I’ve been asked by The Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans to provide a little insight into the Paleolithic Diet. I need to preface this series by stating I am in no way an expert on eating Paleo. I am not a nutritionist. I consider myself “paleo-ish” because I am not strict in following the principles of this lifestyle. This series is based on my experience with “going paleo-ish” for the past several months. Because there are so many websites and blogs that do a wonderful job explaining what it means to be Paleo, I would encourage you to do your research if you feel this diet may be right for you. In this series, we’ll look at what Paleo is, the whats and whys of the foods it allows and asks you to avoid, some of my pros and cons, as well as a few of my favorite recipes. I’ll try to include other blogs and sources I’ve found useful in my journey as well. Like Schoolhouse Rock said, “Knowledge is Power!”
Part 1: The Paleo Diet Defined
Once question we’ve been getting here at The Sisterhood is “what is Paleo”? The topic is certainly all over the interwebs.. Is it just cutting out grains and dairy? No, not exactly. Is it eating only raw meat and vegetables. Nope, not that either. So, what exactly IS the Paleo Diet? I have a couple good friends who have been eating “Paleo” for quite some time and they would talk to me on occasion about trying it as a way to get a handle on my weight. They would post some pretty incredible looking food porn to Instagram and when I’d find out it was Paleo, I thought “no way!” I resisted for a long time because…hello…I love spaghetti and Subway sandwiches and pizza and brownies – you know, all those foods which would be banned from my diet forever. Plus, I was 99.9% sure there was no way my family would be on board. I didn’t understand that it was more of a lifestyle change and something that could happen even if everyone in the house didn’t eat the same way. Hopefully my experience can answer some questions you may have. But first, bear with me as we have a little history lesson.
The Paleolithic (or Paleo) Diet is often referred to as The Caveman Diet and has been around literally since that time, only it wasn’t made popular until the late 2000s. While a quick Google search will bring up nearly 1/2 a million hits, narrowing your search down to Loren Cordain’s site is a great place to start. Many consider Dr. Cordain as the leading expert on the Paleo Diet and he in fact owns the trademark and wrote a few books and hundreds of scientific articles on the subject. In the Paleo world, he’s kind of a big deal.
The Paleo Diet’s premise is that we as a species are adapted to eat foods of the Paleolithic era (approximately 200,000 years ago with the first Homo sapiens) and have not evolved to the level needed to digest foods genetically engineered over the past 10,000 years or so – basically since the agricultural revolution and domestication of livestock. I’m no math expert, but in the grand scheme of human evolution, 10,000 years is just a little blip. It makes sense that our bodies are better able to process the foods of our hunter/gatherer ancestors – lean meat, fish, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, and regional fruits and vegetables – rather than the grains, legumes, dairy, and highly processed foods many of us enjoy today. The Paleo Diet seeks to mimic foods of our pre-agricultural ancestors, thus reducing our risks of chronic health diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, associated with convenience foods. Basically, if a caveman didn’t eat it, neither should you.
According to Dr. Cordain, the Paleo Diet follows these main principles (source):
- Higher protein intake – lean meats, animal products and seafood are a staple of the Paleo diet. These proteins should also follow the Paleo diet themselves – meaning organic, grass fed, not grain fed meats and wild-caught seafood. Yep, this part can be a bit expensive – more on this topic later.
- Lower carbohydrate intake and foods with a low glycemic index – This is fancy way of saying non-starchy fruits and vegetables should make up approximately 35-45% of your diet. These foods are metabolized slowly in the body and do not lead to spikes in blood sugar.
- High fiber intake – again, from fruits and vegetables, NOT grains, whole or otherwise. Remember, cavemen didn’t bake hamburger buns or eat Fruit Loops.
- Consumption of mono and polyunsaturated fats at a higher level that what you are probably used to – Again, fancy words for the “good” fats, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil and other nut oils.
- Higher potassium and lower sodium rather than the other way around. The cavemen probably didn’t salt their food and you shouldn’t either. When they caught their dinner, they ate it right then – no need to process and store it for later.
- A balance of net acid and alkaline load to the kidneys. Ok, I don’t really understand this part but basically, fruits and vegetables are alkaline producing foods and help balance the potential damage to the kidneys of foods with a net acid load, such as meat, fish, legumes, grains, dairy and salt.
- Higher intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant phytochemicals through the fresh, unprocessed foods we eat. If we aren’t processing the heck out of our food, all the original nutrients will still be there when we are ready to eat.
So, what do you get to eat on the Paleo Diet? Basically, you can eat any grass-fed or wild meat or seafood, fresh fruits and veggies (preferably organic and local), eggs, nuts and seeds (not peanuts), natural sugars, and healthy oils (olive, nut oils, avocado, flaxseed, etc). When I switched to paleo-ish (remember, I said in that opening paragraph that I’m not strict so I call it “-ish”), I was more concerned with what I COULDN’T eat, because those foods made up a huge part of my diet and the diet of my family: grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy, refined sugar, potatoes (tubers – such as sweet potatoes and yams – are ok), processed foods, salt, and refined vegetable oils (like corn or canola). In my next post, we’ll go a bit more into what you can and can’t eat and the rationale behind it, plus some ways to make your family not want to kick you out of the house for messing with their dinner.
For more information on the Paleo Diet, check out Dr. Cordain’s site linked above, as well as Nerd Fitness and Robb Wolf. These guys do a nice job of breaking down the complexity of the diet into easy to understand chunks. Plus, Steve at Nerd Fitness is pretty freaking funny and uses Legos to get his point across. You can’t go wrong with Legos :)
If there are specific questions or aspects of Paleo you’d like me to address in this series, please leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer your questions.