The Best Diet in the World (and why I don’t follow it)

11 Mar

Diets these days are like religions.

The followers of a particular diet, just like those of a particular religion, will often do all they can to promote it, spread it to new followers and if ever their beliefs are threatened by other “non-believers”, well let’s just say that some wouldn’t bat an eyelid at waging a holy war, on that great battleground that is the interweb, in defense of of their dietary gods.

Just as in religion, blind faith and unquestioning extremism only cause trouble. I’ll talk more about this a little later on.

Life as a guinea pig
As a lot of my friends and regular readers know, I was a fat kid. Some would say chubby but either way, I just didn’t look right in a bathing suit.

In my mid-teens I started reading about nutrition and exercise science and this started a passion that burns serious calories to this very day.

I love new knowledge so that’s led me to not only read a wide variety of books on nutrition but to also try out those dietary approaches on myself. Truth be told, there are probably very few of the major eating systems that I haven’t given a try. From strict veganism to hardcore ketosis-inducing Atkins I’ve survived or thrived on a lot of different diets.

Today I want to introduce you to one that I think is really worth your time looking into a little more.

“P” is for Paleo
Many of you, I’m sure, have heard of the Paleo diet.

The Paelo Diet intends to bring us a step back towards our ancestors (no harm there)

The Paelo Diet intends to bring us a step back towards our ancestors (no harm there).

These days it is both popular (and growing in popularity) and controversial. Let me go all hipster on you all and just say “I was doing Paleo before it was cool”. I first gave it a try about 12 years ago and I’m still a big believer in its effectiveness at helping people lose weight and improving their health.

Paleo: Excavation to Explosion
The Paleo Diet got its first real dose of popularity back in 2002 when Dr. Loren Cordain published his book “The Paleo Diet”, extolling the virtues of the foods supposedly eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors and simultaneously tearing a new A-hole in any foods that were part of the agricultural revolution.

His work became controversial (for the wrong reasons) and eventually became popular (for the right reasons) thanks to a reinvigorating kick in the form of “The Paleo Solution” written by Robb Wolf, an apostle of Dr. Cordain, along with the promotion of Paleo eating in the ever expanding world of Cross Fit exercise.

There is a glut of info about Paleo online but I recommend Robb Wolf’s website as a decent starting point.

What Paleo IS
Basically, Paleo is a way of eating that attempts to mimic (as closely as we can in the modern world) the diet of our paleolithic (stone age) ancestors i.e. before agriculture reared its “ugly” head and started throwing its “weight” around and making us all the unhealthy fatties that we are today (please forgive my hyperbole, I’m Irish, we get carried away with such things).

The underlying theory is that agri-foods like grains, legumes and dairy have only been in the human diet for a relatively short amount of time (approx. 10,000 years) compared to how long anatomically modern humans have been around (approx. 100,000 years). Thus, it’s believed that the human digestive system/body hasn’t had enough time to adapt to them and certain substances they contain. So, our bodies react poorly to them resulting in a myriad of diet-related illness’ that we are seeing in ever increasing numbers these days like obesity, Type-2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases etc.

In a nutshell, Paleo encourages the consumption of “Paleo foods” such as:

  • Lean meats (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds

    A good paleo diet should look something like this; plenty of fruit and veg along with unprocessed meats.

    A good paleo diet should look something like this; plenty of fruit and veg along with unprocessed meat and fish.

and discourages the consumption of “Agricultural Products” which are new to the human diet such as:

  • Grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, rice)
  • White potatoes
  • Dairy
  • Legumes
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Processed foods in general

Think of it like this: if you were dropped into a tropical rainforest and had to hunt, gather and scavenge your food, you would be eating paleo. You would be saying goodbye to modern day staples such as breads, cakes, candies, chips and “pretty much” anything that comes prepackaged.

What Paleo IS NOT
Paleo is not an excuse to eat nothing but bacon (as some would have you believe).

A healthy diet is not made of Bacon alone!

