Have you always wondered what the Paleo diet is all about?
Maybe you’ve heard about how much better people feel when they start it.
Or you’re interested in weight loss or managing a sickness or autoimmune problem.
Maybe you’ve already gone gluten-free and feel that it’s not enough.
Well, then keep reading to learn what about the many benefits of going Paleo, how to incorporate it into your life, plus more inspiration and resources.
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The Paleo diet
The Paleo “diet” (I hate that word, but let’s go with it for now) emphasizes whole foods that maximize physical and mental health. Put simply, this means:
- proteins such as meat, seafood and eggs
- vegetables and fruits
- healthy fats
I realize the “yes” list is pretty small, which can make Paleo seem pretty limiting and boring. But when you expand it further, it becomes way more interesting:
- protein: chicken, pork, beef, bison, venison, lamb, turkey, rabbit, duck, goose, salmon, whitefish, shrimp, scallops, lobster, crab, tuna, anchovies, sardines, chicken eggs, duck eggs and more
- I can’t even list all veggies and fruits here because it would make this post longer than the line at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but I trust that you know there are dozens upon dozens of varieties
- healthy fats: avocado, avocado oil, all nuts (except peanuts), nut butters, nut milks, nut oils, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, coconut butter, coconut milk, shredded/flaked coconut, ghee, palm oil, palm shortening, lard, tallow, bacon fat, schmaltz, goose fat, duck fat and more
Now let’s get to the hard part – what to cut out.
Above I said we want food that maximizes health. So this means the Paleo diet eliminates foods – yes, even some “whole” ones – that work against us:
- all grains, both with and without gluten
- vegetable seed oils like canola and safflower
- legumes, including soy and peanuts
- refined sugar
Yes, some of them have fiber, protein, etc., but
- they often come with negative side effects that aren’t worth it
- they contain anti-nutrients that bind to those nutrients so your body doesn’t absorb them anyway
- if you want to mitigate some of their negative qualities, the high-maintenance preparation (soaking for hours or days, rinsing, fermenting, etc.) means that you might as well stick with food that already provides the good stuff without all the bad stuff.
- Side effects include inflammation, bloating, foggy brain, weakness, lack of nutrients and, for those with diseases such as Celiac or Crohn’s, much worse.
I discuss more about nutrients in the Paleo diet in this article.
There are many, many people smarter than me who explain the science behind these issues better than I can. I suggest starting here:
You may be thinking, “But I don’t have any issues when I eat grains,” or “I never feel bad when I drink milk.”
And that may be true!
But it also may not be!
There are many people who think they feel fine and yet are surprised by how much better they feel once they give this a try.
Their constant, low-grade congestion clears up.
Those spare 5 pounds that would. not. budge. suddenly melt away.
Skin conditions get better.
I read somewhere online (let’s be honest, it was probably Pinterest) a quote that says “people don’t know how good their bodies are designed to feel.” I think a lot of people would be surprised what benefits they notice once they start eating this way.
But why is it called “Paleo” or “the caveman diet” or “ancestral eating”? Doesn’t that mean you should be hunting and gathering your own food?
A lot of the Paleo diet is based on evidence that humans pre-agriculture were much healthier than those post-agriculture. Bodies that were big and strong became smaller, bones became more brittle and teeth deteriorated (a key indicator of overall health).
You might be thinking, “But humans have been eating grains for thousands of years!” Sure, but even that is a small blip in the course of human history.
Relatively speaking, grains are pretty new for us and studies keep leading to the conclusion that maybe they’re not so great after all.
And while we’re not killing our own animals, studies have proven that animals raised the right way are better for us, the animal and the environment.
The fat of a grass-fed steak has different properties than the fat of a factory farm steak. Same with pasture-raised chickens and eggs and wild fish versus farmed.
If and when budget allows, aim for the best quality you can afford.
Having said that, don’t kick yourself if your budget only allows regular chicken and eggs. That’s okay. Making your health a priority at all puts you in a better place than 99% of the population, so pat yourself on the back for that.
