The Paleo Diet: A Fad or Sound Nutrition?
A couple of weeks ago, I started a 5-week bootcamp which consists of about 30 minutes (plus some warm up and cool down time) of hard exercise. No gimmicks in this plan, just lots of exercise, in a group setting, but still allowing you to stay at your own pace. As I write this, I’m on day 10. The first day, I brought in a 3-day food diary and on it were some items I knew they wouldn’t approve of, but I explained that I run a cooking website and I have to try these recipes I create before I put them online. They said, “If you want to get the most out of your five weeks, here’s the diet we recommend.” Well, it was the Paleo Diet (or Caveman Diet), which I heard about first from the author of the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferris. I decided, I would use the 5 weeks to focus on this method of eating and offer some new healthy recipes for the website as well. But first, I want to catch you up on this whole “Paleo Diet” idea.
The Paleo Diet
If you haven’t heard of the Paleo Diet, you will soon, and most likely, often. It seems to be something a lot of people are moving to in an effort to return to a more natural way of eating. It’s also known as the Paleolithic, Caveman, Hunter-Gatherer or Stone Age Diet. It’s based on the eating habits (partially presumed, I imagine) of those who lived during the paleolithic period which lasted for about 2.5 million years until about 8,000 BCE, when man started to engage in agricultural activities, including cultivation of the ground and farming specific foods, which were easy to grow. Before that, it’s presumed, man existed on the foods he could find growing in the wild, along with animals he was able to successfully hunt down and kill.
During the Paleolithic period, scientists can safely hypothesize man didn’t have dairy cows, hence no dairy products in this diet plan. Man also didn’t have access to mass quantities of farmed grains and certainly didn’t engage in the processing of those grains to make flour. Obviously, the foods man existed on were fresh and completely unprocessed.
The Modern Diet
Today, as we’ve heard in documentaries such as Food, Inc., our food is sometimes genetically modified to produce higher-yields (not necessarily more nutritionally dense though) and it’s given a genetic twist to make it more insect resistant, which reduces the cost of pesticides. Not really a good diet for us to be consuming, and that’s just the stuff you buy in the meat and produce section. Once you head into the middle aisles at the store, you get into every sort of processed and mass produced “food” available. Read the ingredients on the backs of these products and you’ll be hard-pressed to even pronounced most of the items.
Want to avoid 99% of the bad food available? Don’t buy any food items advertised by the media.
A More Natural Way of Eating
So, the Paleo diet is designed to take us back to those days when we ate more naturally. To me, this makes an incredible amount of sense and it’s something I’ve believed in for a long time, I just didn’t know it had a name. I’ve always said, if it’s naturally occurring, it’s probably good for you, when combined with a balance of other naturally occurring foods. So let’s look at what makes up a well-balanced Paleo diet and some resources you can use that will help you look into this further.
The Basics of a Paleo Diet
I was going to list all the items you should remove from your diet, but that can sometimes cause one to focus on the negatives rather than all the wonderful things you can and should eat, almost in abundance, though you should meter your portions if you’re trying to lose weight. But, you’ll find, when you eat healthy, naturally occurring foods found in a Paleo diet, you’ll most likely eat a lot more and feel considerably more satisfied. So, let’s talk about some wonderful foods you should embrace.
Good News Meat Lovers
Think back to everything you’ve ever learned about Paleolithic (or cave) man and what they might possibly eat. They’re known as hunter-gatherers, so you can imagine a good amount of their food came from what they were able to hunt. But, keep in mind, their hunting wasn’t like our modern day hunting. We drive to the grocery store, grab a cart and walk to the meat department and then “hunt” for a nice looking piece of meat and toss it in the cart. Paleolithic man would spend days sometimes, tracking animals and learning their patterns. Miles of chasing animals and even more time making their hunting tools. The calories they consumed in meat were most likely used obtaining more meat. That’s not the case for us today. So, exercise is important as well if we’re going to follow this sort of eating plan.
When you’re on the Paleo diet, you’re able to eat all sorts of meat, fairly freely. Chicken and turkey, of course, but you’ll be happy to know, you can leave the skin on it with the Paleo diet. You may be surprised to find out you can also eat beef, pork, lamb, goat and even game meats (it only makes sense). You are encouraged to find the freshest, least processed and factory-farmed meats, which tend to not have all the steroids, added coloring, and preservatives. Eggs are also allowed, and yes, you can eat the yolk! Another item that might surprise you, you can eat organ meats as well. Again, be careful in the deli where you’re going to find most of these items loaded up with preservatives and nitrites.
