feature: the paleo diet (a beginner guide to getting started)

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You probably know someone who’s on some crazy diet, amirite? Perhaps you’ve tried (and failed) one yourself. Is that what the Paleo diet is? A crazy diet? A fad? Or is it something more?

Proponents of Paleo love it. Sorry, I should say LOVE it – in capital letters. Many (most?) consider it to be a lifestyle and not a diet.

Critics are less intense, but there are valid concerns.

The most important point of any diet/lifestyle is nutrition. Will it provide adequate nutrition? If the answer is yes, then you should think about feasibility. Can you actually do it?

If you won’t actually follow a lifestyle/diet, it’s not going to work for you. The Paleo lifestyle isn’t necessarily easy, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Consider your needs and lifestyle before committing to it or any diet.

Let’s go forth and learn all we can about the Paleo lifestyle. Then, you can make an informed decision about trying it yourself – or not.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Once upon a time, the human species was made up of hunters and gatherers. We were muscular, agile, and healthy. Our species thrived.

Over time, we began to settle. And so dawned the beginning of agriculture. We shifted from a species of hunters/gatherers to a species of farmers.

And that was the start of the human species as it is today: overweight, stressed, disease-ridden, unhealthy. Our species isn’t really thriving anymore.

The Paleo Lifestyle is about trying to thrive the way we did as hunter/gatherers.

Obviously, we can’t all be hunting and gathering. Modern life means jobs and cities for most of us. So adjustments are made to include supermarkets and fitness centers. BUT, food-wise paleo is about trying to stick to our roots.

Rules of the Paleo Diet

Eat with a mindset like our pre-agriculture ancestors.

One of the benefits and drawbacks of paleo are the clear-cut food allowances. Advantage – you know what you can eat. Disadvantage – you’re going to have to make some major changes.

Paleo Approved Foods

If it could’ve been around before agriculture, it’s approved!

  • Meat & Birds: If possible, avoid grain-fed. Try for free-range.
  • Fish & Seafood: Wild is best as it is less likely to contain toxins.
  • Eggs: Try for cage-free eggs.
  • Veggies: Yes. To all of them.
  • Fruits: Yes. To all of them. However, if you’re trying to lose weight you might want to limit your consumption. Fruits contain natural sugar which can make them high in calories.
  • Tubers: Sweet potatoes / Yams. Technically two different vegetables but often named interchangeably. Eat them up.
  • Nuts: Nuts are (generally) really fruit. Except for peanuts which are a legume, not a nut. So, no peanuts. But go forth and enjoy the other ‘nuts’.
  • Oils: You can’t cook without oil. Go for natural – Olive Oil, Avocado Oil, Coconut Oil. Under no circumstances should you use margarine or any kind of cooking “spray”. These contain artificial ingredients that are not paleo approved.

At this point, you might be thinking, “holy shit! This is going to cost me a fortune!” It doesn’t have to.

Do the best your budget will allow. Not everyone can afford free-range, grain-free, organic everything. If your budget doesn’t allow it, then that’s fine. Just buy the best quality food you can afford.

Paleo No-No Foods

If it’s not on the list above, it’s not allowed!

  • NO GRAINS: no bread, no pasta, no pizza. The human species does not process grains well. Gluten intolerance is on the rise
  • NO SUGAR: no soda, no candy, but fruit is okay. The sugar that’s in fruit is naturally occurring. The sugar that’s in soda and candy is artificial.
  • NO DAIRY: no milk, no ice cream, no cheese (!). Okay, dairy is a bit contested by the paleo crowd. Proper adherence means no dairy but there are plenty of people who are ‘doing paleo’ and eating dairy. If your body can handle it, you do you, but dairy is technically not a paleo food.

But, But, What About Carbs?

It’s okay! You can eat them.

Paleo is all “no grains” it’s not “no carbs.” Carbs that occur in the approved foods list are okay. Eat away. Chow down. Bon Appetit.

Carbs are good for you but we don’t need a shitload of them. If you’re paleo, you can stop being scared of carbs. Transfer this fear to grains only. Eat all the bananas, sweet potatoes, beets, etc that your heart desires.

