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With the standard American diet based on highly-processed food, refined sugar and hydrogenated fat, it is often agreed that we all need to get back to a more natural way of eating. The concept of the Paleolithic Diet, or eating like our ancestors, was first discussed back in the 1970s but the increased popularity came about with Dr. Loren Cordain releasing his Paleo Diet book in 2002.
Though, we seem to be living in an era where a new fad diet is created every year, the paleo diet seems to have gained traction and people are reaping the benefits by adopting this whole-food focused diet.
The paleo diet is based on the idea that we should be eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate back some 2.5 million years ago. Though, there are differences between what our ancestors ate across the world, the main similarity is that they ate a whole-food natural diet based on plants and animals easily found in their environments.
The main distinction of a paleo diet is that it is grain-free and dairy-free as those food groups were only introduced into the human diet once the agricultural revolution started and we left our hunter-gatherer ways behind. With the sudden popularity of the paleo diet, other interpretations of this lifestyle have been created such as the Primal Diet and Whole 30, all having their own dos and don’ts when it comes to whole-food eating.
Followers of the paleo diet have claimed that it has drastically minimised their health issues as they have reconnected with eating real food. The diet is often described as "clean" as it is free of all common allergies but also encourages people to choose organic produce, grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish and even wild game to really eliminate any chemicals and any agricultural practices that could be seen as unnatural, unclean and unhealthy.
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FOOD ALLOWED ON A PALEO DIET
Vegetables: all vegetables, preferably organic.
Fruits: all fruits, preferably organic.
Meat: lean cuts of beef, pork, lamb etc., ideally organic and grass-fed. Encouraged to eat organs (eg. kidneys & livers) as well as wild meats such as rabbit or deer.
Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck etc., ideally organic and free-range. Again, encouraged to eat wild meats such as pheasant.
Fish & Shellfish: all types, preferably organic and wild-caught.
Nuts & Seeds: almonds, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin, sunflower, chia etc. Groundnuts or peanuts are not included.
Eggs: ideally organic and free-range.
Healthy Fats: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and other cold-pressed organic oils.
Spices & Herbs: all dried and fresh herbs and spices.
Salt: though recommended to use rock salt or even better, Himalayan salt.
Dairy Alternatives: unsweetened milks, yogurts, and cheeses made from nuts, seeds or coconuts.
Paleo-Approved products: snacks, salad dressings, packaged ingredients that have the paleo stamp of approval (eg. meat jerky, chips, granola bars).
FOOD AVOIDED ON A PALEO DIET
All Processed Sugars & Artificial Sweeteners: high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar or juice, maltose, dextrose, invert sugar, rice syrup, molasses, etc.
All Grains: including quinoa, rice, barley, rye, wheat, etc.
All Beans & Legumes: including lentils, chickpeas and soybeans.
All Processed Vegetable & Hydrogenated Oils: corn, soybean, canola, safflower and sunflower oils.
All Processed Food: eg. regular chips, snacks, candy, cookies, luncheon meat etc.
All Dairy: including goat and sheep milk products.
Indulgences: Depending on one's interpretation of the paleo diet, some people choose to include small amounts of dark chocolate, coffee, grass-fed full-fat dairy products and natural sweeteners such as maple syrup.
Photo by Redbook
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE PALEO DIET
It is mostly rare-cooked meat
We are depicted images of our ancestors eating slabs of raw meat and so presume that we must eat large quantities of rare and bloody steaks on a paleo diet. However, during the Paleothic era is when our hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered fire and set us on the path of a cooked food diet. Therefore, meat and tough vegetables and roots were often cooked to make them easier to digest. The paleo diet does recommend portions of meat or protein in every meal but there is flexibility to allow you to have meat cooked the way you enjoy it.
It is essentially a low-carb/high-fat diet
Within the guidelines of the paleo diet there is no ratio given when looking at macronutrients. However, it is recommended to incorporate healthy fat and protein into every meal but to make sure at least half your plate is vegetables. What is more important in a paleo diet is that both fat and carbohydrates come from healthy natural sources.