Cavemen Fished for Food
As you can imagine, some Paleolithic communities were located by the ocean, or large bodies of water, even if they weren’t, they most likely lived near some source of water, large or small. Where there’s water, there’s fish and they most likely ate them. Almost every type of fish is allowed, including shellfish. Keep in mind, unfortunately, today, with the industrial revolution, some of our bodies of water have been polluted by heavy metals and you need to watch for high concentrations of mercury in some fish. Smaller fish, such as sardines and anchovies are not only less likely to have high levels of mercury, they are also great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids which are incredibly good for you.
Some of the most nutrient dense foods available to us come in the form of sea vegetables or seaweeds. So, don’t be afraid to enjoy these items from the oceans as well.
Nuts and Seeds
You can enjoy just about every type of nut or seed you can find. But, keep in mind, despite the name, peanuts, are not nuts, but rather, legumes (beans). They’re not always discouraged, but some of the more pure followers will avoid them. Nuts are a very calorie dense item, so people who are trying to lose weight should put a limit on how many they eat each day. Almonds and cashews are both wonderful nuts you can enjoy, along with so many others. One good way to limit the amount of nuts you eat is to buy them still in the shell. Cracking open a single almond, chewing on it and then working on opening up another one is a lot better than reaching into a can of almonds and tossing 10-12 into your mouth at a time.
Nut butters are also allowed and can make for a wonderful snack. You can also use crushed nuts to make a wonderful coating for some of your cooked meats. It is a great replacement for breading.
An End to the Fear of Fat
Believe it or not, in it’s most natural form, fat is an incredibly nutrient dense food item. Unfortunately, with todays corporate profit-driven food industry, most fats you find are going to be highly processed and void of any nutritional value. Because of this, avoid the highly processed fats such as canola, corn, and vegetable oil (or any other vegetable based oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids). You’ll also want to avoid shortening or any other hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
This is going to come as a shock to most, but lard and tallow (a rendered beef fat) are permitted on the Paleo diet, as they’re naturally occurring foods. Of course, as with all fats and other calorie-dense foods, if you’re trying to lose weight, you’re going to want to make sure you limit these. Otherwise, you can also enjoy plenty of olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil. Other oils or fats allowed, but not as common, include walnut, hazelnut, and macadamia nut oils. Grapeseed oil is also permitted, but it’s a bit higher in Omega-6 fatty acids, so you’ll want to limit it’s use.
Fats not only have their own nutritional value, they play a vital role as a transporter of nutrients from your other foods, to the cells and organs needing them. For this reason, you’ll find most Paleo diets suggest you eat your foods in balanced combinations of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. All these components work in a synergistic way to multiply the nutritional benefit of each other.
So What’s Not Allowed on a Paleo Diet?
The very first step is to remove all processed foods from your diet. This doesn’t mean you can’t have frozen foods or certain meats such as sausage, but it certainly is preferred you don’t consume items that are made in a giant factory. Take a look in your cupboard and see what you can find that’s processed by a factory, but really isn’t something that naturally occurs. Some very easy items for you to identify and remove would be cookies, pastries, chips, crackers, and almost everything you find in the middle of a grocery store. Almost everything. This rule really could apply to just about any diet plan focused on healthy eating.
Cavemen Didn’t Milk Cows, Baby Cows Did That
You have to realize, milk is designed to grow a baby cow into an adult cow.
The allowance of dairy in the Paleo diet is sometimes debated among the Paleo diet folks, because milk is a naturally occurring food item, but keep in mind, that’s not what’s sitting on grocers refrigerator. If you insist on having dairy in your diet, it’s best to find a raw milk supplier in your area. If that’s not available, find the least processed milk products available, which will most likely be the full-fat whole milk. Again, fat isn’t bad for you when in it’s natural form. This is something that’s going to take a huge mindset change for a lot of people, but evidence is showing, people with heart disease and high blood pressure most likely got that from a diet high in sugar and refined grains, not high in naturally occurring fats. Of course, as always, follow your doctors guidelines, not mine.
