A lot has been said and written about some of the more common diets that people are pursuing, promoting, and profiting from. These include the Mediterranean Diet (which emphasize eating plenty fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and lean meats), the Atkins and Ketogenic Diets (which limit consumption of sugars and carbohydrates), commercial diets like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig (which rely on a combination of pre-packaged meals and individual or group support), and the increasingly popular Paleo Diet.
The latter diet is probably the one that has engendered the some of the most heated and acrimonious debate of late.Adherents greatly laud the Paleo diet’s effectiveness. Detractors call it dangerous.
There are numerous scientific studies that suggest that adopting a Paleo lifestyle may actually be effective in promoting weight loss, as well as in helping people control blood pressure and plasma cholesterol without medication. On the other hand, it recently ranked it dead last out of 35 diets that had reviewed by a panel of dietary experts hired by US News and World Report.
As the name might suggest, the idea behind the Paleo diet is that human beings evolved eating only those types of foods that were available during the Paleolithic era, long before the rise of agriculture. Also albeit erroneously known as the ‘Caveman Diet’, the Paleo Diet emphasizes eating those foods that would have been consumed by someone living a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, nomadic, hunting-gathering sort of life. Thus, this approach stresses a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and plenty of meats, along with so-called good fats. The more heavily processed foods that are a large part of the Standard American Diet (or SAD, as it is pejoratively known by Paleo followers) are forbidden, as are sugars, grains, dairy, and alcohol. A variant of the Paleo Diet, known as the Primal Diet, allows for more consumption of saturated fats (like grass-fed butter or coconut oil), the occasional ingestion of dairy (particularly raw or fermented dairy), and even the odd glass of wine or shot of tequila now and then.
There are many pros and cons to adopting a Paleo or Primal lifestyle. Yes, they are better described as lifestyles rather than as diets because Paleo and Primal practices emphasize a holistic approach to living. This includes not only eating a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in nutrient-dense foods, but also following a fitness plan that focuses on natural movement and strength building, adhering to a wellness plan that includes mindfulness, relaxation, and ample sleep, and engaging in other habits that are meant to mimic a prehistoric lifestyle in our modern wired and wireless world.
I’ve been following a largely Primal lifestyle off-and-on for nearly three years now, and the rest of this post is about my thoughts as to the pros and cons of the Primal approach to living.
So what are the cons?
First and foremost, it takes a lot of commitment to make the radical dietary and lifestyle changes that a living a Primal (or Paleo) life requires. It’s hard enough to avoid eating sugar, consuming grains, or avoiding alcohol at home, let alone when grabbing a 15-minute lunch at work or going out for dinner and a movie with friends. The recent gluten-free fad has helped make it easier, at least when dining out, and there are plenty of recipes and cookbooks out there, but it’s still tough. There are also a lot of naysayers out there – most often your friends and family — telling you why you are wrong and tempting you with pepperoni pizza.
A Paleo or Primal diet can also be unhealthy, particularly with regard to overconsumption of saturated fats or nitrate laden meats. Contrary to what some critics (and even promoters) have suggested, this is not a lifestyle in which you encouraged (and free) to eat all of the eggs and bacon that you want.
Despite those challenges, there are a lot of advantages to this lifestyle. It emphasizes high quality foods, particularly those that are locally and ethically sourced. It’s about eating healthy proteins like organic meats and wild-caught fish, cooking with natural derived rather than industrially manufactured fats, and consuming plenty of leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a variety of sprouted and fermented foods.
Moreover, the Paleo and Primal lifestyle gets you back into the kitchen, where you can focus on preparing healthy meals with your family and friends. It also gets you thinking about all of the other social factors that influence your health, including improving the length and quality of sleep, reducing stress and anxiety, avoiding the overuse of electronic media and devices, regular meditation or mindfulness sessions, and even the childlike joy of unfettered play.
For those who can make the change, the immediate and long terms benefits are clear, not only with respect to diet and exercise, but also in the relationships you have with your friends and family. More importantly, the lifestyle allows to you make small changes that reap big results over time.