So, you get the text: Can we go out for burgers (no buns!) tonight instead of pizza? Oh no, is she on this caveman diet everyone’s been raving about? You can’t help but wonder, what is paleo (aka the paleolithic diet) and why all the hype? You’re intrigued. We don’t blame you.
What is paleo, anyway? Is it for you? Let’s discuss.
A paleo-friendly diet puts the focus on eating mostly unprocessed, whole foods that have gone through little or no processing to get on your plate. Simply put: You eat plants and animals. We’re talking meats, fish, eggs, greens, veggies, fruits, and nuts.
Humans’ diets varied widely back in the caveman days, depending on availability and location. But the basic point is to focus on whole, unprocessed foods.
Sounds easy, right? Maybe for cavemen it was… because they weren’t tempted by the thousands of packaged foods we have access to. If they couldn’t hunt it or gather it, they didn’t eat it. Today the only hunting we’re doing is for good deals on food we can gather into our grocery carts. In the cart goes bread, cheese, yogurt, rice, candy bars, milk, chips, cereal, etc.
Some dietitians took note of our modern-day behavior and thought, if obesity and disease rates are rising as quickly as processed foods are flying off shelves, maybe we should go back to our roots and eat like our early ancestors did?
Now, it’s important to note that those packaged foods aren’t always bad for us or lacking in nutrients. So, there’s a bit of debate on whether this diet is the be-all end-all of health. For most folks, a balanced diet focusing on a good mix of nutrient-dense foods is usually the best way to go. But if you and your doctor or dietician find value in going back to your caveman roots, here’s how it works.
Before you grab a spear to go after tonight’s dinner, simmer down. Grocery stores and farmers markets are there to do the work for you.
So, your paleo life can look something like this: Wake up in the morning to scrambled eggs with spinach, chicken sausage, and avocado, and a cup of coffee (yes, coffee is paleo!) with a splash of almond milk. For lunch, it’s all about the spaghetti squash and slow cooker Bolognese you made overnight.
And oh, you can’t wait to dig your hands into shrimp stir-fry with cauliflower rice tonight. For dessert, it’s a few pieces of dark chocolate. Sounds good? That’s paleo in a nutshell (pun intended).
What to eat on the paleo diet
- Chicken. Potentially already a staple in your diet (unless you’re pegan, aka paleo-vegan)
- Fish. BRB. Gone
fishingto the fish market.
- Red meat. Yep, even red meat’s on the menu.
- Pork. Slow cooker paleo pulled pork FTW.
- Eggs. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Vegetables. Never enough of these bad boys.
- Fruits. Choose fresh and frozen fruits over sweetened dried or canned fruit.
- Nuts. Peanuts aren’t allowed, but go nuts on almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and hazelnuts.
- Healthy oils and fats. We’re talking avocados, avocado oil, olive oil, and coconut.
- Natural sweeteners. Honey and maple syrup? Yes, please.
Pro tip: Prioritize organic, grass-fed meats and free-range eggs, and opt for wild-caught seafood and organic vegetables if you can afford them and they’re available to you.
What to limit or avoid on the paleo diet
- Highly processed foods. Yes, even the natural, avocado oil-based chips.
- Refined sugar. Good-bye for now, Snickers. Don’t worry, paleo dessert is still on the menu.
- Refined carbs. RIP bagel Fridays.
- Legumes. Silver lining: Maybe you’ll have less gas?
- Dairy. But have you tried banana “ice cream”?
- Grains. Not even brown rice.
- Vegetable oils. Easy at home, tough when eating out.
Ultimately, many dietitians don’t endorse cutting out large swaths of food types unless it’s medically necessary or if cutting out a certain food or foods helps reduce certain symptoms or simply makes you feel your best. Missing out on protein-dense dairy, complex carbs from grains, and nutrient-rich legumes may not benefit everyone.
But if your dietitian or doctor thinks paleo’s right for you, there is some limited evidence that it can be beneficial for weight loss and metabolic health. The question is whether it’s more beneficial than other diet types like the well-balanced Mediterranean diet, which also focuses on unprocessed foods.
A research review looked at how the paleo diet affects health and found that it may help people manage weight and waist circumference and potentially have a positive impact in the management of chronic diseases. They concluded that more research was needed to confirm this.
A study confirmed that both paleo and Mediterranean diets are likely inversely associated with death from any cause. A smaller study suggested that paleo could improve fat mass and metabolic markers like insulin sensitivity and glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes.
It’s likely that any diet focusing on increasing whole, minimally processed foods, fiber-rich vegetables and fruits, and healthy fats, while decreasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and added sugar will result in reduced disease risk and improved health. So, transitioning to a paleo diet might very well improve your health. However, cutting out foods may just not be necessary for some folks. In fact, foods like whole grains and legumes, which aren’t considered paleo-friendly, have been linked to a number of health benefits.
If you’re all-in on paleo, there are some tricks to follow. Since there really isn’t a paleo rule book set in stone (age), we collected guidelines that many paleo-enthusiasts follow. These will help any paleo newbie understand what to expect when you’re going full (or even halfsie) caveman.
- Eat plenty of whole foods. Staples include sweet potatoes, avocados, and eggs.
- Eat less processed foods. Packaged chips, cookies, breads, etc. are a no-go. While it might seem hard at first, you might find it harder to add them back into your diet once you start feeling better.
- Just because it’s packaged doesn’t make it totally off-limits. We’re definitely stocking our pantries with these paleo-approved staples. And when we’re on the road, we’re bringing these travel-friendly snacks.
- Avoid foods that don’t make you feel good. Even if something is “paleo approved,” that doesn’t mean you have to eat it. Bolognese recipe calls for red meat, but you’re not a “red meat” person? Go for turkey instead.
- Find what works for you. Some paleo peeps eat rice on occasion (gasp!), while some won’t even say the word “rice” without flinching. Be your own caveman and create a plan that will help you succeed at feeling your best.
- Don’t be too strict. We like to follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the time we’ll eat paleo, but 20 percent of the time we won’t say no to pizza, rice, cookies, or cheese. Or if you want to include peanuts in your nut lineup, that’s your call. The leniency makes it easier to stick to the plan the majority of the time. Sustainability is key to success, amiright?
- Learn to love cooking. Since you’re eating less processed foods, you’ll be making more homemade meals. Don’t let it stress you out. Find easy recipes (like all of these), and ones you really love, so it becomes a joy, not a nuisance.
- Don’t entirely say goodbye to your favorite processed snack foods. Paleo allows you to still enjoy pancakes, chicken tenders, and chocolate… as long as they’re made with paleo-approved ingredients. Think coconut flour flapjacks, almond-crusted tenders, and chocolate chip cookies.
- If ya booze, ya don’t necessarily lose. It’s sometimes hard completely giving it up. We’re not saying to drink three daiquiris at brunch, but wine, gluten-free beers, and hard ciders are OK on occasion.
If you’ve already found a way of eating that makes you feel your best, then you should probably stick to that. If you’re still feeling kinda (or really) crappy on a daily basis, then paleo or another whole food-focused eating plan could be worth a try.
Just be sure to check in with your doc or your dietitian to see if you won’t be missing any essential nutrients by cutting out any foods. And if so, maybe try a modified paleo plan or just incorporating more unprocessed foods over that next trip to Dunkin’.