Fruits and Vegetables for the win.

Is Paleo Healthy?

Frankly, there’s no simple answer here. Critics of paleo say no. Proponents say yes.

Personally, I vote yes. With a huge caveat – Adherence.

If I go to Pinterest (love Pinterest for recipes) and search “Paleo recipes” I get a lot of recipes. Including a lot of junk recipes. In 2 minutes of scanning (I timed it) I came across:

muffins, pancakes, waffles, tortillas, fried chicken, bread, pancakes, brownies, cookies, bread, brownies, bars, pancakes, muffins, cupcakes, pancakes, pizza, apple crisp, muffins, bread, fried chicken, bread, bread, cupcakes, cookies.

These are the recipes that relied on a flour substitute (coconut flour, cassava flour, almond flour, etc). I didn’t include recipes that used a vegetable substitute (for example cauliflower-pizza crust).

Substituting one flour for another is not healthy. Junk food made with almond flour instead of wheat flour is still junk food. If you want to be healthy (paleo or not), stop eating that shit.

Paleo Nutrition -vs- The Food Guide

If you’re not eating Paleo Junk Food, Paleo meets all nutritional requirements.

Who’s responsible for the food guide? In America, it seems to be lobbyists. Check out these articles about their influence on government nutritional advice.

– The Verge: New US food guidelines show the power of lobbying, not science (Jan 7, 2016)

– HuffPost: Big Food: Lobbying Will Only Accelerate the Inevitable (Oct 16, 2016)

– Time: Experts Say Lobbying Skewed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (Jan 8, 2016)

– POGO: The Snack Food and Corn Syrup Lobbyist Shaping Trump’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Aug 23, 2018)

– Open Secrets: 331 Lobbyists spent $37,324,321 lobbying for 110 clients for Agricultural Services/Products. This is a list of clients and spending.

Still Trust the Food Guide?

Let’s put aside the lobbyist issue and look at the grain recommendation. The food plate (guide? whatever) in the US recommends 6 ounces of “grains” a day. One regular-slice of whole-grain bread is counted as an ounce.

The ChooseMyPlate.gov website states:

“Eating grains, especially whole grains, provides health benefits. People who eat whole grains as part of a healthy diet have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases. Grains provide many nutrients that are vital for the health and maintenance of our bodies.”

It specifically lists fiber, B vitamins, Iron, Magnesium and Selenium as important nutrients provided by grains.

Nutrition Facts for a baked sweet potato
Nutrition facts for whole grain bread

This is a decent estimation of the nutrition you’ll get from a slice of whole grain bread vs a medium baked sweet potato.

I chose a sweet potato because they’re paleo friendly, delicious, easy to make and in a lot of cases can be used instead of a slice of bread.

Which of these foods is more nutrient dense? Who wins?

Calories, Fat, Carbs, Protein – I don’t really care about these things in this case. Neither of these foods is considered a source of fat or protein – we’ll get those nutrients from other foods. Paleo doesn’t care about carb counts. Calories on their own aren’t a great indicator of nutrition.

Sodium – Sweet Potato has significantly less. 90% of American adults consume significantly more sodium than recommended.

Potassium – Sweet Potato (by a large margin). Less than 2% of American adults consume the recommended amount of potassium.

Fiber – Sweet Potato. Fiber is usually given as one of the top reasons to eat grains. But guess what, grains are not the only source of fiber. Other great non-grain sources of fiber include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pears, avocados, and sunflower seeds.

Sugar – Sweet Potato. While the bread has less sugar than the sweet potato, the sugar in the sweet potato is naturally occurring. The sugar in the bread is an additive. Natural beats added.

Vitamins – Sweet Potato. The bread contains no vitamins.

Calcium & Iron – very close. Bread has very slightly more calcium. Iron is tied.

Overall, the sweet potato wins. There’s nothing provided by the bread that you can’t get elsewhere – and often better. Calorie for calorie, grains are not nutrient-dense foods.

The comparison between the bread (recommended by the food guide) and the sweet potato does not match the reasoning given by the food guide for including grains in your diet. 

