The Greatest Diet of All Time
Dieting. For most people, trying to sift through all the conflicting nutritional information that gets tossed around these days is a straight up nightmare. Everyone wants to lose weight and look their best, but it’s damn-near impossible to get real, solid information on where to start and how to eat.
How many different diets do you think there are in existence? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? One thing’s for certain, there are definitely a ton, and they all promise the same thing: follow this diet for a one-way ticket to losing weight, feeling great, and looking your best. Don’t be fooled by any of those OTHER diets, because this one right here? This is THE diet. Those others are unsafe. They’re unsound! They’re ineffective! They’re FADS.
Or worse yet, have you ever heard of those diets proclaiming you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight? I mean come on.
There are so many different diets out there, just off the top of my head I can think of probably a dozen. The Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the raw food diet, the smoothie diet, Weight Watchers, low-carb, no-carb, high-fat, no red meat, vegetarian, vegan, keto, and on, and on, and on.
We’re all human beings, right? We’re not THAT different, genetically speaking, are we? If losing weight and getting in shape works for one person, it’s reasonable to assume that it would most likely work for another, barring any weird metabolic or physiological abnormalities. (And assuming the individual in question actually ADHERES to the diet; that’s the hard part.)
So if we’re all basically the same, and if our bodies function in basically the same way no matter who you are or where you’re from, why on Earth are there so many different freaking diets? And why do they seem to all contradict each other? HOW could we, as human beings, possibly need SO MANY different diets?
The answer is…we don’t. The principles of health and nutrition are fairly simple, straightforward, and universal. But we as a species have managed to collectively fuck up a very simple thing.
How did we do this? I think it’s a combination of a few different factors. Number one, the human body is INCREDIBLY complex. Every few years or so there’s some new groundbreaking discovery that updates our understanding and sheds new light on how our bodies work. I mean, hell, we’ve only known about VITAMINS for the past hundred years or so. Before 1912, we had no idea they even EXISTED. So it seems like very few years, in light of new research and new studies, old diets are being rediscovered, existing diets are being refined, and new diets are being introduced.
Number two, it seems that many diets evolve out of anecdotal evidence. Somebody tries something, it works, they tell their friends, and from there it takes on a life of its own. Before you know it, an entire system of eating pops up centered around something that may or may not have even been real, true, or accurate.
And lastly, there’s of course the much-derided Fitness Industry Charlatans. The folks out there looking to sell you a Get Skinny Quick™️ fitness program that either doesn’t work, or works only in the short term. Not to mention all the various special interest groups lobbying Congress for government subsidies or trying to influence the government-recommended food guidelines. I mean, if the U.S. government can’t even figure out the right stuff to recommend, how can we expect the average person to do it?
So, with all the conflicting and confusing information out there from “weight loss experts”, and all the (largely inaccurate) anecdotal evidence from friends, loved ones, bloggers, and social media, how can we possibly know what works and what doesn’t?
It’s a tough question to answer, and it’s one I’ve been slowly making progress on for the last decade or so. And if you’ve read my weight loss journey, you know I’ve tried them all: keto, vegetarian, vegan, and so on.
But through all of my adventures in fitness, the one thing I keep coming back to is the Paleo diet.
What we consider to be “modern human beings” have been around for 200,000 years, and our ancient ancestors have been around for a whopping SIX MILLION years. But by comparison, the way we eat today, and more importantly what we eat today, is roughly five minutes old. Our bodies simply aren’t equipped to eat the way we do, and, as a result, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, just to name a few. Could there be a connection? I think so.
So what exactly is the Paleo diet?
Put simply, the Paleo diet is a diet that aims to mimic the way human beings at during the Paleolithic period; roughly 12,000 to two and a half million years ago.
For that vast stretch of time, we’ve essentially been eating the same stuff: fruits, nuts, seeds, seasonal vegetables, roots, grasses, and meat (when we were fortunate enough to catch it).
We weren’t eating any grains (we hadn’t yet discovered wheat in the Fertile Crescent), we hadn’t yet cultivated legumes (beans, peas, soybeans, peanuts, etc.), and we DEFINITELY weren’t eating any Big Macs or Crunchwrap Supremes (unfortunately).
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors from the Paleolithic age were arguably much healthier than we are today, at least from a metabolic standpoint. They for sure didn’t suffer from obesity. I mean, can you even imagine a fat caveman? Me ether.
But why? Does it really all come down to their diet? Put simply, yes. Well that, and their way of life of course. Obviously, they were much more active than we are today, having to hunt and forage for their food and all. But let’s drill down on their diet a little more. With all of our advancements in science and food production, why would our prehistoric ancestors be so much healthier?
