People “go Paleo” for many reasons. Some find it through Crossfit, while others try it in an attempt to lose weight, heal their guts, or help chronic disease. Whatever the reason that one follows a Paleo lifestyle, the nagging question of sweets remain: should Paleo people eat them? Paleo purists often insist that even Paleo-approved sweets should be eaten in highly restricted quantities, if ever. Those who are following Paleo because it’s the next great fad often rely strongly on Paleo baked goods and desserts, while losing sight of the main reason that the Paleo diet works. Most, however, fall somewhere in between.
The Original Paleo Diet
No, I’m not talking about the paleolithic diet of our ancestors thousands of years ago. Because they actually didn’t call it “the Paleo diet.” They just ate their food and lived life. I’m talking about when the modern-day version of the Paleo diet that has been popularized by Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, Diane Sanfilippo, Chris Kresser, and others. Though the concepts of this modern day Paleo diet have been around since the mid 1980’s, it arguably did not reach fad status until late in the 2000’s.
Prior to Paleo becoming the next great fad, the people who followed the diet were doing so because they believed in the principles. They wanted to focus on real, whole food that was nutrient dense. Even those observing the 80/20 principle ate that way 80% of the time, and for their 20% non-Paleo meals still opted for clean, healthy options like whole grains or dairy products.
The New Paleo Diet
Paleo is still very much a therapeutic, whole foods diet. People still follow it because it promotes holistic living and allows the body to function optimally. But as the culture becomes more and more enthralled with the idea of Paleo, fad ideas creep in and people join the bandwagon for reasons other than desiring nutrient-dense foods.
When a diet becomes a fad, it can be harder to maintain the principles behind it. More and more begin following it, but less and less know what it’s really about. In a culture where many are still confused about what gluten even is, it can be difficult for people to comprehend the science behind the Paleo diet. Maybe they’re just doing it because their friends are, or because they know someone who lost a bunch of weight on it. While these are not bad reasons to eat Paleo, and while I believe that anyone and everyone can benefit from Paleo regardless of their reasons or understanding, it is much more effective when Paleo becomes more than just a diet.
Sugar Is Sugar Is Sugar?
Maybe you’re wondering how any of that has to do with sugar and the Paleo diet? There are many Paleo-approved sweeteners, with raw honey, coconut sugar, dates, and maple syrup being the most popular. Paleo eschews refined sugars and artificial sugars because they aren’t whole foods. But items like raw honey, coconut sugar, and the others fall under the category of being minimally processed acceptable sugars.
Even so, while they may not be as nutrient-poor or hard to digest as fake sugars or highly refined sugars, the body still reads them as sugar. One can argue that raw honey or other more natural sweeteners aren’t necessary for health. One won’t die from a sugar deficiency. So how can you know whether Paleo sweeteners should be in your diet, and how often should you have them?
Should You Eat Sugar?
This is a very individualized issue—one that you have to decide for yourself, perhaps with professional help from a nutritionist, doctor, or other practitioner. But some general guidelines can help you make your decision.
If you’re eating Paleo because you’re a Crossfitter, you do hard workouts, and you’re a very healthy person, having the occasional bit of sugar in your Paleo diet isn’t a problem.
If you’re Paleo because you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to strongly limit your sugar intake—but you could still likely get away with the 80/20 rule by having Paleo sweets 1-3 times a week without issue.
If you found Paleo because you have leaky gut or other chronic issues, this is where sugar—even Paleo-fied sugar—is never going to help. Sugar is inflammatory, even the “good” kinds, and when you’re fighting multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s or other thyroid diseases, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, or other autoimmunity, sugar works against your body’s healing processes. While the very occasional Paleo sugar treat (i.e. a few times a year) won’t do much damage, following the 80/20 rule here could actually hinder your progress.
If you are eating Paleo to help with adrenal issues or other chronic fatigue, again, sugars or stimulants of any kind are detrimental to your progress. It’s best to keep sugars to a few times a year and find other ways to enjoy treats.
Determining just how much, if any, sugar should be in your Paleo diet can be tricky. Most of us want to be able to have it, so it can be difficult to face the reality that we should be eating little or none. However, as someone who has dramatically benefitted from cutting sugar—even Paleo sugar—from my diet for months and years at a time, I can attest to the fact that it can make your Paleo diet even more super-charged, as well as prove how easy it is to forget it exists.
Sugar, even the “good” kind, is addictive. Some are more susceptible than others, but the fact remains that Paleo should never be built on a sweet foundation. Paleo isn’t Paleo if we aren’t prioritizing whole fruits and vegetables, high quality meats and fats, and nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds, bone broth, and fermented foods. When the dietary foundation is strong, sugar has little impact. But when sugar becomes the staple of our diet, we lose focus on what’s truly important.
The best part about Paleo is that it’s highly customizable. There is no “one size fits all” approach, and that’s great. But asking the hard questions—including how much sugar should really be a part of our diets—is necessary to get the best impact and results.