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Paleo & Weight Loss

Will Paleo help me lose weight?

It certainly can, if you adhere to the rules and add a few modifications.

Like all diets, you have to eat fewer calories than you use. So if you’re burning 2,000 calories but eating 2,500 calories – even if they’re all paleo calories – you’re not going to lose weight.

The big plus to paleo is that you’re eating satisfying nutrient-dense foods. This means that you won’t feel hungry all the time.

If you’re looking to lose weight, you should limit (not eliminate) your consumption of fruit and nuts. Furthermore, if you choose to snack on vegetables (celery, carrots and the like) you’re unlikely to over consume calories. You should avoid Paleo Junk Foods.

Paleo Pros & Cons

Everything in life has pros and cons and the paleo diet is no different. There are a number of reasons to give it a try and a number of reasons to be wary.

Let’s check out the top Pros and worst Cons.

Paleo Advantages

  • Paleo is Easy

Once you get used to it, paleo is actually really simple. Basically, eat whole real foods. Meat, fruit, veg, nuts & their oils. Done.

Most people give up well before it becomes simple though. If you can stick with it, you’ll develop healthy new habits and it won’t feel hard forever.

  • Paleo Provides More Energy

If you talk to a paleo person, one of the first things they’ll be happy to tell you is how much more energy they have. That 3 pm slump that most of us face – paleo folks usually call it a thing of their past. Coffee is something they drink because they enjoy it – not for a quick energy boost.

  • Paleo is More Nutritious

When you cut out grains, you basically cut out junk food. In recent years, the availability of pre-made paleo-approved food options has increased. This is great for when you want a treat or something quick, but it’s overall made it easier for paleo peeps to eat junk.

If you stick to a purer paleo lifestyle though, everything you’re eating will be nutritious. You won’t have the empty calories of potato chips, candy, soda, etc., This is an automatic increase in your nutrition – and your health.

Paleo Disadvantages

  • Paleo is Expensive

The paleo lifestyle can seem quite pricey at the start. Try to remember that your shopping habits will re-regulate.

Also, you don’t have to go all-in right at the start. Start by trying to buy the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables organic. Do one at a time! Then you can move onto other fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and so on. Don’t force your budget, work within it.

If you’re trying to buy organic produce at a typical grocery store you’ll likely be paying a steep premium. The good news is that you’ll slowly learn where the good paleo shopping spots are: farmer’s markets, direct from farms, smaller off-the-beaten-path shopping, and others.

More good news is that you’ll likely save a lot of money on future healthcare costs. Increases in nutrition (and, for some, a decrease in weight) means that you’ll be healthier and that should translate into health-care savings.

  • Paleo is Inconvenient & Inaccessible

I live in semi-rural Canada. Tim Hortons is our national coffee chain. Everyone knows Tim Hortons – also known as Timmies or Tims. If you’re running late in the morning, or need a quick meal on the road (because everyone drives everywhere), Tims is a popular choice.

Unfortunately for the paleo folks, the garden salad is the only (potentially) paleo-approved food item on Tims menu. I haven’t eaten one, but the website says, “Made with green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and served with balsamic vinaigrette.”

If that’s accurate, it would be a fine paleo choice – good thing, since it’s the only one. Let me repeat that in case you missed it – at Canada’s biggest drive-through chain, there is ONE paleo-friendly option on the menu.

For quick and easy on-the-go food, it’s not impossible to find paleo food options, it’s just more difficult (especially if you don’t live in a big city) and often more expensive. This is a valid concern, more so at the beginning when you have no idea what your options are. Eventually, it gets better as you learn where to get the best “quick” foods in your area.

  • It’s Unhealthy to Remove a Whole Food Group

Is it though?

If you were talking about cutting the fruit and veggie food group, I would 100% agree with you. But grains? Well, didn’t I demonstrate above how sweet potatoes are better than bread?

You Do You

CLICK FOR: beginner guide to the paleo diet (get started today)

I would suggest you try it – Go paleo for 30 days. See how you feel. Tweak the system to make it work better for you.

Then, share your paleo results (both good and bad) in the comments below!

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