The theory behind the Paleo diet is to mimic the eating patterns of the hunter-gatherers of our past, before processed foods came into play. Many believe these hunter-gatherer diets will help to optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight. Paleo is a low-carb (and low-glycemic), high-fat, moderate protein, and high-fiber diet. These factors are quite different from the standard American diet (SAD) which is only one of the many reasons why people who follow it religiously have great results.
The Paleo diet and lifestyle is a fairly recent popular diet. When I went to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in 2007 we did not even learn about this diet. It wasn't until I went to an alumni conference in 2010, when I saw Mark Sisson speak and I learned all about the benefits of this diet. (If you love learning about dietary theories, IIN is the place to be. Click here to get a sample class)
Here are the Basics:
Foods Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet
- Grass-fed meats
- Fish and shellfish
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Nuts & Seeds
- Healthy Oils (Olive oil, macadamia oil, avocado oil, coconut oil)
- Grass-fed butter & fermented dairy (minimal) – This is part allowed in the Primal Diet (by Mark Sisson) which is closely related to Paleo
Foods to Avoid on the Paleo Diet
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Conventional Dairy
- Refined sugar
- White potatoes
- Processed food
- Refined vegetable oils
It's all about the Veggies
Even though most people think the paleo diet is all about meat, it's really not. Meat is a part of this diet but it's not the only thing that is eaten on this diet. It's all about lots of fresh vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, and also plant and animal protein. Most healthy diets are based on eating lots of vegetables and this diet is no different.
Why does the Paleo Diet Eliminate Grain?
Grains were never a big part of the human diet until the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. The idea is that the human body never fully evolved to be able to digest an assimilate grains as effectively it does hunter-gatherer type foods. Paleo believers say that you cannot achieve optimum health when grains are a part of the diet because of the difficulty to digest and retain the nutrients. It is making the body work harder to digest food and not providing as much nutrition as vegetables, fruits, or responsibly sourced animal protein.
Grains also contain something called phytic acid. When grains are not properly prepared by soaking for 24 hours prior to cooking this acid is present. The problem with phytic acid is that it blocks the absorption of minerals in the body. Minerals are essential to so many of the body's functions and lack of minerals can lead to health issues such as constipation, weakened bones, and tooth decay.
Lastly, grains, like all carbohydrates they will be broken down into glucose in the body. When glucose does not get burned off it will turn into fat. Unless you are doing a major workout, carb-heavy meals will likely get stored as fat, leading to weight gain.
Aren't High-Fat Diet's Unhealthy?
The low-fat diet crazy in the 80's and 90's really ruined it for fat. Most people have a negative view of eating fats and believe that they will make them fat. This just isn't true, if there is anything that might make you fat it's an excess of carbohydrates (especially refined ones).
Fat is needed in the diet for so many reasons. The reason why fat feels so satisfying to eat and keep you from getting hungry quickly is because it goes through so many processes to get fully digested in the body. It is necessary to store the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K in the liver and fatty tissues and make them useful. It also helps to transport nutrients to other cells in the body. The body utilizes fat for everything from activating hormones to building immune function so as you can see it is a necessary part of our diet.
The human brain is composed of nearly 60% fat and fatty acids are critical in facilitating brain performance. Omega 3s (EPA and DHA) are necessary for proper brain development which is why I have concerns about low-fat diets for children. Unfortunately, there are very few vegan sources that provide these nutrients. The best vegans sources include seaweed, flax, chia, and hemp seeds which can be difficult to get in high enough quantity.
The Keys to a Successful Paleo Diet
When people first learn about the basics of the paleo diet and hear that they can't eat grain, they give up right there. This is how much our culture has revolved itself around eating grains. It's really to the point where people can't imagine what else they will eat if they don't eat grain. I promise you there is a lot more to food then grain.
I've been eating a [mostly] paleo diet since 2010 (I'll admit it I do cheat sometimes!) and along the way I've figured out a few things that support a successful transition to eating a paleo diet.
- If it's not paleo, don't keep it in the house. This is really just a rule for any diet. If there are temptations just lying around, you'll eat it.
- Stock up on paleo staples. When you transform your diet to a paleo diet you will be making new recipes and transforming old ones into the paleo version of itself. You'll need some paleo pantry staples around to do this. Here are some of the things I keep:
- Meal Planning. Making any dietary transformation requires a plan. You'll need to find some new recipes and decide what meals you'll make each day and what snacks you will make or buy to have around when you need one. I cannot stress enough how important this last step is in the process. If there is no plan, it will likely fall apart. If you are new to meal planning, read this post: How to Create a Meal Plan in 15 Minutes.