What is paleo?
The Paleo (or, Paleolithic) Diet is a lifestyle based on the ancestral human diet. The Paleo Diet (or lifestyle) has been called many things: Caveman Diet, Primal, Real Food Diet, and I have even heard it called MVF, which stands for Meat-Vegetables-Fat. All these terms refer to basically the same way of eating—the eating habits of our hunter-and-gatherer Paleolithic ancestors who, if they were able to avoid illness (due to the lack of modern medicine), lived very long and healthy lives.
While we can’t know exactly what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, in principle, Paleo is about eating the same whole foods that were found in nature millions of years ago. These include foods that come from the land like meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and foods that come from open waters like fish and shellfish. These foods are nutrient-dense and are free from all those modern ingredients you can’t pronounce. When we remove inflammatory foods from our diet—foods that were not part of our ancestors’ daily meals, such as wheat flour, industrial seed oils, sugar, and even supposedly healthy foods like grains, dairy, and soy—we reduce the risk of the most prevalent diseases of our civilization, such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes. Additionally (and best of all), we feel better, our energy levels rise, we look years younger, and we sleep better.
What Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet?
Here is the “YES” list, or what I like to call the “REAL” food list:
First, eat whole foods! Beyond that, the idea is to rely on foods that our hunter-gatherer forbears ate because our bodies are particularly well-designed to digest them and to use the nutrients they offer. Here is a short rundown of those foods and why they make the Paleo YES list.
Meats and Eggs: Although conventional dietary advice recommends limiting animal products, a look into their nutritional profiles will quickly show you that these foods are incredibly concentrated sources of many nutrients, including zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. They also provide complete protein, which means that they contain all of the amino acids required by the body. Remember, your meats and eggs should always come from grass-and organic-fed, pastured-raised, and sustainable sources.
Seafood and Shellfish: These foods are excellent sources of protein and rich omega-3 fatty acids, plus vitamins and minerals. As such, they’re an important component of a balanced Paleo diet that includes high-quality animal products. Seafood consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of many diseases. Wild-caught seafood and shellfish is your best bet.
Vegetables: A slew of scientific studies have shown the incredible benefits of the health-promoting nutrients in vegetables. While many other diets prominently feature vegetables, there are several that are particularly important to the Paleo lifestyle. Those superfoods are the ones we’ll focus on here. There is an abundance of vegetables from season to season, which gives you no excuse not to include one (or two) on your plate all year round.
Fruits: These flavorful, refreshing gems are full of healthful nutrients. Modern fruits may be larger and sweeter—thus, containing more fructose—than in centuries past, so I recommend eating lower-sugar fruits. Think berries – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc. Choose in-season and locally grown fruits for the best taste and the most nutrients.
Nuts and Seeds: They may be small in size, but they are big when it comes to nutrition. Nuts and seeds are not only a rich source of vitamins and minerals, but many of them contain monounsaturated fats and phytonutrients (healthful substances found in plant foods) that do wonders for promoting overall health. However, just because nuts and seeds were available to our ancestors doesn’t mean you should consume vast quantities of them, or that all nuts and seeds are equally good for you. Many kinds contain “anti-nutrients” like phytic acid and lectin that prevent you from absorbing certain nutrients, and nuts and seeds are frequently high in omega-6s, which most people already consume too much of. I’ll tell you which nuts and seeds qualify on the yes and no list.
Healthy Fats: Many nutrition experts now recognize that mono- and polyunsaturated fats in foods like avocado, coconut, and olive oil help your body absorb crucial vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. But the Paleo diet also includes high-quality animal fats—especially omega-3 essential fatty acids—that help your body function optimally.
The “NO” list:
The primary Paleo principle here is to get rid of the junk! That means all processed and packaged foods, of course, but also some foods that are seemingly healthy. If you need more convincing to remove these foods from your diet, maybe these reasons will do the trick.
Processed and Packaged Foods: This category includes anything you pick up in a drive-thru window, anything housed in a colorful cardboard or plastic box, anything with a long list of ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, and almost anything you can find in the middle aisles of your grocery store. Basically, anything that is not real food. These foods are less nutritious and more calorie-dense then their fresh, natural counterparts. In fact, these foods act like “negative nutrition,” meaning they take more from your body than they give. Most processed foods are concentrated carbohydrates, so consuming them leads to rapid rises in blood sugar and large amounts of insulin flooding your body. Over time, this increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, among other health problems. Processed foods also generally have large amounts of added sodium (bad for blood pressure), and added chemical substitutes for fat (so they can be called “low-fat” or “fat-free”) to appeal to your taste buds.