Well, the first big thing to consider is caloric density. Modern, processed foods contain WAY more calories than natural, whole, unprocessed foods.
Let’s talk carbs (the devil, right?). One of my favorite ways to get my carbs in is in the form of strawberries. Strawberries are made of mostly sugar (and fiber, which makes it NOT the devil). If you were to eat an ENTIRE POUND of strawberries (which I do regularly on workout days), you’re only looking at about 150 calories, and only about 35 grams of carbs. Plus, you’re going to get a little bit of protein (that’s good), and a little bit of fat (also good), and not to mention a whole host of vitamins and minerals (AKA micronutrients) that are going be nothing but a boon for your overall health.
So think about that. An entire POUND of strawberries is only 150 calories. If your goal is to eat roughly 2,000 calories in a day, that’s a tiny dent in your overall daily intake.
Now, let’s compare that to a more “modern” form of carbohydrates: a flour tortilla from Qdoba. One measly little tortilla is a whopping 300 calories and 52 grams of carbohydrates. Now I want you to picture in your mind eating one flour tortilla versus eating an entire pound of strawberries. Which one has more volume? Which one would take longer to eat?
Now I don’t know about you, but it might take me 10-15 minutes to eat a pound of strawberries. A tortilla? I could devour that bad boy in 30 seconds or less. Plus, I would feel way less full after eating the tortilla due to the lower fiber content. I’d be more likely to keep eating, even though I’d have eaten way more calories compared to the berries.
What gives? Well, the tortilla is obviously manmade. We’ve taken wheat (something our ancestors didn’t even eat, as we covered earlier), ground it down, kneaded it together, maybe added some salt, some fat, applied some heat, and bang! You’ve got 300 calories of delicious carbohydrates. And it’s not even filling!
Now, I’m not here to hate on tortillas. They’re not necessarily a bad thing (especially if you’re a seasoned dieter), and if we’re being completely honest, I have one once or twice a week when going for my post-gym Qdoba run. (No, this post wasn’t sponsored by Qdoba. But, Qdoba, if you’re listening, hit me up using the contact page.)
Okay, okay, so tortillas aren’t inherently evil. But you know what’s better? The strawberries. Definitely the strawberries. You see, health isn’t really a question of good versus evil. There is no black and white; it’s all various shades of gray. Or grey, if you’re English.
I get a lot of questions like is this beer healthy? Is this soda healthy? Is this cookie healthy? Most people’s immediate response is, “NO! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?!” Then they promptly smack the good stuff out of your hand. But it of course depends on everything you’re cumulatively putting into your body. Maybe this dude is a long-distance marathon runner, been training for six months, and hasn’t had a beer in half a year. Then is it so bad? Well, no, probably not. But what if this is your fifth beer for the evening, it’s Tuesday, and you drink a six pack every weeknight after work? Then, it’s a little bit different story…
Back to the Paleo diet. You see, our ancient ancestors didn’t have options. They didn’t have choices. They couldn’t go to Qdoba and enjoy a delicious burrito. Nor could they hit up happy hour for drinks and potato skins. They ONLY HAD the pound of strawberries. (If they were lucky!) And because they ate a diet that consisted of whole, natural foods that were unprocessed in any way, shape, or form, they consumed fewer calories than we do, consumed MORE micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), plus they had to work for it so they were much more active. Not to mention, since the food they ate was a whole and natural as they come, their bodies didn’t have any trouble processing it. Blood sugar levels most likely remained relatively consistent, and there probably weren’t any instances of insulin resistance or Diabetes.
So if overeating is ultimately bad for us, why do we do it?
We do it because we’re programmed to do it. Huh? We’re programmed to be unhealthy? Well, sorta. You see, back in the day, food was scarce. Like, really scarce. So when our ancient ancestors came upon a pound of strawberries, or some wild seeds, or perhaps a dead animal carcass, every inch of their being screamed, “GORGE YOURSELF YOU FOOL!!!” Because food was so scarce, they never knew when your next payday was coming, and so when hunter-gatherers came upon something nutritious, they ate. And ate. And ate.
Add in the fact that we lacked the capability to preserve food, and gorging oneself probably seemed like an even better idea. Unfortunately there were no Frigidaires out in the wild. So if you didn’t eat it, and eat quickly, that food went bye-bye.
However, our BODIES became very good at storing energy for use at a later time. You know, all that jiggly stuff around your midsection that you want to get rid of? That’s what I’m talking about.
