Ever catch up with an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile, and feel like you were never apart?
The conversation just kind of flows, and seems to last forever. There’s no awkward silence, filler phrases, or small-talk chit chat.
Just pure substance.
It’s easy to see how this happens. You have a shared history, a common ground. There’s no need to spend time cutting through layers of fluff to get to the meat. You can avoid the pleasantries and dive right in, knowing you’ll both be on the same page.
This feeling exists in abundance when interacting with the Paleo community.
It’s not because we share exactly the same views, because we don’t. Universal agreement is unrealistic, but there’s enough common understanding to hit the ground running. Spending less time rehashing the basics ultimately leads to richer conversation and deeper understanding of the topics discussed.
This was tangibly apparent while attending Paleo f(x) a couple weeks ago. I noticed presenter after presenter take the stage dropping truisms left and right, without sparing so much as a breath to stop and explain themselves. Phrases like “clean carbs” and “nutrient-dense fats” might as well have been “the sun rises” and “the sky is blue.”
I found myself wondering why this information wasn’t common knowledge. How did we get to the point where so many people today – highly educated people, no less – are blissfully unaware of the basic factors impacting their health?
But let’s put that question aside (for now). The least I can do is present a few basic tenets everyone should be familiar with.
So, here are five self-evident Paleo truths we should all understand.
1) Whole foods are the best option
We hear a lot about just eating real food these days. Sounds simple enough, but it’s also easy to take for granted. The message is straightforward, yet admittedtly vague, making it easy to overlook the truth that most people don’t know what real food actually is.
So what is real, whole food? A simple way to think about it is food that’s as close to it’s natural state as possible. That means unprocessed, unrefined, or unadulterated by chemicals, preservatives, and other nastiness. If it comes in a package, box, or can, it’s not a whole food.
Still not sure how to tell the difference? Try leaving the item in question out on your counter for a week. If it doesn’t spoil or rot, don’t eat it! That’s not natural, yo.
But why are whole foods better? Here are three reasons:
- Addition by subtraction. Sometimes what you don’t consume is just as important as what you do. Avoiding packaged and refined products means you’ll skip out on eating the chemicals and additives needed to process, package, and preserve them. A short list includes sodium nitrate, food colorings, and MSG, all of which can lead to cancer or brain damage. No thanks.
- Nutrient density. The process of refining a whole food removes vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fiber, and (not to be overlooked) flavor. To make up for these deficiencies, food manufacturers add synthetic fats and sugars, leaving you with much fewer nutrients relative to the amount of food you eat. This under-consumption of nutrients can leave your body craving more sustenance, resulting in over-consuming majorly deficient processed junk. Over-eating isn’t just about blood sugar; when depleted bodies are starving for nutrients, they want to be fed!
- Invisible cofactors. A whole food contains all the vitamins and minerals needed to digest and utilize it properly within the body. While science has taught us a lot about micronutrients and their importance, there’s still much we don’t know. By leaving our food intact, we can be sure we’re not messing with nature’s alchemy.
When in doubt eat the real thing, not it’s food-like alternative.
2) We weren’t designed to eat grains
Forget the “go low carb to lose weight” conversation for a second. Aside from the apparent validity of that argument, it’s also generally accepted among Paleo circles that humans aren’t optimally designed to digest grains. And definitely not the refined, heavily processed variety we eat today.
Why is that the case? Like any other species, plants have evolved for survival. Since they can’t run or fight back, they’ve developed chemical and physical barrier defenses that discourage consumption by those unlikely to spread their seeds.
As Lierre Kieth says in The Vegetarian Myth, “Just because plants can’t scream and run doesn’t mean they want to be eaten. And just because they don’t have teeth or claws doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting back…”
Some plants fight back against human consumption, and grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are great examples. They use anti-nutrients such as phytates, lectins, and enzyme blockers to do their bidding. Phytates bind to minerals required for digestion, which makes nutrients less bioavailable. So if even the grains are left whole and intact, phytates prevent the nutrients in grains from being properly absorbed. There’s also evidence that phytate consumption can also lead to a number of health problems including digestive issues and nutrient deficiencies.
That’s no bueno.
Lectins are proteins our gut has a hard time breaking down, which causes problems when they sneak through our intestinal lining in tact. The enzyme blockers further inhibit lectin breakdown, by actively disabling many of the enzymes we rely on to digest our food. We can limit these effects by sprouting, soaking, and grinding our grains, but how many of us actually do that these days?