Added Sugars: Added sugars—including granulated sugar, brown sugar, artificial sugars, honey, agave nectar, etc.—all trigger spikes in blood sugar and require your body to secrete large amounts of insulin to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. These high levels of blood sugar and insulin are inflammatory in the body and promote disorders like insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. These processed, concentrated sugars also do not contain any vitamins, minerals, or phytochemicals that contribute to your overall health; all they do add is empty calories.
Grains and Grain-like Seeds: These include, but are not limited to, wheat, barley, rye, spelt, corn, rice, quinoa, millet, bulgur wheat, buckwheat, and amaranth (and foods made with these). The prevailing nutritional opinion says that whole grains should make up a significant part of your diet, but Paleo proponents recognize that they may do more harm than good to our bodies. Carbohydrate-dense grains promote elevated insulin levels that can lead to heart disease and diabetes. They tend to be high in omega-6s, exacerbating the imbalance of omega-6s and omega-3s that most of us have and that contributes to a whole host of modern diseases. Grains also contain lectins, plant proteins that prevent you from absorbing certain nutrients (like calcium) and can cause damage to your intestinal lining, which then leads to an imbalance of gut bacteria and provokes systemic inflammation. Inflammation can cause health problems like asthma, allergies, migraines, joint pain, skin conditions, fertility issues and other things you might never think to associate with what you eat.
Legumes: Legumes (and grains) weren’t typically part of the human diet until the agricultural revolution. And although today they’re a mainstay of vegetarian and vegan diets, legumes unfortunately aren’t exactly the health food they’re made out to be. Although they do contain protein, vitamins, and minerals, their protein is incomplete (unlike animal products, they don’t contain all of the amino acids we need), and because of their high carbohydrate concentration, they don’t count as nutrient-dense. In addition, all beans (including black, pinto, kidney, white, and garbanzo), lentils, peas, and peanuts contain inflammatory lectins, plus other anti-nutrients such as phytates that can rob the body of valuable minerals.
Soy: Soy is, in fact, a legume, but I pulled it out from my discussion above because it hides in so many of our processed foods (read your labels!) and has some unique characteristics. For instance, soy contains high concentrations of phytoestrogens, plant-based compounds that mimic estrogen in our bodies. There’s a lot of conflicting research about whether soy’s phytoestrogens increase the risk of hormone-dependent cancers like breast cancer, but given soy’s other drawbacks, the decision to avoid soy seems like a clear one. In addition to containing anti-nutrients like phytic acid—which binds to iron, zinc, and calcium, among other minerals, so your body can’t use them—soy also contains substances called trypsin inhibitors that make it difficult to digest proteins properly.
Dairy: This includes cow, sheep, and goat milk or cheese, and anything made with these. Milk is one of the eight most common food allergens, and the milk proteins casein and whey are usually to blame. People with Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease produce higher-than-normal levels of antibodies in response to casein as well, suggesting that dairy can aggravate these and potentially other autoimmune conditions, notes a study in Hormone and Metabolic Research. And though you’ve probably been told to down dairy to help strengthen your bones, many studies on fracture risk don’t find that milk benefits bone health at all, and there’s increasing evidence that consuming too much dairy might increase your risk of ovarian and prostate cancer.
No processed foods – fast food, those things in boxes that have a long list of stuff we don’t know, anything that is not REAL food.
No refined, artificial & added sugars – or really any sugar that isn’t already naturally in foods (honey & maple syrup can be used if needed)
No grains – gluten = bad. If you want to bake opt for coconut flour and almond flour. Plenty in the visual recipe index.
No legumes (yes that includes peanuts & anything soy)
No white potatoes – they spike your insulin, but sweet potatoes are okay. Sweet Potatoes are NOT potatoes, they don’t even come from the same plant family! Interesting, right?
Try to avoid dairy – use fermented or raw grass-fed dairy if needed
No alcohol – although if you absolutely have to there are some “better” ones to consume
No vegetable oils (that includes canola, peanut, soybean, corn, etc…)
Yes to healthy fats – animal fat, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, tallow, nut oils, etc…
Yes to grass fed meats, pastured free-range chicken/eggs, wild fish and fresh organic produce (find your local farmer’s market)
Sleep! That’s important.