22nd of March 2014

The Paleo Diet

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleolithic Diet (Paleo for short) is a way of eating that advocates eating what we assume humans ate for most of our evolutionary history (which is the Paleolithic era, from 2.5m years ago until about 20,000 years ago). It takes the foods that we think humans have evolved to eat as the starting point, and then adapts that to modern life based on current science and empirical results. It’s also known as the Primal Diet, Stone Age Diet or Caveman Diet.

The theory is that all animals–humans also–are evolved to eat specific things, while they did not evolved to eat other things, so we should only eat the things that work well with our biology. For example, a tiger is evolved to eat raw meat, bone and organs of animals it kills or scavenges. If it does not get it’s food in this form, but from some other source–even if it is nutritionally equivalent–it dies. The calories matter less than the form the food takes.

In the case of humans, we seem to be omnivores adapted to eat fresh whole proteins, clean fats, fresh or fermented vegetables, limited starches and tubers, fruits and nuts. The paleo diet assumes that the main problems for humans are caused by eating things that were never present in our past; e.g., processed grains and sugars, which have only been produced in the last 10,000 years. By eating what our ancestors ate, we’re eating what we’re “genetically adapted to eat” according to our biological evolution, which leads to optimum hormone expression, health and body composition.

Following a Paleo diet will also lead to weight loss by cutting out refined carbohydrates, keeping your insulin levels low, which leads to fat loss (source). It has gained popularity recently and was the most googled diet in 2013.

Who is the Paleo Diet best for?

Generally speaking, paleo is good for people who want to go beyond just weight loss, and really care about their health, especially the way their diet impacts their overall health, and want to eat in a way that is both preventative of disease and optimizes their health over the long term. In short:

– People willing to put a bit more work into their diet (it’s harder to follow that the Slow Carb Diet)
– People looking to improve health as well as lose weight
– Probably better for athletes than slow carb due to introduction of fruit and tubers for more energy

What benefits can I expect to see if I start the Paleo Diet?

The results will depend on where you are in your life, but these are the most common results that people get:

-weight loss (significant weight loss, if you are significantly overweight)
-increase in energy
-reduced risk of numerous diseases, like heart disease, hypertension, etc, etc
-clearer, better thinking
-better sex drive (for men)
-better overall health on numerous scales

Decreased risk of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gout, inflammatory diseases, and a bunch of other unpleasant stuff. See here.

Success stories
Robb Wolf’s testimonials
Mark Sisson’s success stories
Loren Cordain’s testimonials – broken down into different categories (weight loss, athletes, diabetes sufferers, autoimmune diseases)
60 lbs overweight to six-pack abs

What are the rules of the Paleo Diet?

Here are the basics of the Paleo Diet, according to Robb Wolf (full article here):

In simple terms the paleo diet is built from modern foods that (to the best of our ability and knowledge) emulate the foods available to our pre-agricultural ancestors: Meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits, roots, tubers and nuts. On the flip-side we see an omission of grains, legumes and dairy. As this is directed to folks new to the paleo diet idea we need to address the “What Abouts.” This is the seemingly endless list of ingredients that folks ask: “What about artificial sweeteners, agave nectar, red wine…” In simple terms, if it’s not meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits, roots, tubers or nuts…it’s a “no-go.”

Notice that this is just a slightly more complex version of the Slow Carb Diet (or, really, the Slow Carb Diet is a slightly simpler version of the Paleo diet). The main difference: Paleo isn’t big on legumes, but it does allow fruits and starchy root vegetables (sweet potatoes) in moderation.

What can I eat?

The rule of thumb I use is this: If a caveman would have recognized it as food, I can eat it, otherwise I leave it alone. In practice, this means:

Proteins: Eggs, Beef, Lamb, Venison, Fish, Oysters, Crab, Chicken, Pork, etc
Starchy Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, yams, squash, etc
Vegetables: Spinach, asparagus, peas, mixed vegetables, carrots, broccoli, green beans, sauerkraut (or any pickled or fermented vegetable), etc
Fruits: Apples, bananas, berries, etc
Fats: Coconut oil, olive oil, butter, ghee, etc
Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, etc

What can I not eat?

As a general rule, everything else should be avoided. This especially means avoiding any food made with grain, sugar, legumes (beans), or dairy, and some starches like regular potatoes.

So for example:

-no rice (it’s a grain)
-no bread (it’s made from wheat)
-no cereal (it’s made from wheat)
-no pasta (it’s made from wheat)
-no noodles (it’s made from wheat)
-no pizza (it’s made with bread, and has dairy in it)
-no beans (it’s a legume)
-no tortillas, corn chips, etc (all made with corn, which is a grain)
-nothing with breading on it (the breading is made from grains)
-no candy, no soda, no pudding, no ice cream, etc (all have tons of sugar)
-no potatoes (sweet potatoes are good, because they aren’t potatoes, explained below)
-no soy products (tofu, etc, they are legumes)
-no dairy (this gets complicated, see below)

The Complications Of History

The reality is that we do not know for sure what Paleo humans ate, and we don’t know exactly how humans have changed in the 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture. We do know obvious things–nothing even close to Doritos were available to paleo humans–but we’re not entirely sure of the range and complexity of their diet.

