Paleo Diet / Primal Diet : What it is and Why it Works

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Featured photo courtesy of George.


During the latter half of 2009, as part of my personal research into diet and lifestyle and its effect on human health, I immersed myself in the world of paleo/primal eating and living. This interest followed years of experimentation into different lifestyle approaches in the pursuit of the highest levels of health, which led to very mixed results.

I was one of those guys in the gym six days a week for a couple hours while playing sports regularily, and constantly consuming tons of food and supplements. I was often exhausted, dependent on caffeine, always hungry, and suffered from “irritable bowel syndrome” on and off.

My first introduction to the world of paleo/primal was Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. A lot of what he wrote about was in line with my experiences, so I got really into it for a while. I stillpractice his approach to this day and recommend it whole-heartedly to others.

The paleo/primal approach to living is based on our knowledge of the eating, sleeping, exercise, stress and relationship patterns that our ancestors would have encountered during the evolution of our species. From the first members of the genus homo roughly two million years ago, to the incarnation of homo sapiens approximately 250,000 years ago (the paleolithic era), to eventually becoming modern humans who practice agriculture about 10,000 years back (the neolithic revolution), humanity has undergone many changes. Prior to agriculture, all hominids lived as hunter-gatherers whose diet would consist of only what was available by hunting and gathering. After agriculture, the diet shifted towards a focused few species, and so began the introduction of cereal grains as a significant part of the human diet. The primal/paleo theory is that since agricultural living represents only 0.5% of the evolution of the genus homo, then we are still more suited and genetically prepared to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as it represents 99.5% of the evolution of our species.

Before we continue, however, it should be made clear that paleo/primal is an approach to a full lifestyle, and not just a diet. The diet is a huge component of the lifestyle (you are what you eat), but there is more to it. This post will focus on diet, but there is a lot to learn from the paleo/primal community on exercise, sleep, sunlight, stress, and ways to healthily enjoy your time.

Paleo Diet vs. Primal Diet – What’s the Difference?

So far, I haven’t made it clear why I keep writing paleo slash primal. Well, there is a distinction. Here goes:

Paleo Diet:

The term ‘paleo’ is generally accepted to have been coined by its original author Prof. Loren Cordain. Cordain is an exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada/Reno. He has conducted a prolific amount of research into the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers and found that the diseases of civilization (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer) were largely absent from modern hunter gatherer communities (in line with Weston A. Price), so he looked at the diets of modern hunter-gatherers and equated them to the diets of early humans to search for explanations.

Loren Cordain recommends eliminating all grains, legumes, sugar, and industrial vegetable oils from your diet. It is a very strict approach. Cordain has also had reservations about animal fats and cholesterol in the diet (using the term “lean meats” often), although I feel as though he has softened his views on this in recent years. He has authored many books on the subject, most notably The Paleo Diet.

Robb Wolf is considered a student of Loren Cordain, and is the author of The Paleo Solution. Robb comes from a combined background of nutritional biochemistry and  weight-lifting, and is a coeliac (severely allergic to gluten, a wheat protein). Robb also typically recommends a strict approach to being Paleo, and is replete with valuable fitness knowledge.

Primal Diet:

The term ‘primal’ was coined by Mark Sisson, a blogger at Marks Daily Apple and author of The Primal Blueprint. Mark is a former marathon runner who discovered this approach in his later years after many health challenges. The primal approach is very similar to the paleo approach, except that Mark recommends fats (animal fats included) as a primary source of energy. He also provides a lot of evidence that dietary cholesterol is perfectly safe, healthy and to be encouraged.

Sisson is a bit softer in his approach, and unless there is a health condition that warrants militant strictness, he recommends an 80/20 split, where 80% of your diet is primal, and the other 20% is up to you. Mark also encourages those who are tolerant of dairy to go ahead and enjoy, while recognizing that there is a spectrum of dairy that ranges from least healthy (skim, non-organic, and pasteurized) to very healthy (full-fat, organic, and raw). There are also “sensible indulgences” that are OK in moderation that most people enjoy; dark chocolate and red wine chief among them.

In the end, paleo and primal are pretty much synonymous (hence paleo/primal), but primal (my favourite) is, in my opinion, more flexible, realistic, and leads to better adherence and thus results. I generally use the term paleo/primal, since it captures a wider range of approaches, but they’re all pretty much the same.