[Stands on soapbox, clears throat]
[Fear of heights kicks in, maybe just sits on soapbox]
Although let me make one note and then I’ll leave this here:
Yes, being able to afford organic produce and responsibly raised meat is a privilege.
But when you think about all the things we prioritize in our budgets (fancy phones, clothes we don’t really need, Ebay and Etsy addictions, etc.), I encourage people to see if there’s a way to make some room for their physical and mental health in that same budget.
If you won’t settle for the cheapest, non-smart cell phone or the flimsiest pair of shoes, why then is it so easy to subject your body to the cheapest, flimsiest food-like products?
[Climbs down off of soapbox]
[Probably slips, sprains ankle due to general clumsiness]
Back to the question: it’s not about perfect historical reenactment.
This is a baseline, a guide to help us live our best lives.
It’s not saying to go out and kill your own food and gather your own plants.
We’re aiming for health, not authenticity points from some imaginary Paleo judge. After all, we’re both reading this on a computer using the internet. Historical reenactment isn’t even an option.
I don’t know. I don’t want to eat salads or chicken breasts and broccoli every day.
Neither do I!
I’ve been obsessed with food my whole adult life. I’ve been cooking and baking for almost twenty years. There’s no way I could make myself choke down a plain chicken breast every day.
All those proteins listed up there?
They come in many forms (whole, ground, steaks, chops, legs, ribs, bacon, shoulders, wings, sausages, etc.)…
and can be cooked many ways (searing, sautéing, roasting, grilling, broiling, braising, smoking)…
for tons of options.
Same with all those veggies.
A head of cabbage can be raw for coleslaw, sliced thick and roasted, or sautéed with apples and bacon.
Butternut squash can be steamed, roasted, mashed, riced, shredded or spiralized into noodles.
And let’s not forget herbs and spices, both fresh and dried, plus sauces, marinades, gravies, garnishes and more.
Once you eliminate the problematic foods for a while, you can try reintroducing them one by one to see how they affect you.
This is how I know I just cannot tolerate gluten in any form, but I can handle small amounts of sugar and dairy, so I occasionally bake up some gluten-free muffins or get a creme brulee when I’m eating out.
I also know I tolerate corn so you’ll sometimes see recipes here with it as an ingredient, as I still eat polenta or cornbread every once in a while.
And, as much as I like spiralized vegetables, I do get cravings for “real” pasta, so I’ll cook up a batch of gluten-free noodles.
I eat these with the knowledge that they’re not the best choices for my health so they’re only occasional events, but they do satisfy cravings and make me happy, and that counts, too.
Paleo vs. keto
How is this different from the “keto” diet?
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that gets really specific about your ratio of fat, protein and carbs so your body starts using fat as its primary energy source.
I’ve never tried it myself but you can learn more about it, and how it’s different from Paleo, here.
All right, I’m interested but I’m not sure I’m really able to commit. What else ya got?
I totally get it. For more information, here are resources I turn to:
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
It Starts with Food by Dallas & Melissa Hartwig
Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo
Whole30 – The website for the 30-day elimination diet to really find out how foods affect you, this place is packed with science and info to help make the most informed decisions.
And here are some other Paleo bloggers and writers that I love:
For recommendations for Paleo-friendly ingredients, products and snacks, head here.
Wow. My brain hurts.
Yeah, sorry about that.
This is a lot of information to throw at you. It might be overwhelming.
You have to take this on like anything else, by breaking it down into more manageable pieces.
Try it with your next meal. Is that dinner? Replace the rice or roll with a roasted sweet potato or nuked frozen cauliflower rice drizzled with ghee.
Is it breakfast? Drop the toast for…you guess it…a roasted sweet potato cooked the day before and eaten cold (it’ll taste like sweet potato pie filling, I swear) or some sautéed greens.
Is it lunch at work? If your options are limited to a salad bar, skip the croutons and add healthy fats like avocado or olives and extra protein if you can.
You won’t be perfect and that’s okay. No one is.
Just take it one meal at a time.
We only get one body in this lifetime. Let’s treat it well and enjoy life at the same time.