An Introduction to the Paleo Diet

Happy new year everyone! With the ringing in of 2015, it’s great to see so many people making those fitness and diet resolutions for the coming year. Just remember: a goal is a dream with a deadline, so make sure that as you set your goals, you also come up with a plan! Since a lot of you are focusing on losing fat and cleaning up your diet, today we’re going to talk about the Paleo Diet. Just one of many options for turning healthy eating into a habit, the Paleo Diet can help you cut out the dross to focus on the good stuff. So without further ado, lets talk turkey (literally, in some cases).

What is the Paleo Diet in 100 words or less?

The Paleo Diet is based on the idea that humans have adapted to eat certain foods over the course of tens of thousands of years, and that many foods available in modern society aren’t as healthy to consume as foods that would have been available during most of our species’ development. The theory states that whole foods (including edible plants, meat, fruit, & nuts) are better for your body than modern processed foods (including grains, dairy, & alcohol). There is debate over the historical accuracy of the diet is, but most sources agree on the benefits.

Where did the name come from?

The name comes from the Paleolithic Era, which is a prehistoric time frame that ran from about 2.5 millions years ago until ~10,000 BCE. The name comes from the Greek words palaios (“old”) and lithos (“stone”), translating to “Old Stone Age”. Lots of good stuff was going on during the Paleolithic Era: development of stone tools, banding together in small communities, developing spiritual practices, and some early works of art. During the time humans mostly subsisted on gatherer fare like easily accessed fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as hunted meat.

Some evidence exists that our ancestors may have also used stones to break/grind more difficult to attain foods to supplement their diets when necessary, but these were the exception and usually done when other food wasn’t available. This is an interesting finding because it forms a neat segue between hunting/gathering as the primary source of nutrition and to agriculture being the primary source. Historical geekiness aside, the Paleo Diet takes it’s name from the idea that our ancestors were doing just fine – nutritionally speaking –  as hunter/gatherers during the Paleolithic Era, and modern humans should adopt that method of eating for best health.

What can you eat?

The good thing about trying to “eat Paleo” is that it’s a pretty black and white list of “eat” and “not eat” that is easy to understand.

Eat This Stuff

  • Meats (beef, chicken, llama, etc.)
  • Fish/seafood
  • Fresh fruits
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Healthy oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)

DO NOT Eat This Stuff

  • Cereal grains
  • Legumes (including peanuts)
  • Dairy
  • Refined sugar
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Overly salty foods
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Candy/junk/processed food

Pretty easy, eh? Per the idea, you should be forming your diet from the stuff on the first list, and avoiding the stuff on the second list. A good meal should have most of the calories coming from proteins and unsaturated fats, with a small portion coming from the natural carbohydrates in fruit and vegetables.

You may notice that some things we take for granted, like potatoes and dairy, are on the DO NOT EAT list. In the case of potatoes, these are higher calorie with lower nutritional value, but in my opinion can be consumed in moderation as an infrequent source of carbohydrates.The biggest thing I can stress here is to pay attention to how many ‘taters you’re eating, and limit them to 2-3 servings per week; eat other veggies and some fruits as your primary source of carbs.

For dairy, it is very easy to get a lot of saturated fats from milk and cheese, which can increase your caloric intake very quickly if not monitored. It’s unlikely Paleolithic humans were milking cows (or sheep, goats, etc) for their milk to consume as adults, and no other mammals drink milk past infancy. Combine these factors with that estimate by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that 65% of the population has decreased ability to process lactose (i.e. milk sugar) to some extent, and dairy just doesn’t seem like a good idea, overall.

What are the benefits?

A good diet should accomplish the following:

  • Promote healthy food choices
  • Maintain a caloric intake appropriate to the person
  • Provide all of the nutritional requirements necessary for good health
  • Help prevent over-eating and binging
  • Be Long-term Sustainable
  • Provide enough variety to avoid stagnation

The Paleo Diet accomplishes most of these goals to a large extent, because it mandates whole, unprocessed food choices above all else.  Since it doesn’t limit any necessary food groups, it accounts for the full range of vitamins, nutrients, amino acids, and minerals that allow the body to maintain and grow. Comparing this guide to the U.S. Food Pyramid you may ask why Grains are considered “necessary” by the pyramid but not by the Paleo diet. The reason is because grains do not contain anything that cannot be found in other foods (carbohydrates, or otherwise), and so can be replaced with choices from the meat, fruit, and vegetable groups without issues.

On the “calorie intake” side, eating Paleo includes a lot of protein from animal sources (beef & chicken usually) and healthy unsaturated fats. These two macronutrients provide a large “satiating effect”, which means that they digest slower and satisfy hunger longer than carbohydrates. Since both protein and fats can be broken down for energy, the dietary need for carbohydrates is actually much, much lower than the guidelines provided over the last 30 years (that Food Pyramid, again). Typically, having a diet that is 45-55% protein, 35-40% healthy fats, and 20% or less carbohydrates will help maintain blood sugar, insulin response, body fat, energy, and overall health more optimally than the high-carb, low-fat diets of the 80’s and 90’s.

What are the drawbacks?

Notice how we didn’t list “Be Long-term Sustainable” or “Provide enough variety to avoid stagnation” as a main accomplishment of the Paleo Diet, but that has more to do with human tendencies and expectations than anything else.

In order to be sustainable long-term, a person has to be willing to commit to the diet. In order to do this, Paleo has to be thought of as “the way you eat” rather than “a weight loss diet”. To make lifetime changes in your health means you need to make lifetime changes in your thinking. To help you along, try this: instead of saying “I can’t eat XYZ”, instead say “I don’t eat XYZ”. It is a small, subtle difference, but studies have shown that when people make this change in their speech, it also effects a change in their thinking, increasing the person’s will power to resist temptation. Using little tricks like this will help you avoid the bad, while eating the good.

As soon as you tell someone they aren’t allowed to have something, they tend to want it even more. It’s human nature to want what we’re denied, and a diet is no different. Using the strategy above will help you along, but looking at the Paleo food lists can cause a problem of variety. We convince ourselves that we can’t diet because that limits our options too much, and if we have too limited options than we won’t be happy. The truth is, though, you aren’t even using the options you have, so it doesn’t matter if they go away! The idea of wanting variety is an illusion brought on by culture: we’re told that we should always keep our options open, or that “variety is the spice of life”, so anything that seemingly limits what we can do is viewed negatively. I would bet $10, though, that your eating habits follow a very predictable cycle of what you do and don’t eat, even without realizing it. Chances are, you eat the same 15-30 meals on repeat, maybe with slight variations/combinations, but you don’t know you’re doing it because “you can eat anything, anytime”.

Eating Paleo, you can easily create 100+ meals just from the basic list above, using different combinations of meat, veggie, fruit, nuts, cooking techniques, and flavorings. There are so many options that if you think it through, you will NEVER get bored with a Paleo Diet. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking you need grains, milk, etc to have a varied diet; that’s just something you tell yourself so you don’t have to “give up” anything. Just tell yourself, “I don’t eat bread” and start cooking those veggies!