My Complicated Relationship with Paleo

Ground beef, mushroom and spinach muffins from "Well Fed Paleo" cookbook

Ground beef, mushroom and spinach muffins from “Well Fed Paleo” cookbook

Almost a year ago I experimented with eating Paleo for the first time. For the unfamiliar, Paleo is a style of eating where you avoid all processed foods, with the idea that you’re eating a pre-agricultural diet that is better suited to the human body. The Paleo diet (I don’t consider it a diet in the weightloss sense, though some people do) includes fruits, vegetables, meats, healthy fats, eggs, nuts and seeds. It rules out dairy, grains, beans, processed foods, sugar and so forth. The idea is you stick to the least-processed, most nutritionally dense foods, and rule out the ones that cause digestive problems, have a high glycemic index, etc. In theory, the diet is supposed to emulate a pre-agricultural hunter gatherer diet.

There recently have been a few articles debunking the science behind Paleo, ie the idea that the diet mimics what cavemen eat and that humans have not sufficiently evolved to effectively digest grains, dairy and so forth. I’ve never been particularly invested in the idea of “eating like a caveman” or whatever, I just like the way I feel when I eat this way, and I feel that the nutritional science behind it is legit, even if the evolutionary science isn’t.

In my research, there is no nutrients you will miss by following this eating plan, and I find I have a lot more energy and more stable blood sugar while eating this way (I’m hypoglycemic.) I don’t find it feasible to eat this way all the time- it’s expensive, time consuming, and very difficult to eat out this way. Plus, I can’t imagine giving up ice cream or pizza forever, so I enjoy them as treats. I follow the 80/20 rule- I eat (mostly) paleo at home, and eat what I want when I eat out. My boyfriend eats the same way, which is convenient when we eat out and cook for each other. This scheme works pretty well for me, but I’ve stopped telling people I eat Paleo because invariably I’ll be out, and I’ll want a cupcake, and I’ll get a well-meaning but irritating friend be like “BUT THAT’S NOT PALEO!” No, it’s not. Now fuck off. It’s almost as if people around me are more interested in me keeping strictly Paleo than I am, which I almost wonder is a thinly veiled form of body policing. On the other hand, my fat-positive friends view Paleo with suspicion, interrogating me about whether I’m falling prey to “dieting.” No guys, I’m hypoglycemic, and it really is better for my health to eat this way.

I also want to be upfront about how weird it is how political people get about their food choices. It seems like I don’t know anyone that doesn’t follow a particular food philosophy anymore. I also find the bickering about Paleo vs. Vegan on Facebook or wherever to be irritating and inappropriate. A lot of the hardcore Paleo people are pretty annoying, especially those who eschew the 80/20 rule as “Faileo.” How other people eat is none of your business. Moreover, Paleo is a very privileged way to eat. Most folks can’t afford to eat exclusively grass fed meat and organic fruits and vegetables, most folks don’t have time to cook three meals a day. I do the best I can, and I don’t beat myself up when I can’t.  Cutting out carbs makes grocery shopping expensive.

I recently went through a fuck-it phase when I started buying stuff like bread and mac n’ cheese again, because I decided that I needed a quicker, cheaper way to eat, and I wanted to see if my life would actually fall apart if I started eating that way again. (I was in the throes of an incredibly busy semester of grad school and was having some intense transitions in my life). The problem I found is that when I started including bread as a dietary staple instead of a treat, it became all that I wanted to eat, and eating veggies felt like a chore. I am an emotional eater at times, and processed carbs are not my friend- it’s too easy to binge on them, and once I start eating them, it’s hard to stop. Intuitive eating is great in theory, but when my intuition tells me to eat half a loaf of bread slathered in butter and nothing else, maybe that’s not the best idea. I gained a fair amount of weight fairly quickly, when typically I maintain pretty easily. So I’m back to the 80/20 rule.

Lest I be accused of austerity: pate with a golden layer of bacon fat.

Lest I be accused of austerity: pate with a golden layer of bacon fat.

And to be honest, I LOVE my Paleo cooking. I make chocolate chip cookies with almond flour that taste like real cookies, pizza with seasoned ground beef crust, creamy and delicious almond milk, coconut milk whipped cream with fruit, collard greens with bacon and a fried egg,  cauliflower fried rice from scratch with homemade BBQ pork, bacon beef liver pate, grass-fed steak with a side of braised kale, sweet potatoes with truffle oil, and it’s all ridonculously delicious and even kind of decadent. I recommend Melissa Joulwan’s book if you’re curious about trying Paleo cooking.

In conclusion- it’s ok to eat Paleo some of the time, and not all of the time. It’s ok to be fat-positive but still choose to eat a particular way or avoid certain foods- it doesn’t necessarily make you “eating disordered.” It’s ok to eat a particular diet because it’s nutritionally dense and helps you feel good. It’s ok to do Paleo and not worry about losing weight or whatever. But it’s not ok to make judgments about how other folks eat, because that’s simply none of your business.



  1. Anonymous says:

    I have been weirdly drawn to the whole 80/20 paleo thing since the first time I heard of it. I am the absolute worst eater I know. I dump sugar on everything, 90% of what I eat is individually wrapped or out of a takeaway box. I had pork crackling for lunch the other day. And of course, I am constantly tired and sluggish and perfectly aware it’s my own fault.

  2. shannonhumphreys says:

    Also, ^that is me. I thought I was signed in!

  3. Wanted_A_Pony says:

    ~”…I also want to be upfront about how weird it is how political people get about their food choices….But it’s not ok to make judgments about how other folks eat, because that’s simply none of your business.”~

    While I respect & enjoyed Bianca James’s column, & hope that I never come across as judgmental or accusing about another person’s food preferences or beliefs, I simply cannot agree with her statements above. Politics is interpersonal relationships between 3 or more people (except in very fortunate & loving exceptions), & the personal is political as soon as it leaves your head (i.e., affects either your words or actions). The only way your food isn’t a political act is if you grow it yourself, & even then it reflects the judgments you make about what to plant/raise & how you do it.

    What food you buy or barter for, where you get it, how it’s produced & transported, how you’re persuaded to want it in the first place, who makes money off it & where that money goes–these acts all have political & economic consequences. As one person you may feel you have no influence on these larger forces, but as a group we *cause* these larger forces. There’s nothing “weird” at all about being political about food. (Though I’m pretty puzzled about how tofu or Brazilian beef *itself* can be progressive or reactionary, as I’ve seen people claim; I wonder if that’s the sort of ‘political’ James is talking about?)

    I may choose to ignore what effects my actions have (& believe me, I often do–an MBA or poli-sci student could write a case study about my family politics!) but that doesn’t mean the effects don’t exist. I also think it’s entirely rational to judge my own & other people’s food choices, in the sense of evaluating what effects they produce in economies, politics & societies & deciding that some effects are more desireable than others. However, I *really* try not to generalize from that to judging the *person*. That’s hard, especially (in my case) when wealthy & well-educated folks make choices that they dam’ well *know* will hurt other people or the environment just to make more money, or because they simply can’t be bothered to care. :-\

    • I understand why people are political about food, but I don’t understand why they aggressively push their agenda on others/constantly post about it on facebook, etc. I have issues with “the personal is politic” esp. with how it played out with women’s sexuality in second wave feminism.

  4. This was a fantastic post!! I wish I had never told anyone about my Paleo and gluten-free eating, because at work food-parties and family gatherings, no one will shut-up about what I “can’t” eat.

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