What is the Paleo Diet?
The simplest answer I give is that it’s a diet you would eat if you grew up on a family farm that did not grow any grains or beans. Everything is natural. So you could eat beef, pork, chicken, eggs, lamb, game meat, fruits, vegetable such as lettuce and spinach. Safe carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, taro or other tubers; and if you’re not lactose intolerant you could also eat milk and cheese.
That answer would be considered controversial among purist Paleo dieters who thinks that any form of carbohydrate or dairy are off-limits. I personally think if it feels good to eat and you’re healthier then eat it, but if whatever you’re doing isn’t producing your desired results then change what you do. What might work for one person doesn’t mean it’ll work for another, so there is no complete agreement on the Paleo diet.
When I ask people what they think the Paleo diet is I usually get, “Isn’t that the caveman diet?” or “It’s the diet where you eat meat, nuts, fruits, berries, and seeds right?” and the most common, “Isn’t that just Atkins?”
To them I answer both yes and no. Again, what is Paleo is debatable, but there are some basic ideas about the Paleo diet that everyone can agree on.
A Paleolithic Backdrop
Even if nutritionists, trainers, doctors, chefs, bloggers, mothers, athletes, researchers, and scientists can’t agree on what is an optimal Paleo diet, we all agree that our evolutionary past shape how we should eat today.
The paleolithic era started 2.6 million years ago and ended 10,000 years ago with the start of agriculture and the neolithic era. Up until the neolithic era, humans were hunter-gathers who forage for wild fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables; if we could scavenge or hunt an animal, it would have provided a great source of animal protein and fat.
We evolved eating this type of diet for most of our modern existence, our mind and bodies are optimized to the food that was available to the time and place we existed. Fossil records shows that paleolithic man was taller, stronger, and was less diseased than our neolithic ancestors.
Enter Agriculture and the Neolithic Era
Around 10,000 years ago societies started farming to sustain the huge jump in populations. 10,000 years is evolutionarily a blink of an eye. We evolved to a Paleo diet and lifestyle over the course of 160,000 years and we just haven’t had enough time to adjust to our neolithic diet.
Those who could not tolerate a grain based diet probably died off rather quickly and their genes eliminated from the gene pool. Some people’s health were severely compromised by the neolithic diet but survived long enough to produce children.
We are the results of those children.
The food has not been processed
This means no fast food, no junk food, no refined carbohydrates such as bread (even whole grains), no refined white sugar (table sugar), nothing that had to pass through a factory and changed in shape or form to get into your mouth.
Grains are everywhere in the Western diet. Every supermarket, every restaurant, every coffee shop, and nearly every home has some form of grain stocked up. Why is it so ubiquitous in our society? Because they’re cheap to grow, and easy to get.
In my opinion, the Agricultural Revolution is the reason modern societies exist; large city-states could not thrive without an abundant food source. Imagine if everyone in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Austin, and other large American cities all demanded and only ate animal protein such as beef, pork, fish, and chicken? The demand for such food would cause a huge spike in the price. Probably a shortage and even riots.
How does a government solve such a problem? Tell the farmers to grow cheap and abundant cash crops such as grains and then pay them to do it. But that’s another topic of discussion.
The biological problems with grain is that we haven’t had enough time to evolve to properly digest them. Humans have existed for about 150,000 years, of that 150,000 years only the last 10,000 years has our body been introduced to grain as a main calorie source. We have spent most of our existence hunting and foraging.
So what about grains that make them so bad?
First, this is the reason why I completely avoid grains, it contains a protein call gluten. Gluten is a protein that when mixed with water it turns into a sticky and gooey substance, it’s what gives bread it’s elasticity and acts a binder for the pasta and bread we eat. But a lot of people, like myself are allergic to gluten. If I eat it, I start to get rashes, acne, lethargic, diarrhea, fat, and unwanted “love handles.”
Well it’s actual the carbohydrates that we consume when we eat gluten that causes us to be fat, not necessarily gluten itself; but carbohydrates and gluten go hand in hand.
Which brings me to the second reason why I avoid grains. It has a lot of carbohydrates per serving, which when consumed will increase your insulin response. Ever had a huge serving of pasta, bread, rice, or corn and then 15 to 30 minutes later have a huge spike in your energy only to crash about an hour or two later? Yup, that’s insulin doing it’s job.
All carbohydrates and sugars are turned into glucose in our body, if we eat too much carbs or sugar then our blood sugar level gets too high, which is bad. So our body releases insulin to store the extra glucose in our blood as body fat. That’s right, the love handles, thunder thighs, neck fat, belly fat are there because we over consume carbohydrates and sugars.
