A Diet That Works

Paleo is not a diet, but a lifestyle.

I first heard about Paleo from my then boyfriend (now husband) in early 2013, when it was emerging as an extremely popular fitness and health trend in the United States. From the very start, enthusiasts have insisted that Paleo is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Being successful at Paleo means choosing not only to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, but also emulating behavioural aspects of the “caveman life”. This includes more physical activity and (much) more sleep.

Paleo means going back to the basics and “eating clean” including fresh, chemical free produce such as fruits and vegetables.
Paleo means going back to the basics and “eating clean” including fresh, chemical free produce such as fruits and vegetables.

Diet-wise, all “man-made” foods such as refined flour, sugar, trans fats and processed food have to be eliminated. Paleo means going back to the basics and “eating clean”. Fresh, chemical free produce such as fruits and vegetables, and organic meat and fish. Unlike most other diets, Paleo diet encourages the consumption of fat. However, this must be “good fat”, things like animal fat, coconut oil, nut butter or even clarified butter (ghee).

Our experiments with Paleo

In those early days, a few of us friends decided to embark on a 30-day Paleo project (http://culinarystorm.com/the-30-days-of-paleo-challenge/) to see what changes it would have on our body.  We used a points system to ensure we were making a real attempt at the overall Paleo lifestyle.  A total of 5 points could be earned each day:

  • Sleeping 7+ hours a day: 1 point
  • Drinking half our body weight in ounces of water/green tea: 1 point
  • Any kind of cardiovascular and weight training exercise: 1 point
  • Eating 100% clean/full Paleo: 2 points

At the end of the month, all of us reported back positively. Personally, I lost 2 kilos, my trousers felt looser, I felt much more toned, but most importantly, I felt healthier overall. My sugar cravings reduced, I had more energy and I was sleeping better than I had in a long time. To sustain a Paleo lifestyle realistically, we found most of us could manage an 80:20 ratio if we tried hard, which is 80 per cent Paleo and 20 per cent indulgences, but even that could be challenging to maintain.

Green tea is a recommended part of the Paleo diet.
Green tea is a recommended part of the Paleo diet.

Hear it from Others!

But what’s the best way to give Paleo a shot if you’ve never done it before? Robb Wolf (http://robbwolf.com/), the New York Times Best Selling author of The Paleo Solution – The Original Human Diet says, “Some people will benefit from an incremental, ‘change one thing per week’ kind of approach. Many will fail on that as they need rapid improvements in health to justify the changes in their diet and lifestyle, these folks should jump in with both feet, and this is honestly the approach I generally recommend. I find that if people get in and do a solid 30 days of reasonably strict Paleo eating, these folks will look, feel and perform better. Much better. Then these folks can make a decision: is this new way of eating worth the ‘sacrifice?’ For most it is and again, for most they find that they can have ‘non-paleo’ foods once in a while and suffer no real problems. It’s what they do 90% of the time that really matters.”

Paleo means going back to the basics and “eating clean” and including organic meat and fish among other foods.
Paleo means going back to the basics and “eating clean” and including organic meat and fish among other foods.

Ali Saeed, a Paleo food blogger (http://thepaleoprince.blogspot.com/) and manager at a Fortune 100 tech firm based in New York had a very positive body reaction to Paleo. He says, “I saw significant weight loss and an increase in confidence, boundless energy, mental sharpness, greater memory, more effective sleep and vivid dreams. I also noticed a major reduction in mood swings, food comas, heartburn, migraines, and shortness of breath.”

Very similar to Paleo, but perhaps even more lifestyle oriented is the “Primal blueprint”, first introduced to us by Mark Sisson, fitness expert and blogger at Mark’s Daily Apple (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/). Introducing  his “Primal blueprint”, Mark says, “it is a set of simple instructions that allows you to control how your genes express themselves in order to build the strongest, leanest, healthiest body possible, taking clues from evolutionary biology.” The rules include eating lots of animals, insects and plants, moving around a lot at a slow pace and lifting heavy things, among others.

Diets and Fitness

But how much of a successful Paleo/Primal lifestyle is dependent on an active, fitness orientated lifestyle as opposed to just diet? Wolf says, “For 99% of human history, we hunted and we gathered. We were active. We slept well. Certain diet, movement and lifestyle considerations are ‘baked into the cake’ of our genetics. So, yes, diet and lifestyle are important. What is unique about the Paleo concept is that it does integrate these elements and looks at them from an evolutionary biology perspective. Now, all that said, let’s say we have a person who is sedentary and eats poorly. Will this person benefit from eating well, especially relative to a junk-food based diet? Clearly the answer is ‘yes’. If this individual also went for a daily walk, went to bed early and took some probiotics, they would be even better off.”

For many, Paleo and CrossFit go hand in hand.

For many, Paleo and CrossFit go hand in hand. Crossfit, an immensely popular fitness regime across the globe, is defined as “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity”. Developed by Greg Glassman, who defines fitness in a “meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains)”, many Paleo enthusiasts swear they see increased positive results when they pair Paleo with CrossFit. One such person is Juli Bauer of Paleo OMG (http://paleomg.com/), who says, “Pairing Paleo and CrossFit together has completely changed my life. I’ve never felt better inside or out.”

Ali, who eats Paleo and goes to a CrossFit gym 3–4 times a week, has a slightly different take. He says, “Paleo and Crossfit are not mutually exclusive. I was living a Paleo lifestyle for three months before beginning CrossFit. I think there is a specific way of working out which works well with a Paleo lifestyle and CrossFit integrates some of those aspects but not necessarily all of them. People should listen to their bodies and engage in workout programs accordingly.”

The Martha Stewart of Paleo

Many fear Paleo like they would fear any diet. They wonder if the food is too bland or lacks flavour or generally is not appetising and fun at all. Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo  (http://nomnompaleo.com/), who has been called “The Martha Stewart of Paleo” by The New York Times, blogs about all kinds – delicious and not even vaguely “diet-looking” Paleo food. She says, “Paleo’s not about historical reenactment. It’s a framework for improving health through real food.”  She sums up the Paleo diet rather succinctly by saying, “Eat more whole, nutrient-rich food, like vegetables, meat, seafood, and some nuts and fruit. Also, try to avoid stuff that tends to be more harmful than healthful, like processed foods, added sugar, seed oils, grains, legumes, and dairy.”

When it’s put so simply, I wonder why we’re not all “eating clean”. Don’t you?

Charis A. B.

is a language editor by profession, a foodie and a talented baker. When she isn't pulverizing a training dummy (and people sometimes) during kickboxing practice, she can be seen clicking away with her camera and scouring markets for hard to find ingredients. She's fond of travelling and an inveterate carnivore. Charis covers New York for Chef at Large and can be reached at charis.bhagianathan@www.chefatlarge.in