50 Shades of Paleo

To lean meat or fatty meat? To dairy or not to dairy? To legume or not to legume? To low carb or not to low carb? These are some the deep philosophical questions being asked by Paleo Dieters everywhere. There seem to be as many variations on the Paleo diet as there are other kinds of diet. Whereas being a vegan has a pretty specific definition, Paleo can mean a lot of different things to different people. There are some pretty big differences between the Primal Blueprint, The Bulletproof Diet Whole 30 or some other Paleo guru. It’s important to figure out which exact version is right for you so you can be confident you’re making the right choices, and that you’ll get the results you want. And although Paleo diets can vary, any true Paleo diet shares some very important and beneficial features.

Varying Interpretations on Ancestrally Inspirations

This should be obvious. The word Paleo comes from Paleolithic and refers to the diets of our ancient ancestors. The idea behind this is that we spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving to eat a certain way, and ever since we started farming and threw all this out the windows, things have gotten progressively worse for humankind including suffering from modern diseases, weight gain, stress, infertility, etc. But since none of us have a time machine and go back to a time of wild buffalo, heirloom root vegetables and virgin wildernesses, and because of the diets of our ancestors, and their gut bacteria, varied a lot, there is a fair amount of space for modern interpretation.

The Common Denominators

To know whether you’re considering a legitimate version of the Paleo Diet, you should look for some major common denominators. The first one should be that it’s inspired by our ancestors, but that its objective is long-term health. We’re not looking for a temporary “detox” or ridiculously fast weight loss promises. A great Paleo Diet should help you optimize your health across the board. And the great Paleo Diets out there agree on several main ways to achieve this:

  • Ditch the Processed Crap (Eat whole foods the way nature intended!)
  • Ditch the Refined Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
  • Ditch Grains
  • Ditch the industrialized seed oils
  • Eat plenty of wild, pastured and organic veggies and meats

If any of the diets you’re looking at veer wildly from this list, then it’s probably not a proper Paleo diet.

The Dairy Debate

With the except of pastured eggs, which are super duper, whether or not dairy is permitted is a big gray area for most versions of the diet. Some, like Primal Blueprint, leave it up to you. The Primal Blueprint says to consume whole, pastured dairy “if you tolerate it.” Other diets, like the Bulletproof Diet, encourage avoidance of dairy, with the very large exception of butter. From an ancestral perspective, there is a fair amount of debate about whether we’ve evolved to eat dairy. The answer seems to be that it depends. Some people tolerate it and some don’t. My genetic test tells me that I do not tolerate dairy. The face rashes and diarrhea I get confirms it. Apparently, people with a lot of Scandinavian genes can handle more dairy. And kids until around three years old. The main allergens in dairy, casein, and lactose, are mostly absent in butter, which is mostly fat. For those super sensitive, Ghee removes any dairy allergens completely. Whey protein, from dairy, should also not give people issues if it’s pure as it’s not a common allergen. If you’re having known gut or autoimmune issues, your best bet is to avoid dairy allergens. If you’re not having those issues and want to know if you can handle some cheese, yogurt, cream and the like, the best thing to do is try an elimination diet. Spend a month going as dairy free as humanly possible. Then spend one-day trying butter. If you don’t see any negative side effects for a few days, try some whole milk. Repeat the process with yogurt. Then cheese. If you really don’t have any side effects (be totally honest with yourself) then congrats, you can do dairy. I will try to control my raging jealousy of you. One thing all great paleo diets should all agree on is that dairy should be as whole and unprocessed as possible. Just say NO to low fat! Pasteurized (link) is not always preferable. And just as we want our beef grass fed, we also want our dairy products grass fed.

Lean and Mean or Nice and Fatty: What’s the Best Meat

One thing you’re most likely going to eat a fair amount of on the Paleo diet is some delicious delicious meat. And of course, that meat should be grass fed and organic whenever possible. But some Paleo diet gurus, like the original gangsta Paleo Diet founder Loren Cordain and his protege Rob Wolfe, stick to mostly as ‘lean meat” Paleo mantra. However, most other versions of the Paleo diet consider saturated fat from high-quality meat to be both delicious and wonderfully healthy. My vote lies strongly in the “yay fat” corner. There is a very small portion of the population that tends to be highly sensitive to saturated fat, where even if they are healthy a very strict Paleo diet otherwise, their cholesterol numbers go totally haywire. But for most people, the saturated fat argument is totally BS, and fatty meats are essential to our health. Ancestrally, organ meats and the fattiest cuts were prized above all else. And eating too much lean, muscle meat can create certain imbalances. One exception is if you’re eating low-quality meat. If your meat is not organic, not grass fed and pumped full of hormones and horror, then you should avoid super fatty cuts because a lot of the toxins caused by these less than ideal conditions are stored in the fat.

