What Is Paleo?
“Paleo” is a term that describes a way of eating that optimizes health by returning to what our bodies were meant to eat.
First thing’s first: Paleo is not a “diet” in the modern sense of the word. When we think of “diet,” most people think of some kind of weight loss eating style that is typically very restrictive and sometimes gimmicky.
While it’s true that you can lose weight, and there are certain foods you need to avoid, Paleo eating is not a diet — it’s a way of eating, or an “eating lifestyle” as I prefer.
Some people call it the “Caveman Diet,” “Eating Primal,” “The Hunter-Gatherer Diet.” All are referring to basically the same concept of eating, whole, unprocessed, organic food.
What’s on the Menu?
It’s very simple:
Do Not Eat:
- Processed Foods
- Refined Sugar
- Bad oils and fats (vegetable oils: canola, safflower, corn, etc.)
- Grains (wheat, corn, rice*, etc)
- Legumes (beans and their friends)*
- Dairy (if you can tolerate grass-fed or raw dairy, that’s up to you and your genes)*
- Alcohol (technically off-limits, but moderation at least is stressed)
- Meat and Seafood (grass-fed, pastured, wild-caught)
- Eggs (free-range)
- Vegetables (organic)
- Fruit (organic)
- Nuts and Seeds (organic)
- Good Fats (coconut oil, olive oil, avocados and ghee, etc.)
Since everyone is different and comes with different gene and microbiome profiles, there are some foods that some people can tolerate just fine. This is not an extensive list, but to give you an idea of foods that don’t fit nicely into the “Do” and “Don’t” eat lists.
- White potatoes are still a contentious issue for many. Some see white potatoes as evil nightshades that are nothing but starch-laden gut irritants, while others say they’re a perfectly reasonable choice for healthy carbs and palate variety. Test carefully to see how you respond.
- White is better than brown. This seems counterintuitive, but the brown rice still has the outer shell that contains much of the potentially toxic compounds the plant uses to defend itself. White rice is created by polishing off that outer shell. There’s still a large carb-load and insulin response to consider when eating rice, but sushi rolls now and then is up to you and your waistline.
- Beans (depending on how they’re prepared):
- Beans are generally “off” the menu because of high doses of phytic acid, but depending on how they’re prepared (and how well you can tolerate them), they may be suitable for some people in small quantities. We’re learning a lot as more science comes out on the matter. In some cases, small doses of phytic acid may actually be beneficial to humans. The big problem with most beans, however, is that few people take the time to soak and prepare them correctly. If done improperly, too much phytic acid will prevent the absorption of other valuable nutrients on your plate.
- Raw, grass-fed cow dairy:
- Raw, unpasteurized milk and/or grass-fed butter can be tolerated just fine in small to moderate amounts for many people. There are legitimate dangers to consuming raw milk, but some of it is just hype. Research your local providers carefully. And grass-fed butter is a fantastic, time-tested cooking fat that makes everything taste great.
- Other dairies:
- Goat and sheep cheese typically have a different kind of casein (protein) than cow’s milk does, which tends to play nice with your gut.
- Hard cheeses, yogurt and kefir have fermented long enough to eat up the milk sugars and therefore won’t have much lactose left in them to bother most stomachs.
What does a typical paleo meal look like?
An ideal plate for every meal looks something like this:
Don’t get too hung up on the percentages, that’s not the point. The point is, eat lots of veggies with a healthy dose of protein. Mix in some healthy fats and a bit of fruit and nuts now and then, and that’s it!
Somedays, you might have a little more protein than veg. Somedays you’ll have a little more veg than protein. You don’t need nuts and seeds every day, and if you’re trying to lose weight, go easy on the fruit since they’re high in sugar. Mix and match. Balance it out through the week. Don’t get obsessed with precise portions for every meal. That’s a recipe for failure, and it’s not the way our ancestors ate anyway.
Eating Paleo is more about creating a sustainable diet that’s right for you while armed with the confidence that you’re doing your body good.
What Does the Actual Word “Paleo” Mean?
Paleo is short for “Paleolithic:” A time when our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers and before we started mass agriculture (growing plots of food instead of going out and foraging/hunting for it — about 10,000 years ago). It refers to a time in our genetic development where we humans ate only what was natural to us. That is to say, we only ate what we could pick, pull, or stab. On top of that, only what was in season (you couldn’t eat winter vegetables in summer — because they simply weren’t available!).
Why In The World Would I Want to Eat Like a Caveman?
You may be asking at this point, “Certainly we know waaaay more about nutrition and biology and chemistry than anyone 200 years ago, much less 10,000 years!” In many ways yes, but in many ways, no. I’ll explain:
If you think of humans more as “animals” rather than some beings separate from the rest of nature, the Paleo concept becomes very easy to grasp. Think of any animal in the wild: they eat ONLY what’s readily available to them. They may eat fish. They may hunt other animals. They may forage for roots, nuts, fruits, and berries. What do all these animals have in common? They’re all very fit and healthy (excepting environmental factors beyond their control).
