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Stuck with the Name: The “Paleo Diet” and Obsolete Branding

I often wish I wasn’t paleo. I don’t wish I ate in a different way, and I don’t wish I made different lifestyle choices: I am overwhelmingly happy to have found a lifestyle and a way of eating that works so well for me. I do wish that I had never put a label on those choices — I wish I hadn’t called my lifestyle “Paleo.”

“Paleo” is a difficult term to understand fully because there are so many definitions and because it has evolved so drastically over the last few years. Originally, “The Paleo Diet” was a system set up by Dr. Loren Cordain, based on evolutionary biology hypotheses. Cordain, following the work of Dr. Boyd Eaton and others, hypothesized that because our present-day genetic make-up is not all that much different from our Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and because evolutionary biologists have found some evidence that those early humans were generally healthier than humans who lived after the agricultural revolution, it would be beneficial for present-day humans to design their diets based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to eat. Based on this hypothesis, Cordain recommended a high protein, low carbohydrate, moderate-to-high fat diet that eliminated all grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugars, and most starches.

Paleo gained much of its initial support because of two books, The Paleo Diet by Cordain and The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. Both of these books focused on the evolutionary biology reasoning for these dietary suggestions, including details about the health-damaging components in grains and legumes that make them difficult for humans to digest and absorb nutrients from. These initial ideas gained a lot of support because many people found that the diet worked for them: some people lost weight without calorie restriction, some found relief from medical conditions, and some saw performance improvements in various athletic pursuits. Other people found still more success with Mark Sisson’s “spin-off” diet, The Primal Blueprint, which followed the same basic template as paleo but was more lenient about the inclusion of dairy.

Since The Paleo Solution was published in 2010, the paleo community has grown exponentially, with people following tenets of the Paleo Diet all around the world. As more people have joined the movement, Cordain’s original recommendations have been closely scrutinized and many of them have been gradually amended by different proponents of paleo. These amendments to the original recommendations have taken place gradually and in three principle ways: through scientific reasoning; through amalgamation with other health movements; and through practical application and personal experimentation.

Changes to the original paleo recommendations have mostly taken place as a result of scientific research and reasoning. While the original Paleo Diet was based on evolutionary hypotheses, many newcomers to paleo have brought to it a focus on existing scientific studies that indicate how present-day humans may react to certain foods. In many cases, they have found more evidence to adhere to original recommendations (like avoidance of gluten-containing grains), but in other cases they have found evidence to contradict them. It was found, for example, that in people who can tolerate dairy (who continue to produce the enzyme lactase after weaning), high-fat dairy (especially from grass-fed cows) can be an extremely beneficial source of nutrients. Dr. Mat Lalonde has prominently argued that the original reasons cited for avoiding legumes (their high lectin and phytic acid content) are invalid since soaking and cooking legumes removes nearly all of the potentially harmful components. Some people do not tolerate legumes for other reasons (such as FODMAP intolerance), and they are not particularly nutrient dense in comparison to meat or vegetables, but for some people, legumes are a perfectly acceptable food. In this way, paleo has adapted to match current scientific understandings, and it will continue to do so.

Paleo has also dramatically changed through its association with other health movements, especially the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). The WAPF is an organization that supports diets based on traditional or ancestral diets, which vary widely around the world but all contain an emphasis on nutrient-dense whole foods and animal fats. The WAPF’s recommendations are based on the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist who travelled around the world in the early 20th century examining the diets and lifestyles of cultures that were largely unaffected by what he called “the diseases of civilization” (diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, etc.). The large cross-over between WAPF members and followers of Paleo has led to a focus on nutrient density in the paleo community: a strong emphasis on bone broth, organ meats, high-quality dairy, high-quality animal fats, and fermented foods.

Finally, the original Paleo Diet has also altered considerably through the recognition that each individual’s personal dietary and lifestyle needs are different: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to diet and lifestyle. It’s easy enough to see, looking around at all of the competing diets and lifestyles out there that many different programs are able to help some people. While the evolutionary hypotheses and scientific studies are good places to start, what really matters in the end is whether what you’re eating and how you’re living gives you your optimal level of health. It is important to know that this may change over the course of someone’s life. Chris Kresser, in his recently released book Your Personal Paleo Code,  discusses the importance of personalization. He encourages his readers to break out of a dogmatic understanding of paleo and to think of the original paleo guidelines as a template on which to build.