A healthy diet is not made of Bacon alone! (My God, it’s so beautiful)

Why eat like a caveman?
The very nature of the Paleo Diet dictates that you suddenly begin consuming virtually all of your food unprocessed. Going from the Standard American Diet (SAD, great acronym, right) to Paleo generally means that  you’ll immediately be consuming:

Less
Sugar
Starch
Refined/Damaged Oils
Crap

& More
Vegetables
Fruits
Fibre
Protein
Healthy Fats

So in one powerful swoop the Paleo diet covers the majority of areas that most “other diets” try to improve upon.

The diet claims to help you:

  • Lose weight
  • Treat Type-2 diabetes
  • Improve autoimmune disease (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Control other forms of inflammation such as acne
  • Make you look daaaaamn sexy in a bathing suit

From my own experience on the diet I can honestly say that I never feel so good as when I’m following Paleo. The best way I could describe the feeling of paleo is that everything is just smooth. Like a well oiled engine burning high octane fuel compared to an old, poorly maintained engine running on regular. They both run, but one runs better and is gonna last a lot longer.

I always lose weight on Paleo (due to the drop in carbs and elimination of water retention), my skin is always clear and I feel full of energy. The diet works and it works well.

Additionally, one of the best things about Paleo these days is the huge community of followers that has developed around it which means that finding info about paleo and more importantly, finding paleo-friendly recipes is now easier than ever.

The Devil is in the Dogma
What’s the catch right? There’s gotta be something? Terrible B.O.? Hairy chests? Development of a sloping forehead?

The Paleo Diet will not result in the formation of Modern Cavemen.

The Paleo Diet will not turn you into a modern cavemen (hopefully).

Truth be told, no! The diet itself is excellent, nourishing and far superior to the crap most people eat today.

The problem lies in the fact that, like religion, the paleo diet suffers from its own Dogma.

The central premise is that if a foodstuff could be found by our hunter-gatherer ancestors it’s good. Equally, if a food wasn’t available to those same ancestors, back in the day, it’s bad. This is an intentional oversimplification but I’m going to use it to explain a point.

Therefore, foods like maple syrup or honey are Paleo. Now, maple syrup and honey, in reality, are little more than sugar syrup with extra flavor and some minerals and other compounds in miniscule quantities. They behave in your body in virtually the same way as sugar (anyone who disagrees has no idea about biochemistry and I, thankfully, have science on my side).

Or another example, the humble spud (white potato) is a no-go but the sweet potato (also an agricultural product) is considered essential by Paleo athletes who heavily rely on it as a carb source.

You also encounter (mostly) newbies to Paleo who look at it as an excuse to gorge excessively on meat (see “Bacon” above) or on fruits. The problem with fruits these days is that they have been altered significantly by agriculture and contain far more sugar than their wild/ancient relatives. Paleo isn’t just about meat and fruit but some people (both inside and outside the paleo movement) would have you believe so.

On the other end of the spectrum, certain “modern” foods (such as certain fermented dairy products) may very well be tolerated on the paleo diet but dogma dictates that they’re bad because they’re new.

In fact, this has led to a schism in the paleo movement with traditionalists (those religiously following the original paleo dogma) and “New-Paleo” followers who are less strict and more willing to try “certain” non-paleo foods. Just like a schism in religion followers of both sects (which have far more in common than otherwise) squabble over these miniscule differences. Religious history repeating itself. But I digress…

Why I don’t follow Paleo (at the moment)
I’ve just said that Paleo is amazing and that “it does exactly what it says on the tin” and that it makes me feel great. Why then wouldn’t I follow it?

We’re finally getting to the point I want to make. There are other considerations to make about the food we put into our mouths than simply its affects on us as individuals.

We live on a small planet, with limited resources but with a population of about 7 billion hungry people. Diets in the developed world (and I’m talking about standard diets too, not just paleo) rely heavily on animal products. The problem with that is that producing food from animals is far more costly (monetary investment, space, environment) than producing food from plants. I’m not going to go into details myself but you can read more here and here.

