The paleo diet is a diet based on ancestral nutrition. This means that the paleo diet focuses on foods our ancestors would have eaten, while excluding foods that were introduced more recently in terms of human evolution. This article will cover the basics of what to eat, what not to eat, the health benefits of paleo, and frequently asked questions.
Hunting and gathering was the only method for procuring food for 7 million years of human history, while grains and legumes weren’t introduced until agriculture was adopted during the neolithic revolution approximately 12,000 years ago. Paleo is essentially a diet based on the diets of our hunter-gathered ancestors. Our bodies are not as biologically adapted to consume grains, legumes, and dairy because these foods were introduced much later in human evolution (source).
While there are some very logical reasons on why the paleo diet makes sense, the most important part is how it benefits you. The paleo diet is an incredibly nutrient dense diet which can help fix nutritional deficiencies, especially of fat soluble vitamins. The paleo diet can improve your overall health by cutting out the products that are responsible for our current health crisis such as refined sugars, processed meats, and chemical additives.
Studies have found that the paleo diet improves glycemic control, reduce weight, and reduces cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood triglycerides (source). Many people also report improved digestion, energy, and mood on the paleo diet. Personally, I have greatly improved my IBS and cystic acne with the help of paleo and the autoimmune protocol.
Foods to Avoid on Paleo
- Grains: wheat, rice, barley, corn, spelt, millet, amaranth etc.
- Pseudograins: quinoa, buckwheat
- Legumes: peanuts, beans, peas, lentils, soy
- Dairy: cheese, milk, cream (discussed further below)
- Sugar: refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup
- Artificial sweeteners
- Food additives: food dyes, MSG, preservatives (BHT/BHA), thickeners (carrageenan), emulsifiers (soy lecithin)
Foods to Eat on Paleo
- Vegetables (not including corn): tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, beet, peppers
- Fruit: apple, berries, banana, citrus, coconut, plantain, squash, avocado, coconut
- Nuts and Seeds: almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, flax, chia, hemp
- Eggs: free range, no hormones and antibiotics, fed their natural diet
- Seafood: wild (avoid farmed fish)
- Meat: from animals that were pastured and fed their natural diet
- Offal: bone broth, heart, liver, tongue, kidney
- Fats: lard, duck fat, coconut oil, olive oil, and other healthy fats
- Natural Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar in moderation
Foods that might be OK
Some people chose to eat grass-fed, raw milk products on paleo because they are very nutritious. Dairy is allowed on the primal diet which is a similar diet based on ancestral nutrition. Many people on paleo still use butter as a healthy fat as well. If you are intolerant to dairy it is best to avoid it, but if dairy doesn’t bother you it might be OK to keep it in your diet. Always make sure your dairy is grass fed and preferably raw. L’Ancetre is one brand of cheese that is made with organic raw milk.
White rice is considered to be the least irritating grain as it is almost purely starch. Therefore some people on paleo use white rice as a “safe starch”. This is because all of the anti-nutrients and irritating insoluble fiber is located in the shell which has been removed. It is best to completely eliminate grains when starting paleo, but you may want to experiment with using white rice after you are comfortable with the paleo diet.
While this is technically a vegetable, some people argue that white potato is “not paleo” because it is a high glycemic index starch and also contains anti-nutrients and lectins similar to grains (source). Having white potato in moderation is most likely fine, however it should be avoided if you suffer from an autoimmune condition as it is part of the nightshade family.
Some people include dried fruit in their diet but it is very concentrated in sugar so it is best used as an occasional treat. Eating dried fruit regularly can cause digestive issues and blood sugar spikes for sensitive individuals.
How Closely Does Paleo Mimic a True Ancestral Diet?
Not very close at all. While paleo is based on ancestral nutrition, it is impossible to truly eat what our ancestors ate due to the evolution of our food. Although this is a common argument against the paleo diet, this doesn’t take away the fact that there are tons of real benefits to eating paleo. The paleo diet is based on both ancestral diets and nutrient density. Just because something wasn’t eaten by our ancestors doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy.
Didn’t Cavemen Die Young?
This is another common argument against the paleo diet, but it is a misconception. The average lifespan of the caveman was around 25, however this average includes high infant mortality rates and also childhood mortality due to diseases. If we look at the hunter-gatherers that survived birth and childhood, their average age of death was 72 (source). The current life expectancy of the US is 78 and this is with the development of medical technology.
Why are Grains and Legumes not Paleo?
Grains and legumes were both introduced late into our diet in terms of human evolution. I have gone through the topic of grains already in this article which outlines the major list of reasons why grains can be unhealthy. These reasons include low nutrient density, anti-nutrients, insoluble fiber, gluten (in the case of glutenous grains), as well as the way they are eaten (not properly prepared and eaten in excessive amounts). Most of the arguments against grains also apply to legumes excluding gluten. Check out this article for more information on legumes.
Is Paleo a Low-Carb Diet?
Paleo can be a low carbohydrate diet, but it doesn’t have to be. Most people on paleo include “safe starches” in their diet including yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, squash, arrowroot powder, and natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup. Depending on your health goals you may or may not want to go low-carb. For example, if you are pregnant, an athlete, or have thyroid problems you should avoid eating very low carbohydrate (source). It is generally recommended to stay below 150g of carbohydrates per day. Check out the diagram below for more information.
photo by Mark’s Daily Apple
What’s the Difference Between Paleo and AIP?
The autoimmune protocol or AIP is a strict paleo elimination diet, while paleo is more of a general diet. You can read more about AIP here.
Is Paleo The Right Diet for Me?
The best way to find out is to give it a try! Try the paleo diet for 30 days and see how it works for you. You can find lots of delicious recipes for both paleo and AIP under Nutrition is Medicine’s recipe tab.
I hope you found this overview of the paleo diet helpful! If you have any more questions feel free to leave them in the comments! You can keep up to date with all Nutrition is Medicine’s articles by liking the Facebook page, subscribing below, or following me on google+.