The Winding Path of Paleo

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I’ve been spending some time recently reflecting on my paleo journey: evaluating my progress to date; re-evaluating my goals; and considering my options for the future…

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Heavy stuff, huh?  Well, this reverie was prompted by the fact that I’ve reached the point where my immersion in paleo literature, paleo-based friendships, and online paleo/primal communities brings me into contact with an ever-widening wide range of information and viewpoints - not all of which agree.  One thing’s for sure: I’m on the winding path of paleo.

Once you get past the basics of paleo eating (and here’s my previous article on that subject), it seems to me you’re faced with a host of questions to consider:

  • Are some starches ‘safe’, or are they all nothing less than evil incarnate?
  • Should we eat dairy, or shun it like the plague for fear of springing a leak in our guts and becoming instantly congested with mucus?
  • Should we eat a sweet potato every day, so that we don’t end up mucus-deficient, and writhing in sinus-inflicted agony?
  • Should omega 6 fatty acids be balanced with omega 3s, or simply run from, screaming, as though they were a torrent of molten lava?
  • Is our beloved bacon safe to eat, or are we deluding ourselves while we gorge on liver-disintegrating, cancer-causing, immunity-destroying processed pork?
  • If we’re trying to lose weight, should we a) reduce our carbs to zero; b) increase our carbs dramatically; c) cut back on some fat; d) slather everything we put in our mouths with melted butter; or e) pass out from the confusion of it all?
  • Should we just stop eating chicken because it has more PUFAs than lamb and beef - even if we’re sick of the sight of our ruminant friends?
  • Is fructose always bad?  Is eating an apple almost as harmful as having a drink containing High Fructose Corn Syrup?
  • Should we always favour organ meats over muscle meats, even if the thought of liver makes us heave and anyway, we just want to have a nice juicy steak, DAMMIT!??

You see the problem.  On the winding path of paleo, there are several branches, and there are disagreements about which will lead to shimmering vistas of health and wellbeing, and which are dead-end roads littered with landmines.

It’s no wonder so many of us suffer a crisis of confidence a few months in to our new-found regime.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read or heard (and sometimes even thought) comments like these:

  • “Paleo was great at first - I lost weight and felt great - but now I’m feeling tired and sluggish, and those last few pounds just won’t shift”
  • “I stopped eating carbs because that’s what the paleo experts suggested, but now I’ve heard I might be risking mucus deficiency and stomach cancer!”
  • “I’m suddenly gaining weight - should I axe out all remaining carbs, or eat more carbs, or eat more fat, or what?”
  • “I heard I didn’t have to control portions on paleo.  Then I heard I did.  Which is it?”
  • “We shouldn’t be afraid of carbs!  Carbs are fine!  Even if cutting them out made you feel great, you should add them back because if you don’t you’re being driven by carb-phobia and that’s a bad thing!”
  • “Carbs are bad, mmmkay?”
  • “You’re stuck for paleo ideas?  Eat bacon!  Wrap everything else you eat in bacon.  Dip bacon in your morning coffee.  Sleep with bacon under your pillow.  Use bacon to scrape the frost off your car windscreen in the morning.”
  • “I’m sorry friend, but eat bacon and you will DIE.”
  • “Chickens are ninja assassins in disguise.  Avoid.”

I mean no disrespect to those who hold these different viewpoints (or variations thereof) and I fully appreciate that the further one walks along the winding path of paleo, the more scope there is for refinement of eating habits - and that does require a degree of detailed consideration.

I just notice that there is also a risk that even we paleo folks can become hide-bound, obsessive, dismissive of other people’s experiences (if they don’t chime exactly with the latest scientific study we’ve read), and even somewhat dogmatic in our own interpretations.

No wonder newbies can get hella confused!

So - as we approach St. Valentines’ Day - I’m calling for peace, love, and time-out.  Let’s get back to basics.  If you’re struggling to find your foothold on the winding path of paleo, just remember the 80/20 rule: 20% of what you do will garner 80% of your results - meaning that out of any five things you can do to convert a bad diet into a good one, just one or two of those will be far more important than all the other three put together.

