The Paleo or Primal diet is extremely popular these days, particularly in CrossFit circles. The idea is that by eating more like our primal ancestors, we will avoid all of the health problems that are now associated with the modern western diet. Everything from increased rates of heart disease and cancer to obesity and diabetes has been blamed on the typical american diet, and a whole lot of evidence seems to support those claims. If we look back and see that our paleolithic brethren didn’t suffer from any of these afflictions, it would be safe to assume that whatever they were eating has got to be better than what we currently stuff our faces with.
This is the basis of the Paleo diet argument. We evolved to be hunter/gatherers and our bodies will be healthiest if we eat accordingly. A caveman would spend a long day hunting and killing wild game, to come home to his comfy cave where his caveman wife has been gathering berries, seeds, and vegetables for them to prepare for dinner. Seems logical that we can replicate that pretty easily.
The argument falls apart however, when we find out that we’re completely wrong about the things paleolithic people were eating. When we ask the experts about what a paleolithic diet looked like, it seems like a lot of the assumptions of the paleo diet fall short. Anthropologist Christina Warinner, in her 2012 TED talk brings up the point that paleolithic peoples ate quite differently from one area of the world to the next, and from one time of year to another. To try and claim any single “diet” from the paleolithic era is an oversimplification of life in those times.
Add to that the fact that most current fruits and vegetables didn’t exist in their current form 10,000 years ago, and that our breeding practices for domesticated animals used for meat over the last few thousand years has made them completely foreign to what a paleolithic hunter would have encountered in the wild, and the paleo diet no longer seems applicable in modern times.
So…what should we eat to be healthy?
The paleo diet didn’t completely miss the boat on recommending a somewhat healthy way of eating, they just based the argument on flawed logic. The paleo diet, although not very “paleo” at all, does encourage people to get rid of processed foods in their diet and is a much healthier option than what the typical american is currently eating. Because the diet encourages you to forego starchy foods such as bread and rice in favor of vegetables and some fruit, it also improves the average person’s vitamin and mineral intake and is a great way to eat to lose weight if that’s your goal.
For those of you who are working out on a regular basis and need a little more energy for those workouts, and who’s main goal is NOT to lose weight, there may be better options for eating. There’s no need to get overly complicated with your diet. Just remember to get a little more carbohydrates than protein along with healthy fats at every meal (make sure to get extra carbs post workout to help you recover faster and build more muscle as well). Starchy carbs can be good for quick energy for your body, but should be replaced by vegetables and fruits at most meals in order to get your vitamins in.
I usually find with my clients that assessing their current diets and making small improvements works best. Making big sweeping changes (like going strict paleo right off the bat) is simply setting them up for failure. If they can manage to sustain that small change for a couple of weeks, we’ll make another small change until eventually they have a diet that they can stick to and is much healthier than when they started.