Why I Love The Paleo Diet But Loathe The Name

paleo diet caveman

When it comes to the Paleo diet, let’s agree to leave the cavemen out of it.

Desperate for a sustainable solution to my weight and health frustrations, I tried the Paleo diet for the firs time last fall. After 30 days, I had lost 10 pounds, my skin cleared up, and I had more energy than ever. I was hooked. I started buying Paleo cookbooks, engaging with the online Paleo community, and clicking on just about any headline that mentioned the Paleo diet. After four months, I was 25 pounds lighter and loving it.

Following the Paleo diet has reignited my love of whole foods–organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed, pastured meats, raw nuts and seeds, and occasionally some spectacular dark chocolate. I’ve also learned so much about how the foods that dominate our food system, namely highly processed grains, dairy, and sweeteners, affect us in a negative way. And I cook all the freaking time now! You’ve got to when processed foods are out of the question. I love serving friends delicious food, and not admitting it’s Paleo until AFTER they’ve told me how much they enjoyed it.

But I also learned something else. I don’t like self-identifying as a Paleo eater. Why? Because people always get hung up on the name, and I find myself repeatedly explaining that the “Paleo” part shouldn’t be taken literally.

See, the Paleo diet has been around since the 1970s, popularized by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin and later Dr. Loren Cordain. I also learned that while early proponents suggested that Paleo eating is best because it “mimics the diets of our caveman ancestors” the nutritionists, fitness experts, and foodies that currently endorse it almost never push this aspect. And with good reason.

Suggesting that we can, with any decree of certainty, re-create the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors is ridiculous. And it’s the main reason why so many people feel comfortable saying the Paleo diet is stupid. Even though scientists say it’s nutritionally sound. That’s why, when talking about my own experience with Paleo, I leave the cavemen out of it.

My decision was recently validated by a widely-shared article written by Michael Pollan. The article listed all the things that, in Pollan’s opinion, are wrong with the Paleo diet. And just to be clear, Pollan and everyone else is entitled to their opinion. Because the Paleo diet is right for me doesn’t necessarily make it right for you. But the core argument was that cavemen most likely ate what they could find. Sometimes it was meat. Lots of the time it wasn’t. To me, the headline (and feisty comments) further proves that clinging to the “caveman” meme is hurting the basic message of the Paleo diet: eat real food. What Paleos really mean is “don’t eat something that wouldn’t have been recognized as food 200 years ago.” Which is almost identical to Pollan’s own ideology about food.

So let’s stop quibbling about what the cavemen ate. The Paleo diet includes lots of things that a caveman couldn’t possibly have had access to. But that’s not the point. The point is to eat real, whole foods, and eliminate the processed crap that’s only been considered food for the past 50 years. No matter what your anthropological perspective, that’s something we can all agree on.

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Image: Imamon