Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Hymn to the Lifestyle: Part 2 - Pseudo Paleo

In part 1, Paleo at its Best I waxed lyrical about the joys of being 100% tuned into the Paleo lifestyle.

A couple of years ago I went for months on end without a single lapse; but last year, thanks in no small part to a seemingly endless procession of celebrations that demanded full immersion, I fell off the wagon often enough to understand the profound differences between Paleo at it's best and 'Pseudo Paleo'.

Not Breaking the Emotional Food Ties

For me, Pseudo Paleo is characterised by a failure to emotionally let go of non-Paleo foods. This recent article on PāNu makes the point well. Kurt talks about the culinary alchemy with which we try to approximate non-Paleo foods using ingredients which, taken in isolation are each technically Paleo.

A good example is my recipe for Paleo/Primal chocolate, posted last summer. It seems highly unlikely our ancestors had the time, materials or inclination to process, assemble and create the ingredients for those chocolates - especially since they could spend a fraction of the time preparing just as tasty (in a different way) at a fraction of the energy cost. Survival is, after all, about the trade-off between the energy required to acquire and prepare food and the energy it provides.

I have no evidence that these pretend Paleo foods are less healthy in any tangible or immediate way; but what they do to me is much more insidious - they maintain the emotional ties with the non-Paleo equivalents. I may be eating chocolate made from concentrated coconut cream, cocoa powder and dried blueberry, but I am thinking about real chocolate.

Junk Food Stand-Ins and Impostors

As I mentioned in Paleo at its Best, when I am truly Paleo, I genuinely relish eating nothing but meat, vegetables, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds. The powerful emotional associations formed in childhood (I talk more about that here) fade away and I am utterly content with the joys of real food. That joy takes weeks to develop and is sabotaged when I instead seek pleasure from junk-food stand-ins and Paleo impostors.

Dodgy Digestion

In fact, concentrated versions of technically Paleo foods are my main weakness. When I am in Pseudo Paleo mode, I keep jars of tahini, and nut butter in the house, along with bags of almond powder and dessicated coconut. I routinely plunder these stores after a meal, eating large spoons full at a time and returning several times. My nut binges, too, take on a new dimension, ending only when the reality of my stomach's disquiet becomes clear, after which I invariably spend the night in mild gastric discomfort.

Hunger Control

Hunger control is a crucial part of being truly Paleo for me. Low-carb eating and especially Paleo eating give you a better chance of responding to your appetite the way nature intended... but in my experience, Pseudo Paleo foods inflame the appetite in a way that truly Paleo foods do not.

Admittedly Pseudo Paleo foods do not inflame the appetite as badly as real junk food - but they inflame it nevertheless. When I am in Pseudo Paleo mode, I cannot let go of the idea that each meal is an opportunity to guzzle until I am more than satisfied. True Paleo meals don't lend themselves to gluttony - overeating meat and vegetables feels counter intuitive. Overeating nut butter is supernaturally hard to avoid.

In pseudo mode, I seek smoked fish and salted meats; supermarket-sold pre-cooked chicken with its perplexing additives are something I become fixated with. I find that foods laced with these flavour enhancers, despite technically adhering to the low-carb and broad Paleo ethos, play havoc with my appetite.

Fasting Debt

In Pseudo Paleo mode my fasting works in reverse. I am always playing calorie catch up. I skip meals because I gorged on half a jar of tahini the night before, not because it feels like my body would benefit from a fast and I would like to emulate the experience and benefits of temporary food shortage.

I feel like one of those guys who always owes money. Instead of earning my meals with activity and fasting, I am paying for them with interest by skipping planned meals and going for unnecessary walks around the block.

Taking the Easy Way Out

Finally, I take the easy way out more often than I feel I should.

Instead of following through with a planned, savage, painful workout, I may move it to another day. Perhaps I had a bad night's sleep or decide my body needs a rest. Clearly there is a line to be drawn between what is sensible in a stressful modern life, and the need to buckle down and take the pain so that at other times you appreciate the easy life. In Pseudo mode, I stray too far from that line into easy street.