So let’s jump ahead to today. Even after all these hundreds of thousands of years, after all of the amazing advancements in science and technology that we have at our disposal, after the major changes in our lifestyles, our habits, routines, and so on…BIOLOGICALLY we’re still the same human beings. The exact same. Our bodies still function the same way. Our brains still function the same way.
The Scarcity of Salt and Sugar
Alright, so, we all know that eating too much sugar is bad for you. However, when you’re hunting for your food day in and day out, a handful of berries can give you the quick boost of energy you may need to keep tracking that gazelle. Over time, our brains evolved to become highly sensitive to sugar, telling us that it’s a good thing, and to find more of it. Almost like a drug. The same goes for salt.
Luckily for our ancestors, salt and sugar were so scarce that it was impossible for them to eat too much of it. But that’s definitely not the case today. Biologically, we’re almost the exact same cave people programmed to gorge ourselves whenever possible, the only problem is, food is no longer scarce. It’s abundant. And not only is it abundant, it’s packed full of calories. And salt. And sugar. We can get as much of the good stuff as we want, on demand, at any time, day or night.
Not only that, but since we’re SO USED to a high sugar and salt intake, our brains have been rewired to virtually REQUIRE IT in just about each and every meal we eat. So, not only is food abundant, not only is it calorically dense, we’re now programmed to NOT EAT the stuff that IS good for us (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meats, etc.) because it doesn’t light up the receptors in our brains like sugar and salt does. I mean, who wants to eat some bland-ass broccoli when a Snickers bar is like, literally a million times tastier?
But I’m here to tell you that there is hope.
You are not doomed to a life of being fat. You are not doomed to a life of being unhappy with your body. Let’s get back to the Paleo diet. Why is it so great, exactly? Well, if you guys have read my weight loss journey, then you know that for years, I was looking for one simple set of rules to live by that would help me be as healthy as possible.
The Paleo diet is that set of rules. There are a lot of varying opinions on what is and what isn’t Paleo-friendly, but the gist of it is this: eat whole, natural foods. Eat them as close to how nature intended them as possible. Meat, fish, fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables. Not cheeseburgers, steak. Not almond butter, almonds. Simple.
If you do this long enough, you can break your addiction to sugar and salt. You’ll still be EATING sugar and salt, of course, but in quantities that are appropriate.
This is what our bodies are designed for. It’s what we’re adapted for. It’s how we evolved. We weren’t built to eat protein bars and drink Diet Coke (though I still do both, from time to time). It puts the least-possible amount of strain on our system. It allows us to return to homeostasis as quickly as possible. It will help with blood sugar levels, cholesterol, blood pressure, EVERYTHING.
Now, the hard part, like with any diet, is adherence. It’s hard to eat steak and eggs every night for the rest of eternity when YOU KNOW that Crunchwrap Supremes exist. The key is balance.
I strive to eat somewhere between 80-90% “Paleo-friendly” foods, and 10-20% non-Paleo foods in a given day. And striking that balance is what has kept me on track with my fitness goals for the long haul. And I definitely notice a difference in how I feel when I eat that pound of strawberries as opposed to getting my carbs from a pint of Halo Top. But every once in a while, you need that Halo Top.
As I mentioned earlier, there is some debate on what is considered “Paleo” and what isn’t. If you’re super-strict, and going by the book, Paleo-friendly foods are anything found untouched by nature: meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grasses. No legumes (peanuts, beans, lentils, etc.), no grains, no dairy, and nothing to drink but water. Basically, if it had to be planted, grown, or cultivated in any way, it’s a no go.
However, for ME, I like to include some of those things in my “Modified Paleo diet.” I eat rice and oats, but stay away from bread and bagels. I eat peanuts and beans and cheese, but avoid processed meats like hot dogs and whatever bologna is supposed to be. And potatoes are okay in my book, too. Just not french fries.
Putting It All Together
So, if you don’t want to count calories, if you don’t want to track macros, if you just want to follow some simple, straightforward rules for dieting and eating healthy, I suggest you adopt a Paleo diet, or as close to a Paleo diet as possible (like me). I honestly don’t even think of it as a “diet.” Rather, it’s more of a “food philosophy.” It’s a set of rules, a set of guidelines. A compass to help steer you in the right direction. And, in addition to that, it’s what we were made for. It’s what we were designed for. And if you’re still unclear on which foods are Paleo-friendly, a quick Google search should put you on the right track.
Do this, and I promise you you’ll feel better, look better, and never look back.