It is very restrictive
At first, it can seem a bit alarming that you cannot have grains, legumes and dairy as part of the paleo diet as those tend to make up quite a large proportion of people's standard diet. However, if you do embrace this diet you will find a lot of alternative products that can replace these standard ingredients. For example, you can use coconut or almond flour instead of wheat flour, make cauliflower rice to replace regular rice and even make your own cashew cream cheese.
It is expensive
It is understandable that people think the paleo diet will be expensive when you are encouraged to only buy premium grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon and only organic eggs, fruits and vegetables. Though these are expensive ingredients, you can find other ways of saving money. Weekly meal prep, batch cooking or buying frozen food are just some ways to help you stick within your food budget while also being able to buy the best quality food available to you.
Photo by Against All Grain
HEALTH BENEFITS OF THE PALEO DIET
Converting from the standard American diet to the paleo diet has shown people what the highly-processed food, unhealthy fats and sugars were doing to their health and their weight. Though it could be argued that some food groups that are eliminated from a paleo diet do have nutritional benefits, such as grains and legumes, it can't be argued that eliminating processed foods and introducing more wholefood ingredients is very beneficial to your health. Also, with the focus on organic and grass-fed produce, the paleo diet reduces the presence of chemicals and preservatives in your diet as well. Simply reducing the quantity of processed foods and chemicals in your diet have been shown to be a great step towards significant weight loss as well as maintaining more regular blood sugar levels.
The paleo diet is high in healthy fats and low in simple carbohydrates and sugars which can contribute to improved heart health and help reduce diabetic symptoms. Similar to other elimination diets, the paleo diet has also shown to reduce symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as eczema, arthritis and psoriasis. This is mainly due to the diet being based on whole-food and free of all common allergies which can often affect people unaware of their own sensitivities to certain food groups such as dairy and gluten.
RISKS & CONS OF A PALEO DIET
Zero calorie counting and no portion control is considered a positive within the paleo community as you are encouraged to eat as much natural whole-food as you want. However, this gives people no guidelines as to how much red meat, eggs or coconut oil to eat, which are all high in either saturated fats or bad cholesterol. Eating large amounts of these foods can risk the opposite of what the diet claims and cause heart issues as well as exacerbate diabetic symptoms.
What often people don't realize when adopting the paleo diet is that it is more suitable for you if you exercise. Due to the lack of calorie counting, you could be eating all the natural food you want but not seeing any significant results because you don't have a regular exercise routine. Paleo should be considered more of a lifestyle than a diet because exercise is a big part of what makes this diet work.
The elimination of all grains and legumes including gluten-free ones such as quinoa, buckwheat and lentils is considered to be quite extreme as these can be healthy sources of protein and other key nutrients. Not being able to eat grains, legumes, beans and even dairy is often the main reason people find it hard to maintain the paleo diet. Rather than going back to their old ways of eating processed food, people are encouraged to have indulgences and occasional cheat days that allow them to have these normally prohibited natural whole food groups instead.
Like any diet, it is best to research and find experts on the diet for advice. Also following a meal plan will help you to keep on track, at least at the beginning.
Photo by Whole Foods Market
SAMPLE PALEO MEAL PLAN
To give you an idea of what is possible on a paleo diet we have put together a week-long meal plan including an afternoon or post-exercise snack.
