In spite of the fact that we know more than ever about nutrition and what a healthy diet should generally consist of, almost 2.1 billion people in the world are either overweight or obese.
It seems like every other day we hear about a new diet – from Atkins to Paleo, from high-carb to low-carb, high-fat to low-fat, it seems like there is major support for every possible ‘healthy eating’ structure there’s a celebrity endorsement for.
The word “diet” has two distinct meanings.
One of the more controversial of the modern-day diets is the Paleolithic diet. The “Paleo diet” (also known as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet, primal diet, or hunter-gatherer diet) is one of the most popular modern ways to lose weight.
Although when we say the phrase “paleo diet,” we’re referring to the general eating habits of humans that lived during the Paleolithic era, most of the time we’re using it as a term that connotes an eating regimen meant to help us lose weight. You’ll soon see why it’s important to keep the difference in mind.
Before we delve into the modern day paleo diet, the craze surrounding it, whether it actually works or not, and how those of you who are interested can get started on it, let’s go through a little bit of history to put this all into perspective.
In every era of history, our understanding of the world seems to change dramatically. Technological, scientific and societal progress inherently result in major reform to the way we live our lives.
Progress sets in motion a chain of events that result in our newfound understanding permeating every aspect of our lives to adapt to new knowledge and possibility. Art, religion, social organization, technology… every part of life must ultimately adapt to changing circumstances.
What we eat, how we eat, and what we think about what we eat is no exception.
The paleolithic era lasted from 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. During that period, humans were largely dispersed, and grouped together in small societies. The technological climate of the time was characterized by Stone Tools.
The societal and technological climate of the period resulted in humans getting their food through fishing, hunting, and scavenging for dead animals.
Keep in mind, the Paleolithic era was pre-settled agriculture.
It’s believed that women were mainly responsible for gathering wild plants and firewood while men hunted and scavenged. It was a period during which food had to be directly earned in order to sustain life. Earning your food from the world meant that everything you were eating was 100% natural.
The agricultural revolution marked one of the more drastic changes to human living as we abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and entered the era of agriculture and settlement.
Agriculture meant increasingly large populations, leaving the concept of small groups who worked for food and sustaining life together, behind. The Neolithic era introduced grains and dairy into our diets through domestication of plants and animals.
The domestication of plants and animals marked an enormous turning point in the way we as humans ate. It began the shift from food found in nature alone to the beginning of modern processed foods.
If we’re going to be precise, then food ‘processing’ actually began 2 million years ago when we began using fire to “cook” our food. Processing literally means deliberately altering food from its natural state before its made available for consumption. Transforming food from its natural or raw ingredients.
Processing in this sense isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all – the beginning of cooking food actually helped our bodies digest more efficiently.
Cooking made food more safe by removing harmful bacteria from the foods. Another good example of healthful processing is the use of salt to preserve our foods and prevent them from quickly decaying.
Without processing, super markets may not even be able to exist because our food wouldn’t be able to handle the long trips they take to get to their ultimate destinations.
However, our modern notion of processed food is very different than the simple cooking we began with. We cook a lot less and eat a lot more ready-made food.
This opens up our time because as individuals we don’t have to spend as much time preparing our food to be eaten, which creates efficiency in our lives. Not only do we have to worry about whether we’ll have food, we don’t even have to worry about making it.
But processed foods have their drawbacks.
Food processing affects the nutritional density of natural food ingredients – it can destroy vitamins and minerals. Food processing also introduces the idea of adding unnatural ingredients to our food in order to preserve them, make them tastier, etc.
As these processes expand and we move away from wholly natural foods to more synthetic ingredients, our bodies are getting a lot less of what we know we need and more of what we don’t need.
When humans first started cultivating grains and eating bread, it wasn’t the soft, fluffy white bread we enjoy today. It was very rough and extremely hard to chew. There were actually a lot of healthful grains in bread which gave us a lot of the vitamins and nutrients we now know we need.
When we started making white bread as a society in the 1880’s, we got rid of all the bran and germ that were in the bread we were eating.
In fact, in Europe before we started making white bread, a human could effectively live off of bread and have a relatively wholesome diet.
What happened is that companies that made white, sliced bread as we know it were taking all of the healthful critical nutrients out of it, using white flour, and we immediately had a spread of epidemic diseases as a result.
We all know what Wonderbread is – the classic sliced bread company that opened up shop in the early 1920s and continues to be a household name today.