For me, steps one and two of what I’m rather grandly calling the Five Pillars of Paleo are the most important of all.  Hopefully we can all agree on these?  The others are up for debate, of course, and more pillars can be added.  But if you need to refresh yourself on your paleo journey, just remember - if you’re continuing to implement steps one and two, you’re doing great - and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Five Pillars of Paleo

1. Eliminate poisons and processed junk.  Nix the additives, chemicals, preservatives, and colourings.  Get rid of the industrially-processed seed oils.  Banish the bread, pasta, cakes and cookies.  If it comes in a packet with a list of ingredients - you probably shouldn’t eat it.

2. Don’t detoxify - nourish!  Get a wide range of nutrient-dense, high-quality foods into your diet.  Meats (particularly organ meats) are most nutrient-dense of all, so choose the ones you like (yes, even if it’s chicken and pork) and EAT THEM.  At this stage, unless you know you react badly, your diet can certainly include carbs (in the form of nutrient-dense, low-toxin whole carbs like sweet potatoes and fruit) and dairy (whole raw and/or fermented dairy is best).  Vegetables aren’t essential, but they add colour, interest, and beneficial phytochemicals, so if you like them - eat them.  Be mindful that

almost all of us could do with less omega 6 and more omega 3 in our diet - so include some good portions of wild-caught or canned oily fish in your weekly eating.

3. Reduce or eliminate ‘unsafe’ carbs.   I’m going to go out on a limb and say something here that might get me drummed out of paleo club by pursuers brandishing flaming torches (wrapped in bacon).  Some people do fine on lots of carbs - even grains.  Is this optimal?  In the case of processed carbs, certainly not.  In the case of high proportions of carbs, probably not.  In the case of gluten-containing grains, also probably not.  My suggestion?  Even if you think you do fine on grains, eliminate them for a while (21 days) and see how you feel.  Then, add them back if you want, or just carry on eating carbs with higher nutrient-density, like tubers.  If you want to (and perhaps if you’re trying to lose weight) try eating very low carb for a while, and see how you feel.  Some people do well on it, others feel like death warmed up (yes, even after they’ve got past the first few days of “carb flu”).  Monitor yourself, and be your own judge.  People are different, and so are their responses.

4. If you don’t tolerate it, eliminate dairy.  Again, experiment - does dairy make you feel good or bad?  Does it make you gain weight?  Can you get away with using it as an accent in your meal, or do you find yourself gorging uncontrollably on gobbets of cheese?  Only you can know the effect it has on you.  (And don’t tell me “humans are the only animals to drink milk after infancy”.  Humans are also the only animals to build space rockets, write great literature, and play musical instruments.  Your point?)  Just choose the best quality dairy options you can find, see how they affect you - and don’t be afraid to say “it’s not for me” if it isn’t.  You’ll do just fine without it.  And, if you love it, and it agrees with you - enjoy the hell out of it!

5. Review and refine.  This is the point at which many of us stumble, because if we try to incorporate everything we’ve learned on the winding path, we eventually find that it’s is impossible, because some of what we’ve learned will conflict with some other things we’ve learned.  You could end up eating nothing but sweet potatoes and chicken liver pate if you attempt to do everything you’ve read or heard (and if that’s OK with you, fine).  This is the point to ask yourself: “what worked well for me?”  Did you actually feel better and happier when you ate chicken as often as you liked?  Did your weight normalise when you included some white rice and cheese in your diet?  Did you discover that no matter how many times people told you you needed to eat liver, you just could not get on with it?  GOOD.  Then you’ve got the prescription for your version of paleo.  Remember and stick to the basics - points one and two (which could be neatly summarised by the phrase “just eat real food”) - and then experiment with the rest.

You’re on your own winding path of paleo - and only you can know if it’s headed in a direction that feels right.

