Published on February 27th, 2013 | by Nick Coe0
Everything You Need to Know Before You Go PALEO
The Paleo — or Paleolithic — diet has received a lot of media attention lately, both good and bad. Also known as the Caveman or Hunter-Gatherer diet, it has both passionate advocates and furious detractors. Advocates say the the diet has been instrumental in helping them drop their spare tires and ramping up their energy levels, and detractors say it’s extreme at best and harmful at worst. Who’s right? Read on and decide for yourself.
What Paleo Is and Where it Came From
Paleo is a way of eating that mimics the hunter-gatherer diets of our earliest human ancestors. It is based around the foods that were available before people took up farming: meats, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. That means Paleo avoids grains and foods made from them (bread, rice, oatmeal), as well as legumes (beans), dairy (no milk, cheese, butter), processed foods, alcohol, refined sugar, and certain supermarket vegetable oils (soybean oil, canola).
The idea that we should be eating more like our ancient ancestors came from the simple observation that cultures that follow their traditional diets have a lot less obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease than those who eat the modern diet common in industrialized countries. You know the one: lots of fast food, super-sized vats of soda, pockets of mystery goo zapped in the microwave. When people from traditional cultures begin to eat this diet, they too begin to fall ill with the “diseases of civilization”. Unfortunately, it’s a lifestyle that’s spreading rapidly all over the world.
Some scientists have come to the conclusion that the source of a large percentage of our health problems come from the fact that our bodies have not been able to keep up with the flood of new types of foods that were introduced with farming. After all, the raising of animals for dairy and the growing of grain began only about 10,000 years ago, which is too short a time for our bodies to evolve.
So maybe it’s true our sugar-laden, overly-processed, industrialized Western diet is killing us.
How Do We Even Know What Cavemen Ate?
Short answer: We don’t, exactly. We can figure out some things from sheer logic – there were no Hostess apple pies in ancient times, for instance – but we can also look at what some very traditional societies who haven’t changed their lifestyles are eating today. We can also look at old teeth and bones and the preserved remains of mummies. One thing that becomes immediately obvious is that traditional diets vary wildly based on geography. Some hunter-gatherer tribes in Southern Africa get only 25% of their calories from animal food, while the Inuits get all of it from animals.
What the diets of all traditional cultures have in common, however, is that they are composed of whole foods with very little waste, and that there is a minimum of concentrated sugar and starch. This is why Paleo focuses on whole, unprocessed foods that were available to ancient people, and does not concern itself too much with exact ratios of fat, protein, and carbohydrates – it is clear there is room for much dietary variety under the rubric “Paleo.”
What are the Benefits?
Adopting a Paleo diet/lifestyle is likely to help you lose weight, moderate your blood sugar, lower your blood pressure, make you stronger and more fit, avoid allergies, and help you fight off illnesses of all kinds with a stronger immune response.
The Difference Between Paleo and Low Carb
While there are some definite similarities – an emphasis on protein, limiting of carbs – Paleo can be experienced as a lifestyle a philosophy rather than just another diet. Doing low carb for eight weeks might help you fit into a bikini, but it will probably not do much for your long-term overall health. Low carb doesn’t have much to say about processed foods, either – you see a lot of “snack bars” and the like in low carb diets. They are usually also very dairy-rich, relying heavily on yogurt and cheese.
In Paleo, the wholeness of your food is very important. Paleo dieters will eat the heart, the liver, the bone marrow, and not just the skinless, lean chicken breast.
Moreover, Paleo concepts can also be applied to other aspects of life, such as exercise, sleep, and stress management. More on those in a minute.
The Problem With Grains
There is evidence that grains are unhealthy on many levels. First, they are a source of very concentrated carbohydrates, and carbs have been shown to spike insulin levels which in turn causes your body to store fat.
Secondly, grains contain anti-nutrients. These are substances that interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Grains don’t want to be digested, because they’re seeds and need to pass through the human or animal body in good enough condition to grow. Read more about grains and anti-nutrients here.
