Paleo Diet for Beginners
The Paleo Diet is very popular right now, but is it right for you? Learn about what you can and can’t eat on a paleo diet. This article is perfect for people new to this way of eating.
What is the Paleo Diet?
A Paleo diet is a way of eating that closely mimics the diet of our ancestors from the Paleolithic era. More specifically, a Paleo diet is based on the eating patterns of hunter-gatherer populations around 10,000-50,000 years ago.
Many functional health practitioners and followers of a paleo diet believe that an ancestral eating pattern is best for health, as the human body has not yet evolved to digest and utilize more modern foods.
When did Paleo start becoming popular?
The contemporary Paleo diet has been popular for several years now. In 2002, Dr. Loren Cordain published The Paleo Diet, a New York Times bestseller that popularized the Paleo movement in the United States. The diet has steadily gained momentum since, reaching its zenith of popularity in the past ten or so years due to an influx of blogs and books on the topic.
It may surprise you to learn that the contemporary Paleo diet has actually been around for over thirty years. In 1975, Dr. Walter Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet. In 1985, Dr. Boyd Eaton published his paper on paleolithic nutrition. These works sparked curiosity in many people and were the foundation for today’s Paleo diet.
Excluded Foods on Paleo
A strict Paleo diet eliminates grains, legumes, dairy, and generally anything else that our ancestors may have found difficult to obtain or digest.
The strictest adherents to the diet eliminate all grains, all legumes, all dairy, and even white potatoes, refined sugars, and processed Paleo foods.
What You Can Eat on Paleo
Adherents to a Paleo diet enjoy a multitude of whole foods that were accessible to our ancestors anywhere from 10,000-50,000 years ago. A Paleo diet is inherently nutrient-dense, focusing on whole foods.
A Paleo diet includes a wide variety of non-starchy and starchy vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and animal protein. Some people on paleo also include white potatoes, peas, white rice, and foods like quinoa and buckwheat (which are actually seeds, not grains).
A subset of the Paleo diet, called the Primal diet, allows for a little more flexibility than strict Paleo. Primal eaters may enjoy grass-fed, full-fat (and preferably raw or fermented) dairy, sprouted legumes, quinoa, white and wild rice, and white potatoes.
As with all diets, it’s important to monitor your own reaction to foods and determine what works for you.
Proponents of a Paleo diet see a variety of benefits, including prevention of chronic disease. The defining reason for a Paleo diet is to avoid disease and low quality of a life.
Paleo enthusiast Mark Sisson’s philosophy is to “live long and drop dead,” mimicking the lives of our ancestors–who lived without chronic disease and were only threatened by old age or primal dangers like being injured by an animal.
Some of the other benefits seen by people following a Paleo diet can include:
Increased energy and vitality: increased consumption of whole foods helps mobilize your body and create energy.
A reduction in inflammation: increased consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids and a reduction in processed foods, grains, and inflammatory oils helps reduce overall inflammation.
Stabilized blood sugar: a Paleo diet is naturally higher in protein, fat, and fiber, and lower in carbohydrates. All of these work to prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes. Many people who don’t do well on a vegan diet or have problems with a plant based diet find that paleo works well for them.
Healthy weight loss: focusing on whole foods and satiating fat and protein will help you naturally lose unnecessary weight.
Prevention or reduction in metabolic disease: a Paleo diet focuses on lower glycemic foods. The stabilized blood sugar levels and weight loss equate to a reduction in metabolic disease risk.
Bonus: a paleo diet is considered healthy for the planet and is one of the best diets for climate change.
Potential Deficiencies or Excesses
Yes, you should be able to get everything you need on a Paleo diet! After all, our ancestors thrived on these diets. A nutrient-dense, varied Paleo diet with an adequate amount of calories will supply you with all necessary nutrients.
However, a lack of variety on a Paleo diet can result in some nutrient deficiencies or an overconcentration in other nutrients. If you notice any issues, be sure to have a blood test done. Some common levels to monitor include:
Vitamin D and Calcium
Since most people on a Paleo diet don’t consume dairy or fortified grain products, they may be unintentionally deficient in Vitamin D–especially with our indoor lifestyles. Dairy is also a source of calcium; people eliminating dairy should be careful to eat other foods high in calcium.
It is more common to have too much iron than too little when following a Paleo diet, especially for men and women who are not menstruating. Overconsumption of red meat may lead to higher than desirable iron levels.
Increased consumption of dietary cholesterol may raise your overall cholesterol levels. Be sure to take a look at your ratio of HDL cholesterol ( (high-density lipoprotein) to LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein), as high cholesterol in itself may not necessarily be a bad thing.
A Paleo diet is naturally low in sodium, as it focuses on whole foods and eliminating processed foods. If your body is low in sodium or electrolytes, you can use unrefined sea salt or Himalayan salt to season your dishes.
