I was quite amazed at the response to my last post. I received many messages from people along the lines “I’ve been thinking the same thing for quite some time”, with most of these people now shaking their head at the state of play within a movement which held so much promise. It is, however, relatively easy to move on and leave “Paleo/Payleo” to become whatever history will destine it to be. It is, after all, only a word. One which suited a purpose – to act as a short-cut in peoples understanding of why they need to unplug from a highly processed diet and return to one which is made up of predominantly real food.
Appealing to our Paleolithic ancestry, and using evolution as a starting point of inquiry into human health, resonated with many. But it led to those for whom this paradigm didn’t resonate going after caveman caricatures, with plenty of fuel for this fire provided by everyone who has ever played up to the stone age stereotype. But to convey the basics of what we were trying to get across – eating more real food, eating less ultra-processed food, engaging in healthy movement, sleeping better, and addressing all the other common evolutionary mismatches we find ourselves in – we don’t need to appeal to our history.
So if not Paleo, then what?
Instead of winding the clock back to the Paleolithic, we can simply draw a line in the sand under the here and now, and look forward to a post-Neolithic age (with the Neolithic being the age which brought us many of the mismatches and problems “Paleo” was trying to address). We can move on from a Neolithic age which has perhaps pushed the envelope too far, recalibrate how we live in a modern society, give a nod to our evolutionary past, and both our distal and proximal ancestry, all without the need to go all Fred Flintstone about it, and largely avoiding the straw-man arguments which have plagued the criticisms of Paleo.
Once again referencing Whole9’s Nutrition in 60 seconds, there is actually no need to mention the term Paleo at all. The focus is on health, not history; on what you can have, not what you can’t.
We eat real food – meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, healthy oils, nuts and seeds. We choose foods that were raised, fed and grown naturally, and foods that are nutrient-dense, with lots of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.
This is not a “diet” – we eat as much as we need to maintain strength, energy, activity levels and a healthy body weight. We aim for well-balanced nutrition, so we eat animals and a significant amount of plants.
Eating like this has helped us to look, feel, live and perform our best, and reduces our risk for a variety of lifestyle-related diseases and conditions.
For all the arguing and debating that has occurred between various movements, factions, organisations, and health professionals, there is actually a surprising amount of knowledge that we all share and agree on. In synthesizing and formulating this collective pool of knowledge into formal dietary guidelines, it hasn’t been the USA, UK, Europe, Australia, or NZ that has led the charge. But rather, the emerging South American powerhouse of Brazil. You can download their full and final document, in English, here [PDF].
The real standout factor of these guidelines is that they are based around foods rather than nutrients and nutrition, and were built around 5 key principles;
Diet is more than intake of nutrients
Diet refers to intake of nutrients, and also to the foods that contain and provide nutrients. Diet also refers to how foods are combined and prepared in the form of meals, how these meals are eaten, and also to cultural and social dimensions of food choices, food preparation and modes of eating, all of which affect health and well-being.
Dietary recommendations need to be tuned to their times
Dietary recommendations should respond to changes in food supplies and in patterns of population health and well-being.
Healthy diets derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems
Dietary recommendations need to take into account the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity.
Different sources of knowledge inform sound dietary advice
Diet has various dimensions and a complex relationship with population health and well-being. Therefore, the evidence required to construct recommendations on diet is generated from different sources of knowledge.
Dietary guidelines broaden autonomy in food choices
Access to reliable information on characteristics and determinants of healthy diets contribute toward people, families, and communities increasing their autonomy in making good food choices; it also contributes to leading them to demand the compliance to the human right to adequate food.
I’ve had a read through the full document, and with the inclusion of a few of the usual dietary guideline ghosts rattling around in it (such as the perennial “saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease”), the more pedantic hardliners will still take umbrage at some of the content. Admittedly, some of these demons are quite jarring when you read them, but I have found that largely to be a factor of just how good the rest of the document is (causing them to perhaps stand out more than they would had my eyes glazed over in the first few paragraphs). When reading, rather than quibble over the minutiae, I’d encourage readers to look at the document more broadly, taking the main points and recommendations at face value.
The Brazilian Guidelines go on to provide four recommendations for choosing foods. It is these recommendations that I feel most of us (those who are focused on improving health through nutrition and lifestyle, irrespective of the paradigm we come from) share the most ground on. It is also within these recommendations that it becomes most apparent where the Paleo movement has lost it way.
Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
Natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritious, delicious, appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems
Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations
As long as they are used in moderation in culinary preparations based on natural or minimally processed foods, oils, fats, salt, and sugar contribute toward diverse and delicious diets without rendering them nutritionally unbalanced.
Limit the use of processed foods, consuming them in small amounts as ingredients in culinary preparations or as part of meals based on natural or minimally processed foods
The ingredients and techniques used in the manufacture of processed foods — such as vegetables in brine, fruits in syrup, cheeses and breads – unfavourably alter the nutritional composition of the foods from which they are derived.
Avoid ultra-processed foods
Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed foods — such as packaged snacks, soft drinks, and instant noodles — are nutritionally unbalanced. As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment.