Why the Paleo Diet / Primal Diet Works:

It Focuses on Nutrient Rich Unprocessed Food:

At first glance, the paleo/primal approach appears to be a restrictive un-fun regime, but in reality you are encouraged to eat a wide variety of food. The emphasized foods are all things that could reasonably be found in nature. Some cooking and preparation is also allowed (this is not a raw food diet), but on the whole these foods are largely unprocessed. Every single variety of vegetable, fruit, animal, nut, and seed can be liberally enjoyed with this approach. Every herb and spice is also encouraged, along with a wide variety of approved fats and oils used for cooking and as dressings. Once you get the hang of a paleo/primal approach and learn to cook well with it, you’ll realize there is actually more variety than with a standard western diet built on corn, wheat flour, and soybeans. Unprocessed vegetables and meat are teeming with valuable nutrients and are digested by the body in a way that optimizes hormones. It’s glorious. To be sure: organic, pastured animals and wild game are preferred over industrially raised animals, but you just do the best you can. Consumption of animal offal (organs) are also encouraged as these are the most nutrient dense parts of the animal.

What the diet does not emphasize is things like refined sugar, cereal grains, legumes, industrial seed oils (soybean, corn, canola, etc), and dairy (although dairy is a grey area for those who can tolerate it). 

It Eliminates Inflammatory Foods:

The foods that are eliminated or severely limited are, as mentioned above, refined sugars, cereal grains, legumes (beans), industrial seed oils, and dairy* (see below for why dairy is a grey area). Not only are these foods significantly lower in nutrient density (nutritional potency), these foods are also high in anti-nutrients (lectins, phytic acid, and even gluten) and are typically inflammatory which means that they cause irritation in the body when they are consumed and digested. Inflammation is a natural response to damage to the body that increases blood flow and healing, but ideally is an acute response and temporary. This is akin to scratching your arm and it becoming red and slightly swollen temporarily until it is healed. When inflammation is triggered chronically (all the time), eventually our bodies wear down and disease is the result. Imagine your gut and arteries being constantly irritated; it’s not pretty. Chronic inflammation is now being linked (sometimes causally) to the development of cancerheart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

* Of note is that there is modern evidence that for those who tolerate it well (digest lactose, no allergy to casein), dairy is an acceptable and even worthwhile part of the diet. As Mark Sisson advocates, there is a spectrum of the best dairy (raw, unpasteurized, fermented), to the least desirable (skim and pasteurized).

There are numerous scientific reasons for these foods being inflammatory, but that will require a whole other post which I will write eventually. Please see “further resources” below!

It Embraces Fat as a Fuel:

Fat (and cholesterol, which is usually lumped with it) has been demonized in our culture as the cause of disease. Saturated fats are usually the most vilified of the bunch. Without going into too much of the biochemistry of cholesterol and the different types of fats, I will say that this is completely unsupported by modern causal research. Dietary cholesterol is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseaseReplacing fats with carbohydrates has no clear benefit, and even has supporting evidence that increased consumption of refined carbohydrates has aggravated obesity and diabetes in western culture.

Fatty acids (from dietary fats) produce no insulin response, and thus cannot contribute to insulin resistance (a precursor to type II diabetes). Fats provide a potent source of steady energy, and generally bring along a wide variety of fat-soluble vitamins. High levels of carbohydrate consumption (especially refined carbohydrates) are problematic, especially when combined with sedentary lifestyles. Energy must come from somewhere, and if not large amounts of carbohydrates, then fats must be embraced. Luckily, they are delicious.

The paleo/primal approach does not necessarily include a severely low-carbohydrate diet, but it does emphasize making the source of carbohydrates in the diet vegetables, fruits, and moderate amounts of starchy tubers. Also, if an individual is extremely active (endurance athlete), then higher amounts of carbohydratecan be tolerated, but the source is still ideally whole foods as opposed to processed flour and sugar.

Further Resources:

This was just an overview of what a paleo/primal diet might look like, and why it has been designed as such. To learn more of the details and really “Go Primal!” ;-), please consult the following:

I hope you enjoyed reading! If you think that you could feel better, I fully encourage you to learn about the paleo/primal approach and give it a try! I, personally, will be forever influenced.

– Graham

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