Keep in mind, dairy isn’t just milk, but also includes yogurt, cheese, butter, sour cream, ice cream (anything with the word cream) and even powdered milk. This one took a little bit of a change for me because I absolutely love a good strong cheese with some fruit and a glass of wine. In fact, it’s one of my greatest guilty pleasures. I do think, once you’ve broken free from daily use of these items, it wouldn’t hurt to have a feast from time-to-time where you enjoy some of them, without any guilt.
I happen to be lactose intolerant, so removing dairy from my diet had a fantastic and almost immediate benefit. Because of my lactose intolerance, I’ve always been careful and very conscious of when I have dairy. The fact is, just about everyone eventually becomes lactose intolerant, as our bodies aren’t designed to ingest a lifetime of these foods, especially on a daily bases. Unfortunately, some people who don’t develop their lactose intolerance until later in life, never realize that’s what is at the root of their discomfort.
Beans, Beans, They’re Good for … nothing!
Beans, or more appropriately, legumes seem like something we should all be eating more of, not less. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of studies indicate legumes are incredibly good for you and “heart healthy.” Black beans have been a staple in my diet for a very long time because 1) they’re delicious, but 2) they’re supposed to be good for me. So, what’s the deal? Why aren’t legumes allowed in a Paleo diet plan?
Lectins! It’s these little things called lectins, which make legumes a bad choice for a healthy Paleo diet. I know, what are lectins? They’re what’s called an “anti-nutrient.” I know, so what’s an anti-nutrient? Haha, I’ll walk you through my understanding of this, but you may want to research it a bit further because I know this is an area a lot of people are going to struggle with if they consider shifting to a Paleo diet.
Dont’ be alarmed, lectins are everywhere, including inside of you right now. In fact, lectins are inside of every plant and animal around. With many plants, lectins are a quasi-pesticide because they cause severe discomfort when one of these pests ingests them (animals, even humans, are sometimes considered pests as well). Lectins are a very sticky molecule because they’re natural function is to bind with sugars or carbohydrates. But, because of this, they’ll also often bind with the intestinal walls when they’re consumed. This causes all sorts of problems such as leaky gut syndrome, auto-immune syndrome, fybromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and even pre-diabetes conditions.
Again, I’m just giving you the surface of the information. I strongly encourage you to take some time and research this. One fantastic source I’ve been referencing for almost 15 years is the Weston A. Price Foundation. Tremendous information about the modern Western diet and the adverse health effects it’s causing. I’ll have some more resources for you at the end of this article.
Oh, don’t forget about hummus and peanut butter. Both of these items are made out of legumes. Yes, a peanut, isn’t really a nut, even though the word’s in it’s name. Because they’re also legumes, they’re high in lectins and cause the same issues all the other legumes can cause. Hummus, as much as we’ve been taught about how great it is for us, is made from chick peas (not really peas) also known as Garbanzo beans.
Wait… I know one thing you’re probably thinking: Coffee BEANS! “Yikes, there’s no way I’m going to be successful with a diet that requires me to give up my morning coffee, people might die.” Haha, I’m with you, that’s a tough thought. Truth is, just like a peanut isn’t a nut, a coffee bean isn’t a bean. Actually coffee beans are berries. In fact, people in Central and South America will often eat the “Coffee Cherries” (as they’re called) which taste quite sweet when the bitter skin is removed. So, don’t worry, coffee isn’t going away. Close call.
Grains Are Also Very High in Lectins (Just Like Beans)
While we’re on the topic of lectins and how they can cause all sorts of health issues, I’ll need to let you know, grains are another major source of gut damaging lectins. In the Paleolithic time, grains may have been found growing in the wild and man may have even eaten them, but probably not more than once and certainly not in the amounts we’re afforded with the help of modern agricultural advances. Because of the lectins, grains, just like legumes, cause intestinal discomfort. Even if you dont’ feel that discomfort, they still causes havoc in your system which bring on other issues you may not relate to grains, such as auto-immune disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and again, just like with legumes, leaky gut syndrome, which leads to other issues.
With the Paleo diet, grains are avoided because of the lectins and not because of a fear of carbs, like with other diets such as the Atkins plan. With the Paleo diet, you’re still getting carbs, you’re just finding them in other things such as fruits and vegetables. Your body needs carbs, just like it needs proteins and yes, even fats.