You don’t see obese gazelles or lions with type 2 diabetes. That’s because they eat ONLY what their bodies have evolved to eat over long periods of time. Their bodies have optimized available food sources for optimal fitness and survival. We used to eat that way too. And we can again.
We humans, on the other hand, have willfully excluded ourselves from the animal kingdom and eat all kinds of stuff: most of which is terrible for us (just think of all the sugar-laden, over-processed, bizarre chemical concoctions we now call “food”).
The Paleo theory goes like this: If we ate more like the animals that we are, then we’d be as fit and healthy as most wild animals are. We’d be more “in-tune” with nature rather than trying to separate ourselves from it.
This isn’t all just a “guess” or a “hunch.” There’s real, scientific research behind the Paleo Lifestyle. There are lots of good studies examining various details of the Paleo diet. Here’s a summary of 16 studies to wet your whistle.
Modern Hunter-Gatherer People
In addition to Paleoanthropology, modern hunter-gatherer tribes are the closest thing we have to “relatives” of our ancient ancestors. That is to say, they eat in very much the same manner as our ancestors did. So, they’re an excellent resource to examine.
There’s a very interesting man named Weston A. Price who lived back in the 1930s. He was a dentist who noticed that his patients’ teeth and jaw structures were becoming increasingly prone to decay and malformation. He suspected it had much to do with diet, but he wasn’t certain. So, he traveled the world trying to find the healthiest people on the planet: those who had little to no disease, straight teeth, well formed bone structure, and longevity.
What he found was astonishing
He found all of these things in tribal cultures that avoided western diets, and ate only traditional diets passed on through the generations. Even though all of these diets varied in what they ate (Alaskan people will eat different foods than African people), they all had a few common threads: healthy amounts of animal protein, fats, and wild fruits and vegetables, and seeds and nuts. Further investigation revealed they were nearly free of all modern degenerative diseases, had strong bodies, and were emotionally stable compared to similar groups who had abandoned their native diets for modern, western diets: which resulted in narrow faces, decaying and malformed teeth, and susceptibility to a host of new degenerative diseases.
The findings were eye-opening to say the least.
The Weston A. Price Foundation still goes around the world trying to educate native and impoverished people on the benefits of eating a whole foods diet — nearly identical to what we now call the Paleo diet.
Now for more detail on why it’s important to eat certain foods
- Whole, unprocessed foods: This is a big, general category that can encompass many aspects of Paleo, but it’s an important one. Try to eat one-ingredient foods as much as possible, and stuff that doesn’t come off a factory line. Think of that bag of Doritos that has 20+ ingredients, half of which are hard to pronounce. Don’t eat those. Instead, think of one-ingredient foods, like an apple, a nut, a chicken leg.
While there are several food products popular with the Paleo lifestyle, most are minimally process and still only contain one two ingredients at most (Coconut oil, for instance, is widely used in Paleo cooking. Yes, someone has to squeeze the oil from the coconuts, but the end result is typically a single ingredient product that doesn’t have a list of chemicals added to it).The bottom line here is: keep it simple. The more ingredients you have mixed up in one particular food product, the more you tend to increase the risk of having bad stuff in there.
- Quality proteins: Meat from grass-fed cows, free range pork or poultry, and wild-caught fish that have no hormones, antibiotics, or other nasty business injected into them. Why is grass-fed beef far superior to most commercial beef? This is a much more indepth discussion, but the short answer is: commercial cows are fed mounds of corn and soy. Guess what? Cows don’t eat corn or soy. They eat grass. That’s what their bodies are meant to eat. When they eat corn and soy, very bad, unhealthy things happen to cows. All of that bad stuff gets passed on to you, and into your mouth. Yuck! Stick with animals that eat natural foods in their natural environments (for more details on this subject, read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, or watch the movie “Food, Inc.” which is based on the same book. You’ll never eat factory-farmed meat again).
- Organic, non-GMO, seasonal fruits and vegetables: Organic is the most important concept here. Fruits and vegetables that are grown withOUT the use of pesticides and chemicals should be your only choice. Anything non-organically grown runs the risk of having pesticides and other toxins laced within. If it’s in the food, it’s in your body. No thanks.
- Non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms): Some will argue that the jury’s still out on the health-impact of GMOs, but until then, I’m not eating anything that came out of Monsanto’s lab (you can read more about GMOs here).
- Seasonal: Some will argue that this is extremely important, but I think it’s one area with the greatest flexibility. While I do think eating in season is going to add more variety to your menu and have the best taste, if you’re new to Paleo, I think eating the most vegetables you can is your best option — regardless of season. In other words, don’t worry too much about what’s seasonal and what isn’t, just eat more veggies and you’ll be fine (better than fine, actually!).
- Healthy fats: Yes, I said the bad word “fats” (gasp!). Here’s where people start raising eyebrows. For decades we’ve been told fats are bad. They’re awful, terrible things that will make you fat and put you in an early grave. Well… not so fast. This is another area of extensive literature and research, but the short answer is: there are good fats and bad fats. And by “good fats,” I don’t mean a jelly donut or an ice cream sandwich, I mean fats that are necessary for good health. What’s that? You mean, eating the right fats is not only good for me, but necessary?? Yep. A lot of Paleo research has confirmed what our ancestors already knew: we’ve eaten fats for thousands of years and thrived on it. Here’s the short list: animal fats, avocados, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, etc. Our bodies and brains need this stuff. They need it. Without the right kinds of fat, our bodies can go down paths you don’t want to think about right now.
