Dear Paleo, You Lost Me At Bacon.
I get questions about diets all the time, and for a while now, it’s been ALL about the Paleo Diet.
Unless you’ve been living in an actual cave (and I won’t judge), you’ve probably heard of it. Maybe your friends are swooning over it. Maybe you hear the word all the time but don’t really get what it’s all about. Maybe you’ve tried it yourself. For better or worse, it’s everywhere: P-A-L-E-O, rah, rah!
O.K. so the Paleo Diet in its purest form is based on the food of our ancestors.
No, not your great-grandmother’s kugel. We’re talking waaay back. Like, caveman ancestors. Pre-supermarket, pre-industrial age, pre-agriculture. Back to the hunter-gatherers of yore. Here’s my take on what I see with Paleo: the good, the bad, and the bacon.
Eat Some Meat
The Idea: Paleo Pashionistas are all about eating more high-quality, non-screwed-up meat — only grass-fed; never grain-fed. It makes total sense if you know about the dangers of most of the meats at the supermarket and at Mickey D’s. Higher quality meat translates to more protein and more sustained steady energy. Many Paleo blogs and cookbooks claim that you can eat bacon to your heart’s delight, never gain weight, look like a ripped cavewoman and stay healthy. Pretty sure THAT won’t hold up in court, but it sounds appealing to a lot of peeps. At any rate, I’m with them on the high-quality meat thing.
On the other hand:
OMG, you tell some people they can eat bacon, and suddenly we have 100’s of paleo recipes with titles like bacon-wrapped sweet potato muffins, bacon mayonnaise, and I’m sorry, but bacon guacamole? Something is just a little sick and wrong with that one. I don’t want to go into the issues I have with bacon here because certain bacon, in moderation, can be fine; however, most of the time, what we think is bacon, is just another scary Frankenfood full of sugar, nitrates, and made with sickly swine from factory farming. So if you are going to eat it, seek out sugar-free, nitrate-free, pastured, organic bacon. But even so, consider using it as a condiment or in conjunction with other, more dense, and lean protein sources.
Bottom line, when you get out of your morning Crossfit program, and you want to stay healthy and lean, you may want to leave the bacon and lard (yes, Paleo is big on lard), out of your morning smoothie.
In his latest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan (my foodie nerd crush) argues that we 21stcentury humans just can’t replicate the way cavemen ate meat. Hunter-gatherers ate meat only when they could get it, and then they gorged – it wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Also, even if modern meat is grass-fed, it’s vastly different from the lean animals our ancestors chowed down on. So replicating Paleolithic meat-eating is pretty freaking difficult in 2014 — unless you’re ready to grab a spear and hunt yourself!
No Grains or Legumes
The Idea: Paleo fans say that our ancestors didn’t eat grains or legumes, so we shouldn’t either. Grains increase insulin, cause energy spikes, and lead to weight gain. Legumes contain toxic lectins.
On the other hand:
As much as all grains are vilified by Paleo Pontificators, they’re actually good for many people. Whole, organic non-gluten grains in moderation that is. The real culprit EVERYONE agrees on is processed white flour (yes, I’m looking at you, baguettes!). But gluten-free whole grains are chock full of fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and more. So there’s no need to toss them all to the curb. As for legumes? The lectins produced by these plants are very low-level and not dangerous to human health.
I’m not going to go into all of the details in this post about the argument for non-gluten grains and legumes, but let’s just say that many of the healthiest cultures (Mediterranean diet, anyone?) do quite well with these staples in their diets. More on this SOON.
The Idea: Paleo followers say that it’s not natural for adult mammals to consume dairy – and that includes us homo sapiens. We’re also the only species to consume milk from another animal.
On the other hand:
In Cooked, Michael Pollan argues that microbes found in fermented dairy products are actually good for your gut. As long as you are consuming dairy from pasture-raised, organic cows, you are probably okay. Now I happen to be mostly dairy free, and many of my clients find they don’t do well with dairy, but it’s not a blanket truth that all dairy is bad for everyone.
Here’s My Take
We could all do with ditching processed foods. And if you are eating meat — which I do — eat the best grass-fed meats, you can afford. If you can up your intake of healthy, local meats and veggies, well…that THAT is fabulous. I’m right there with ya on those points, Paleo!
So what’s the problem? It’s not the basic tenants of Paleo. Rather, the problem lies in the way some people interpret those tenants. I see a lot of people thinking they are Paleo who aren’t losing weight or feeling healthier. They wonder what they’re doing wrong. When I delve into their diets, I see that they are going freaking crazy with bacon and Paleo “stodge” foods. “Stodge” means cookies, pastries, desserts, and bacon-packed dishes that are promoted on many popular Paleo blogs and in cookbooks but aren’t good for your body on a regular basis. Bottom line: If you replace one way of eating with another, but chow on lots of high-calorie, stodgy food…you will gain weight.
Another problem? Getting obsessive about replicating a caveman’s diet. It’s 2014, people! So no, Paleolithic people didn’t eat legumes, but that doesn’t mean we have to eliminate them from our diets. Playing by those rules, why not also eliminate coffee and dark chocolate or all the packaged snacks out there claiming to be “Paleo”? Why dismiss legumes for not being authentic “Paleo” and then slurp down a Paleo cocktail while scarfing down a Paleo pumpkin burger wrapped in bacon? Somehow I don’t think the cavemen did that!
With all this said, I will honestly say that my own diet personally has a lot of Paleo tenants to it. As a matter of fact, if I had to describe my diet, it would closely resemble the true Paleo framework, but not this common homogenized internet version I’m speaking about here, filled with bacon, daily burgers & stodge.
I eat and encourage my clients to eat, loads of greens, some healthy fats, cold water or local fish, like Alaskan salmon, lean grass-fed organic meats, and most of all foods in their unprocessed form- the apple, not the apple chip, etc. But I do eat gluten-free grains, about one serving a day, and I can also be seen sharing a lamb burger -yes, with the gluteny bun, about once a week while out to lunch with the Fabulous Husband. I believe in the 90/10 rule. Eat 90% of the time the way you know your body is happiest, and then 10% just eat the damn burger, or the stuffing, or the cake. Some of the surliest, most unhealthy people I’ve ever known are the radical food restrictors. And they can often be seen binging behind the scenes for all the puritanical pressure they place on themselves.
(Note: This does not apply to people with celiac or other autoimmune diseases that require strict adherence to a specific diet)
Let’s not be silly-eo here; rather than an absolutist mentality, it’s best just to use some common sense. A good place to start? See Paleo as a template rather than the be-all-end-all of healthy eating.
For me, it always still boils down to what Michael Pollan so famously said: Eat Whole Foods, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. If your great, great CAVE-MOTHER would recognize it as food, go for it. If it comes in a box or a can: READ CAREFULLY.
Another way to think of it?
If a cavewoman and the cave kids were shopping for groceries at the supermarket, Whole Foods, or her local farmers market, what foods would they recognize and gather?
Yeah, THAT is what you should be eating..