The only way you can make grains worse for you is to process the heck out of them and that’s what we do in the western diet. Most breads you find are made of very refined wheat, which presents a new problem because they’re converted into sugar rapidly, which causes a spike in your insulin levels, overworking your pancreas. If you continue to abuse your pancreas like this, it will eventually just give up and that’s when you see the symptoms of Type-II Diabetes. It’s an epidemic in America but we still shovel pounds and pounds of refined grains into our systems.
Do yourself a favor, even if you decide against following the Paleo diet, give up on all those refined flour products including breads, bagels, crackers, noodles, breakfast cereals and all those pastries and donuts (they also have shortening in them most of the time). If you want to take it a bit further, drop the white rice as well and stick with brown rice or even quinoa, though, neither of these are permitted with the paleo diet.
Highly Processed and Refined Oils
In order to get the oils out of corn, cottonseed, safflower and soybeans, companies have to use a chemical extraction process.
As I stated above, fat is good for you, if it’s a natural fat. Unfortunately, most of the fats we consume come from cooking oils such as Canola, Peanut, Corn, Sunflower, Safflower, Vegetable and several others. Knowing what you learned above, I’m sure you can see why we want to avoid the corn, peanut and soybean oils, but why the others? All of these fats are produced to simply provide you with something to fry your food, not to give your body nutrition. It’s the same thing we see with fruits and vegetables. Nobody buys them based on how many nutrients they have in them (Oranges for sale: $1.99 per milligram of vitamin C), we buy it completely by volume. Corporate farms are motivated to provide high yields of produce, regardless of the nutritional density. The same goes for fats and oils.
Nuts, seeds and olives have produced fats for humans for many years, through the use of a press. In order to get the oils out of corn, cottonseed, safflower and soybeans, companies have to use a chemical extraction process. I think we can see, right off the bat, why that’s not the best or most natural thing for you body. But, let’s dig a bit deeper.
All of the oils you want to avoid in the Paleo diet are very susceptible to oxidation and becoming rancid (go bad). When something oxidizes and you ingest that, you’re increasing the number of potentially cancer causing “free radicals” in your system. This is the reason ANTI-Oxidants are so important in your diet. As for going rancid, you can usually smell if something isn’t good or fresh any longer. But, with these oils, manufacturers add in deodorizers to the process to avoid this problem. So, in affect, you may be using rancid oil right now but don’t realize it because it smells fine. Disgusting!
The Omega Fats – 3 and 6
The other issue with all of these non-Paleo oils is the issue of Omega-6 Fatty Acids. You’ve probably heard of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, which are incredibly good for you (found in abundance in most cold-water fish). Most people don’t realize, in order for you to gain the benefits of the Omega-3 fatty acids, you must have a very good balance between both Omega 6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. This is where the problem happens.
If most of what you’re consuming in the form of fats and oils are Omega-6, then you’re going to throw this balance way off. Let’s start with the worst offender in this area, peanut oil. It’s sad to say, but there are absolutely no Omega-3’s in peanut oil. So, I think you can see why it’s easy to toss this one out of the mix. Cottonseed, grapeseed and safflower oils all have a ratio of over 100 to 1 (Omega-6 to Omega-3). Again, not hard to see why you should dump these. Corn and soybean oil all have a ratio below 100 to 1 which is closer to what you want, but not close enough. What about Canola oil? That’s supposed to be much better for you. In fact, Canola oil has a ratio of about 2:1 and is the best of the bunch. What is Canola oil anyway? Is there a Canola plant? It actually stands for CANadian Oil Low Acid. It comes from the rapeseed which requires a chemical process in order to extract it’s oils. This is most often done using Hexane, which is highly toxic for humans. This process also eliminates most of the nutrients you’d find in this oil if you were able to extract it in a more “natural” way.
Chris Kresser L. Ac, has put together a great amount of information about Paleo lifestyle in general and it’s well worth your time to spend some time at his website. Here’s an article about the relationship between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Sugar: The Truth is Bitter
This topic really comes down to processing, for most sweeteners, which goes against the drive for “all things natural.” Yes, sugar is a natural product from the sugar cane plant, but the method it’s derived allows us to have it in heavy concentration… very heavy concentration.