Then there's the coffee fasting. A 24-hour fast is a cinch when you load up on caffeine - at least that's the effect it has on me. Part of the value of the fast is to experience the hunger. I see coffee as cheating and find the evening reward is diminished when in Pseudo mode I resort to it.

And finally, cold showering, that paragon of the discomfort model - of how exposure to fleetingly uncomfortable stimuli can help you cope more easily with the milder discomforts of day-to-day life. In Pseudo mode I find reasons to shorten the cold section at the end of my shower, or avoid it altogether. I lose the resolve and the appreciation of the payback.


In my case there are factors at play relating to identity, pride and control. Everyone, I am sure, is different. It's possible that some of the elation and well being I talk about in Paleo at its Best are diminished in Pseudo Mode partly for psychological reasons. It's in my nature to be 'all or nothing' and I love to evangelise. No doubt these are important to my identity and my state of mind plays a part in my perception of overall health.

But enough psychobabble. The fact is that most of the time I am not in Pseudo Paleo mode - and just now I am at the right side of a good 6-week run. Bit too much coffee, but otherwise good.

You Decide

The joys I talked about in Paleo at its Best are not easily earned - last year all it took was one week out of every six in Pseudo mode to strip away much of the buzz. The only way to find out whether Paleo at its Best is worth the extra effort for you is to put in the work required to get there, then decide for yourself.

A Hymn to the Lifestyle - Part 1: Paleo at its Best


The DO said...

Oh, jeeze, I really have to say thank you for this post. I was honest paleo for about a month in September, then Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas... and Pseudo, pretend, "but it's paleo ingredients" hit. Since then I've struggled with weight loss (read almost none) and I've begun to fool around with the idea of sprouted wheat flour (cause that's "better" then regular bread) and sourdough bread, cause that's "better" too (fermented reduces phytic acid, blah, blah, blah). Your post has made me realize that the reality is that I'm not on an honest paleo diet and that in the back of my mind I know it. Perhaps I'm waiting for the "fail" as the excuse to give up. Cause, you know, it wasn't my fault paleo didn't work! Even though it did work, when I actually did it. So, how to balance? I have a 4 and 5 year old that just want pancakes on Saturday morning, and cake on birthdays. They want candy at the movies and I'm weak enough to a) give in to them and b) give in and eat it myself. I end up feeling like a failure no matter which way I go. So, 80/20 with "better" paleo ingredients on the weekend? Total restriction? Utter frustrated self imposed fast?? I want to do the right, all the time! I, too, am all or non, right or wrong, good or bad, all in or all out. And I need help! But now I can see that I'm not alone; I can move forward slowly and remember that you get out what you put in. And that maybe those almond flour pancakes are alright for the kids on Saturday... But I think I'll stick to the eggs for me:)

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

This is a tough one. My initial reaction is that you're right that people vary greatly, and need to find what works best for themselves. I rebel against rules and restrictions of any sort, so the pseudo mode works for me reasonably well. I've heard other people talk about not being able to stop obsessing about some favorite non-paleo food, and binging on it eventually. So some compromises might help reach the desired goal better that absolute principles (like Mark Sisson's 80% rule). I was just enjoying a paleo compromise of risotto- by the time I finish adding mushrooms and vegetables to it, there's comparatively little rice (1C initial volume and 8C final volume), so a reasonable compromise I think, to be consumed in small servings anyway. I also doubt that complete absolute exclusion of grains is necessary- I just think they would have been a minor and occasional part of people's diets at best. But I also see your point about cravings being exacerbated by the continued presence of certain foods. I used to have a nut butter thing, but haven't for a long time- though I still eat larger quantities of nuts than I should. The true paleo principle may still require that we experience shortages now and then to get the full effect. Even paleo man would have binged if he'd had easy access to jars of almond butter or honey! It's a wonder we do as well as we do!


David Moss said...

