Thursday, November 24, 2011

Notes on the Paleo diet

A quick glance over the entries on this blog should provide anyone with sufficient evidence to unequivocally prove that, one, I am following a Paleo diet and, two, I am very satisfied with the results.

It is from this biased position that I will attempt to write a brief review of this diet.

- First, then, a Paleo diet is... what exactly?

It is important to be clear on this because there are as many definitions as there practitioners. It should be noted that this is not necessarily a problem.

To me, anything that is edible in its natural state is Paleo. If it needs boiling, baking, etc, in order to become edible, it is not Paleo. Processed foods are also excluded because, although they could be Paleo, it is impossible (for me) to determine exactly what is in them and whether the manner in which they were processed was questionable.

My exceptions are yogurt, butter, and cocoa powder. All are processed even if the first two derive from milk, which is edible in its natural state. Cocoa seeds are not edible raw, as far as I know.

That said...

- It is a healthy diet.

It cannot be any other way, really. Fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, must be good for human health. It is either this or a denial of the theory of evolution. Foods from other sources, including those that are indigestible/toxic until cooked, could (and may) be questionable. However, the very essentials must be found among those plant and animal products that are edible in their natural state and that were available to our human and primate ancestors.

Although this is "just" a logical common-sense argument, self-experimentation has led me to the same conclusion. I have never been particularly prone to illness but, nonetheless, would be under the weather with minor aches once or twice a month (digestion issues, mild migraines, colds/congestion, muscle/joint soreness, etc). Since I started this diet, my health has become near-bullet proof.

In terms of results, a Paleo diet is remarkably convincing.

- It helps the metabolism to regulate itself.

When I first started this diet, I was keen on losing weight. I no longer worry. The fat seems to disappear almost as a side-effect. The template menu, in all its incarnations, is posted on this blog. I don't eat sparingly. In fact, I eat more than I did last year when I put on 15 kilos.

The most immediate observation I can make based on my experience is that this diet allows the metabolism to address its own concerns without imposing undue stress that would, otherwise, divert its efforts to damage-control. In other words, my metabolism is given sufficient breathing room to get the job done. Since, for example, I have extra weight on, this means that the fat must go and my metabolism processes it away.

Interestingly, my metabolism caters to muscle growth simultaneously. I had been told many times not to expect muscle gains while losing fat. Well, it appears this is not a problem I have. My metabolism is able to handle all its tasks adequately.

- It is forgiving regarding quantities.

Let me first say that, in principle, the "calories in, calories out" paradigm is valid. It must. After all, if there were no relation between the energy our bodies use and the energy food provides our bodies, why eat at all? Where does the energy come from? Well, people, it comes from the food we eat and that is the reason why we eat. Anyone that claims otherwise is, unfortunately, delusional.

It is a fact, however, that not all calories are alike.

Eating too much (or too little) does not seem to be a problem while on a Paleo diet. My metabolism keeps a neat balancing act regardless of the amounts of food I eat, whether a lot or little, provided that it is Paleo. Energy levels are surprisingly constant too. Moderation remains important but I do not even need to pay conscious attention to amounts or servings. It seems to work itself out.

In contrast, when I followed a near-vegan Japanese style diet, any rise above my "recommended" calorie intake quickly led to weight gain (shedding fat was never nearly as easy, though). In order to gain weight, all I had to do was indulge, no matter how little. In order to lose weight, I had to make a deliberate and substantial effort and, then, go hungry for what seemed like an eternity.

- It simplifies and clarifies the relation we have with the sources of nutrition.

Since I did away with processed foods, I see everything I eat. What I mean is that my brain no longer identifies boxes and bags as food. Instead, when I think of food nowadays, mental images of actual carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, pineapples, etc, pop up.

It might seem a trivial change but it is not. Being able to identify your food (and that what you consider to be food actually corresponds to real food) is something that needs to be experienced.

- Beware of Paleo utopia.

Myth: "It is the healthiest diet ever conceived." The truth is that no diet is. If such a thing were ever to exist, it would first need to be customized to the genetic makeup of each specific individual. Then, it would need to be tailored to the needs of that individual for each specific moment of his/her life, come high, come low, and taking into consideration stress, exertion, illness, menstruation, etc. At this point in time, this is science-fiction. Diet wars are absurd.

Myth: "It will cure any and all diseases." Sure, there are anecdotal claims that a Paleo diet will cure from acne to cancer, from cavities to diabetes. Well, I should not need to say this but it is not the case that such a diet exists, Paleo or not. Food cannot take the place of medication any more than medication can take the place of food. Each has a role and a function. No sane person will recommend you feed yourself with drugs. The same applies to food as medicine.

Myth: "It is impossible to gain weight on this diet." Again, it is claimed that, no matter how much you eat, if it is Paleo, you will not put on a pound. This is absurd. Sustained overeating eventually leads to fat accumulation. This is, in fact, healthy. If your metabolism were not able to use its adipose tissue, the only way to avert death from the toxicity brought about by nutrient/energy saturation would be through waste disposal, that is, by overtaxing the organs (just as bad in the long run). Besides, I have put on a few kilos of muscle over the last few months. There is no doubt in my mind that I will also be able to put on fat when and if I want to.

Myth: "It is impossible to lose weight if you eat a non-Paleo diet or foods." Clearly false. Eat nothing but a slice of bread a day and you will wither away, fat and muscle gone, eventually dying. As with the previous myth, the difference (to me) is the ease with which one gains or loses weight. That is it. Non-paleo foods, specially from grain sources, deliver too much energy too quickly. If you are riding the Tour of France, do have your 6,000 calories of pasta a day. Nothing else will do, really. It is either carbs or intravenous feeding (which coaches prefer for health reasons but is not legal). If you are a regular person with a normal level of activity, however, it is irrational to systematically spike your glucose level into toxicity due poor food choices.