Your typical table sugar is made up of two types of two different types of sugar, glucose and fructose. Glucose is a wonderful nutrient which your body needs and it’s readily absorbed into your system and converted into immediate usable energy. This is accomplished because of it’s easy absorption into your cells. Keep in mind, glucose is healthy in moderation.
Fructose is an entirely different animal than glucose. In fact, fructose isn’t as readily absorbed into your cells and used as energy. Instead, it’s sent off to your liver where it’s almost immediately turned into fat, to be used as energy at a later time. Too much fructose being sent to your liver has been linked to a condition, very similar to cirrosis of the liver, typically caused by overconsumption of alcohol. This condition is called Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease and has been linked to diabetes and obesity.
You most often hear of fructose being mentioned in High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is the main source of sweetener for most juices and sodas. Why? Because it’s considerably cheaper than cane sugar, thanks to corn subsidies provided to farmers, by the U.S. Government (ie. YOU!). I don’t want to get too political, but isn’t it ironic our government is, on one hand, discouraging the massive consumption of sodas and juices with high fructose corn syrup, and on the other hand, artificially keeping the cost down on high fructose corn syrup through these subsidies to corn framers? We really may have gone crazy. Haha…
If you really want to learn the truth about the sugar epidemic, I’d strongly encourage you to watch this video by Dr. Robert H. Lustig from UC San Francisco. He will explain is great detail why we are all overweight and in such bad health today and the connection all of this has to the increase in sugar consumption. It’s 90 minutes long, but it could add many years to your life. So, you do the math, invest 90 minutes, get back many years more.
How to Lose Weight on the Paleo Diet
If you’re just started out on the Paleo diet in an effort to lose weight, make sure you’re not consuming too much. The program I’m following is from Hard Exercise Works and is a hybrid on Dr. Barry Sears Zone Diet modified to be Paleo friendly. As a medium build male, I’m eating 5 “Zone Blocks” of protein, carb and fat, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My snacks consist of 1 “Zone Block” of each. Here’s a good breakdown of what a “Zone block” consists of:
- 1 Protein Block = 7 grams of protein
- 1 Carbohydrate Block = 9 grams of carbohydrate
- 1 Fat Block = 3 grams of fat
So, for me, being allowed 5 blocks of each, my breakfast would have 35 grams of protein, 45 grams of carbohydrate and 15 grams of fat. Keep in mind, all of these items would be Paleo diet friendly. So, my 45 grams of carbohydrates would come from fruits and vegetables, not bread and potatoes.
Eat All That You Want
The beauty of the Paleo or Caveman diet is, once you’re at your optimal weight, you can really eat all that you want, as long as it’s Paleo friendly. Why is this? Basically because all of these items are incredibly nutrient dense and you’ll fill up before you’ve consumed too many calories. Think about that bag of Doritos you’ve eaten in the past; if you had eaten the same amount of meat, fish, veggies, fruit or even nuts, you’d have been stuffed long before you got to the end of it. What about all those bread sticks you ate the last time you went to Olive Garden? You most likely consumed several hundred calories before you even started your meal. You had 500-600 calories (at least) and you were still hungry for the main course. Paleo foods satisfy your bodies hunger because it gives it exactly what it really needs, nutrition, not just bulk. So, eat up and enjoy!
Still not sure about this Caveman or Paleo Diet? Watch this video from a TEDx presentation by a medical doctor who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (stage 2) and confined, for the most part to a reclining wheelchair and could only walk with a double cane. Seriously, watch it and let her speak for the Paleo diet (also called a Hunter-Gatherer Diet).
If you’re looking for a great resource to help you get started on the right path to a Paleo or Caveman lifestyle, I highly recommend the Paleo Recipe Book. It doesn’t only have recipes, you’ll also get
- Suggested meals
- A meal planner
- A book full of Paleo desserts and
- A special guide to using spices to make your Paleo meals amazing.
There are numerous recipe sources online and you’ll find hours and hours of research to back up what I’ve presented here. If you’re not ready to make the jump at this point, commit to following this program for 30 days and measure the results. Be true to yourself and the experiment and don’t cheat. That doen’t accomplish anything. Measure your waist at the belly button before you start and again each week and let me know of your results in the comments. You’ll find, this is the #1 way to reduce your belly fat as quickly as possible.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting some wonderful Paleo Diet friendly recipes. So, be sure to take a moment and subscribe to my newsletter, so you’re the first to find out.