Probably the most common question we get on FastPaleo is whether certain things are “paleo” or not. From the start of the site, we have catered to both “paleo” and “primal” type ancestral diets, and feel that this is a legitimate area of personal tolerance—dairy can be great if you tolerate it well and buy good dairy. There is no universal yes/no answer, no responsible one at least.
Dairy is just the most common one, but there are plenty more: sweeteners, paleoized treats, white potatoes, even sweet potatoes, white rice, tamari, and so on and so forth.
I think it is very natural that people want a universal yes/no answer on the question of what foods are and aren’t paleo. Firstly, this is because there has been such a destructive lack of clarity for so long about what is and isn’t healthy. The paleo movement has finally ushered in something that is theoretically sound, fact-based, and functional. All many want to know now is what steps they need to take.
I think the second reason has to do with human nature, and likely, our own evolution. Wanting one clear, definitive answer for the questions relating to the world around us is a near universal tendency in human thought, even though things are almost always not that way. I would imagine this has to do a lot with our own evolution as hunters—the most important thing was always one identifiable piece of prey, which was vital to our survival. We may be hard-wired to look for single answers.
But, as the journalist H.L. Mencken famously said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
For the purpose of what recipes we do and don’t post on FastPaleo, we’ve always tried to take a broader approach: the things that make the site as inclusive as possible and that most would call “paleo” or “primal.” But, even if this is a floating or broad definition, it is still a definition, because there has to be.
While the paleo movement is fast becoming one of my biggest passions, I am first and foremost a writer and a linguist. My degree is in foreign languages and literatures, and I have held different writing jobs over the past seven years in public relations and marketing, journalism, freelance writing and translation, and authoring my own books.
I think a lot—if not constantly—about what words mean to us and how we use them, because words are, in the end thoughts, and thoughts are always worth considering. A definition is, by definition, limiting. The French définir, literally means “by means of finishing.”
In other words, it’s not called the “Just eat whatever you feel like!” diet for a reason. If you’re going to have a defined lifestyle, then you’re going to have to define it. So, what’s the point? Some things are open for debate, but paleo is paleo? How do you decide?
First, find the most widely accepted definition of paleo and apply it. People have figured out the basic answer for you already, and it’s pretty readily available. There is Robb Wolf’s Quick Start Guide and book, Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo, a one-page Cheat Sheet on FastPaleo.com (top right of the home screen), a wonderful free forum the International Paleo Movement Group, with many knowledgeable people that can help you out with the basics, and a wealth of other readily available resources on paleo basics. If you feel like you need to, try out an elimination protocol like the 21-Day Sugar Detox.
If you’ve never eaten only good foods, how do you know what you’ll feel like when you do? There’s no baseline. By establishing this baseline, you’ll come to understand how your body works and reacts to different foods, and you’ll be able to form a baseline that will allow you to start to find your own “paleo.”
Here’s what this meant for me. Through this process, I also came to understand what foods made me feel good, what foods were “sometimes foods” and what foods were “never foods.”
I feel good with a bit more fruit than most. I’ll do paleoized treats on occasion, but too many make me gain weight. There are a couple never foods on my list: anything with gluten or substantial processed sugars. If a restaurant sauce has a touch of sugar in it, no biggie, but I’m not eating cookies made of white sugar and wheat flour—not worth it. Rice is a sometimes food: I’m active; white rice is comparatively innocuous in terms of antinutrients, and sushi and Thai sticky rice are really, really good and remind me of my time spent living in Asia. Cultured dairy is also a sometimes food. I never drink milk, but like a bit of Parmesan or blue cheese on things on occasion.
The idea of “never” foods and “sometimes” foods is one I got from my brother, and one that is extremely important to my paleo. It’s also the reason that some things are indeed open to individual preference and needs, while others are much less so.
When you establish what these things are for yourself, first by following a strict paleo protocol and then reintroducing and experimenting with different foods, you will be able to build your own version of paleo. While there very much is a broad definition which works for everyone, there is just as much an individual one that works just for you.
Spontaneity and mental health are two things that are also important parts of a paleo lifestyle, so while you could make an argument that eating whatever you want on occasion just because you want to is paleo, it would be much harder to say that doing so all the time is. If you wanna eat a donut every once in a while because it’s fun, great — donuts all day every day, you’ll probably feel like poop.
The point is I think you can craft your own rules, and if you’re realistic in doing so, you can forget about 80/20 and cheating, because as long as you’re following your own rules, you’re 100%. Then you can feel good that you’re eating in a way that makes you feel good, while not feeling guilty that part of that also includes doing whatever you want every once in a while. But this isn’t a green light to do whatever you want—the point and power of paleo is that the broader rules apply to everyone who is human, and thus apply to you to, if you are inclined to follow a lifestyle you can call “paleo.” The “Eat whatever you want!” lifestyle is of course an option to you in a free society (and unfortunately, a popular one), just not a paleo option.
Here’s how to always be 100%:
1) Take the commonly accepted definition of paleo and apply it
2) Stick with that for a few weeks, but reintroduce more borderline things, and see how you feel
3) Assign mental categories to the borderline things, like “sometimes” “a little bit is ok” “once in a blue moon” or “never”
4) Follow your own rules. If this means white rice is a sometimes food and donuts are a once in a blue moon food and soda is a never food, and that’s what makes you feel the best, as long as you stick to it, you can be happy that you’re 100% “paleo,” according to your own definition.
As long as you’re diligent with testing and taking mental note of how different foods make you feel, and real with yourself about both your own definition and sticking to it, there is a lot of freedom, health and peace of mind in finding your own paleo.