Carbs: How Low Do You Go

This is a pretty big discussion point for many paleo dieters. Paleo diet guru Chris Kresser adamant proclaims that Paleo is NOT a low carb diet. And Whole 30 gives no limits to fruit or sweet potato. The Bulletproof diet has you going super low carb most days, with some sweet potato and rice-fueled carb refeeds every now and then. The Primal Blueprint has changed its recommendation from unlimited fruit to only eating small amounts of fruit when it is in season. The ketogenic diet, a diet focused entirely on just being low carb, is also practiced by some Paleo diets, but definitely not all. The clutch of this issue lies with whether or not you can handle carbs. If you’re struggling with weight loss and pre-diabetes, then the answer is pretty clear, you can’t. Assuming you’re not having any other hormonal issues, the key to weight loss is reducing your insulin production, and you do that by consuming fewer carbohydrates. Insulin’s job is to make you store fat. If you want to lose weight, you have to get insulin out of your blood stream. You do that by eating low carb. However, if you’re like Chris Kresser, where you are naturally rail thin but went Paleo to deal with auto-immune issues, then eat those plantains and sweet potatoes baby!

Sweeteners

I go into detail about my own approved sweeteners here (LINK). There is a fair amount of disagreement on sweeteners amongst Paleo gurus. Sweetener purists, like the Paleo Mom insist that any even slightly unnatural sweeteners, including sugar alcohols and stevia, cause leaky gut and should be completely avoided. The Bulletproof Diet and Primal Blueprint consider sugar alcohols and stevia A-OK if they don’t bother you (Some alcohols like Maltitol and Xylitol can cause serious tummy issues, so try them out in small doses first). Stevia tastes like dirty socks to like 20% of the popular. However, for the rest of us, it’s a nice way to sweeten things up. Natural sweeteners like maple syrup and raw honey are included in many Paleo dessert recipes and encouraged as better options for sweetening by many gurus. Raw honey even makes an appearance in some Bulletproof diet recipes. Overall, they should be considered special indulgences. Maple Syrup and honey are very carbohydrate dense and for many of us could cause a huge insulin spike and re-ignite our old carb craving ways. Coconut sugar, also in many Paleo diet dessert recipes, is pretty much just sugar with some extra minerals. I personally call hogwash on coconut sugar as being Paleo. I also have 2 different Paleo cookbooks that have regular old powdered sugar in the recipes. Newp. Newp. Newp. That is NOT Paleo you guys.

Generally speaking, if you’ve got issues with blood sugar and weight loss, you should probably be trying to just get over your sweet tooth as much as possible and avoid all sweet stuff. But for special occasions when you really want something sweet, try different combinations of sugar alcohols and stevia. Only try adding small amounts of maple syrup and honey when you are really confident in maintaining your goal body weight.

Allergy Outliers

Diets like the autoimmune protocol (AIP) and the low FODMAP diets are special diets for people with specific issues. AIP is specifically for people with major autoimmune issues and forbids some common allergens that are generally very paleo. For example, eggs are a big no no. Usually, people can eventually get back on eggs once they heal their gut issues, but for some people, eggs cause major issues. Chris Kresser suggests trying to eliminate dark chocolate as it can cause allergies in a lot of people. Personally, I would not survive without a regular dose of dark chocolate, so I shall never find out whether or not I am allergic to it. A low FODMAP diet has gained some popularity for people dealing with IBS, SIBO and similar gut issues. It includes a constantly changing list of foods that are fermented in the gut and cause distress for people with gut bacteria issues. However, Chris Kresser, who is downright obsessed with gut health, calls BS on FODMAPS as only a temporary fix and that avoiding those foods doesn’t solve the core issue, which is solved by fixing your gut bugs properly. Nightshades, like tomatoes and eggplants, are certain veggies that cause joint issues is a portion of the population, so if you’re got some joint issues, you should probably try eliminating them. The Bulletproof diet recommends avoiding onions and garlic as it claims to make you less mentally focused. As someone who loves cooking, I say F that.  

Paleo Shenanigans

There was a news story attacking a cookbook that had a recipe for baby formula mostly consisting of bone broth. It was taken off the market for being insanely unhealthy and everyone flipped out. Stories like these do NOT help the Paleo cause. And if someone tries to bring up examples like these, kindly point out that there is nothing Paleo about trying to give some poor baby bone broth instead of breastmilk or formula. You should also watch out for bars and snacks claiming to be paleo that are full of crap like MSG and canola oil. Now that Paleo is becoming more popular, there are people who will misuse and abuse the term. Make sure you’re educated and know for real what version of Paleo is the best for you. It may take some time and experimentation, but finding the perfect diet for you will be soooo worth it.

Check out the rest of the Paleo Diet in the Modern World series:

Part 1: Getting Back on the Wagon 

Part 2: Dealing with People Problems

Part 4: The Perfect Paleo Pantry