- So, what are the bad fats to avoid? Cottonseed oil, Canola Oil, and really, most vegetable oils. I realize this sound counter-intuitive, it did to me a long time ago: vegetables are good, so their oils must be good too… right? Not really. Due to their extraction process and how they react to heat are major factors. the short answer is; most vegetable oils (not all — olive oil and coconut oil are always great choices) go rancid fast when heated, and have an over-abundance of Omega-6 (most people get far too much of this, and you don’t need an ounce more from vegetable oils).
Now let’s talk about what is excluded from the Paleo Lifestyle
- Grains: not all grains are created equal, but all grains have one thing in common: carbs (carbohydrates). At the very basic level, grains are loaded with mass amounts of carbs. Why is this bad? The body turns carbs into sugar for fuel — and I mean a massive amount of fuel — way more than the body needs. When all of this fuel enters your bloodstream (say, after a hamburger bun), your body secretes insulin. Insulin does lots of great things, but in this case, it’s trying to flush out all that extra blood sugar. Since there’s so much blood sugar floating around, your insulin production goes up… and up… and up… in efforts to clear your body of all this unnecessary blood sugar. Not only can this lead to diabetes, but all that extra blood sugar turns into fat if it can’t be used or cleared out (and not the good kind mentioned above: the bad, belly and thigh fat that nobody likes).
- (As a note, not all carbs are bad. By eating more healthy vegetables, you’ll get all the carbs and fiber you’ll ever need [don’t believe the hype that grains are your only source of good fiber]. Need an extra carb push for heavy workout days or some serious manual labor? Have a sweet potato. It’s a paleo-friendly starch you’ll find in many paleo recipes).
- If that wasn’t bad enough, wheat (and barley, and their close relatives) has gluten. Gluten is a protein found in exclusively wheat and its relatives. It’s a sneaky little son-of-a-gun that can wreak havoc on your intestinal tract, and ultimately your whole body. The short story is, it pokes holes in your small intestines, which causes inflamation for starters, but then leaks into your bloodstream, which triggers your autoimmune system to fight it (because it thinks the gluten is a foreign object), which can lead to all kinds of problems like; Celiac Disease, intestinal inflammation, depression, ADD, anxiety, and Crohn’s disease just to name a few. As science focuses more and more on the effects of gluten, the results are keep coming up: gluten should be avoided as much as possible (don’t worry! There are lots of pizza and bread alternatives, I promise!).
- Legumes (beans): “Great. What’s wrong with beans?” Beans (legumes) have phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to nutrients in otherwise healthy food preventing you from absorbing them: making those good nutrients virtually useless. Generally speaking, it’s better to avoid eating beans as much as possible (soy is a legume too, of course, but not all soy is created equal. A full discussion for another time, but best to avoid soy when possible).
- Bad fats and oils: The fats and oils that do bad stuff to your body include trans fats (margarine, Crisco [if you’re old enough to remember your mom cooking with that, I sympathize with you], vegetable oil that fast food “restaurants” use for frying foods, and any sunflower or canola oil found in just about every processed food on the shelves of the grocery store. Fortunately, many states and countries have now banned or strictly regulated trans fat (the worst offender). So, trans fat at least, isn’t much to worry about. However, there is much to worry about when it comes to the majority of vegetable and seed oils in use today.
When people got rid of trans fat for making those crispy french fries, they started using corn-based oil — which is only a minor step up from trans fat (one small step up from awful isn’t that big of a step). On top of that, virtually all oils used in cooking and food processing is some form of vegetable or seed oil. With the exception of olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, consider all oils off limits. The damage these bad oils do to your body just isn’t worth it (recent studies are rapidly indicating that vegetable oils in high doses may lead to everything from cardiovascular disease, to cancer, to depression).
- Unseasonable fruits and vegetables: If you’re eating organic and/or produce from a farmers market, most everything is already seasonal, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. Even in mild climates like California where there seems to be an endless supply of tomatoes and avocados, I wouldn’t stress too much about whether something is seasonal or not. As long as it’s organic, eat it.
- Sugar: You’d think people have learned their lesson by now, but it’s still a huge problem. Don’t eat refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and all those other misleading names they’re calling sugar these days. The result in your body is the same: obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, you name it. Bad stuff. Natural sugars found in fruit are ok because of the overwhelming list of benefits fruits supply. Sorry, but 40oz sodas, cake, and cookies are out (don’t worry, there are lots and lots of Paleo recipes to replace these cravings!).
Ok, you now have a good deal of information to go with. Try eating Paleo for 30 days and see how you feel. Many people have and are still reaping the benefits of eating a whole food, sugar-free, soy-free, and grain-free, Paleo diet. What have you got to lose other than a few pounds and some bad eating habits?
You’ll love it.