You’ve no doubt heard of gluten and the rising numbers of people who are discovering they are gluten intolerant. Gluten is the substance in wheat and some other grains that gives bread its chewy texture, but it is highly reactive in some people and causes them a host of health problems. In fact, there’s evidence that many more people are gluten-sensitive than modern medicine recognizes: many people feel better – more energetic, lighter, etc – when they give up gluten altogether.
One thing is certain: it can’t harm you to give up grains for a month or two to see if your health improves.
What Does a Paleo Menu Look Like?
Unlike paleolithic people, we have an almost endless choice of foods to choose from all year round. Following are some ideas for a daily meal plan:
Omelette with spinach, mushrooms, onions, and peppers
Bowl of berries with coconut milk
Bacon, eggs, and kale
Handful of almonds
Raw veggies with chicken liver pate
Hard boiled egg and olives
Large salad with grilled shrimp, oil and vinegar dressing, and raw veggies
Spaghetti squash with tomato sauce
Packed lunch: Tuna salad in lettuce wraps
Steak, broccoli with olive oil and lemon
Grilled fish, sweet potato, broccoli
Brownies made from coconut flour
This Seems Like A Lot of Cooking. How Can I Make Paleo Easier to Follow?
On the weekend, or whenever you have a stretch of time, cook for the rest of the week. Roast a whole chicken and a roast beef, cut them up, leave some portions fresh and freeze the rest for later in the week (Food safety rules say you shouldn’t keep cooked meat in the fridge longer than three or four days). Boil a dozen eggs. These foods will provide you with a backbone of meals for the rest of the week. In general, cooking in bulk saves time and energy.
Also, find some of dried staples that you can keep on hand. These might include jerkies (beef, elk, bison, etc), dried fruit (apricots, apples, dates), nuts of all kinds. Some nuts, jerky, and a couple of apricots make a decent quick lunch. Also keep your pantry stocked with canned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines).
Also realize that, with care, you can still eat out. Not every meal has to be eaten at home. More and more restaurants are adding in low-carb options, and many of these are also Paleo friendly. Look for salads with meat, such as chicken or grilled shrimp with a vinaigrette (ask to hold the cheese). A plain piece of meat and a side of vegetables is a common option in many restaurants. Even some fast food places will replace your hamburger bun with a large lettuce leaf.
Ideas for Eating Paleo on a Budget
Although centering your diet around the best cuts of grass-fed beef, the most sustainably caught fish, and organic greens might be ideal – and delicious — it will also be pricey. But there is no reason to give up on the idea of the Paleo diet just because you’re on a tight budget. In fact, you can save money eating Paleo. Canned tuna is cheap, and it works. Less-than-prime beef is fine. You can find less expensive, tougher cuts and cook them longer (crock pot, represent!). Sardines are a wonderful, relatively inexpensive source of fish and fish oil. Frozen fish fillets, without the breading, of course, can be bought in bulk and on sale. It helps to have a freezer.
If you’re interested in the highest quality meat at the lowest price, look into local farms that sell sides of grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured chicken. A half a cow is a lot of meat: share with a friend.
The key to eating Paleo on a budget the same key to so many things in life: planning ahead.
Paleo Controversy #1: Butter
Now, there is some controversy as to whether butter is strictly “paleo” or not. Those who argue against butter state, rightly, that our ancient ancestors certainly didn’t eat it. But butter has much to recommend it to the Paleo fan. Butter can be found in the traditional diets of cultures all around the world. Its saturated fat is exactly the kind of fat that makes the Paleo diet so healthy: medium and short chain fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, which have anti-cancer properties. See the Weston A. Price Foundation for more information on the virtues of butter. And, of course, butter tastes like nothing else.
Paleo Controversy #2: Potatoes
It’s true that potatoes are a whole, unprocessed food that closely resemble the tubers that our ancestors probably ate, and that chimps can be found digging out of the jungle floor with sticks to this day. However, they are a very concentrated source of carbohydrate and what’s worse, glucose. There is good reason to avoid food high on the GI index, particularly if you are overweight or diabetic.
So, butter is technically not Paleo, but you might want to keep it in your diet, while potatoes are, but you might want to avoid them. Sweet potatoes have a bit more fiber and some additional nutrients, and are lower on the GI index, so they might be a good replacement if you are potato addict. (A sweet potato recipe: Paul Deen’s Sweet Potato Fries)
But I’m Worried About My Cholesterol!