Looking at the first and last recommendations, this is where I felt Paleo was at its strongest, as this was the essence of what eating a “Paleo diet” was all about – eating natural or minimally-processed foods, and reducing or avoiding ultra-processed foods, as per the definitions below;
…natural foods are obtained directly from plants or animals and are acquired for consumption without having undergone any change after leaving nature…
…Cleaning, removal of inedible parts, drying, packaging, pasteurising, cooling, freezing, grinding, and fermentation are examples of minimal processes that transform natural foods into minimally processed foods. In all minimal processing, there is no addition of salt, sugar, oils, fats or other substances to the food…
…The manufacturing of ultra-processed foods, generally done by large industries, involves several stages of processing techniques and many ingredients, including salt, sugar, oils and fats, and several substances for exclusive industrial use…
Fairly simple stuff. These are the common refrains of many voices, irrespective of the specific dietary denomination they preach under. These are often also the points missed in the dietary guidelines of more Westernised countries. So fearful of upsetting the economic apple cart and large corporates we have become, we dare not specifically call out the products of large industry as has been done here. Bravo Brazil.
Where the Paleo 3.0 movement is now missing the bus, is with the increasing focus on the promotion of being able to have all your old favourite processed and ultra-processed foods, just with a few minor tweaks of ingredients (non-gluten flours, rice malt syrup sugars…), with plenty of ‘nutritionalised’ claims (“high-fat!”, “low-carb!”, “grain-free!”, “Bulletproof!”), with the defence for all this being that they are just treats to be moderated. Sound familiar? Same wolf, different fleece.
For those readers unfamiliar with the history of the Paleo movement, our common cry was that real food trumps nutrients (whole food cannot be equated with aggregations of ingredients, no matter what the nutrient content of those aggregations are), real food doesn’t need labels, ticks, or claims, and treats are difficult to moderate for the very reason that they are designed to be hyperpalatable. Eat three whole meals per day, made up of natural and minimally-processed foods, to satiety, and chances are you won’t need or want many treats anyway.
Look where we are now…
Paleo Lemon Meringues
“Ok, now I know some peeps out there are gettin [sic] all ragin [sic] about us media personalities Paleo-Fying every day food, not to mention junk food! All I can say is that each to their own, do what floats YOUR boat, but if I had the choice of a recipe that used processed crap, vs a recipe that uses real nutrient dense wholefoods, I know which one I’d be enjoying.” #paleo #paleorecipe
On a new recipe book containing “Paleo versions of all your favourite fast food…
This here is – legit PALEO FISH AND CHIPS. This meal of epic proportions just so happens to feature in the brand spanking new #CleanLivingSeries Book – FAST FOOD.
Now I’m not just talking speedy, I’m talking PALEO versions of all your favourite fast food items. Doughnuts, pizzas, burgers and more.
Paleo Whoopie Pie
“So I have had a heap of people ask me since my post last night was a Whoopie Pie is?! Well, let me clear it up, whilst hopefully making your mouth water. A strawberry vanilla coconut cream centre, enclosed by two soft, dark and chewy chocolate biscuits. Grain, gluten, dairy and processed sugar free.”
This is just a sample from two sites I have had the misfortune to come across this week. I really wish I could believe that these were all only once in a blue moon type treats happening in people’s lives. But the frequency with which these things are posted, and the feverish response with which they are received, causes me to think otherwise.
All of the above examples firmly fall into the ultra-processed food category, being similar to the examples of ultra-processed foods given in the Brazilian guidelines;
Fatty, sweet or salty packaged snacks, biscuits (cookies), ice-creams, candies and confectionery in general; cola, soda, and other soft drinks; sweetened juices and ‘energy’ drinks; sweetened breakfast cereals; cakes and cake mix, and cereal bars; sweetened and flavoured yogurts and dairy drinks; canned, packaged, dehydrated and other ‘instant’ soups, noodles, and seasonings; pre- prepared meat, fish, vegetables, pizza and pasta dishes, burgers, hot dogs, sausages, poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’ and other animal products made from remnants; sliced bread, hamburger or hot dog breads, sweet breads, and baked products in general made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives.
Sure, the ingredients used within our Paleo creations above are probably greatly improved (and significantly more expensive – an issue in its own right) than those used by commercial industry. But I would still liken this to being like growing your own tobacco and adding a filter to your roll-your-owns. Better, but healthy? Does changing the source within these aggregations of ingredients suddenly give Whoopie Pies or Lemon Cheesecake bites the same properties as natural and minimally processed food? This seems to be the inference here.
Let’s look at some of the reasons given by the authors of the Brazilian guidelines for avoiding ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods have an unbalanced nutritional composition.
The main ingredients of ultra-processed foods make them fatty or sugary, or both…
Ultra-processed foods promote excessive consumption of dietary energy
Ultra-processed foods disturb mechanisms located in the digestive system and the brain that ensure that the intake and expenditure of dietary energy is balanced. These mechanisms tend to underestimate the energy contained in ultra-processed foods, with the result that the sense of satiety occurs only after excess consumption.
Other attributes common to many ultra-processed foods can also compromise the mechanisms that signal satiety and control the appetite, thus further favouring the involuntary consumption of calories and increasing the risk of obesity.
