must do no harm. The human digestive system simply wasn’t built for grains, legumes, and seed oils. These foods have several harmful chemical compounds – gluten, for example – that irritate the lining of your digestive system. In the same way that your skin swells and gets puffy after touching poison ivy, your digestive system becomes inflamed in response to these food toxins, setting off a chain of negative reactions. Paleo foods don’t contain these harmful compounds, so they don’t irritate the digestive system.

The second criterion for Paleo food is more positive:  as well as not doing any damage, it must also do some good. Meat, vegetables, and fruits are very nutrient-dense (they have high levels of vitamins and minerals) – in other words, they aren’t just “empty calories.” These foods provide the nourishment that your body needs to repair itself, fight illnesses, and keep all your organs working properly.

The benefits of a diet high in nutrients and lacking in toxins vary greatly from person to person. In general, the Paleo diet helps to heal problems caused by harmful modern foods, but for one person this might be 50 pounds of excess body fat, while for another it could be Chron’s Disease, and for a third it might be acne. Even for people who are generally healthy, Paleo can help increase athletic performance and prevent these issues before they start. Diet is a fundamental part of health, and a Paleo diet is a solid, nourishing foundation to support your body through whatever challenge it has to face.

Adopting a Paleo diet isn’t easy. Learning what is Paleo and what isn’t can take some time, shopping for the right paleo snacks takes a bit of effort, and committing to a diet of real food in the modern world is often frustrating. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, and the benefits of Paleo are worth the effort.

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