There is an argument to be made that the dangers of cholesterol have been vastly over-stated. In fact, your body finds cholesterol to be so necessary that it makes 75% of the body’s serum cholesterol itself, and only 25% comes from food. It’s in every cell of your body, forming the cell and nerve membranes and manufacturing bile, which is vital to the breaking down of fat and the absorption of vitamins K, D, E, and A. Without cholesterol, your body wouldn’t be able to make hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. People with very low cholesterol have a greater incidence of hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke and of major depression.
Clearly, our sometimes monomaniacal focus on lowering cholesterol can come at a real cost.
Moreover, the link between dietary and blood cholesterol – that is, how much you eat vs how much can be measured in your blood – is tenuous. Some scientists are claiming that what you eat makes no difference to your blood levels.
That said, some people report that the Paleo diet actually reduces serum cholesterol levels. It is safe to say that we have lot to learn about the exact mechanism of cholesterol and how it affects the body. Meanwhile, keeping our weight in check, eating lots of green vegetables, and getting exercise will go a long way toward improving the health of our arteries and body in general.
Can I Be Diabetic and Still Be Paleo?
Evidence shows that eating a Paleo diet can reverse the effects of Type II Diabetes and reduce diabetics’ use of medication.
Is Paleo Really a Whole Lifestyle?
You can do Paleo any way it suits you. The diet alone will improve your health and vitality, particularly if you’re coming to it from the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.). However, to reap the full benefits of a Paleo diet, you should look at other aspects of your life as well: sleep, stress, and exercise.
Sleep: Paleolithic people probably slept a lot more than we do – they certainly didn’t stay up late watching videos and shopping at all-night convenient stores. They went to bed when it got dark – and in those days, it was really dark. Though it’s not practical for most of us to imitate a caveman sleep cycle, we can do a few things to restore our natural biological rhythms. One of these is turning the lights down in the evening to signal our brains that the day is winding down. Another is to get light-blocking curtains to mimic the artificial-light-free sleep atmosphere of paleolithic days.
Stress: While it might seem as if modern life is less stressful than a paleolithic one that involved saber tooth tigers and a daily search for food, stress in those days was likely intense but infrequent. Conversely, our jobs and family lives involve a low-grade, chronic stress that keeps cortisol (the stress hormone) levels consistently high, which in turn degrades our health and causes us to gain weight. A full-on Paleo lifestyle will attempt to reduce chronic, daily stress.
Exercise: Some followers of Paleo apply the principles of the diet – eat like a caveman – to their exercise, too, by asking the question: how did the human body evolve to move? The answer is: it moved a lot. It did not sit for 8 to 12 hours a day. It lifted heavy things, and it sometimes moved really fast until it was exhausted. It didn’t do an aerobics class three mornings a week and spend the rest of the day in an office chair, and it probably didn’t jog on a treadmill.
More About Exercise
So what constitutes a great Paleo workout? Weight bearing exercise and the occasional intense cardio workout. While some Paleo fans object to cardio, there is an argument to be made that our ancestors did a good deal of running: after all, tracking game took hours, and presumably some of this would happen at a trot. The recent book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall describes how the traditional Native Mexican Tarahumaras run for hundreds of miles, totally barefoot. That can only be described as a hardcore Paleo workout.
Are There Any Studies that Shows That the Paleo Diet Actually Works? Yes!
Depending on your personality type, you might want to jump into Paleo whole hog, or you might want to take it a little at a time. (Think about it: do you get into a pool cannonball style, or do you get in toe by toe?) Most useful for either personality type is to come up with a small repertoire of meals that you truly love, then expand from there. This might take some trial and error. Experiment with familiar foods, and then add in unfamiliar ones (elk steak, anyone?).
Focus on what you can eat, not what you can’t. Come up with good substitutes for old comforting favorites. Find a community of like-minded folk, either online or in your community, or both – online friends are great of middle-of-the-night chatting, but there’s no replacement for sharing a Paleo meal around a campfire – or a backyard grill.