But that’s not even the worst part. Our bodies can’t handle that much sugar, over time the cells in the body that communicates with insulin to help store away the excess glucose as fat becomes “dull.” Leaving our blood sugar dangerously high. This is diabetes.
Grains contains phytic acid, an anti-nutrient. Our digestive system can’t digest phytate because we lack the hardware. The phytate binds to minerals in our digestive system as it passes through; minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium. Ever feel tired after eating a meal? Maybe you’re anemia due to a lack of iron in your diet.
Finally, grains have a toxin call lectins. Unlike you, me, and other animals plants can’t physically defend itself for predation. What is really to stop you from walking by a berry bush and eating some of the berries? Probably nothing physical, but plants evolved poison. Lectins stops our gastrointestinal system from repairing itself, when the GI tract is damage undigested food particles can flow freely into our bloodstream; instigating an immune response. This can lead to allergies and asthma.
I no longer have asthma attacks or need to use my inhaler after I stop consuming grains.
Legumes are just as bad as grains
Legumes such as red kidney beans, peanuts, soybeans, fava beans, etc are just as dangerous as grains. Why? Much like grains, legumes also had to evolve a defense mechanism to protect itself from animals like us from eating them. That mechanism, poison.
As well as having phytic acid, legumes also has lectin, a toxin that causes a leaky gut, diarrhea, bloating, inflammation, and just horrible digestion in general. Soaking and extended cooking of the legumes does lessen it’s detrimental effects, as well as sprouting.
Legumes are also a decent source of protein and some minerals such as potassium and magnesium, but given the opportunity to get my protein from beef, chicken, or fish would you pick beans instead? Even if you acquired a taste for legumes the negative effects on your health is probably not worth it.
The food cannot be man made
No GMOs (Genetically modified Organisms), no artificial sweeteners, no mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives, or other excito-toxins. If mother nature didn’t make it, you can’t eat it.
I didn’t need the Paleo diet to understand the detrimental effect of chemicals in our food, I learned this from experience. When I used to go to restaurants that “enhanced” their food with chemicals such as MSG, I would get incredibly sharp and painful headaches for days that would last for hours at a time. There was no real cure other than waiting it out.
The meat you’re eating didn’t consume grains
This means you don’t eat beef, pork, chicken, fish or any other farm raised animal that had a diet of grains. Animals that eat grains get the same problems humans gets when they consume grains, and we in turn get those problems if we eat the animals.
Which is why people on the Paleo diet consumes wild fish, organic pastured raised beef, pork, chicken, and plants.
Not all calories are equal
This is probably the most important idea of the Paleo diet. I used to think that a calorie is a calorie, is a calorie. That a calorie of fat from a bag of chips that was fried in vegetable oil (trans fat) is the same as a calorie from coconut oil. Nothing could be further from the truth, the calorie from the bag of chip will wreck havoc on your body, make you tired, obese, and slow down your metabolism. The calorie from the coconut oil (good fat) is full of saturated fats (good) and will actual speed up your metabolism. Giving you more energy to help you through the day and help you burn fat.
There are good fats and there are bad fats
Fats have been vilified by everyone about it’s negative effect on health and is the biggest reason why so many Americans are obese today. Yes, there are definitely bad fats such as the trans fat and high omega-6 content from peanut oil, corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil that causes a host of problems from cardiovascular disease to liver damage. But there are also good fats too. Read more on vegetable oil here.
Fats such as fish oil, olive oil, tree nuts, avocados, coconut oil, butter, ghee, beef tallow, and pork fat are all healthful when not over consumed. Personally I try to consume about 1 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day; the result effect is that I feel more energized and sharp.
Eat fat to lose fat
I usually get a confused or a “Are you kidding me?” look when I tell people they should eat more fat to lose fat and weight. I was even skeptical after reading all the papers, books, and articles on the subject; I really only took it to heart when I started to lose weight after I started eating fat, instead of “healthy” carbohydrates to lose weight.
What you can eat on the Paleo Diet
- Grass-fed red meat (Beef, bison, venison)
- Wild game meat
- Pastured raised Pork
- Pastured raised Poultry
- Wild caught fish
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Nut and seeds (No peanuts, it’s a legume)
- Healthy Oils and fats (Extra virgin olive oil, walnut, flax seed, macadamia, avocados, extra virgin coconut oil, tallow, pork fat)
- Safe carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, yucca, yams, and white rice
- Diary if you’re not lactose intolerant
What can’t you eat on the Paleo Diet
- Refined carbohydrates
- Refined sugars
- Legumes (all type of beans, including peanuts)
- Grains such as oats, rye, and corn
- Diary if you are lactose intolerant
- Processed food
For a more complete list, check out the Paleo Diet Food List.