Bon voyage!


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Brian Cormack Carr is a freelance writer and coach whose mission in life is to help YOU do what you were designed for.
His home on the web is where you will find more articles, freebies, and information about his online career-creation programme - 12 sessions of virtual coaching from Brian for just $20!
Twitter: @cormackcarr


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12 Responses to The Winding Path of Paleo

  1. Tim February 10, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Outstanding post Brian!! Just wrap it in bacon!! LOL!! :-)

  2. Isa Palstek February 10, 2012 at 9:06 am

    The less I read on blogs, websites, forums the more I know what I’m doing. If I need help I go and write messages to people who are in the same or nearly the same situation as I am in. That helps most.

  3. Melisa February 10, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Great post. I absolutely agree that people should do what makes them feel best. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t take life so seriously. No one gets out alive.” and this fits pretty well. Try your best to live in a thoughtful, healthful way and the rest will take care of itself. And I agree with Isa-stick with a few blogs that relate the message YOU need to hear, and works with your interpretation of the paleo diet, and ignore the rest.

    • Brian Cormack Carr February 10, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      Right on, Melisa - otherwise we’d all go crazy!

  4. Brian Cormack Carr February 10, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Thanks Tim!

    Isa, I love that! It’s so true - sometimes the more we read, the less we know! Seeking help from others who know where we’re at is a great idea.

  5. HeatherT February 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I agree!

    I think part of the discussion needs to be less focus on “macronutrients” as if all macronutrients are the same, and all that matters is getting rid of “carbs”. When you look at pre-farming diet patterns, you see a lot of variability in quantity of fat and carbs. Protein intake is less variable.

    I’ve been experimenting though with the the relationship with iron and methionine (Met) in the diet. Methionine is an essential amino acid, and varying the amount of Met in the diet of farm animals has a huge effect on growth rate and appetite. Eggs, fish, and game animals are way higher in Met per calorie than most protein sources used by people “eating Paleo”. Eggs and fish also provide the supporting nutrients that are needed, where “red meat” doesn’t so much. Met also counteracts iron, and high iron levels mess with insulin just as badly as sugar does.

    So while people are tweaking to add, say, sweet potatoes, we’ll probably end up rethinking “meat” sources too.

    Anyway, as we all experiment, I think we’ll come up with some interesting results, and we’ll all end up healthier eventually.

  6. julianne February 10, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Fantastic post. You just summed up all the paleo issues so well.

    I’m all for continued experimentation for myself. I’ve done primal paleo, diary free paleo, auto-immune paleo, and now I’m doing 9 cups of vegetables paleo, as per Dr Wahls mulitple sclerosis diet.

    As you say - the essence of paleo has certain rules and some people need to be more strict (I’m one, as I have auto-immune issues). But so much is up for experimentation. And some things may change over time. E.g very low carb may work initially - but 6 months down the track some carbs added back in might be a good idea.

  7. darc February 10, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Holy cow, you freakin’ nailed it! I actually encountered one Paleo zealot who said “everyone is the same, if Paleo doesn’t work for you you’re doing it wrong” (EFF!) Thanks for the healthy dose of sanity.

  8. Evolutionarily February 11, 2012 at 1:27 am

    It’s OK to get super advanced and geek out on every single little detail and micro and macronutrient… The problem is when people start forgetting where the foundational pillars stop, and where their personal attempt to be ahead of the curve starts.. Robb Wolf is a classic example of someone who super ahead of the curve but at the drop of that hat will default to “remove grains, legumes, and dairy. cut the sugar’

  9. Bonnie February 11, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Found this just when I needed it! Thanks!!

    • Lila Solnick February 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      You are welcome. Glad we could help!

  10. Fatcow February 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    I’m on and off paleo for several years. I make my work outs every day and the minus of paleo is that I have no energy enough to train hard. However I feel very clean and pure inside and my skin became much better. I had some acne problems and now I am just absolutely satisfied with my skin.