But even if we did know that information, the fact is, the “paleo” foods you buy at the grocery store–even things like steak–are not like the foods that paleo humans ate. Take meat as the example: the nutritional makeup of game meat (i.e., the animals paleo humans would have hunted) is very very different than the nutritional profile of commercially produced cow meat.

Because of this, there is no clearly defined and always “right” way to eat paleo. The main tenets are to avoid grains and sugars and legumes, and eat lots of proteins, fats and vegetables, and limited fruits and nuts. That is very much in line with what the archeological data tells us, and in line with the current scientific findings about what is actually healthy for humans right now.

So if we’re pretty confident of the core tenets, here are where the possible deviations come in:

The Borderline Food Choices

There are some areas that are currently “debatable” within the paleo space. These are:

Dairy: Even though all dairy food is made from the milk of cows (or sometimes sheep or goats), dairy is a big category of food, and there is some variation possible. First off, if you are lactose intolerant, just stay away from all dairy. But if you can handle lactose, there are some dairy foods that you can not only eat, but are very good for you. Here’s the general rule:

If the dairy is fermented, and has nothing else added to it, then you can probably eat it. So for example, Greek yogurt is dairy, but it’s fermented, so it’s good (almost any fermented food is good for you). So is any good cheese (not Velveeta, I mean real cheese), especially blue cheeses and hard cheddars. And butter is cultured, so it is also very much OK.

Potatoes vs. sweet potatoes: Potatoes are generally not good on paleo, while sweet potatoes are. Why? To explain this, I have to teach you what a potato actually is: it is a tuber, which tend to be non-optimal for human health.

The confusing thing is that sweet potatoes are not actually potatoes; they are a root vegetable, like yams, yucca, carrots, beets, etc, which are almost always good for humans.

I’ll be honest here: this area of the vegetable world–tubers, roots and starches–are still a bit confusing the paleo community. We do know that lots of pre-agricultural peoples had starches in their diets. We’re not totally sure which ones, or what amount, or how they prepared them. What you should care about is how these things impact your health today, and there is a lot of data that indicatessweet potatoes are good for you, while potatoes are not so great.

What’s the best way to start the Paleo Diet?

When you start going paleo, it’s wise to be very strict for the first 1-2 months. Beyond that time, it may make sense to start slowly re-introducing a few of these foods into your diet, to see what happens.

Common Paleo Diet Mistakes (with solutions)

-Trying to be perfect; Don’t be perfect; perfect is enemy of good
-Making lots of big changes at once; start small, do it in steps
-Being too hard on mistakes; not forgiving yourself for mistakes and getting into downward spirals

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I drink alcohol?
Technically no alcohol is “paleo” – but you do have options (although stay away from beer). Robb Wolf recommends a NorCal margarita (2 shots of gold tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice and soda water).

Does Paleo involve cheat days?
Not really – but you can schedule it how you want. Even Loren Cordain accepts that being 85-90% paleo compliant should be fine. Mark Sisson opts for the 80/20 principle. Here’s some advice on how to have a paleo friendly cheat day.

Why do I feel groggy and have a headache?
This is common with a lot of low-carb diets (aka low-carb flu). Make sure you drink lots of water and get enough salt in your diet. It should go away in a couple of weeks.

Isn’t this really expensive?
It doesn’t have to be. Here’s ten tips for eating paleo on the cheap. There are loads of recipes at Paleo on a Budget. Another good guide is how to eat paleo without going broke.

Why am I hungry all the time?
You’re not eating enough. Common mistake. Eat more.

What about dairy?
The jury is still out on dairy. Some Paleo writers avoid it, some embrace it. Mark Sisson gives a good summary of both sides of the issue here. One option is to eliminate it for the first 30 days, then slowly add it back in and see how you feel.

Is this suitable for athletes or people who work out a lot?
Yes – with more focus on carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, fruit etc. Loren Cordain gives a good overview here or you can get his book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes (and you can read the first 60 pages for free here). A high-fat, grain free diet also seems to work pretty well for Novak Djokovic and the LA Lakers.

What do doctors/nutritionists/health professionals think of the Paleo diet?
See here. There’s a lot of debate. But as a general rule people won’t argue with the fact that cutting processed foods and refined sugar out of your diet and replacing them with whole, natural animal foods and vegetables is good for you.

What if I’m vegetarian?
It will be harder, particularly in making sure that you get enough protein, but it’s possible. You still need to stay away from grains and legumes though.

