If you follow current fitness and nutrition trends, have fitness-junkie friends, or if you use any social media at all and have not been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve probably heard of the Paleo diet. Or the caveman diet, or the ancestral diet. These are all different names for the same diet, based on what our Paleolithic ancestors theoretically feasted on. Basically, their diets were comprised only of things they could kill, catch, or pluck from the ground. The idea is to adapt this to our crazy modern lives by eating as similarly as possible, though we’re probably not hunting and gathering our own food these days. The paleo diet, therefore, includes meat and fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. That’s it. Nothing processed, nothing that needs to be harvested, or milled, or churned or curdled. No dairy, grains, legumes, refined sugars, or processed oils. (That also means no booze). Nothing that needs to go through any sort of process other than simply cooking before it reaches our mouths.
Sounds healthy, right? And according to many advocates of this diet – which is a lifestyle, they would tell you, more than a diet – it is the healthiest way we can possibly eat in our modern world. This is based on the idea that our hunter-gathering, Paleolithic ancestors were largely disease, sickness, disorder and allergy-free (at least, as far as we know). The Paleo diet has become so popular not just because of its weight-loss benefits, but because of all the research that points to its inverse relationship with sickness, disease, and disorders. Robb Wolf, former biochemist, author, and one of the pioneers of the movement, advocates going Paleo to reverse the effects of autism. Just a quick Google search of “autism and paleo diet” will render dozens of articles and blog posts by moms and dads who swear that switching their autistic children to a completely grain and dairy-free diet significantly improved their behavior and symptoms. It’s amazing to think that nutrition alone can improve the symptoms of something that is essentially uncurable. Though it is not really known how food components like sugars, gluten, and casein biologically affect symptoms of disorders such as autism and ADHD, the countless tales floating around the internet of these ecstatic parents obviously prove that there is real truth behind it.
The only problem is, researchers haven’t really deciphered yet what that truth is. Sure, we know that there is probably some correlation between gluten and behavior, simply because so many people claim that removing it from their children’s diets lead to drastic improvements. So the takeaway is that if a healthy Paleo diet improved the lives of children who are severely autistic, it hopefully will lead to general health improvements for the average person as well.
But then the question arises of whether we are overdoing it. Is it necessary for the average, normal-sized, healthy person to change their lifestyle so drastically? Sure, cutting out gluten makes sense. Even cutting out dairy makes sense, as it causes so many people to suffer from lactose intolerance, skin issues, and so on – some argue our bodies aren’t equipped to digest dairy at all. And obviously, we can all unanimously agree that there is just no need for processed white starches and sugars in our diet.
But what about all the grains we have been told for so long to include? Just a few years ago, quinoa had a short stint with stardom that made it almost as talked about as Justin Bieber. Talk shows, magazines, fitness and nutrition blogs were raging about the benefits of quinoa over other grains like brown rice, due to its extremely high protein, fiber, and vitamin content. But we were told by nutrition experts and advocates that brown rice was still a healthy alternative to white starch if a grain like quinoa wasn’t available. Same with grains like millet, amarinth and buckwheat. In fact, we’ve been hearing since preschool about the importance of whole grain in our diets.
One on hand, your mom probably tells you to eat more whole grain, and on the other, the fitness-and-health-crazed social media movement is telling you not to. Grains have lectins, they say, which are supposedly bad for you in some way – despite the fact that they are a protein that is found everywhere. Wouldn’t you think that if something is found everywhere in nature, including plants and animals, it should be considered natural and therefore not evil?)
So what are we supposed to do? Maybe we should just accept that for now, nobody knows for sure whether a grain-in or grain-out lifestyle is the best choice, same for dairy and legumes. Nobody really has the answer, the key to perfect health, or the cure to disease. But does that mean we should write off this movement as another fad and continue eating as we normally do? No matter how extreme or fad-like a diet seems, it’s never a bad thing if it encourages vegetables, fruits, and natural meat – even bacon! This is what health-conscious people have been trying to do since before Paleo was even a “thing,” and these are probably the same people who tried not to eat a high-starch diet either before gluten-free was a “thing.” So maybe adapting Paleo to our own individual lifestyles is the way to go.
Whether we want to think of our “ancestors” as the ones who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, or the ones who lived just a hundred years ago, maybe that should be the way to determine how closely to follow this way of life. Think about your great-great grandparents – the ones you’ve seen old black-and-white photos of. They probably weren’t fat. They probably didn’t eat candy every day, mostly because it was expensive or not very accessible, but I bet they indulged once in a while. They probably also enjoyed a glass of wine here and there (or maybe every day..) and they probably ate a little bit of starch with every meal. But most of their diet was most likely made up of local, inexpensive vegetables, whatever meat they could find, and the fruit from their backyards. They also didn’t have processed foods; they simply didn’t exist. The point here is that they ate everything in moderation, they weren’t fat, and they didn’t have nearly as many behavioral disorders as we have today. Maybe these are the ancestors we should be thinking of when we try to eat an “ancestral” diet. But if we then want to take it a step farther and eliminate all grains and legumes (this means peanut butter) once we’ve cut out the processed stuff, theres probably nothing unhealthy about that. Either way, nearly all of our ancestors – the ones from a hundred years ago and the ones from a thousand years ago – undeniably ate simpler, cleaner, more wholesome diets. If we need to put a label on it like “Paleo” to feel like it makes our goal of eating healthy more tangible, maybe that’s just what we have to do. But if the trend ever dies down and the Paleo name isn’t a “thing” anymore, when people can’t contain their starchy cravings anymore or they realize that a little red wine isn’t the Devil, hopefully the main idea behind the Paleo diet sticks in our society.