How I got started on paleo, and some resources for beginners

I began this post as an email to a friend who had called asking about some paleo resources. I now receive those sorts of calls at least once per week, and his call finally prompted me write something down in a place that’s more easily sharable. This post assumes you know at least a little about paleo. If you don’t, go here.

Some history: I started “low-carb” at the end of the summer of 2007, a few months after my daughter’s birth. I remember seeing some pictures of myself from a beach vacation, comparing those with pictures from college, and deciding that it was time to pay attention to my health. Technically, I re-started low-carb, as I had experimented with it in my mid-20s after reading about the evils of sugar in Sugar Busters. Back then, though, I didn’t really appreciate my mortality and health, so I didn’t stick with it.

I moved (evolved?) from low-carb to paleo after reading this interview with Nassim Taleb about four years ago. The article isn’t about paleo at all, but I found his occasional references intriguing enough to do some research. The little information I found was compelling enough (and resonant enough) that I got started immediately. At the time, the mainstream still labeled it downright crazy (just as they had labeled Taleb several years before). Now that all sorts of folks are writing about it, it might be high time for me to find a new eccentricity.

Interestingly, a significant portion of the paleo community is comprised of what you might call “radical thinkers” — anarchists, people who use standup desks, entrepreneurs, barefoot runners, etc. Today, the influence of these radicals is less pronounced, but four years ago, they dominated the conversation. I had the pleasure of meeting Patri Friedman for lunch a few years ago, and asked him about that correlation. As I recall, he surmised that radicals aggressively question conventional wisdom, and paleo was reflective of their free thinking. That makes sense to me, and is just another signal that all innovation happens on the fringe.

Enough with the backstory! Here are a handful of the resources that I’ve stumbled upon over the last few years:

Michael Eades is a doctor, but don’t hold that against him. This post is particularly useful: Getting started on Low Carb.

Chris Kresser offers the most compelling and compassionate writing about diet that I’ve come across. Here’s some of his practical advice about “going paleo”:

In my 9 Steps to Perfect Health series, I attempted to define the general dietary guidelines that constitute the Paleo template:

  • Don’t eat toxins: avoid industrial seed oils, improperly prepared cereal grains and legumes and excess sugar (especially fructose)
  • Nourish your body: emphasize saturated and monounsaturated fat while reducing intake of polyunsaturated fat, favor glucose/starch over fructose, and favor ruminant animal protein and seafood over poultry
  • Eat real food: eat grass-fed, organic meat and wild fish, and local, organic produce when possible. Avoid processed, refined and packaged food.

Within these guidelines, however, there’s a lot of room for individual differences. When people ask me whether dairy products are healthy, I always say “it depends”. I give the same answer when I’m asked about nightshades, caffeine, alcohol and carbohydrate intake.

The only way to figure out what an optimal diet is for you is to experiment and observe. The best way to do that is to remove the “grey area” foods you suspect you might have trouble with, like dairy, nightshades, eggs, etc. for a period of time (usually 30 days is sufficient), and add them back in one at a time and observe your reactions. This “30-day challenge” or elimination diet is what folks like Robb Wolf have recommended for a long time.

Practical Paleo, a book by Diane Sanfilippo. It’s both a primer on paleo and an exhaustive cookbook. Her book completely answers questions about what to eat much better than I could. She’s shares all sorts of awesome, wonderful, tasty, and practical paleo meals — breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts.

My father has recently written a handful of excellent posts on Paleo-related topics.

My best resource is Twitter. Some of my favorite Twitter Paleo people: Diane Sanfilippo, Chris Kresser, Robb Wolf, Michael Eades, Mark Sisson, Melissa McEwen. There are tons more, and following those folks will lead you to them.

Some of my answers to common questions:

Yes, I have desserts. But I didn’t for the first couple months. “Easing into paleo” isn’t possible, for reasons described here by Eades. I don’t know if there’s any science behind this, but I feel like my metabolism is a flywheel of sorts; It’s easy to slow it down when it’s not yet really flying, but once it’s going, a dessert here or there is no big deal at all.

Yes, I eat cheese. Not much, but I do. A lot of paleo folks are down on dairy. Their arguments make sense to me, but it doesn’t seem to bother me, so I enjoy it regularly.

Nuts are ok in moderation, but go easy; they’re high in phytic acid.

If a restaurant serves especially good bread, I’ll have some.

When I’m a guest, out of respect for my host, I try to eat anything I’m served.

I am powerless against corn chips and avoid restaurants that serve them.

Legumes do me wrong, so I avoid them. Peas seem to be an exception.

If fish is on the menu, I usually order it. I need all the Omega 3s I can get.

Yes, I eat a decent amount of carbs; I just avoid grains, refined sugar, and processed foods. My carbs come in vegetable form (carrots, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, etc).

When I drink, I mostly drink red wine.

I don’t each much rice at all, but I don’t make a big effort to avoid it. If it’s in front of me, I eat it.

For breakfast, I eat eggs (usually boiled, sometimes scrambled), sausage, (nitrate free) bacon, the prior night’s leftover kale, spinach, or chard. Some people say nitrates in bacon are no big deal, but the bacon my family especially likes comes nitrate free anyway, so that’s what I eat.

One last thing I’ll share: Paleo is about lifestyle rather than diet. It’s about connecting with what fosters health and avoiding what diminishes it. As humans, we’re not meant to eat our food out of boxes. Nor are we meant to sit inside boxes all day, staring at smaller boxes, pecking at little squares with our fingers. Get outside, and get outside often.

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