Today is my 1-year paleo anniversary. The date is a little ambiguous. I recall at around this time last year telling my husband that "I found this really neat website--you gotta look at it--called Mark's Daily Apple." And so it began.
When I commit to something, I jump in with two feet. There was no hesitation, or waiting for a nice round number to roll around. There was no marking of the calendar. I liked what I read. I threw us all into it together. And I have never since stopped reading, no, devouring, everything that I can find on the subject. Every science article, every blog, every book I can get my hands on.
And I have only once in the past year looked back and wondered what I'm doing here. It was in the recovery aftermath of my burst appendix. But the surgeon, that anonymous and worldly man, heard my question about how that came to happen to me and said without a second of hesitation that "no, avoiding grains and processed foods did not do this. Years and years of constipation did this. If not eating grains is what ended this problem for you, then I'd say you're doing exactly the right thing now, and its just bad luck that it only came to a head now when you've resolved the problem." Ok, I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. And so I ploughed forward, never again hesitating.
So buckle up your seat belts, folks, this is gonna be a long one....
I'm one of those people that has to question everything. Everything. I was that annoying kid in school with a million questions. And over this year, as my body has healed, it has also allowed to bubble to the surface new issues and challenges that maybe were always there, but went unnoticed with all the louder, more apparent problems that got dealt with first. So my experimentation continues, and will likely continue, forever.
I hear it a lot. The ominous question, "Is this paleo?" I understand the confusion with a lot of the more unusual foods out there, the desire to walk the 'straight and narrow' and follow some invisible set of clear-cut guidelines and either be 'right' or 'wrong'. But what if there is no right or wrong, and only a lot of 'not great' and 'it depends' and 'better'?
What, really, is paleo? The longer I live this lifestyle and the more I read about it, the more I have come to understand that paleo is not a clearly defined thing. It is organic and changing. It is by far the most miss-labelled "diet" to come into being to date. Is paleo only eating the foods that our ancestors ate? I think not. In fact, I know not. That would rule out cows, chickens and pigs, lets be honest here. It might include bison, though, and small game similar to rabbit and wild fowl. In truth, most of what our ancestors ate does not exist today.
Nothing opens us up to more ridicule than trying to define paleo to someone as "Eating what our ancestors ate." The idea that we want to eat just like cavemen did is ludicrous. I certainly did not sign up for a lifestyle that includes a morning walk to check my snares for small game, followed by adding water to last nights stew and scraping out the leftover bits, followed up digging around in the dirt for some tubers to add to the pot tonight while the men go hunting for something bigger. No, that's not the point of paleo at all. But all the labels "ancestral" and "caveman" and "paleo" and "primitive" draw up this kind of imagery that the non-paleo world can't help but sneer at.
Why, oh why, did we have to call this a "paleo" diet? Ok, so the "leptins will cause cancer and grains are the root of all evil" diet won't do us any justice, either. But how about calling this the "whole food movement", or a "grain-free clean eating" diet? Heck, even the "only foods without ingredient labels" diet would garner less ridicule from the outside world.
There's a lot of science out there right now about food and nutrition , about insulin and leptins and leaky guts and inflammation. What the whole paleo movement is trying to do is teach us now to eat for health and healing ourselves, to fix what we've broken with our modern-day diets. The paleo diet teaches us that all the foods we eat will either heal and nourish, or they will harm. It advocates eating only the things that we know will nourish, and the only way to know what is in any food we eat is to eat like we did before food processing became rampant, to eat whole foods with known origins. No matter what kind of diet a person follows, its hard to argue that sugar and over-processing should be avoided. Any nutritionist will tell you that whether or not they agree with the paleo ethos. Heck, any vegan or raw foodie will also tell you that. Because of the commonality of those points, we really aught to be starting our explanations of our diet with those points--whole food, clean food, locally grown food, humanely raised meats. There are so many aspects of this paleo thing that are just intuitive and sensible that we can save the no-grains slap in the face for the end, don't you think? How about how we advocate more sleep and less stress, functional exercise movements and getting outside to play? And how about that fat is now known to be good? I don't know a man out there that can't be sold on that point alone. But all these other things get completely lost in translation as soon as you say "we don't eat grains". I think we really dropped the ball on that one.