On a very specific point, (probably been talked about before) I wonder if nuts and seeds are really that paleo and whether that might be why they cause such a problem. Lots of people seem to suggest that they binge on them. I personally find them very convenient sources of easy calories (part of the problem no doubt!), but arguably if they'd be seasonal, limited foods (with hard shells that need to be cracked individually) then they'd be something we'd not usually or ideally have that much of. (Even more so for nut butters of course). Plausibly if they didn't taste very compelling, then we wouldn't really have bothered with them as an energy source. Interesting that I could easily scoff macadamia nuts but couldn't imagine doing the same with plain butter. You're definitely right about pure meat+veg though, virtually impossible to imagine a binge.

BestSelf said...

Thanks for this post. Very interesting. My husband always tells me that when I try to find 'fake' versions of the foods I miss (e.g., 'primal' brownies, 'primal' pizza, etc.) I do myself more harm than good. I find it hard to eat a very small/infrequent amount of these foods when they are around plentifully. I also struggle to limit nuts, cheese, fruit and coffee with half-n-half. Meat/veggies only seems so boring. Not always what I crave. But need to get over that psychological part. I know that when in isolation I do much better than when in environments when the non-primal stimuli are abundant. Even if I'm strong enough to resist and avoid eating them, inevitably the subconsciously placed 'response' to them seems to come out sooner or later and turns into a detour. But it's really not possible to stay completely away from such stimuli, and therein lies the challenge.

Methuselah said...

Thanks for your comments everyone - seems this is something a lot of us are wrestling with to some degree most of the time.

Sew Bee It - I hope you get to grips with your own challenges. I am lucky not to have to worry right now about the additionn of kids and their demands in the equation, though no doubt this will change in the not too distant future.

Cynthia - yes, it's the access that causes us the problems. Our appetites and our ability to regulate them have presumably developed on the basis of availability - summed up well by someone (I think it was Eades) who asked the question "why would we need moderation skills for very sweet things if we only chanced on them once in a blue moon?"

DM - I tend to agree about nuts and seeds. I think they become less Paleo in larger quantities. If one thinks about the effort required to create a 200g packet of pumpkin seeds, the idea of a hunter gatherer consuming that amount in a single sitting seems unlikely.

BestSelf - I'm the same. Great at being Pure Paleo when there's no one and nothing around to tempt me. Not so good when social things conspire to shake my resolve.

Ron Kelley said...

I have a few good things going for me related to the social temptations to go non-paleo. First, I have tremendous will power. I don't why but I do. I mentally picture the unpleasant results from eating non-paleo and pseudo paleo very easily such as a fat belly, feeling like crap, etc. For some reason this deters me. Second, my age (50) and previous health issues enabled me to actually experience the results of bad eating habits. Third, like Kurt Harris, I don't look at food as entertainment. Sure, I enjoy a great tasting meal like anyone else, but more often, eating is just a means to stay alive and healthy.

Methuselah said...

RLK - good position to be in. With me it used to be that I imagined how annoyed I'd be if I ate non-Paleo. I think it was a softening of my expectations that led to my year of Pseudo because that driver lost its bite.

Megan said...

Thanks for the great article. I totally agree about the pseudo-paleo foods. I've tried baking a few things with paleo ingredients and find the results underwhelming. I find it still leaves me with a craving for the real deal. I think it's better to try and be 100% true paleo. I know as soon as I start cheating my eating goes downhill very quickly and I don't feel healthy.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Megan - some great recipes on your blog, by the way. The blueberries and coconut cream I reckon are pretty Paleo (we have that sort of thing a lot), but the coconut bites, which sound very nice, are definately on the pseudo side, like my Paleo Chocolates ;-)

Megan said...

Yes, you're probably right about the coconut bites - they are delicious and it's easy to overdo it with them:). Glad you like the recipes.

Chris said...

Great Post!! One thing I find today, many people are allergic to nuts. It's always best to let them soak overnight in warm water to help breakdown the phytonutrients.
Keep up the great work!

nonzero said...