The genius of Wonderbread and our modern consumer food market is this – we lose a lot of the healthful aspects of our food through processing, and then companies introduce back into the food alternative forms of those vitamins and nutrients and advertise those products as ‘healthy.’
This is the real problem with our modern processed foods. The simple truth is that companies are created to make money, not promote health. That isn’t to say that promoting health can’t be a goal or value of a company, just that bottom-line profit is what’s most important.
According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61% of the food Americans buy is highly processed. Almost 1,000 calories a day of most of our diets come from highly processed foods. This number doesn’t include all processed food in general, only the most highly processed of foods which can be characterized as multi-ingredient mixtures that are largely unrecognizable as their original form when consumed.
In 2010, our diets surpassed smoking as the single largest risk for disease and death in the U.S.
There’s a lot of debate over exactly which foods were available to the people who lived during the Paleolithic era, but the premise is simple. It is a movement back towards mainly plants, fish, meat, fruits and nuts, and away from any processed foods, dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, processed oils and salt.
The diet itself isn’t that complicated – in the end of the day, it’s about eating real food as opposed to man-made food.
What to aim for:
What to avoid:
The benefits of the diet boil down to this – The paleo diet almost completely eliminates sugar. Avoid our modern day health problems by getting all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you need, feel full often and throughout the day, avoid garbage, and lose weight.
Critics of the Paleo diet are focused on whether or not the underlying assumptions concerning the diet are in fact accurate. In all fairness, subjective opinion will always come into play when talking about what’s best in terms of nutrition, health and wellness.
Response: To say that the paleo diet isn’t realistic in this day and age is somewhat accurate. Most of the food we have goes through some process because that’s how we’re able to do mass production and movement of food to feed more people than ever and worry less about where our food will come from. But the ‘paleo diet’ itself is just a blueprint for eating real food as well as we can in today’s world. To say that we can’t replicate it to a large degree is as absurd as saying that we can’t choose what we eat.
Response: What critics say about other factors leading to our health problems outside of our diet is also somewhat obvious and in my opinion isn’t really a critical statement about the diet itself. Of course if we were still going out and hunting for our food we’d be healthier in general because we’d be getting more exercise. But that doesn’t change the fact that our diet consists of a lot of ‘fake’ food that has been proven to cause an enormous amount of problems. It doesn’t change the fact that a movement towards healthy and natural foods would mean we’re living healthier lifestyles.
Response: Many critics point out the fact that the diet incorporates a lot of protein in the form of meats which they argue actually is unhealthy. The truth is you make of this diet what you want in terms of how much meat you actually eat. You can get protein from nuts, seeds, eggs, and fish and avoid eating meat completely if you wanted to. It’s a plant-based diet focused on real food. It’s not about meat.
Response: Assume we ate grains throughout our history, including pre-agricultural revolution. You think we were eating the processed grains we eat now with tons of man-made additives? Grains themselves aren’t the problem, it’s how we make grains and the form in which they come that creates the issue. Whole grains like quinoa, oats and brown rice do not need to be avoided in an overall healthy diet and in fact can be a big part of a healthy diet. But what type of grains are we eating on a regular basis? White flour, tons of starchy white rice… refined grains that are more focused on making our food taste good than our bodies feel good.
The paleo diet’s avoidance of grains is aimed at refined, processed grains and the foods that include them.
At a certain point it’s all up for opinion. What it means to be ‘healthy,’ itself is up for opinion. The paleo diet is simply focused on real food and the avoidance of fake food. Anything wrong with that?
There’s no one diet that works best for everyone. But when it comes to satisfying our energy levels, living healthier and looking better, eating a lot of plants, protein, healthy fats and avoiding carbs that end up being stored as fat as a result of excess consumption is a big step in the right direction.
On top of helping you avoid highly processed and unnatural foods and excess sugar, here’s the real gold:
*The paleo diet causes fat loss because in the end of the day fat loss is really about re-directing the source of our energy from excess glucose to fat by manipulating the body through the foods we eat. *
We need energy to live. We need energy to breathe, to digest, to circulate blood flow, to move our limbs, to think, etc. From the moment we’re born until the moment we leave this beautiful world, we are using energy to facilitate our every physical movement, thought, emotion and instinctive process.
The body is extremely efficient. We have a very specific process for the way we create energy based on the food we eat. When there’s an excess of what is needed, the body stores it to be used in a later day. By the same token, when there’s not enough energy supply, the body adapts and finds other sources.
***Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. ***
Carbohydrates are vital to the functioning of our bodily systems. Carbs are broken down into glucose in the body. Glucose is the primary molecule that serves as energy for animals like us.
The main objective in achieving fat loss is forcing your body to react to circumstances you create by using fat for energy rather than carbohydrates or muscle tissue. We want our bodies to metabolize the fat that has been stored.
That happens when the body realizes that it needs more glucose than is currently being manufactured based on the carbohydrates available, and it then releases the hormone****glucagon, whose job is to convert existing fat that has been stored in the body into energy the body can use.
The manner in which the body responds to energy deficiencies that result from a caloric deficit is precisely dependent on how much glycogen your body has at any given time.
Glycogen refers to carbs that have been stored in the body. If you’re continually eating carbs, which is the favored energy source, your body has absolutely no reason to metabolize fat for energy!
What’s more is that when you eat more carbs than your body needs, the excess carbohydrates that can’t currently be used as energy **are stored as fat **so that they can potentially be used down the line if it becomes necessary.
So reducing your intake of carbohydrates forces your body to use fat for energy and stops storing as much fat.
A big part of fat loss is about regulating your carbohydrate intake to cause this bodily reaction of using fat as a source of energy. But eliminating carbs completely is the wrong way to approach the task. Although it will help you achieve weight loss, you need to make sure your body isn’t forced to reach for muscle tissue as the alternate supply of energy.
Carbohydrates are a double edged sword.
Although eliminating carbs does lead to the using of fat and muscle as alternate energy supplies, the ingestion of carbs protects muscle tissue, thereby forcing the burning fat rather than muscle.
The balance is a real struggle: Too many carbs and your body won’t burn fat. Too little carbs, and your body burns through your muscle tissue. But, don’t worry. Soon you’ll have everything you need to find the right balance for your body.
There are two main types of carbohydrates, commonly referred to as “simple carbs” and “complex carbs.” What defines the quality of a carbohydrate is really the speed at which it is absorbed – the rate at which your body breaks them down for use as energy.
When carbohydrates are absorbed quickly (when simple carbohydrates are consumed), there is a quick bodily reaction of elevated blood sugar, which causes the brain to release the hormone insulin to get the body’s blood sugar levels back under control.
The resulting danger is that when insulin is set in motion to regulate blood sugar, the hormone glucagon (the hormone that asks the body to use fat as an energy supply) is halted until the insulin has finished its work. Your body regulates the blood sugar while fat burning is suppressed.
Another common negative attribute of “simple” or fast-absorbing carbohydrates is that giving your body that high elevation in blood sugar results in an equally low swing in the opposite direction. Basically, after insulin kicks in and lowers your blood sugar, then your body craves food to push it back up.
You feel hungry quickly. The long-term result is a complete loss of control in the way we handle our food. We over-eat, and we crave the same unhealthy carbohydrates that gave us the rush in the first place.
Regulating your carbohydrate intake is largely about regulating blood sugar levels to keep them at a balanced level.
Some examples of simple carbohydrates are: Baked goods, cookies, sugar, cereal, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and dairy products.
Complex carbohydrates are those that cause smaller increases in blood sugar because they take more time for the body to break down and use (they have longer chains of sugar molecules). They allow glucose to release into the blood stream slowly and consistently.
You want to fill as much of your carbohydrate intake with complex carbohydrates as possible. Some great complex carbs are vegetables, rich fruits and WHOLE grains (if you eat grains at all).
The glycemic index is a scale that rates foods that can be categorized as carbohydrates based on the effect in the rise of blood sugar that the food has. Generally speaking, the higher the glycemic index rating (which is anywhere from 1 – 100), the more “simple” the carbohydrate is.
To get the most out of the carbohydrates you consume, try checking where the carbs you eat fall on this scale. The goal is to eat foods that fall ideally from 1-40 on the scale the majority of the time, and 40-75 sparingly.
When it comes to healthy eating and fat loss, what you’re eating matters. Although your caloric intake has to be less than your caloric output, the quality of those calories matter a lot. This whole concept of paleo brings you to some really important ideas about foods that have nutritional value and those that are devoid of true value. So, experiment. Try paleo and see how you’re affected by it. Make small adjustments to your diet based on what you learn about how your body responds to food. Become your own nutritionist through trial and error and you’ll learn more than anyone else can tell you about how to maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet!
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