Now more than ever we're bombarded by new diets. Today's trendy eating plan is the Paleo diet, but I could list others that have been touted as "the" solution to our health and weight problems. We're all pretty aware that most (if not all) diets fail, and yet, every time a new one comes along, we believe it will be different.
On top of that, there are battles between supposedly opposing camps—Paleos vs. Vegans – a kind of new-agey version of West Side Story with pretty horrid dancing.
I want to make the following points:
- Many Paleos and vegans agree more than they disagree.
- There are versions of both that are nutty and supremely unhealthy.
- When we act in the diet paradigm, it's difficult to be healthy or happy.
My philosophy of health is that the closer each of us gets to what is most natural for our species, the happier and healthier we'll be—that we are hard-wired to be on the lookout for what will make our existence on this earth longer and better.
Taking that as a premise, it's clear that Paleo folks and vegans share the same goal. Both believe they've found a path to health and happiness, and many (though certainly not all) in each camp believe they're living a life that is more natural than the one lived by most humans in the modern world.
The Paleo diet and the vegan diet both draw on our natural design. Paleos argue that meat was an essential part of the early human’s diet, and many vegans argue that while our species evolved eating flesh, it’s not necessary when plants are available.
Incidentally, neither Paleos nor vegans consume dairy. Because pre-modern agriculture was dairy-free, both camps agree that our Paleolithic relatives did not chase down wild animals, hoping upon hope that the animal was both a female and lactating.
Paleos and Vegans share another important similarity—supremely unhealthy versions of both diets. In no particular order of nuttiness, let's look at some of these tendencies.
The Safeway Paleo
This is the Paleo diet champion who, with some perceived license from the “diet,” eats animal products at every meal and "hunts" for them at the local grocery store. Hopefully we can all agree that our Paleo ancestors had to expend some serious energy for the animals they hunted, and that the animals they hunted moved around, and ate clean, healthy food and water. These hunters wouldn’t even recognize the red mass of flesh wrapped in cellophane in the fridge.
These are the folks who give up all animal products for ethical and environmental reasons, which is commendable, for sure. However, health-wise, the Tofurky Vegans go for the fake meats and cheeses. Soy protein isolate, isolated gluten, and oils abound. Not natural or healthy by any stretch of the imagination! Incidentally, it's also not environmentally friendly, as the processing of plants into refined, isolated ingredients takes a substantial amount of energy and natural resources.
We didn't evolve as dieters.
So, while Paleos and vegans ardently make their points, I think we should acknowledge that the natural design of the human being dictates a desire for health and happiness, and that the draw of all diets is an effort to find more of both. Next, and perhaps even more importantly, let's move away entirely from the diet paradigm. One thing for sure is that we did not evolve as a dieting species.
Instead of getting mired in the diet world, let's take steps to increase our health and happiness by including more of what's natural to us. Rather than wondering if a food fits into a particular diet plan, try seeing where it sits on a spectrum of "least healthy/natural" to "most healthy/natural."
Getting healthier simply means moving closer to the healthy/natural side. It's truly independent of labels and diets. The fact is that there are animal foods (e.g. free range eggs) that are healthier and more natural than some vegan foods (Tofurky sausage).
We all love plants.
When taking into account the proportion of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals) to macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), the healthiest foods for our bodies are plants. And, as much as vegans wouldn’t want to admit it, if the human species returned to a more literal Paleo picture—actually hunting for actual wild animals when necessary (and eating them fresh), making animal foods just a part of the overall diet, and eating no refined plants (like white flour or white rice, which don't exist in nature), a couple things would happen: (1) we could put an end to the horrific treatment of animals in the factory farming industry, and (2) the environmental devastation that results from our current food production model would be substantially minimized.
The fact is, the wonderful website on which you’re reading this is dedicated to providing a meeting place for all humans who are looking to enhance their lives. Battles over which diet is best can be a distraction that prevents all of us from achieving what we want, and I argue, are designed to do—to make the quality of our lives the best possible. Getting beyond diets is both effective and liberating as it frees each of us to move ahead at a pace that both works and is life-long.
Here are some sample steps you might want to try, in no particular order. Try what feels right and ignore the rest:
1. Take smaller steps than you think are normal.
Finding out what you can do everyday is a great place to start. Anything more than that (i.e. diet plans) usually lead to burn-out. Once you establish a new daily behavior, you can add another manageable step.
2. Decide how healthy and happy you want to be and begin steps toward that goal.
That includes acting in line with your personal health goals, as well as in line with your ethical and environmental values. Again, only do what you can do, and build from there. Pay attention to the actions in your life that are in conflict with how you would like to be.
3. Remember that food is just one part of the healthy human picture.
Healthy and balanced movement, creativity, and relationships can greatly enhance our lives and help minimize the physical effects of stress on our bodies.
4. Remember that humans didn’t evolve counting, weighing, measuring, and calculating percentages with regard to our food.
The healthier and more natural the food you eat, the less you have to spend your time doing any of those things—i.e. the more time you have for other cool stuff.
5. The health and happiness of our species is dependent on the health of the earth.
Taking steps in your personal life that benefit you as well as the environment that you share with others is a completely natural state of existence. We didn’t evolve with a drive to deplete our natural resource.
6. Instead of going from diet to diet, think of your trek to health and happiness as a ‘practice’ much like yoga.
There is no end to get to. You continue the practice and continually search for balance, understanding that there are ups and downs along the way, but an overall upward trajectory when you remind yourself what you’re practice is there to do.
When it comes to food, how healthy you want to be depends on the proportion of healthy foods to unhealthy foods you are putting in your body. If you choose to be healthier, change the proportion little by little until you hit a place that makes you feel good. If make a change too quickly (i.e. follow a diet), it’ll be stressful, and will most likely lead to burnout.
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