When it comes to food, many of us are as guilty of this definition as laymen are. We still feel the need to ask the burning question, "but is this paleo?" When we really should only be asking ourselves, "Is this healthy?" Even we are getting caught up in that translation and can't see the forest for the trees.
Mark Sisson does this great series called "Is it Primal?" (Am I about to bash Mark Sisson? Hell no--I LOVE this series!) Despite the catchphrase title, he's really just asking "Are these unusual foods still healthy?" In it, he dissects the nutrition behind a lot of confusing foods. There are so many foods out there that in no way fit under the paleo banner, but are also not terribly harmful, either. The idea that we can't eat it just because our ancestors didn't is crazy, and terribly limiting (and variety is they key to life, isn't it?) Take raw milk, for example, or natural yogurt. It's pretty unlikely paleolithic man had it. But their gut-health-promoting and immunity-boosting benefits makes them hard to ignore. Recently, Mark took on edamame. You'd think that one was a no-brainer. (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-paleo-ezekiel-bread-v8-edamame-and-other-foods-scrutinized/#axzz20PdapJTA) But wait a minute--why is soy a no-no food? Read the article and see why edamame gets an "ok on occasion" pass from him. He similarly recognises cashews, which are neither nut nor legume, and mead, cod liver oil, V8 juice, agave nectar and other foods that we are either erroneously including or excluding from our diets just because of our narrow-mindedness and naivete.
I personally just want to eat foods that make me healthy, and avoid those foods that I understand to be unhealthy. That is my paleo. I want to eat yogurt and kefir, kombucha and maybe a potato now and then (because paleolithic man not only had tubers like potatoes, but the potato is so incredibly sustaining that it fed a nation throughout a famine, so lets not ignore this awesome food, ok?) I will do my best to avoid grains and processed foods and hidden sugar. I will eat my weight in non-starchy vegetables and I will continue to fight my sweet tooth with every ounce of my being. Because these are the things that I have found make me feel healthy inside. They make me feel this way not because someone has told me so, but because I have tested every theory, included and excluded every food that I could think of. I know through experimentation that I do not have any FODMAP sensitivity. That I do not get bloated from eating eggs but that too many nuts is a bad thing. I know that too many fruits makes me lose control and stuff sweetness into my mouth until I feel sick, but too few carbs makes me lethargic and cranky and head achy. I know that dates with almond butter is gateway food for me that leads me down the rabbit-hole and I know that despite being lactose-intolerant, I can still tolerate yogurt (in fact, it helps me) and small amounts of cheese still make some foods taste better.
The truth is that the people who are the most successful on this diet are the ones who take nothing at face value and instead question and test everything. Because paleo is personal and even though we've all come here to finally heal ourselves, we've all come here with different kinds of damage and different requirements. There are people who are following paleo with the SCD diet, or are trying an autoimmune protocol, or restricting FODMAPS because the foods that paleo has given a green-light on are still causing people issues even though we've declared these foods to be healthy. There are people who are restricting carbs trying to lose weight, and people who are finally experimenting with adding carbs back in because now we understand that for some people, carbs can help with weight loss, or help keep one fuller so we don't have the sugar cravings, and many other conflicting and confusing facts that just remind me that paleo is a personal thing, that it is different for every person, that we can all just agree to disagree on how much, how strict, how excluding we can or can't be and still call ourselves paleo. Built-in cheats? Occasional rice consumption? Pseudo-grains? There are so many grey areas out there. There is so much more to be said, but not enough hours in the day to do it.
There is only one truth that we can all agree on, even if it is kitchy, "Let Medicine be thy Food and Food be thy Medicine." Hippocrates was clearly ahead of his time, or maybe behind his time because the caveman knew this first and we seem to have just forgotten this very basic truth with all the modern advances of science. Eat to heal and eat to sustain first and foremost. Always get that taken care of first. Then negotiate dessert.