Now that we’ve covered what to stay away from in Paleo Explained-Part 1, here’s the dish on what to eat!
A guideline for healthy paleo eating starts with avoiding the things that make you sick, but choosing foods that will provide the nutrition you need is equally important. The biggest paradigm shift in a paleo diet is going to be your understanding of fats in nourishing your body. The person eating a Standard American Diet is used to running primarily on glucose fuel, but early man would have gotten his energy from fats; mostly animal fats, and paleo advocates argue we should too. What?! I realize this departs from typical dietary advice, but stay with me.
Where’s the beef? Not at the grain-lot!
Not all fats are created equal. As previously mentioned, seed oils are nasty, industrial products that can make us sick, but we need fats to live and thrive. Back to those pesky omega-6:omega-3 ratios––now that we’ve cut out the highest sources of those omega-6’s, we need to find ways to increase the other side of that equation. Omega-3 is found in abundance in wild, oily fish and seafood, which should be a paleo staple. What may come as a surprise is that a pastured animal who has thrived on its natural diet of grass with no grain-feeding is also a great source of omega-3! Grass-finished beef has 3 times the level of omega-3 as grain-fed and about 43% less total fat. Pastured animals of all types are also the richest source of another good fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This is a naturally saturated fat, but studies have associated CLA with a lower risk of cancer and heart attack. CLA, like omega-3, decreases significantly with even a few weeks of grain-feeding, so be careful to note that your meat is grass-finished. [It is also worth noting that experts believe grass-pastured, humanely raised animals are good for our environment. Farms raising animals on natural pasture can restore and maintain grass-lands without tillage, erosion, chemicals, and harmful waste by-products.]
In addition to these healing fats, pastured animals have 288% more vitamin E, 54% more beta-carotene, twice as much B-2, three times more B-1, 30% more calcium, and 5% more magnesium than conventionally raised animals. Pastured eggs contain significantly higher amounts of B-12, folate, vitamin E, and vitamin A and 10 times more omega-3 than conventionally raised chicken eggs!
All these vitamins are great, but what about cholesterol? Won’t this animal fat cause obesity and heart-attacks? The traditional Inuit got 90% of their calories from fat and yet were free from obesity and degenerative disease. Similarly the Masai in Africa were healthy subsisting on 60-70% fat diet, and the modern French have the lowest rate of heart disease of any industrialized country in the world while consuming the highest amounts of saturated fat. Protective cholesterol levels have been shown to decrease in a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet as compared to a high-total-fat/saturated-fat diet. Another study showed a similar decrease in good cholesterol.
To sum up, the menu of paleo animal fats and proteins includes wild seafood, grass-finished beef, bison, lamb, and pastured pork, chicken and eggs as staple foods. Organ meats are encouraged as well. Homemade bone broth (not the store-bought!) from these animals is a superior source of vital nutrients to ward off illness, aging and joint degeneration. While some paleo adherents just say ’No,’ to any dairy, if it is well tolerated, many do avail themselves of grass-fed butter, cheese and other pastured dairy products, preferring full-fat raw milk from a trusted sourcewhen available, full-fat cultured organic if not. Low-fat dairy is not the best source of the necessary fat-soluble nutrients needed for healthy functioning, and therefore, not recommended for anyone.
Along with cultured dairy like yogurt and kefir, fermented vegetables and drinks provide vital support to digestion, immunity, and endocrine function and have powerful anti-cancer properties. Primitive man was preserving food through fermentation long before refrigeration was invented. Humans have evolved in a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years with the friendly bacteria we ingest, but we have virtually eliminated these traditional foods from our modern diets. Our health has collectively suffered as a result. We are only beginning to discover the integral role that these bacteria play in our health, and unfortunately we are decimating them with the overuse of antibiotics in our food supply, and in treating illness. Fortunately, fermenting foods the traditional way is very easy, requires no special equipment and simple ingredients. There are many resources and recipes for everything from saurkraut and kimchi, to pickles and ketchup.
Which fruits and veggies?
Besides the fore mentioned beans and legumes, almost all fruits vegetables are allowed, non-starchy and leafy greens especially. Some paleo proponents stay away from white potatoes or consume them in moderation; the metabolically compromised in particular would be wise to limit these. Fruits are limited because of the sugar content, but moderate consumption is reasonable for those who can tolerate them. Berries are a top choice for low sugar and nutritional density. Choose organic and/or local veggies and fruits whenever possible to avoid toxins and maximize nutrition.
Vegetable oils that are encouraged are unprocessed, unfiltered olive oil and avocado oil for applications without high heat. Coconut oil, one of the only sources of medium chain triglycerides besides breast milk, is an integral fat for all applications, especially cooking.
Nuts and seeds in moderation are also acceptable. Avoid peanuts, a legume, and use moderate amounts of walnuts and brazil nuts to minimize omega-6 intake. Soaking nuts overnight and then drying them reduces phytic acid levels and is recommended as is soaking beans if you must use them occasionally. Quinoa, flax and chia are nutrient-dense seeds that many paleo followers consume. Whole cooked quinoa is especially useful as an occasional substitute for rice or pasta, and as a flour in grain-free pasta, and baking.
There are exercise regimens modeled after a paleolithic lifestyle, but we are just beginning to navigate that area. The latest research on High Intensity Interval Training (HITT) is compelling. This could look like periodic (once a week), but intense, short bursts of activity with moderate levels of daily movement (walking around) and lifting heavy things in between. Paleo advocates estimate that a typical primitive man would have sprinted once a week or so to catch an animal to eat, carried heavy things, and walked around a lot. Mimicking this kind of activity, along with a diet of real nourishing foods, can supposedly help reset a compromised metabolism and promote overall health.
A Word on Weight Loss, Cravings, and Cheating
The biggest predictor of future weight gain is dieting. Although some refer to paleo or real-food eating as a diet, this is a lifestyle more so than a diet for weight loss. Most people who start eating this way will find they do lose excess weight, but this is a result of restoring proper health to their bodies through nourishing foods. Most overweight people have been shown to have nutritional deficiencies, imbalanced gut flora, and compromised metabolisms, all restorable conditions with the right nutrition. The goal should be to eat for satiety, and when you eat real food with adequate amounts of the right fats, this shouldn’t result in overeating. It is important to understand that rapid weight loss is not a desirable condition––if you want to insure fat loss as opposed to loss of important protein tissues, 1-2 pounds per week is healthiest. You should find after a short while you aren’t constantly craving processed foods, and you will feel more energy and well-being. If you do find yourself missing things like bread products, for instance, there are many creative recipes using nut flours and coconut flours. Remember also, it is good to strive for 100% adherence, but be satisfied if you end up with about 80% without feeling a sense of failure. There are restaurants to navigate, special occasions, and meals in a pinch where you just have to make do. Once in a while, I will indulge in a little bit of white rice, wheat-free pasta, or a dessert treat. I keep a dark chocolate bar on hand in case of emergency!
Although there are challenges to this lifestyle in the beginning, many people enjoy a deeper appreciation for the food they eat, a greater awareness and stewardship for the environment, as well as a sense of empowerment over their health. I am including a list of resources for more paleo information and products; you may find that grocery stores don’t sell much in the way of real food! Luckily, local farmer’s markets selling fresh veggies, meats and eggs are thriving, and there is a huge network of online providers happy to ship directly to your door.
The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
U.S. Wellness Meats– grass-finished meats shipped to your door
I Love Blue Sea– sustainable fresh seafood, shipped
Nuts.com– nuts, nut flours
Vitacost– discounted food and supplements