Despite the fact that I'm usually opposed to labels, I would classify my dietary choices as Paleo. Why? Because most people these days understand what that means and it's much simpler than attempting to explain the finer points of a Real Food lifestyle.
Those who are new to this lifestyle and those who have been here for awhile are often perplexed by a few things such as why real foodies are obsessed with things like butter and dark chocolate. Don't worry, these thoughts are completely normal. But in order to keep you from spending all your spare time stuck in the land of Paleo foodie conundrums, I thought you might appreciate some context.
I think that we all agree that the desire to optimize our health by consuming the most nutrient dense (and nutrient available) foods possible is the heart of the Paleo/Real Food movement. I'm not going to lie, I don't exactly desire to optimize my health by consuming liver or other organ meats...but I'm working on it.
Nutrient Dense Food
Nutrient availability or bioavailability is the nutrition in a food that is available for the body to use (they aren't exactly the same thing, but the difference doesn't matter for this purpose). Animals that were properly raised and those fruits and veggies that your mom always told you to eat, have nutrition that is easily available to you body simply by chewing and digesting food.
Nuts and seeds have fewer nutrients available than fruits, veggies, and meat and shouldn't be eaten as often. This makes sense if you consider it from a hunter-gatherer perspective because nuts are challenging to get (they grow on trees and have hard shells around them) and wouldn't be as easily available as other foods.
Beans and grains have even lower nutrient availability. They contain substances that break down important nutrients and inhibit enzymes that we need to digest food. If you do eat grains, it is important to properly prepare them in order to minimize the undesirable effects on nutrient availability.
So what does all that mean? Basically, it means that you should forget everything you were ever told about what to eat (i.e. blow up the food pyramid) and focus on foods that have always been considered foods: fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. These things will provide you with all the nutrients you need.
But what about cheese and chocolate?
I know what you're thinking right now...you're thinking that I forgot about CHEESE and CHOCOLATE and other delicious things like maple syrup and sausage.
Nope, I didn't forget those. I left them out on purpose. See, it's been drilled into us that we want to live within very specific rules when it comes to "getting healthy." We want "eat this, not that" rules. We think that if we don't live within these rules - eat (X), not (Y), (A) is good, (B) is bad - we will never get healthy or we might as well just give up because we're all going to die of something someday so you might as well eat whatever the heck you want in the meantime.
If this strict, rule-based approach actually worked, the diet, lifestyle, and self-help book section in every bookstore on the planet would be completely empty.
I have a point, I promise.
I know when I was looking to change my diet (and my body) I got very focused on the "rules" of Paleo and the success stories of people who transitioned to this type of diet. What I didn't understand was why it worked so well for so many people. I mean, there's a woman out there who essentially cured herself of MS by eating Real Food/Paleo. It's a freaking miracle diet.
But here's the thing about The Paleo Diet (like, the stuff that actual cavemen really ate)...it's up for debate because:
- Diets are generally regional and it varied depending on where a caveperson was and what was available,
- None of us were around to see what they ate
- Cavemen didn't have blogs and smartphones to document all of their meals. My guess is (and yes, I do have a degree in anthropology so I'm pretty much an authority on the caveman) they ate whatever the heck they could get their hands on.
My point? There isn't one thing that is going to work for everyone. Warm climate caveperson could probably eat all the coconuts he wanted. Arctic caveperson might be confined to the cave for several days after trying coconuts (which obviously floated from the tropics to the arctic via the ocean...or were carried by a sparrow).
When it comes to real food, there are no absolutes or hard and fast rules to follow, there is only the information that creates a framework for making choices that are right for you. If you follow a set of rules surrounding food without understanding why, then you are letting someone else boss you around. I don't know about you, but I don't really like it when other people tell me what to do (just ask my mom...).
So what should I do?
You need to decide what is right for you and what fits into your real food framework. Get as much information as possible (knowledge is power!) and make informed choices for yourself. Don't worry about what other people are doing. Turn yourself into a nutrition lab and figure out what is going to work for you!
Paleo is not a one size fits all approach, but it is a way of thinking about eating that works for everyone. You are a human so there is iteration of Paleo that will work for you. Paleo is also not about demonizing the foods we are choosing to avoid. It's about helping you understand how food should work in and with your body, not against it.
If you're still unsure, think of it this way, your diet should be mostly made up real food basics such as meat, fish, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. All the other things are the croutons or the cheese sprinkled on top of a caesar salad, they add a little something but they are not the heart of the salad. Also, don't beat yourself up when you eat something that isn't actually real food (girl scout cookies, anyone?). Just move on. It's not about perfection, it's about making informed and conscious choices about what you are putting into your body.