Understanding the Paleo Diet

Understanding the Paleo Diet

Paleo is often referred to as the 'caveman diet', which is a fairly suitable name. Basically, the idea is that you're eating like our ancestors did - at least in terms of the food ingredients that you use. 

The underlying motivation is that our ancestors were much healthier than we are today and did not suffer from many of the same diseases. After all, modern diets are filled with processed foods and sugar, a pattern that is responsible for the current obesity crisis and may contribute to many diseases. 

The theory also suggests that the paleo diet is strongly aligned with our genetic makeup - much more so than our modern food choices. As such, paleo food should have more positive implications for health and may even reduce the risk of disease.

There are limitations to what we know about our ancestors, along with some debates about specific foods within the paleo community. However, the table below offers a general indication of food choices.

Foods to Eat

  • Eggs
  • Healthy oils (e.g. coconut, avocado, macadamia nut and olive oils)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Red meat (ideally grass-fed)
  • Other types of meat (e.g. chicken)
  • Fish
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Seasonings and spices

Foods to Avoid

  • Grains (this includes corn)
  • Legumes (including peanuts)
  • Beans
  • Refined sugar
  • Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Refined vegetable oils (e.g. canola oil)

For many people, the paleo diet is powerful. It offers a chance to move away from heavily processed meals and ingredients, while still letting you enjoy good food.

The approach also ends up being relatively high in fat and protein, with few carbs. That balance of nutrients is powerful for weight loss as you're basically following a low-carb diet. 

So then, in practice, a paleo diet will often let people lose weight and improve their health - without the need to actively count calories. Likewise, there are many appealing foods to eat on a paleo diet, including variations of most modern dishes.

The food choices in paleo also means that it overlaps with other diet and health approaches. For example, the paleo diet is both grain-free and gluten-free. The food choices on paleo also mean the diet is typically low-carb. You can even follow a ketosis diet while on paleo, although this does involve extra planning.

Paleo Controversies

Paleo has been incredibly controversial and subject to a large amount of scrutiny from the media. But, this isn't all connected to issues with the food choices themselves . For one thing, there are many other heavily restrictive diets out there that haven't seen nearly as much media attention. Likewise, the food selection with paleo is similar to other diets, like low carb.  

Paleo diet concept

So, why the concern about paleo? One key reason is the logic behind the diet.

Most health and lifestyle approaches focus on the simple idea of eating 'good' food and avoiding 'bad' food.

Of course, each idea varies in how they define good and bad, such as the way ketosis cuts down carbs or how diets like the Autoimmune Protocol decrease foods that can cause inflammation.

Paleo is about eating healthy as well but foods are defined as 'good' and 'bad' based on whether our ancestors ate them. This is a simplistic view, especially because there are many different ancestral diets out there and food choices varied based on location, season, group and other factors. 

At the same time, relatively little is known about the eating patterns of our ancestors and much of what we do understand is partly guesswork. 

Even if we could work out (and follow) exactly what our ancestors ate, there's no guarantee it would be healthier. After all, we don't live the lifestyle of a caveman - and they certainly didn't bake paleo cakes.

The decision to avoid foods our ancestors didn't eat also means that some healthy ingredients get cut out of the diet entirely. For example, following paleo means that you cannot eat dairy, including probiotic dairy options like kefir. 

Paleo diet foods

Finally, paleo suggests that our bodies are better adapted to the paleo diet than the modern diet. But, there isn't enough evidence to know whether this is true.

As some researchers point out, our genetic makeup has changed considerably since the caveman days and we have adapted to some modern foods.

Do these issues mean that paleo is bad? No, not really.

The approach is still much healthier than most modern diets, especially as there is a strong focus on whole and healthy ingredients.

Plus, the various restrictions means that there are relatively few food shortcuts you can take - which forces people to prepare their own meals. 

At the same time, paleo can be considered a lifestyle change, rather than a diet. As a result, it is something that you could follow in the long-term and many people do. 

Even though you're missing out on some food groups with paleo, you're not likely to be deficient in nutrients. Instead, you're relying on nutrient-dense food. The resources that I highlight later on can also be valuable ways to make sure you get everything you need. 

Variations on Paleo

The paleo diet is a fairly rigid approach to eating. However, there are variations in the specific decisions people make and the foods that they eat. 

For one thing, some people are strict in following paleo, choosing to avoid anything that isn't on the diet - along with foods that are borderline. In contrast, others may be more lenient, considering nutrition along with whether or not a given food is paleo. 

There is also a variation called Whole30. This is sometimes considered a 'paleo vegan diet' and is basically a more restrictive version of paleo. 

One different type of variation is a paleo-inspired diet. This idea was heavily promoted by Chris Kresser in the book Your Personal Paleo Code, which was later republished as The Paleo Cure (below). 