It does sound like you may have a food addiction / emotional eating problem. Paleo shouldn't be that hard. I can relate to your 'paleo at its best' description and wouldn't trade that feeling for anything. For my diet, I follow KISS, keep it simple stupid. Animals (preferably wild/grass/organic), green veggies (organic preferably), some nuts, and some berries on occasion. Nothing else. If I'm at a social function and I'm starving and they have nothing I can eat, then I'll starve knowing that I'll feast the next chance I get. Learning how to cook the foods properly was a huge deal as well. There is a vast difference between eating a moist roasted chicken versus burned, dried up pieces of pan-fried frozen chicken breast. Same with the vegetables.

An interesting tidbit of anthropological knowledge is that hunters very often carried a bag of seeds with them to sustain themselves while on extended hunts/journeys. It seems like nuts/seeds would be consumed less often and in small amounts and then only to get them through till their meals.

On the topic of moderation, yes, it is the bane of affluent social living to be bombarded with more temptations than you can deal with. True paleo would satisfy your physical hunger, but not your psychological ones.

n1kitchen said...

uh, glad i read this, it came just at the right time so thank you! have just eaten a huge pseudo paleo breakfast - butternut squash, halloumi cheese, a slab of orange cake...all made with paleo ingredients but jeeeez...it's not what it's about, is it?? this has given me a bit of an impetus to get back on the straight and narrow. i don't mind the hams and cheeses and wines - i think life would be too boring without them - but they should be a treat. everyday food should be veg and protein. interestingly, when i did full blown proper paleo, the weight just dropped off me and i can't really afford to lose much (i'm 5ft11in and weigh 62-3kg) but the effect was amazing.
anyway, thanks and must do better!

Methuselah said...

nonzero - I think I share those problems with a lot of people. Modern food essentially creates food addiction by presenting us with foods we lack the ability to moderate because historically we never had to. Escaping the orbit of that addiction, as you seem easily to be able to do, is actually quite hard for a lot of people. I've seen both sides - I normally find it very easy to go strict Paleo, but have experienced periods where my resolve has not been as strong. I think it boils down to the fact that we are simply not innately equipped to moderate these foods and we must instead to draw upon rational thought to help us.

starro - thanks. Good luck with doing better :)

nonzero said...

Sorry for making it seem like it was easier for me. It is a struggle for everyone, and is difficult for me as well; I was trying to get across my realization that strict paleo is the easiest to follow. If you start rationalizing pseu-paleo substitutions and deviate from the simple script, things start to unravel quickly, at least in my experience.

Methuselah said...

No worries nonzero - I did a little unravelling of my own last night after a good 8-week run, so feeling a little 'pseudo' myself this morning!

Anonymous said...

I wobble between strict adherence and pseudo-paleo too. As with you, I kept strict adherence quite easily in the beginning, but after the first fall it was harder and harder to get back to my starting point. I still struggle with it, but accept that this is where it is.
I read "Paleo Body, Paleo Mind" by Nora Gedgaudas (numerous times), and she really clarified for me the point that cravings and challenges to your will-power are your body calling out for something in particular, and it's probably fat. And honestly, when I added more fat to my diet I became far more satiated and far less likely to stray.
It's just difficult for me to continually focus on my diet and making sure I'm getting enough fat. Some days there's not one single spare drop of energy to give to eating better than pseudo-paleo.
But, in the big scheme of things, I'm much healthier and significantly happier than I was pre paleo and it's a work in progress (ie, I still have many pounds to lose). I keep trying.

Methuselah said...

Anon - thanks for sharing that. I heard an interview with Nora and she seems to know her stuff. Good luck with losing those extra pounds. Pseudo paleo is 100 times better than non-paleo, so as you say, there is always cause for celebration even if it's not perfect.

Nahuas said...

I quite enjoyed this post and its really made me think about tightening up. There's a shop that sells vegan bars and they only contain nuts and raisins yet somehow I do not see them as truly Paleo for the sugar hit that they give you. The other one is dark chocolate. Mark Sisson might say its alright once in a while, but then you take that treat and you want more and more and more because you've gone so long without it. Anyway I'll keep trying. All the best.

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