What is a Paleo Diet by Dana Carpender

Those of you who visit my blog and hang out at my Facebook fan page already know that I’m writing another cookbook. This one is not specifically a low carb cookbook, but rather a paleo cookbook. The discussion of this at the Facebook fan page prompted one fellow to ask “What’s paleo?” I thought I’d share my answer with you:

“Paleo” refers to the idea that we can take cues from the hunter-gatherer diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors to determine the best – dare I say the evolutionary – diet of human kind. It is nearly impossible to achieve a truly paleo diet; you’d have to eat only local wild foods in season; one piece of cultivated fruit or pinch of a spice from another part of the world and you’re no longer truly authentic.

That said, the biggest changes in the human diet since the agricultural revolution are relatively easy to reverse: Ditch grains, legumes, and all processed sugars. Go back to traditional fats like lard, coconut oil, tallow, and the like instead of omega-6-rich polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Skip foods that are toxic if eaten raw. (This would include grains, dried legumes – green beans and snow peas are okay – and potatoes.) Eating grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and wild-caught fish is another meaningful change. So, I feel, is the burgeoning “nose to tail” movement – it’s unlikely that our ancestors threw away the skin, the cartilage, the bones, the organs, the marrow, of the animals they managed to kill; increasing these foods (or, for many, using them at all) is yet another move toward a truly traditional diet.

Dairy is a controversial matter, and my email tells me that the most common variance from “strict paleo” is the use of dairy products, especially raw, grass-fed cheese and butter. On the one hand, the keeping of herds is a form of agriculture, and it’s very unlikely that cave folks milked, say, wild sheep or water buffalo. On the other hand, we are mammals, milk can be eaten raw, and herding apparently pre-dated grain and bean agriculture. Too, there is nothing inherently foreign and toxic to the human body in the milk of other animals; the same cannot be said about grains and legumes. I’m not using dairy in this book, but I have no quarrel with quality dairy, especially.

We can argue about macronutrient balance, the question of whether hunter-gatherers mostly hunted or mostly gathered, and what percentage of their diet came from carbs, protein, or fat, but the truth, no doubt, is that this varied from place to place, from the virtually carb-free, heavily fat dependent diet of the Inuit, to the diet of people living in tropical areas where fruit was abundant year-round. What we can count on is that the fruit they ate was wild, not modern fruit bred for centuries for increased sugar content. Honey is the most commonly used paleo sweetener, but since honey bees didn’t exist world wide, we can assume that not all paleolithic peoples had access to such a highly concentrated sugar – and those who did surely didn’t find a bee tree on even a monthly basis. Sparing use is dictated.

Because it eliminates grains, potatoes, and sugar, a paleo diet is likely to be far lower carb than the Standard American Diet. Within that structure, how low carb it is should be determined by your own body’s tolerance. It doesn’t matter if our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, say, sweet potatoes, if eating sweet potatoes makes your blood sugar wonky and puts a few pounds on you.

That’s what I said at FB. Some of you are no doubt thinking “But why are you writing a paleo cookbook?” Partly because my publisher asked me to, and frankly I could use the money. But that’s not all of it. They have, in the past, asked me to write a 100 calorie recipe cookbook, and to write a “slow carb” cookbook (one with lots of beans and such) and I turned them down, because I don’t believe in the concept. I think the quality of calories is vastly more important than the quantity, and a diet of “good” carbs got me up to a size 20.

Paleo and low carb are close from the get-go, and I see them growing closer. More and more I hear from low carbers who eat no processed low carb packaged stuff, who have eliminated soy and gluten. I regularly get taken to task by people who don’t want me using artificial sweeteners in my recipes. (I also get taken to task by people who want me to use Splenda instead of stevia and erythritol. Sweeteners are perhaps the most controversial issue in the low carb world.)

More and more, too, people are choosing grass fed meat, wild-caught fish, grass fed butter, organic produce. On the other hand, many paleo folks have found they do best if they skip most of the fruit and the starchier vegetables, and stick to animal foods and the lowest carb produce.

In short, the two diets seemed close enough that I was sure I could write a book that served both communities. So that’s what I’m working on. And now I need to get back to the kitchen!

© 2012 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.


  1. carbsmart says

    How many people are adjusting their low carb lifestyle to be more paleo? What things are you changing?

  2. David Morris says

    I’ve been talking paleo diet for a decade. Eat what they ate and you will stay lean and trim.


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