Last month, we went over the basics of adopting a Paleo diet. A couple of questions arose after this last post: Is this the only healthy alternative to the Standard American Diet? Does every health-conscious individual really follow such strict guidelines all the time? Are there other traditional diets that can fit into our modern lifestyles?
The answers are no, no, and yes! Paleo is certainly not the only healthy diet out there, and many would argue that it’s not even necessarily the best. Many who call themselves Paleo do follow slightly looser, yet still traditional, diet plans, and there is a lot of gray area on the Paleo spectrum. In fact, after writing the Ready to Go Paleo? blog post, I realized I myself probably adhere more closely to a Primal diet than a strictly Paleo one. Others follow WAPF diets inspired by Weston A. Price and Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, which are similar in many ways to Paleo and Primal diets. There is also a lot of overlap between Paleo, GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet), and AIP (Autoimmune Protocol or Autoimmune Paleo) diets.
It gets even more confusing when you realize that there are many interpretations of each of these diets. Some insist that dairy can be a part of a Paleo diet, while others believe it’s expressly forbidden. Some say grains should be minimized on the WAPF diet, while others regularly enjoy lots of grains as long as they are properly prepared. Who’s right? Which diet is really healthiest? First, let’s take a look at how these modern versions of traditional diets were created.
The Paleo diet, also known as the Caveman diet, was publicized in 2002 by Dr. Loren Cordain with the book The Paleo Diet. Dr. Cordain extended his lifelong interest in nutrition with formal research into diet, athletics, and body fat composition, culminating in a Ph.D. in Health. About three decades ago, Dr. Cordain read a New England Journal of Medicine article by Dr. Boyd Eaton entitled “Paleolithic Nutrition,” which resonated with him so much that he has since dedicated himself to becoming the world’s top expert on Stone Age and hunter-gatherer diets. With over 100 peer-reviewed articles and abstracts and 5 bestselling books, Dr. Cordain encourages followers to revert back to the natural, wild plants and animals that sustained our ancestors. The Paleo diet is high in protein and fiber, low glycemic, low carb, and seeks to balance acid with alkaline and keep a proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. The Paleo Diet also suggests following the 85:15 rule, which allows three non-Paleo meals per week, so you don’t have to give up all your favorite foods.
World class athlete Mark Sisson, author of multiple healthy living books, published Primal Blueprint in 2009. The Primal diet is quite similar to the Paleo diet, but overall a bit more laid back; it’s basically “Paleo Lite.” It is high in protein and fat, and low in carbohydrates. The Primal Blueprint explains how we can use what our ancestors did 10,000 years ago to control our health and happiness in the modern world and “reprogram our genes.” We should eat like hunter-gatherers, and also move like we would if we had to hunt and forage for our basic needs. Diet is not the only component of Primal living, although it is extremely important. Mark Sisson also reiterates how critical it is to make other lifestyle changes: do low-level aerobic exercise and sprints, lift heavy weight, get enough sleep, sun, and play, and avoid stress and toxins.
The WAPF diet gained popularity with the 1995 publication of the cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morell. Developed by the Weston A. Price Foundation, the WAPF diet is based on the research of Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist who traveled the world to study primitive cultures in an effort to determine what accounted for their excellent dental health. He found that those who ate the nutrient-dense whole foods of their ancestors had not only superior dental health but also optimal physical health and development. He published his findings in 1939 under the title Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. The WAPF diet focuses on high fat, nutrient-dense foods such as pastured meat, dairy, and eggs, wild-caught fish, and organ meats. A key aspect of the WAPF diet is proper preparation of foods to neutralize anti-nutrients and optimize digestibility: grains and legumes should be soaked or sprouted; dairy should be raw or fermented; lacto-fermented foods should be included with each meal.
The Differences Between Paleo, Primal, and WAPF
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of these top traditional diets. It was actually quite a challenge to create this chart, because there are so many variations of each diet out there. This, in part, arises from specific recommendations for those with certain health needs; for example, while fruit is freely allowed on the Paleo diet, those facing insulin resistance or who need to lose a lot of weight are advised to avoid high-sugar fruits. And, like anything else in this modern Internet age, dietary guidelines tend to be altered a bit each time they are shared, much like a game of Telephone. I based this chart on the guidelines listed by the original creators of each diet, but you will certainly find a variety of opinions regarding whether any particular food meets a diet’s guidelines.
So, What Should I Eat? Which Diet is Best?
Here’s what all these traditional diets all seem to agree on:
- Eat plenty of veggies
- Focus on pastured, grass-fed meat and eggs and wild-caught seafood
- Eliminate gluten
- Avoid processed foods, industrial oils, and refined sugars
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of sleep
- Spend time in the sun
To put it in a nutshell, the premise of each of these diets is to eat real, whole foods created by nature. Any of these diets is exponentially healthier than the Standard American Diet, and which one you choose depends upon your individual health needs, any allergies or intolerances, and personal preferences. The whole idea is to focus on the foods that kept our ancestors healthy for centuries — traditional foods that cultures throughout the world have long relied on. The specifics, and the labels, are up to you!