Long story short, eating meat is far harder on the environment and heavier on our limited resources than eating plants.

As a human being, I can’t justify huge quantities of meat in my diet when I know that it simply isn’t sustainable. I’m “trying” to be responsible.

The Hypocrite
So have I eliminated meat from my diet? Hell no!

From my own personal experience I know that I do far better with some meat in my diet than without. Humans are omnivores (science agrees with me) and we and our ancestors have been eating meat for millions of years (the ability to cook meat is often cited as the evolutionary kick-starter of human brain development). I have little doubt that there are substances that we can get from meat far more efficiently than from plants (Vitamin B12 is an obvious example). I’m not going to sacrifice my health entirely by eliminating meat completely.

Replacing (some) animal protein with plant protein is one step towards a more sustainable planet.

Replacing (some) animal protein with plant protein is one step towards a more sustainable planet.

I’ve come to a compromise with the way I eat that allows me the benefits of meat in a mostly plant based diet. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s the best I’m willing to do. I also don’t want to give up some of my favorite foods  on my cheat days (heaven forbid).

On top of that, my diet changes regularly. Depending on my fitness goals, depending on my health, depending on my budget. I say that I don’t eat paleo NOW but that doesn’t mean that I won’t go paleo (or conversely, vegan for that matter, although I doubt it) in the future. “Never say never” is a dietary policy that has worked well for me over the years.

Food for thought
Our health is vitally important. So is our planet.

They whole point of this article is to introduce an incredibly healthy eating system along with making people aware of the consequences of their food choices. On a planet of limited dimensions, our choices and actions ultimately affect everyone and everything else. I just want people to see the bigger picture.

I’m not telling people to give up meat. I’m not telling people to go paleo. Both would be hypocritical of me (I’ve just realized that saying it like that really puts me in a lose-lose situation). I just want you, as an individual, to be aware of your health, your responsibility and your choices regarding both.

Eat well folks!

**********************************************************************

Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

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9 Responses to “The Best Diet in the World (and why I don’t follow it)”

  1. Reika March 11, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    Great article 🙂 Balanced diet is the key and I like how you are not pushing one particular diet but overall balanced, healthy, and mindful diet.

  2. Salsera in the City March 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    I definitely feel an overall knowledge of Paleo in terms of trying to avoid vegetable oils, sugar, most simple carbs and processed foods etc has benefited me despite the fact I do not follow a strict Paleo diet or even anything close to it. My diet changes according to how I feel and where I am; all kinds of considerations. It doesn’t rule my life, but adjustments and a certain amount of knowledge certainly enhance my well-being overall. Changing even five main staples in your shopping basket each week can have huge benefits and I think it’s a shame when people don’t take the time to check out different ideas surrounding nutrition because it strays from governmental guidelines or due to the preconceptions surrounding Paleo or anything else, as they believe it to be faddy or intimidating. I also agree that diet has to be part of lifestyle, and lifestyle takes in many factors other than simply strict rules surrounding food. I enjoyed the post!

    • The Dancing Irishman March 13, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

      Thanks Sorrel,
      You’re right it’s all about being awareness of what we’re putting into our body. The more we learn (provided it’s sound info) the better. Even if we don’t follow a particular diet all the time. And the flexibility you speak of is essential too.

  3. Brendan Murphy October 28, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    Full on Paleo is also quite expensive for the individual – particularly if trying to make up high caloric intakes (or, time consuming & volumous if Sweet potatoes are your only carb….).

    Furthermore, I found it more difficult to balance fiber types when following a close to Paleo diet – i.e. Soluble Vs Insoluble since many fruits/veg are disproportionately balanced (and the… “effects” that can have… 😉 )

    As mentioned above though, understanding the core concepts of Paleo, along with some of the basic food-science reasons one might avoid those foods, is an essential life skill.

    Its not a diet. Its a way of life. Its my fuel for life, *my* life.

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