What is paleo?

I assume that if you’ve found this blog, you already have some idea of what “paleo” is. However, some folks may just visit because they know me (Hi, Ma!), or because they found a recipe that intrigued them. So this post is for those folks in the second group, who haven’t yet drunk the paleo kool-aid, as it were.

Paleo has something of a “BroScience” reputation. Rightly or wrongly, when you say “paleo diet,” people think crazy CrossFit athletes trying to live like cavemen (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). That was certainly the impression I had a year or two ago. But as more people have explored this way of eating — and, coincidentally, more women have become prominent paleo spokespeople — what I think of as Paleo 2.0 has arrived.

My brief, unscientific explanation of Paleo 2.0 is this: people are healthiest when they eat real foods. What’s real food? The things from the perimeter of the grocery store: vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and eggs.
Usually starting with an elimination diet (see It Starts With Food* for a good one), Paleo eaters focus on 1) eating the most nutrient-dense food possible, and 2) eliminating foods that are strongly linked to systemic (whole body) inflammation: wheat, sugar, dairy, corn, legumes, seed oils, and grains. Once you’ve completed your elimination phase, you are encouraged to try re-introducing things like dairy, or rice and find what works for you. Many paleo eaters find that they can be less strict, and include foods like white rice or white potatoes as they discover their personal tolerances for them. Others find that they need a stricter version, and use something like The Wahls Protocol* to help treat autoimmune disorders such as MS or ulcerative colitis.

The ideas behind the paleo diet – and the scientific justifications for them – are covered quite thoroughly by clever folks such as Loren Cordain,Robb Wolf *and Sarah Ballantyne* in their books. Me? I am completely unqualified to discuss the science. Nor do I want to do so, since that’s not why I choose to eat this way. Knowing that there was really good evidence for paleo-style eating is what got me comfortable with trying a paleo diet, but the reason I continue to eat this way is because of how I feel when I stick with it. My body and brain feel happier, more energetic and more effective when I eat paleo than when I don’t.

Paleo also focuses on lifestyle components as well. These are healthy lifestyle basics you’ve probably heard before, such as “find an exercise you like, and do that,” “make time to meditate” or “be sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night.” While there are certainly nuances to these – for example, too much exercise can be damaging – the gist of the lifestyle side is that you must make time to care for yourself inside and out. This is the part that is trickiest for me – as a mom of four, time is a precious resource – but I aspire to a more balanced life.

To recap (or TL;DR, as the kiddies say): Eat stuff that has lots of nutrition. Inflammation = bad; don’t eat stuff that inflames your body. Get exercise. Limit stress. Get good sleep.

* = Affiliate links.

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