- Breakfast - Poached Eggs, Spinach & Crispy Sweet Potato Fries
- Lunch - Chicken & Avocado Salad with Crunchy Seeds & Hemp Oil Dressing
- Snack - Handful of Trail Mix
- Dinner - Pork Sausage & Cauliflower Casserole
- Breakfast - Grain-Free Nut Granola with Coconut Yogurt & Berries
- Lunch - Nicoise Salad with Tuna, Egg, Olives & Tomatoes
- Snack - Baked Crispy Kale Chips
- Dinner - Grilled Steak with Balsamic Roasted Beets & Sauteed Cabbage
- Breakfast - Smoked Salmon, Sauteed Kale & Scrambled Eggs
- Lunch - Asian Beef Lettuce Wraps
- Snack - Apple Slices & Almond Butter
- Dinner - Stuffed Peppers with Turkey Mince & Tomato Sauce
- Breakfast - Almond Milk Chia Pudding with Banana Slices & Almond Butter
- Lunch - Chicken Vegetable Soup with Paleo Crackers
- Snack - Paleo Granola Bar
- Dinner - Prawn & Broccoli Red Curry with Cauliflower Rice
- Breakfast - Bacon & Mushroom Egg Muffins
- Lunch - Spaghetti Squash Salad with Poached Chicken
- Snack - Date & Tahini Energy Bites
- Dinner - Zucchini Noodles with Ground Italian Sausage Sauce
- Breakfast - Paleo Blueberry Pancakes with Toasted Walnuts & Cashew Butter
- Lunch - Egg Frittata with Dairy-Free Pesto & Green Salad
- Snack - 100% Grass-Fed Beef Jerky
- Dinner - Baked Lemon & Dill Salmon with New Potatoes & Roasted Tomatoes
- Breakfast - Breakfast Sausage, Avocado & Fried Egg
- Lunch - Curried Cauliflower Soup with Paleo Bread
- Snack - Green Smoothie
- Dinner - Roast Chicken, Asparagus & Roasted Butternut Squash
Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels
THE BEST PALEO SNACKS
Once you have figured out what you are eating for your main meals throughout the day, you want to have a few snacks on hand for those busier days, days you exercise or just to ensure you don’t slip up out of hunger. Here are some of our favorite paleo snacks.
THE BEST PALEO SUPPLEMENTS
Some followers of the paleo diet choose not to take supplements to be strict towards the idea that our ancestors got all their nutrients from natural food sources. However, most people acknowledge that the paleo diet is a modern diet and taking supplements can ensure that you receive all necessary nutrients to make the diet as optimal as possible.
THE BEST PALEO RESOURCES
If this article has got you interested in finding out more about the paleo diet, there is so much information and resources out there that can help you to really understand this lifestyle choice and how best to execute it. Here are some of our recommended resources.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- How Do I Make Restaurant Dishes Paleo?
It's often best to accept that when eating outside the comfort of your own home you may not be able to get something 100% paleo. However, try your best. Pick meat or fish-based dishes and request vegetable substitutes for grains, legumes, and dairy. If possible, also ask for your food to be cooked in coconut oil but that might be more tricky.
- What Can I Drink On A Paleo Diet?
Lots of water but drinks like coconut water or paleo-approved protein shakes and smoothies can also be great additions if regularly exercising. Though technically not paleo, many people will include coffee and tea in their diet, plus an occasional glass of wine or low-sugar alcohol.
- Can I Have An Occasional Treat?
If you are really craving cookies and cakes you can find many paleo versions of your favorite treats on recipe blogs and websites. Replacing flours, butters and sugars with paleo-friendly ingredients can be a great solution to fulfilling certain cravings but keeps you on track. However, if you do give in to temptation, just remember eating a paleo diet 80-90% of the time will still have some significant benefits to your health compared to a standard American diet.
- What If I Can't Always Afford Organic/Wild-caught/Grass-fed Produce?
Even changing your diet to a non-organic whole food diet is extremely beneficial and once you start seeing results you may be more inclined to start introducing organic ingredients into your shopping cart. However, this shouldn't put you off giving the paleo diet a try and if you can you may find that investing in your health could save you money in other areas of your life.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We should all be stepping into more natural ways of eating and living as it is clear that modern lifestyle choices are making us ill. The paleo diet might not be for everyone and initially seem restrictive, but it is a great alternative to the standard American diet and can be an ideal solution if you are looking to improve your fitness and your health.
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.