“it’s not just obscure crossfit blogs extolling the virtues of a primal way of life”
Unless you’ve been banished to Outer Mongolia for the last year or so, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve come across “the paleo diet” in one way or another. After all, whether they’re blogging, tweeting or filling your Instagram feed with hashtags, the paleo crowd is pretty vocal. And recently it’s not just obscure crossfit blogs extolling the virtues of a primal way of life. Mainstream media are also jumping on the bandwagon, with “the caveman diet” popping up everywhere from the Daily Mail to The Guardian to Cosmpolitan.
It hasn’t taken long for the paleo lifestyle to earn a reputation as a cult-like movement, populated only by sinuous, steak-guzzling, carb-phobic evangelists, and it’s often dismissed as restrictive and unsustainable. However, I find that very often paleo living is thrown into the growing heap of fad diets, alongside Drs Dukan and Atkins, before anyone has taken the time to do their reading and understand the philosophy behind it.
“I feel healthy, I feel strong and, for the first time in my adult life, I feel that I have a healthy relationship with food”
As a paleo-eating runner/triathlete, with a strong penchant for white wine and almond croissants, I can actually see where this view has come from. Honestly, there are certain paleo blogs and twitter accounts I steer well away from in preservation of my sanity! Regardless, the fact remains that eating paleo works for me. I feel healthy, I feel strong and, for the first time in my adult life, I feel that I have a healthy relationship with food. I’m not here to tell you to eat paleo; I’m actually quite uncomfortable with handing out unsolicited nutritional advice. I simply want to talk about the philosophy behind the paleo lifestyle and what works for me.
“fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, nuts and seeds are in…”
Paleo principles are based on the diet and lifestyle of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, supplemented with some good old-fashioned common sense. The focus is on eating whole foods, sticking to fresh, organic produce wherever possible, and cutting out the heavily processed rubbish that dominates most modern diets. So fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, nuts and seeds are in and grains, legumes, starches (like white potatoes), dairy, processed foods and refined sugar are out. The reasoning behind these exclusions is based on gut and digestive health, reducing inflammation and optimizing nutrient absorption. In addition to nutritional guidelines, the importance of sleep, managing stress and incorporating movement into our daily routine are heavily emphasized.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about “eating like a caveman” but rather about tapping in to our genetic predispositions and finding out what works for our bodies. For me, this is the essential point that paleo lovers and haters alike seem to miss. For example, dairy is not paleo, however, having experimented with cutting it out, I’ve found that I have no digestive issues with cows’ milk (and lets face it I was never going to kick the cappuccino habit), so I include a limited amount of organic, full-fat dairy in my diet. It’s all about taking the paleo framework and using it in a way that fits into your life, rather than adhering to a set of defined rules.
From a macronutrient point of view, paleo is naturally lower in carbs and higher in fats. However, contrary to what the Daily Mail would have you believe, that does not mean that this is a low-carb diet. Once again, the goal is to tweak the paleo principles to suit your needs. As an endurance “athlete”, I’m a big fan of the carbs and I need them to fuel long runs, races etc. I load up on bananas, sweet potato, squash and other root vegetables, and try to stay away from rice, pasta and white potatoes. I do still include some gluten-free porridge oats, even though they are not paleo, simply because they are quick, low-in sugar and my body tolerates them well.
“I prefer a more 80:20 kind of approach”
The final point I’d like to make is on balance. A lot of paleoliths choose to stick to the principles 100%. It works for them and that’s great. For me, I prefer a more 80:20 kind of approach. Most weekends I’ll indulge in a few glasses of wine or a slice of cake bigger than your head but I know that come Monday morning I’ll tuck into my scrambled eggs without any guilt. It’s taken me a long time to reach this point and when I first started eating paleo I did find it easier to be super-strict. I have a history of disordered eating habits, where a biscuit with my morning cuppa would quickly escalate into an all day sugar binge, followed by 3 days on chicken breasts and steamed vegetables. Eating paleo has helped me to understand how my body works and I am more comfortable in my own skin (and performing better) than ever before. Every now and then, I’ll feel that the treats are becoming a little too numerous and I’ll tighten things up for a week or two, but its no longer a source of anxiety and deprivation in my life.
I’m not here to actively encourage anyone to switch to paleo. I simply wanted to point out that it is a healthy and sustainable option if you are a bit at sea with your nutrition. The key is to educate yourself about the paleo philosophy and to adapt it to suit your needs. I’d highly recommend having a read of this article over at Eat Drink Paleo for a more comprehensive overview of the principles (atdrinkpaleo.com.au/what-is-paleo/). Also, take a gander at PaleOMG’s blog (http://paleomg.com), as well as the lovely Matt and Keris at Fitter Food (http://fitterlondon.co.uk) for some awesome recipe ideas.