On Going Primal

A lot has been said and written about some of the more common diets that people are pursuing, promoting, profiting from. These include the Mediterranean Diet (which emphasizes eating plenty fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and lean meats), the Atkins Diet (which limits consumption of sugars and carbohydrates), commercial diets like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig (which relies on a combination of pre-packaged meals and individual or group support), and the widely popular Paleo Diet.

The latter diet is probably the one that has engendered the some of the most heated and acrimonious debate of late. US News and World Report recently ranked it dead last out of 35 diets that they had reviewed by a panel of dietary experts. On the other hand, there are numerous scientific studies that suggest that adopting a Paleo lifestyle may actually be effective in promoting weight loss, as well as in helping people control blood pressure and plasma cholesterol without medication. Detractors call it dangerous while supporters laud its effectiveness.

As the name might suggest, the idea behind the Paleo diet is that human beings evolved eating only those types of foods that were available during the Paleolithic era, long before the rise of agriculture. Also known as the ‘Caveman Diet’, the Paleo Diet emphasizes eating those foods that would have been consumed by someone living a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, nomadic, hunting-gathering sort of life. Thus, this approach stresses a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and plenty of meats, along with so-called good fats. The more heavily processed foods that are a large part of the Standard American Diet (or SAD, as it is pejoratively known by Paleo followers) are forbidden, as are sugars, grains, dairy, and alcohol). A variant of the Paleo Diet, known as the Primal Diet, allows for more consumption of saturated fats (like grass-fed butter or coconut oil), the occasional ingestion of dairy (particularly raw or fermented dairy), and even the odd glass of wine or shot of tequila now and then.

There are many pros and cons to adopting a Paleo or Primal lifestyle. Yes, they are better described as lifestyles rather than as diets, because both Paleo and Primal emphasize a holistic approach to living. This includes not only eating a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in nutrient-dense foods, but also a fitness plan that focuses on natural movement and strength building, a wellness plan that includes mindfulness, relaxation, and ample sleep, and other changes that are meant to mimic a prehistoric lifestyle in our modern wired and wireless world.

I’ve been following a Primal lifestyle off-and-on for about two years now, my recent hospitalization not withstanding. It was physically difficult to follow the diet, for example, when you are limited to a surgical or soft-food menu. So, it was eat a sandwich or starve during the 21 days that I was in the hospital. The stress of the holidays and of my mother’s passing made it mentally challenging to get ‘back on the Primal wagon’. But I’m back … and the rest of this post is about my brief thoughts as to the pros and cons of the Primal lifestyle.

So what are the cons? First and foremost, it takes a lot of commitment to make the radical dietary and lifestyle changes that a living a Primal (or Paleo) life requires. It’s hard enough to avoid eating sugars, consuming grains, or avoiding alcohol at home, let along when grabbing a 15-minute lunch at work or going out for dinner and a movie with friends. The recent gluten-free fad has helped make it easier, at least when dining out, and there are plenty of recipes and cookbooks out there, but it’s still tough. There are also a lot of naysayers out there – most often your friends and family — telling you why you are wrong and tempting you with pepperoni pizza.

The diet can also be potentially unhealthy, particularly with regard to overconsumption of saturated fats. Contrary to what some critics (and even promoters) have said, this is not a lifestyle in which you are free to eat all of the eggs and bacon that you want.

That said, there are a lot of advantages to this lifestyle. It emphasizes eating high quality foods, particularly those that are locally and ethically sourced. It gets you back into the kitchen, and focused on preparing healthy meals with your family. It gets you thinking about all of the other social factors that influence your health, including improving the length and quality of sleep, reducing stress and anxiety, avoiding the overuse of electronic media and devices, and regular meditation or mindfulness sessions. For those who can make the change, the immediate and long terms benefits are clear, not only with respect to diet and exercise, but also in the relationships you have with your friends and family. More importantly, the lifestyle allows to you make small changes that reap big results over time.

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