Having been in the the CrossFit community for a few years now, I’ve heard a lot about two dietary protocols: the Zone diet and the Paleolithic diet (Paleo for short). I had tried out the Zone diet for a bit more than a year, but never found the performance or feel-good gains compelling enough to stick with it strictly for more than a week or two at a time. After reading Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution and trying the Paleo diet for a few weeks I became a quick convert.
Robb’s book outlines the benefits of eating Paleo, the specifics of how to follow the protocol, the evolutionary basis for it, all while providing evidence found in scientific studies. Anyone who has read books like Gary Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or has seen Fathead or Food, Inc. will find that they appreciate Wolf’s explanation of the Paleo diet.
I started eating Paleo in early 2011 at the urging of folks from my CrossFit gym. My original intentions were not to lose weight or overcome any specific malady, but simply to feel and perform better. In short, it has fulfilled both of those goals extremely well.
At its core, Paleo intends to imitate an ancestral human diet, with a focus on foods that are available today including meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts, while specifically excluding grains, legumes, dairy products, salts, refined sugars and processed oils.
Since switching to Paleo, I have found I have considerably more stable energy throughout the day, and am able to perform better and to my fullest capacity in demanding CrossFit workouts. I am also happier with the things I eat. While it didn’t apply to me, I have no doubt that the nutrition prescribed by the book can be a powerful tool for weight loss and fighting numerous chronic illnesses. Robb’s book and Paleo websites everywhere are chock full of folks who struggled their entire lives with ailments from diabetes to chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome until they discovered this diet.
Robb Wolf isn’t the only person proffering the eating like our Paleolithic ancestors: he follows closely on the heels of Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, and Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, but I have found his work most accessible.
– Drew Stephens
[Editor's note: I asked my friend and personal trainer Khaled Allen, who I know has had some experience with the Paleo diet, to add his perspective to this review.-- OH]
The principles behind the Paleo diet are very sound and are reflected in other lifestyles that do really promote health. Traditional (but non-caveman) diets always reflected a low starch, low sugar approach. In The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss writes about his experience helping clients lose weight, and he pretty much espouses the Paleo approach, though he isn’t so hung up on specific types of foods.
I got into Paleo through Mark’s Daily Apple. Mark blogs about his version of health, called the Primal Blueprint. Technically, I was eating Primal, since I eat yogurt and butter. However, the fact that all these health movements are going in the same direction suggests that its all legit to me.
I did try strict Paleo for about a month last spring. It went well, but I found it unnecessarily cumbersome, and the stress of trying to strictly follow the diet counteracted the health benefits.
The Paleo approach is handy because it keeps things simple. There is no calorie counting, and as long as you stick within the recommend food types, you can’t mess up (usually). When you start allowing some types of grains, or some kinds of dairy, most people get messed up, which is why the strict, no dairy, no grains approach of Paleo works so well. That said, it doesn’t account at all for individual variation in diet or culture, and people have a tendency to go nuts on the bacon and steak and ignore the fact that Paleo really is mostly vegetable. It doesn’t account for raw or fermented foods, which if you’re being true to Paleolithic eating was probably more significant than the types of foods being eaten.
I’d say as long as you understand the principles behind Paleo, you should be alright. No refined sugar, minimal starches, avoid hard to digest foods (modern industrially processed grains, dairy, and legumes). With this in mind, you could get away with fermented organic dairy such as yogurt, grass-fed butter, or even brown rice (which I save for days with a lot of exercise, since it is gluten free).
With all these caveats, it does work. People lose weight because they are keeping their insulin low, and by cutting out all the processed foods and chemicals, they get a lot of health and vitality returned.