Whether or not there should be a place in our diets for paleofied baked goods is one of the most contentious issues in the paleo community. Opinions differ from one vehement extreme to the other, some believing strongly that there should be no place for these SAD mimics in our diets while others rely on these types of foods as the only way they can “do paleo”. Families looking to switch to paleo often thrive on paleo-friendly muffin and bread recipes and paleo mimics of pizza and chicken fingers to ease the transition. Being able to eat a paleo cookie or decadent paleo dessert might mean the difference for one person between sticking to a paleo diet or completely falling off the paleo wagon. Certainly, I have noticed that my paleo baking recipes receive way more pageviews than most of my other recipes, but that’s not why I post them:
I believe that making paleo sustainable means making room for treats like these from time to time.
Making paleo sustainable is something I feel very passionately about. The word sustainable encompasses a wide variety of issues, like sustainable farming practices, economic sustainability, and everything you need to do in your life to make paleo a lifestyle and not a diet. My argument for paleo treats is sustainability. Not everyone needs them to make paleo sustainable for them. And if you’re one of these people, that’s awesome. But for the rest of us (yes, this includes me), a paleo treat is what makes this a lifestyle and not a diet. It’s what makes paleo something that I can do for the rest of my life. And that’s more important to me than whether or not the paleo label is actually appropriately used for a specific recipe.
I love food. Always have. Always will. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There was a time when this love of food (and a lack of nutrition knowledge) led to some pretty bad choices. But, that was a long time ago. I no longer overeat and binge on junk. I’m healthy. And I have a healthy relationship with food. For me, this means finding balance. This means that I don’t use food as a crutch, as companionship, or as stress relief (well, I try not to anyway–that last one can still be a struggle sometimes). But, I also don’t shy away from bonding with my family over the supper table, cooking up a special feast on holidays, showing off my cooking skills for company, or enjoying the occasional dessert… and not because I earned it or deserve it or need is, but because sometimes, it’s just nice to have dessert. And that’s okay.
In my family, we only eat paleo treats occasionally. Although, I do have to admit that paleo pancakes is a staple in our house and I make a triple batch for the freezer every weekend because my kids eat them with eggs every morning (of course, the pancake ingredients themselves amount to just eggs and fruit). I did make more treat-like foods like chocolate date squares (which I now make with raw cocoa nibs instead of cocoa powder) last year to send to school as an energy-dense snack for my oldest daughter and will probably do so again when the school year starts in just eight short days. I do admit that I love the challenge of paleo baking chemistry (especially nut-free baking and the AIP-friendly treats I’ve been creating for the book). When I’m working on a recipe for the blog, I often halve the recipe, freeze leftovers, and/or share the baking with friends and neighbors). And, I also always work on more treat recipes close to holidays and birthdays. For example, my husband’s birthday is on Friday and I’ve been working on a new cake recipe which will hopefully be perfect Friday and blog-ready next week. Oh, and I think I managed to volunteer to cook my brother’s wedding cake next summer, so I’ll be working on recipes for that too over then next year (pipe-able icing will be the biggest challenge).
But, are these treats really paleo?
I guess that depends on exactly how you define paleo. If you define it as a nutrient-dense whole foods diet that avoids foods that cause inflammation, hinder digestion or damage the gut, then these treats can fit in as exactly that: treats. If you define paleo as a grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free, refined sugar-free, processed food-free diet, then these treats completely qualify. If you define paleo as a diet that mimics our best guess of what our paleolithic ancestors ate, then most of the foods we eat don’t qualify (I’m looking at you, bacon). If you define paleo as being perfect all the time, then these treats are a resounding no. If you think that the only way you can break your addiction to food is to be orthorexic, then clearly, paleo treats is not your solution. If you define paleo as real life, sustainable, balanced, we are human; it’s okay to enjoy food; it is a journey; it’s okay to not be perfect as long as we strive to improve; we just try to make the best choices we can recognizing what works for our individual bodies… then well, I think that question answered itself.
So, did I answer the question?
Maybe not, at least not definitely. I don’t want to say “absolutely these treats are not paleo and I only label them as such so search engines can find me”. I don’t believe that. I believe that there is a place for these foods in my chosen lifestyle. I also don’t want to say “of course, these treats are paleo and it’s absolutely fine to eat them whenever you want to”. That doesn’t recognize the fact that, most of the time, these treats are not the most nutrient-dense options, that they do tend to contain more sugar than is optimal for most of our health, and that consuming them on a daily basis makes it harder for our taste buds to adapt to natural sweetness, like fruit and even vegetables.
Instead of focusing on whether or not a treat is paleo, how about focusing on the part where it’s a treat.
A treat is defined as an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure. So, I’m not just talking about Molten Lava Chocolate Cake. What makes it a treat is that you love it and that it isn’t something you would normally choose. Really, paleo treats include anything that is a suboptimal choice from a purely nutrition standpoint. Maybe your treat is going out for Mexican food or sushi or getting popcorn at the movie theater. Maybe your treat is making some crackers to dip in your guacamole instead of carrot sticks. Maybe it is eating half a jar of almond butter for a snack or bringing larabars and peanut-free trail mix on an airplane to eat during a travel day. What constitutes a treat for you will depend on where your line is… you know, that line that you know if you cross it, you’ll feel really terrible. And what constitutes a treat will depend on what you enjoy that you wouldn’t normally indulge in. For many of us, that’s keeping a treat gluten-free or gluten-free and dairy-free. For some of us, it’s stricter than that and the treat needs to be grain-free, dairy-free, and legume-free. For me, it means strict paleo, absolutely no nightshades, and no almonds, but other nuts are okay as long as my portion is controlled and I don’t indulge too often. Which brings me to the last point.
Treats should be enjoyed occasionally.
How frequently you indulge in paleo treat is an individual choice (and hopefully a conscious one). Your own health issues, your goals (and how far away from them you are), and what you need to make paleo sustainable for you are all important factors to help you gauge how often is right for you. What’s appropriate for kids, for athletes, for pregnant women, for those overcoming obesity, for the stay-at-home mom, for the shift worker, for the business exec who works eighty-hour weeks, will all differ from each other. If you aren’t seeing the success you’re expecting or aren’t sleep great or feeling great, evaluate whether the frequency of your treats might be contributing. Maybe you don’t need to decrease treat frequency so much as work on sleep or stress management (and then you won’t feel like you want a treat as often as a result). Maybe you would actually do better with more treats, or different kinds of treats. You are allowed to experiment and adjust. We each need to find our own individual balance, what keeps us healthy and what makes paleo sustainable for us. That’s kinda the whole point.
Where’s your balance?