As you can see from this much-abridged history of the Paleo Diet, paleo has changed dramatically just over the last few years. What was a dietary model based on evolutionary biology is now a highly-individualized, nutrient-dense, Real Food diet with an emphasis on lifestyle factors like sleep, stress relief, and smart exercise. The problem is that the name “paleo” doesn’t reflect that shift.

“Paleo” is still widely perceived as the “caveman” diet and is frequently criticized for encouraging modern-day humans to eat like paleolithic hunter-gatherers (which is entirely impractical in today’s world) and for ignoring epigenetic factors that differentiate us from our paleolithic ancestors (like lactase persistence, which allows a large percentage of the population to digest dairy). These criticisms repeatedly demonstrate ignorance as to the current state of paleo, which is not much associated with evolutionary biology at all anymore.

The name “Paleo” continues to mislead people about the current nature of the paleo diet and lifestyle, and it is for this reason that I have frequently regretted my allegiance to it. Calling myself “paleo” I continually come up against resistance and misunderstanding from people who share many of my ideologies but misunderstand what paleo actually is. Many leading health experts have, for that reason, avoided using that label. As a result, many people who share core paleo values distance themselves from the movement. That said, with the growing popularity of paleo over the last few years and the number of books that are now emerging on that topic, I don’t see any hope of re-branding at this stage in the game. “Paleo” will stay “paleo,” and hopefully people will gradually recognize it for what it is: a Real Food lifestyle.

Personal Hurdles: Weight Fluctuations

I admire people who don’t own scales. I admire people who don’t know what they weigh.

I am not one of those people. I own a scale and I know exactly what I weigh. In fact, after so many years of obsessing over the number on the scale, I can now look in the mirror and accurately estimate my weight (within 1 lb). Even if I got rid of my scale tomorrow, I’d still know exactly how much I weigh.

Weight has been an important measurement for me since middle school. Like many (if not most) people in our society, I saw weight as being the most significant indicator of health. Thin people were healthy; fat people were not. Obesity was the cause of health issues (heart disease, diabetes, joint pain, etc.).

I have since realized that my assumptions here were false. Sure, obesity is often correlated with health issues, but it is false to assume that those who have a low BMI are automatically healthier. Being a “healthy” weight does not guarantee health; thin people are also plagued by IBS, infertility, cancers, autoimmune conditions, and all manner of other issues (including type 2 diabetes which many people I encounter seem to think is related to weight alone). Obesity may be correlated with ill health, but it is very unlikely to be the root cause.

I saw this first hand. From when I was 19 to when I was 20, I lost more than 60 lbs (from a BMI of 34 to one of 23). I had gone from obese to “normal” in a year, but my health hadn’t really improved. My asthma was better, yes, but not gone, and during the course of the year I’d developed a circulation condition called Raynaud’s Disease. On top of that, my knees had started to hurt (just a little) when I exercised — at the ripe old age of 20. These are relatively minor health issues, so I brushed them off as irrelevant and pushed on to reach my weight loss goals. Looking back, however, I realize that this should have clued me into the fact that 60 lbs were not the only thing standing between me and health.

As I write this today I am approximately 140 lbs. It’s about 10 lbs heavier than my lightest weight and about 5 lbs heavier than the weight at which I feel most healthy. I’m still not able to say I don’t care about these numbers. There’s a voice in my head telling me that if I just lost those 10 (or maybe 15) lbs, that my thighs/calves/stomach/arms will look better. That voice still pushes me to lose that weight in any way possible. I can’t tell you that voice doesn’t exist, but I can tell you that I no longer listen to it. What I am able to say today is that I no longer think of weight as the sole marker of my health, and my goal is not to lose weight but to become optimally healthy.

Maybe in the future I’ll put on muscle and look smaller, even at the same weight, or maybe I’ll put on both weight and muscle, or maybe I’ll stay exactly the same size and weight I am right now. I don’t know how my body will change in the future, but I do know that I will continue to ignore that voice in my head and one day (maybe soon) I’ll throw out that scale entirely.