This type of diet isn't strictly paleo but takes inspiration from the idea. More than anything, the emphasis is on using the same general approach to food and tweaking it until you end up with something that works for your body and is also practical.

To me personally, this is a stronger approach. After all, the paleo diet does restrict some healthy foods - especially if you can tolerate dairy. Chris Kresser isn't alone in this idea either. Instead, other bloggers suggest that paleo is best as a template or a guide, such as Authority Nutrition and Dr. Axe.

If you use paleo more as a template and a guide, you do get all of the good aspects of the approach, without any of the issues. Still, this is a personal decision. Some people do enjoy the entirety of paleo - and it's clear that there are weight loss and health benefits. You may also prefer having strict rules about what you can and cannot eat.

Paleo Resources

Regardless of whether you want to follow paleo strictly or not, there is no shortage of different resources out there. For one thing, there are many different blogs that focus on the paleo diet, typically offering recipes, support, tools and directions. Some of the most powerful ones are listed below:

  • Paleo Leap. This is one of my favorite sites for practical paleo information and offers a combination of recipes and guides. Their Paleo Diet 101 and Paleo Guide are both good posts for learning more about paleo and these also direct you to other useful parts of the site
  • Paleo Hacks. This resource is a little different, as it is a forum first and a blog second. As such, it can be a great place to interact with others and ask questions, especially if you are new to paleo
  • The Paleo Mom. This is another great resource site and it focuses on paleo along with AIP (autoimmune protocol), which is a variation on paleo. The various posts and guides across the site are powerful, especially as there are recipes, along with nutrition and lifestyle information

Aside from these sites, there are also some individual posts worth taking a look at. 

  • The Beginner's Guide to the Paleo Diet - From Nerd Fitness. The style of Nerd Fitness is different than most other nutrition sites - and it is a great place to learn. This particular guide is very comprehensive, while also being an entertaining read overall. For that matter, I recommend taking a look at this guide before deciding whether or not paleo is right for you
  • Paleo Diet Food List - from Ultimate Paleo Guide. This is one of the most comprehensive lists that I've found on food you can (and cannot) eat on a paleo diet

Paleo Recipes

Websites are powerful sources of information, especially when you're just beginning a diet. But, having good recipes is just as important.

Practical Paleo

This cookbook works well as an overall paleo introduction, offering 150 recipes, along with meal plans and guides. 

Nom Nom Paleo

Nom Nom Paleo is different than most other cookbooks out there - making for a fun read. It is also more image-heavy than you might expect.

Well Fed Weeknights

The key theme of this cookbook is making paleo meals fast and easy.

So, there are 125 recipes and they can all be made in 45 minutes or less. That idea is perfect for busy families. 

Against All Grain

Although the focus here is avoiding grains - the recipes provided are all paleo as well. 

This is another example of a popular cookbook and one that both looks stunning and is easy to follow. 

Paleo Books and Guides

Finally, there are also some books out there that make powerful introductions into the paleo diet - and effective eating practices. This type of book is best for learning more about the research and theory behind the paleo diet, rather than acting as a beginner's guide. 

The Paleo Solution

This is one of the most popular books in the paleo field - and is an effective introduction into why the paleo diet works. 

The Paleo Diet Revised

This book follows many of the same principles as The Paleo Solution, although it does also offer recipes and information for beginners.

The New Primal Blueprint

This book is an updated version of The Primal Blueprint, which was a best seller. 

It is well-written and easy to read, while including a considerable amount of research.

Paleo for Beginners

Unlike the other guides, this book is designed to be practical. As such, it provides recipes, plans and information about how to follow paleo. 

It is also considered a cookbook, so it acts as a good way to get all the information you need in one place. 

Paleo Content

You can find out more information about paleo in the posts below. 

23 Great Paleo Holiday Recipes for Your Table
This list of 23 delicious Paleo holiday recipes offers a variety of dishes from some of your favorite food bloggers to inspire your holiday meal planning this year. We cover entrees, side dishes and of course, desserts too !
Can The Paleo Diet Actually Promote Weight Loss?
The Paleo diet certainly has its share of supporters, but is this diet really a good option for weight loss, or is it simply another fad diet?
How to Follow the Paleo Diet with a Paleo Diet Meal Plan
The Paleo diet is well-known, but full of controversy. With its focus on whole foods, this type of diet does have the potential to help improve health, but not everybody finds it easy to follow.
Finally – An Honest Take on the Paleo Diet
With so many die-hard fanatics promoting the Paleo diet, it can sometimes be a bit difficult to work out what the diet actually involves and whether it is right for you. In this article, I focus on the science and logic behind the diet, rather than the hype, to show how the diet could be relevant to you.

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Paleo and Health - How the Paleo Diet Can Help You