Are meal frequencies important?
Not really. As long as you’re stick to paleo foods, eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full, you should be fine.

What should I eat for breakfast?
You don’t HAVE to eat breakfast (see previous question), but if you do, there are a lot of options. As with slow carb, eggs, bacon, sausage and tomato would be paleo-compliant.

What about eating out?
Chicken salads without dressings other than olive oil/balsamic vinegar are fine (as on slow carb diet). Hamburger (no bun, side salad) is another option, as is steak. Avoid sauces and look for gluten-free options on menus, which lots of restaurants have these days.

Won’t a high fat diet lead to heart problems and increased cholesterol?
No. “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease].”

Did Paleolithic man REALLY eat like this?
We don’t know for sure – paleolithic diets almost certainly varied by geography, season and so on. There’s a good discussion here (see figure 15 and 16 on page 7 for a visual breakdown of hunter-gatherer diets). We definitely know that he didn’t eat oreos, milkshakes and gummy bears. We know enough to know that the diet outlined above is a good approximation to what our ancestors ate, and that eating like this will lead to much better health.

Don’t low carb diets lead to weight loss just because I’m eating less calories anyway?
In Why We Get Fat Gary Taubes argues that this is the wrong way round – you eat less on a low carb diet because your body can burn fat for energy as well as food, so you don’t NEED to eat as much in the first place.

Isn’t it just calories in vs. calories out? Why all the emphasis on refined sugars and grains?
One word: hormones. Over-eating will of course make you fat, but that doesn’t tackle the question of WHY you overeat – it’s like saying alcoholism is caused by drinking too much. Gary Taubes (Why We Get Fat) explains it clearly: “we do not get fat because we overeat; we get fat because the carbohydrates in our diet make us fat. The science tells us that obesity is ultimately the result of a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one – specifically, the stimulation of insulin secretion caused by eating easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods…these literally make us fat, and by driving us to accumulate fat, they make us hungrier and they make us sedentary.”

Didn’t cavemen have a very short life expectancy?
Not really. Actually, research demonstrates that it wasn’t uncommon for paleolithic man to reach 65-75 years old. From The Paleo Solution: “although the life expectancy of HGs (hunter-gatherers) was relatively short due to illness and injury, those who lived into advanced age…did not lose muscle mass or gain body fat as they aged. Decreases in flexibility were minimal, while certain inescapable elements of aging such as vision and hearing loss appear to have progressed at a much slower rate.”

To put it another way: if they did die early, it probably wasn’t due to their diet.

How important is organic/grass-fed/local/heritage breed/pasture raised/etc?
The answer is not a simple one. Here’s probably the easiest way to think about it:

At the beginning, don’t worry about the source of your food. It’s hard enough to make these changes, don’t make it over complicated for yourself. Start the diet, and see what results you get. If you get great results and you’re happy, then don’t sweat it.

If you’re getting good results but want more, or if you feel like you really want to dive into the specifics and learn more and get the very best results possible, that’s when you should start paying attention to the source and quality of your food. Organic does matter with some things (like leafy vegetables), and grass-fed does matter with some things (like lamb and beef), and sourcing your food can be very, very beneficial for your health. But these things aren’t the most important things in eating, so get to them later, and then, only if you want to.

More Resources

Robb Wolf’s What is the Paleo Diet?
Robb Wolf’s Paleo Quick Start guide
Mark Sisson’s Definitive Guide to Primal Eating
The Paleo Food Matrix
The Paleo Subreddit and FAQ
Nerd Fitness: The Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet
(4,000 word post)
Paleo Hacks – Paleo for Beginners guide (contains recipes as well)
Ultimate Paleo Guide – contains meal plans, recipes
Paleo in 6 easy steps
Loren Cordain answers FAQs about the Paleo diet
Detailed post why grains are bad for you

NomNom Paleo
Primal Cravings Cookbook
Paleo recipes on Pinterest
2 week paleo meal plan with shopping list (pdf)
30 day meal plan (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
Index of Paleo recipe sites from /r/paleo FAQ
Top 100 paleo recipes (organised into categories: beef, chicken, lamb, fruit, drinks,
dessert, eggs, fish, pork, vegetables)
101 paleo recipes split by breakfast, lunch, dinner, italian food substitutes, desserts,
smoothies, bacon
Paleo seasoning
50 paleo sauces

Paleo central app – tells you what food is and isn’t paleo, and
offers alternatives
Paleo food matrix (to put a good meal together, pick one
thing from each column)

Success stories
Robb Wolf’s testimonials
Mark Sisson’s success stories
Loren Cordain’s testimonials – broken down into different categories (weight loss, athletes, diabetes sufferers, autoimmune diseases)
60 lbs overweight to six-pack abs

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