Is Paleo Right For You?
If you’re new to Paleo and you’re still not sure if it’s right for you, then here are some ways to tell that it might be a good diet to try. Of course, it’s always a good idea to consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet.
Here are some issues and questions to consider before making the change to Paleo.
1. Do you have food sensitivities?
Many find that using a Paleo diet as an elimination diet helps you discover food sensitivities. Eliminating processed foods and focusing on nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory foods can help heal your intestinal lining and prevent reactions to food sensitivities.
Also, a Paleo diet is going to be naturally gluten-free and dairy-free, two of the most common allergens.
2. You’re managing autoimmune disease or inflammation
A Paleo diet is naturally anti-inflammatory with a more optimal ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid consumption than a Standard American Diet.
Eliminating processed foods, grains, dairy, legumes, and excess sugar and alcohol can help reduce inflammation and may make it easier to manage autoimmune disease. For example, a paleo diet excludes almost all of the worst foods for Hashimoto’s disease.
3. Do you enjoy eating animal protein?
If you enjoy eating a variety of eggs, meats, poultry, and other wild game, then you will have a head-start on doing well on a paleo diet. Former vegans or people who don’t like eating meat may have a harder time finding quality protein sources, especially since a Paleo diet excludes beans.
You can also utilize this list of the best paleo protein powders if you want to add protein to your morning smoothie or shake.
4. Do you have digestive issues?
Moderate fiber intake and increased hydration from fruits and vegetables can help keep things moving on a Paleo diet. Eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy often reduces or eliminates gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Signs a Paleo Diet May Not Work
It may be our ancestors’ eating pattern, but that doesn’t mean it always works for modern-day lifestyles. If any of the following statements rings true, it may be best to avoid a strict Paleo diet.
A Paleo diet calls for a higher protein consumption with a focus on animal protein. If you’re an avid meat-eater, the Paleo diet will fit into your lifestyle well.
1. You won’t eat animal protein due to religious or moral views
The Paleo diet is moderately high in meat consumption. Eating a variety of animal protein is part of the Paleo philosophy due to the protein and nutrient density. Eating only eggs, fish (for pescetarians), and nuts/seeds may not supply you with adequate protein.
2. You have hyperlipidemia
If your LDL levels are too high, supplying yourself with more dietary cholesterol (common on a Paleo diet) may be too high of a risk. Be sure to check with your doctor for more information.
3. You can’t afford grass-fed or pasture-raised protein
Unfortunately, ethically-raised meat is more expensive than CAFO (concentrated animal feedlot operation) meat. There is a stark difference in the nutrient density and inflammatory compounds between grass-fed, pastured meat and conventional grain-fed meat.
4. You require a high carbohydrate diet
While it is possible to be high-carb on a strict Paleo diet, it’s more difficult. Those who need a higher carbohydrate intake may want to include Primal foods such as quinoa, white or wild rice, legumes, and white potatoes into their Paleo regime.
Suggestions for a Safe Paleo Diet
If you think a Paleo diet may be best for you, here are some suggestions on how to do it safely.
1. Start with a 6-week trial period
Six weeks should give your body enough time to adjust to a whole foods diet. Keep a journal of how you’re feeling each day and compare Week 1 to Week 6.
2. Make vegetables the heart of your meals
Contrary to some beliefs, a Paleo diet is not a carnivore diet. A healthy Paleo diet should have vegetables as the focus. Fill most of your plate with non-starchy veggies, then add a starchy veggie and some protein.
3. Consult a dietitian or qualified healthcare provider
It is always good to have someone in your corner. It may be helpful to work with a dietitian or other qualified healthcare provider to make sure you’re eating a proper amount of food and otherwise staying healthy on a new diet.
4. Monitor your lab work
It can be helpful to have your blood tested before and after your six-week trial. If you notice any deficiencies or unwanted elevations, your new diet may be the culprit. Alternatively, if you choose to stick with a Paleo diet, be sure to monitor your lab work regularly to ensure you’re staying healthy.
5. Be flexible
Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not perfect. Stressing out about your new diet can be more harmful than any junk food! Don’t fall into thinking that your diet has to follow a specific set of “rules.”
If you want to be mostly Paleo but include some legumes or cheese on occasion, that’s better than denying yourself and causing stress.
6. Avoid processed Paleo foods
Avoid being trapped by marketing that promotes Paleo junk food. While Paleo processed food may be made of better ingredients, processed food, in general, should be an occasional treat. Stick to real, whole foods prepared in your home.
A Paleo diet can be an excellent way to remove foods that your body is reacting to. The diet essentially includes foods that humans evolved eating, avoiding foods that our bodies haven’t yet adapted to. Consider trying a 6-week trial period with Paleo to see if you feel better at the end of the six weeks.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.