I'll start by describing my own experience with the Paleo concept. A few years back, whilst studying for my Masters, I started suffering with stomach issues, I developed allergies to benign foods and would have regular bouts of crippling indigestion. I went through the typical channels, first being prescribed anti-acid drugs by my GP (treating symptoms rather than causes - don't get me started on healthcare!) to eventually being referred to the hospital for several tests ranging from bloods to stomach biopsies. No answer could be found and I was sent home with more ineffective drugs. I then set out to resolve the issue myself, I bought myself time by removing the foods that were causing the issues. This was something of a nightmare as they included eggs and whey protein. I then set about researching the whole area and during this time was introduced to the Paleo concept. The seemingly sensible explanation and the accompanying stories of various disease reversal in others convinced me to give it try and after some initial teething issues I adopted the approach 100%.
What happened during this time was mildly miraculous in that I regained all the muscle I'd lost during my illness, my symptoms disappeared and I started noticing benefits in other areas of my life. My sleep improved, as did my skin. My gym numbers went up and my recovery time came down. I didn't suffer from the hunger shakes which were a regular part of my life on previous regimens. In order to explain what was going on I dug into the research and that process lead to this very site being created.
Paleo was a vehicle for me to learn a huge amount about not only food but sleep, movement, sunlight, stress and so on. I managed to resolve my health issues and, over time, I was able to reintroduce the once problematic foods. It helped me develop an understanding of what my body feels like at neutral. I now know what effect different inputs have on my body and my mind. I know that if I'm sleeping well I can tolerate some gluten, where as if I've had a stressful week it will give me horrendous bloating. These are really useful things to learn about yourself.
So given all the above you would assume that I am Mr Paleo, ready to sing it's praises from every roof top. Yet I'm not. The problem comes because Paleo, like every other dietary philosophy, has forgotten where it began. The central tenet of the approach is to eat real foods as these are likely to be less problematic for you than the modern processed stuff. Now, the movement, if you wish to call it that, is either arguing about the correct macronutrient ratios to follow or swapping recipes for gluten free versions of the crap that we're supposed to be avoiding in the first place. Whilst this is playing out the critics are having a field day poking fun at the caveman connotations or the over zealous extremists. All of this is muddying the waters and taking the attention away from the very simple message at the heart of it all. A message that even the most fervent 'If it fits your macros' enthusiast will struggle to disagree with. That is: EAT REAL FOOD.
Having made the journey that I have and now come out the other side eating a predominantly whole foods, but not Paleo, diet, what is my advice for the average person or athlete? My own feeling is that Paleo is a really useful tool to get you back to neutral and help you understand your own biology. If you go for about a month cutting out grains and dairy, sticking to natural, properly sourced foods, with no ingredient lists, then you will be able to reintroduce those potentially problematic foods and get an idea for how your body reacts. You'll then be able to develop a completely personalised nutritional plan. You see we are all very different, there is no one philosophy to rule them all, we have to figure it out for ourselves and, in my experience, this is one very effective method to achieve this.
To my reasonable, rational mind this seems an eminently sensible approach however I'm sure there will be critics. I will pre-empt them by saying this - so much of the criticism I see flung about the internet is aimed at pulling apart certain approaches. People go to great lengths in their keyboard fury to deconstruct certain methods yet, and this is my greatest bug bear, they never actually suggest an alternative. I welcome debate on topics so please engage me on my views, just bring your own approach to the table too!
One final thing to note is that I have edited large parts of this post out to prevent it becoming an essay. I see potential uses for Paleo in certain disease states, particularly autoimmune diseases. Whilst I hope to cover this in a future post if you are suffering, or have someone who is suffering from an autoimmune issue I would suggest researching the matter. As the site disclaimer says - I'm no Dr so implement any changes in conjunction with medical practitioners etc etc!