“What is this Paleo craze, why is it so popular, and how do I get in on the action?”, you think to yourself.
The Paleo diet can be quite divisive — for every person who swears by it, there are a handful of others crying danger, writing it off as a fad, or scoffing at its proponents. Personally, I believe in trying things for yourself, measuring the results, and then making up your own mind.
The purpose of this article, therefore, is to give you a brief primer on Paleo so you can give it a go. I’ll explain how the diet works, and show you which foods to eat for a slimmer waistline and all-round good health. Then you can decide for yourself whether Paleo makes sense, as it does for me and so many others.
First up, a little background:
The Paleo philosophy
Our Paleolithic ancestors were opportunistic hunter-gatherers, meaning they ate whatever they could find or capture in the wild. Their diet was based on a variety of natural plant and animal foods, and differed depending on local climate and season.
Food wasn’t always available, so over the course of generations they adapted to feeding sporadically and storing energy. Their way of eating provided all the nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants they needed to survive, thrive and reproduce under incredibly harsh conditions.
Now compare this to the typical modern diet:
Processed, refined and packaged foods are the order of the day. It’s hard to find a meal that doesn’t include bread, pasta or rice, and the abundance of food means we’re never without it. The pillar of modern dietary advice has been the infamous Food Pyramid, which emphasises high-carb foods above everything else.
What’s the problem with that? Well, lots of carbs = lots of insulin production in the body, which inhibits weight loss and contributes to generally poor health. Furthermore, our weight issues have given rise to a diet culture that thrives on restrictive rules and dogma, further removing us from our natural way of eating.
In the words of Dr. Emmett Brown:
“Marty! You’ve gotta come back with me!”
First of all, let me stress that Paleo eating is not necessarily the same as low-carb eating. In fact, there’s no reason to watch your carbohydrate consumption at all.
As you’ll see, following the example of our ancestors will automatically bring your carb (and therefore insulin) levels in check. If you’ve tried low-carb dieting before, you’ll find the lack of restriction on nutritious veggies and fruit refreshing.
Animal and plant foods are the centrepieces of Paleo nutrition. You’ll be focusing on quality sources of meat, fish and fowl, a variety of vegetables and fruit, and natural sources of fat including nuts, seeds and oils.
This is a fairly close approximation of the nutrient-dense diet that supported early humans throughout the course of their evolution. For our purposes, it enhances fat metabolism and muscle development, reduces disease risk factors, stabilises appetite, and improves our immune systems and cellular function, among other health benefits.
So let’s take a closer look at the main players. I’ll refrain from overburdening you with details — you can find specific food information and lots of tasty recipes in my my 30-day Paleo plan and tool kit.
What could be more natural than that which grows out of the ground? With certain major exceptions (more on this in a future post), plant foods offer exceptional nutrition and should constitute the bulk of your diet.
They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and other essential nutrients that promote a healthy immune system and reduce disease risk. They are also your best source of natural carbohydrates, helping you to maintain adequate glucose intake without tipping the balance in favour of weight gain.
Locally grown, organic produce offers the most nutritional benefit in terms of antioxidant and nutrient content, as well as the least health risk. The extra cost over mass-produced products is negligible, and pales in comparison to the benefits.
Be careful to wash any veggies or fruits that have a large surface area (lettuce, cabbage) or soft skin (peppers, apples). This goes double if they’re non-organic, because of the risk of pesticides.
When it comes to veggies, eat as much as you like — the more variety, the better. Go for dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, and fibrous, non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts and asparagus.
Watch out for those tubers, though; yams and sweet potatoes are OK in moderation, but other types of spud are best avoided because of their high glycemic (sugar) load.
Fruits take a back seat to vegetables; they were a little harder for our ancestors to find and come with a heavier carbohydrate load. Nonetheless, an apple beats a donut any day. The higher the antioxidants and lower the sugar content, the better.
Berries win the day (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries), with apples, bananas, pears and apricots coming a distant second. Limit high-glycemic fruits like oranges, grapes, melons, pineapples, plums, mangoes and dried fruit to keep your insulin and triglycerides in check.
Nuts and Seeds
These little powerhouses (and their derivative butters) are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and healthy fats, and are ideal for snacking. Go for walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamias, and pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds.