Ultra-processed foods are formulated with combinations of oils, fats, sugars, salt and additives, so as to be hyper-palatable, and sometimes habit-forming or even in effect addictive. The advertising of some of these products correctly identifies them as ‘irresistible’.
Are coconut ice-cream, Paleo pancakes, and maple syrup breakfast of a balanced nutritional composition, say compared to whole eggs and a salad?
If Paleo Nutella bites are as delicious and irresistible as they are made out to be, can you just stop at one?
Will you make these treats just once every few months, because they are really not all the hyper-palatable and habit-forming?
And what of the effect of having these off the chart delicious treats on your desire to consume predominantly natural and minimally-processed foods? How sweet do carrots taste compared to maple syrup and pancakes? How much reward do they offer you with the memory of pancakes still fresh in your mind?
The guidelines raise an important point regarding ultra-processed, including, in my opinion, the analogues of these we make in our own homes and the impact on culture;
Brands, packages, labels, and the contents of ultra-processed foods tend to be identical throughout the world. A type of soft drink made by one giant manufacturer is essentially the same the world over. Types of burger made by various manufacturers are much the same everywhere. Leading brands are promoted often using the same entertainers, models, music and slogans everywhere, including on television, the internet and social media. They are disseminated by means of intensive and aggressive advertising campaigns, including the launching of hundreds of new products every year, which leads to a false sense of diversity.
Because of these campaigns, genuine food cultures come to be regarded as uninteresting. All this creates a sense especially to children and young people that the culture and identity of their own country, region, ethnicity and tradition including food culture and patterns, are boring. Young people especially are being induced by major manufacturers, in effect acting in concert, to have a false sense of belonging in a superior, modern, high cost and expense consumer culture.
By recreating the very foods – donuts, pizza, and the like (even if wrapped in some form of health halo) – that Big Food pushes on us 24/7, do we really think we are sticking it to the man with our Paleo thing? Really?
Am I a Captain Buzzkill when it comes to eating treats and desserts, ensuring we NEVER have them? Of course not. We will usually have a once weekly/bi-weekly dessert – generally a banana avocado mousse or homemade coconut ice cream. We are generally so stonkered from our main meals, that we really couldn’t face many of these rich desserts and treats. And where we have tried some in the past, they are very much food with no brakes for us.
Our goal is always to eat 3 full and balanced meals each day, made up of natural and minimally-processed foods, and to see what level of appetite, cravings, and desires we have left over after that. Our meals are large enough and satiety-inducing enough, that once we have eaten, we rarely think about food until several hours later when the next meal is due. You’d be hard pressed to catch us pouring through recipe books or commenting on foodie shots in social media feeds… We are too full and not interested.[We have noticed an interesting relationship between the small meal sizes of those people who post lots of meal/food photos and recipes – but that will perhaps be a post for another time]
The Brazilian guidelines go on to cover how we should be constructing meals with the foods we choose. Check out the size of the meals in the photos. They are a lot larger than many we typically see when we do nutrition consults. People are often shocked/pleasantly surprised by how much Anastasia gets to eat, for example. We both know from our own personal experience that small meals leads to snacking, cravings, and wanting desserts.
The Brazilian guidelines also go beyond just food and meals, covering ground that many contemporary guidelines from more Western countries do not, by addressing modes of eating and some of the obstacles we face.
Modes of eating;
Eating regularly and carefully
Always when possible, eat daily meals at similar times. Avoid ‘snacking’ between meals. Eat slowly, with full attention, and enjoy eating without engaging in another activity.
Eating in appropriate environments
Always prefer to eat in clean, comfortable, and quiet places, and where there is no stimulus to consume unlimited amounts of food.
Eating in company
Prefer eating with family, friends, or colleagues. At home, share in acquisition, preparation, cooking, and arrangements before and after eating.
There is a lot of information on diet and health, but there are few reliable sources.
Ultra-processed foods are on sale everywhere, promoted by advertisements and discounts on all media. By contrast, natural or minimally processed foods get little publicity, and some are not even available in locations close to people’s homes.
Although some natural and minimally processed foods are not cheap, the total cost of diets based on natural or minimally processed foods is still lower in Brazil than the cost of diets based on ultra-processed foods.
Cooking and other culinary skills are no longer being shared between generations. This favours consumption of ultra-processed foods.
The recommendations in these Guidelines are likely to take additional time.
The advertising of ultra-processed products dominates commercial advertising of food; it often converys incorrect or incomplete information about diet and health and mainly affects children and youngsters.
Not to sound like a broken record, but with the number of recipe books and internet sites out there now dedicated to all the Paleo treats and desserts, often for sale, I’d also consider these as commercial advertising of food.
Overall, I think the Brazilian dietary guidelines have set a new world standard for what dietary guidelines in more Western countries, like Australia and New Zealand, could (and should) be. Do I agree with every single word written in them? No. But as a broad framework and church for those of us with much common ground to fall under, and as a standard to compare our own individual flocks to, to ask questions of ourselves, and hold ourselves accountable, I don’t think there is much better out there. Brazil and the authors of these guidelines deserve much high praise for this revolutionary document.