Then there’s cellulose. It’s the long chain of sugars plants use to make their leaves, stems, and branches strong, and is found in whole grain products. Some animals, such as ruminants, can digest and extract nutrients from this tough, fibrous material. Humans, however, can’t really absorb any nutrients from cellulose. We call this food dietary fiber, and while there are benefits to fiber, we can’t survive on cellulose alone.
We need to get nutrients from a variety of fruits and veggies, the carbs we were actually designed to eat. Not grains.
3) Fat is not evil
Our bodies need fat to function. It’s that simple.
Our brain, central nervous system, and all other cells in our body rely on fat for their structure, communication, and growth.
Without proper amounts of dietary fat, we’re handicapping ourselves in non-trivial ways. We don’t have as much energy. Our memory is impaired. And studies have even linked inadequate omega-3 fatty acid intake to increased risk of mental illness.
The idea that fat is “unhealthy” has been shoved down our throats since grade school, but there’s a lot of debunking going on these days. First, there’s The Lipid Hypothesis – the idea that cholesterol causes heart disease. Although the argument appears logical on the surface, there’s actually no legitimate science behind it. I’ve yet to come across convincing evidence showing an increase in dietary fat intake alone will lead to chronic disease. Most claims we hear about are based on poorly designed studies, uninformed media, or biased misinterpretation of the data available.
We’ve also been told eating fat makes you fat. Again, this claim is unsubstantiated. Growing research implicates sugar and excess carb consumption as the true culprit, something the food industry and U.S. government would rather keep under wraps for their own financial gain.
4) Food quality matters
Most people think in terms of “good food” vs. “bad food” with no grey area in between.
Is eating meat good or bad?
Is butter healthy?
Will dairy make me fat?
The unpopular, but true, answer is it depends. And often what it depends on is where you’re food is coming from.
For example, red meat from a cow raised on a natural grass-fed diet without growth hormones or antibiotics is a completely different food than a factory-farmed steak. There’s more nutrients, less toxins, and much better taste in the more natural version.
The same goes for milk from that cow, and fruits and vegetables grown with the same philosophy. The food you eat should be raised naturally, based on what’s required for them to live a healthy life. Healthy food = healthy you.
And while food quality isn’t the first dietary change I’d recommend someone make, it’s important to realize it matters when discussing whether a certain food is “healthy” or not.
5) It’s not all about food
Finally, the most knowledgeable Paleo folks understand there’s more to the health equation that just food. You can cut out all the carbs you want, but if your life is a wreck otherwise, achieving peak health is near impossible.
Three factors commonly understood to impact health are sleep, stress, and movement.
Getting adequate sleep is important for setting your body’s circadian rhythm, as well as the building, repair, and maintenance of muscles and tissues. Deep sleep keeps us relaxed and refreshed throughout the day, and also helps regulate the immune system. Chronic sleep debt, on the other hand, has been shown to raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Do you see how prioritizing sleep can be just as important as eating right?
Stress should also not be overlooked. When we feel anxious or threatened, our body automatically shifts to the sympathetic nervous system – the “fight or flight” response. In this state our body behaves as if our life is in danger, and prioritizes survival before anything else. Cortisol is released, glucose floods the bloodstream, and functions like digestion and sexual arousal are de-prioritzed. This means if we’re in a constant state of daily stress, which most of us are these days, our body can have a tough time digesting and absorbing the food we eat. Relaxation practices such as deep breathing and meditation can shift our body into the desired parasympathetic mode, which is what we should shoot for when we want to rest and digest. It can even help us tolerate some Ben & Jerry’s every once in a while.
Finally, regular movement is key to optimal health. The varied, low-impact, and functional movements required for walking, hiking, and playing outside provide a baseline fitness level, ensuring a certain degree of strength, stamina, and cardiovascular endurance. And from personal experience, staying active and fit can also keep you sane and loving life.
When you think of healthy eating from now on, hopefully these five points come to mind:
- Whole foods are the best option
- We weren’t designed to eat grains
- Fat is not evil
- Food quality matters
- It’s not all about food
The next time we meet in person, we should now share some common ground.
Here’s to a conversation filled with pure substance.