Try throwing together a trail mix based on your favourite nuts and seeds, with a small handful of dried fruit or chocolate shavings to make it interesting. Steer clear of peanuts and peanut butter though — they are legumes in disguise and carry toxins, allergens and other nasties.
Prehistoric humans were fairly adept at hunting wild animals for food, and with good reason. The natural protein, cholesterol and other nutrients that animal foods offered were (and still are) critical to our diet, supporting muscle development, fat metabolisation and organ function.
Organic, grass-fed or free-range animal products are the way to go. Conventionally-raised animals may be artificially fattened or treated with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other toxins that can be transmitted to us via their meat. As always, the benefits of organic are well worth the extra expense.
Meat and Fowl
Beef, chicken, pork, mutton, veal, venison, lamb, turkey — take your pick, it’s all good. Again, go for organic, grass-fed or free-range meat wherever possible, and enjoy the fatty cuts.
If commercially-raised meat is your only option, go for lean cuts or trim the fat to minimise potential exposure to toxins. Avoid reformed or heavily processed meats like hot dogs, salami, sausage and “fake” deli slices, which are often treated with nitrates and other undesirable additives.
Fish and Seafood
Wild fish caught in remote, pollution-free waters are a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Go for fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring; the higher the oil content, the better.
Seafood is great too, so get your fill of crab, shrimp, lobster, oysters, or whatever floats your boat (there, I said it). Avoid farmed fish, which is often lower in omega-3 and higher in mercury and other toxins.
Our humble friend the egg has been the victim of poor dietary policy for too long. Yes, the cholesterol content is high, but it’s mostly the good kind. The fact is, eggs are a healthy, nutritious, natural food that should be enjoyed in abundance.
Go organic or free-range for maximum benefit; avoid eggs from grain-fed, commercially-raised chickens that are usually treated with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. And do not throw out the yolk — that’s where all the good stuff is!
Fats and oils
Contrary to what you’ve been told, fat is not bad for you (at least not all types — more on that in a future post). In fact, it’s a critical nutrient that provides us with vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, and contributes to heart, brain and immune function.
“Fat makes you fat” has been the prevailing dogma of the last few decades, and we’ve become convinced that cholesterol is a major heart disease risk. To put it bluntly, this is all B.S. (if you want a detailed explanation of how fat came to acquire such a bad rap, read up on Ancel Keys and the McGovern Commission).
Suffice to say, the dodgy science behind fat’s demonisation has long since been refuted. We now know that fat is actually good for you — it promotes efficient nutrient metabolism, weight control and stable energy levels. Our ancestors enjoyed it in abundance, and so should you.
It’s easy enough to recognise saturated fats — they’re solid at room temperature and come primarily from animal sources. Chicken, duck and goose fat, lard, tallow and other animal fats are all good, as are butter and coconut oil.
Saturated fats retain their stability at high temperatures (in other words, they don’t oxidise), making them ideal for cooking. Go organic whenever possible, and refrigerate to keep them fresh.
Oils are liquid at room temperature due to their higher mono- and polyunsaturated fat content. They should also be refrigerated or put away somewhere, as exposure to light can turn them rancid.
Extra-virgin, cold pressed olive oil is great for salads, but its temperature fragility makes it less than ideal for cooking. A better alternative is macadamia oil, which has a high smoking point, long shelf life and subtle taste. Get your essential omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish, flaxseed, hemp seed, high-oleic oils or supplements.
That’s the Paleolithic diet in a nutshell. If you could stick with just the foods listed above for the rest of your life, you’d be laughing. To recap:
- Plant foods offer exceptional nutrition and should constitute the bulk of your diet. Eat plenty of fresh, non-starchy vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, nuts and seeds.
- Animal foods support muscle development, fat metabolisation and organ function. Go for organic, grass-fed meat and fowl, wild fish and free-range eggs.
- Fats and oils have been wrongly maligned, and contribute much to our growth and cellular function. Enjoy saturated fat and healthy oils freely, and get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
In future posts, I’ll look at the foods you’ll want to stay away from, and those that fall into the grey area between “good” and “bad.”