Welcome to the meat and veggies of the Paleo Diet. While I encourage you to stick to the basics as much as possible, I’m a realist. Chances are you’ve probably survived your whole life consuming a lot of stuff on the “no-no” list, and you’re not likely to give everything up, and that’s alright. In fact, I even encourage it. The 80/20 rule states you are bound to experience 99% of the benefits from this way of eating by just following the guidelines 80% of the time. I myself have refused to give up two staples that make life worth living: Tex-Mex and Blue Bell Ice Cream. So feel free to let loose every now and then, as long as the line you draw is relatively close to 80/20 and not more like 65/35.
Let’s start with the stuff you are free to eat in abundance:
- lots of leafy greens, including romaine, spinach, arugula, kale, chard, mixed baby greens/spring mix (my favorite) and even iceberg lettuce
- different colored fruits and veggies-variety is good- don’t be afraid to try funky veggies like beets, butternut squash, spaghetti squash and rudabaga to name a few
- lean meats-high quality beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, goat, wild game, etc. The more natural the better, i.e. grass fed/ free range/ wild caught. Some fatty meats are ok, they are just indicators that the animal is grain fed/more processed than a natural one. I love bacon, chorizo, and fatty brisket, just try to limit these types of meats , unless you can find them organic and uncured (which you can at Whole Foods, but for a pretty penny)
- Seafood-shrimp, oysters, scallops, eel, octopus, crawdads, and of course, fish. Coldwater fish such as salmon and mackerel are usually the best. Warm water is fine too though. Avoid farm raised seafood if possible
- Lots of eggs! Don’t buy into the cholesterol myth . Eating lots of eggs can actually lower your LDL (bad Cholesterol) levels. Also, don’t be afraid to try them raw. In healthy individuals, the threat of salmonella poisoning is nearly non existent. Just make sure the eggs you are eating are from healthy chickens, i.e. cage free, organic, etc. Raw eggs are extra tasty in fruit and protein shakes. Check out the Harvest section for tips on raising your own Chickens.
- plant/monounsaturated fats and oils- nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, toasted sesame seed oil, nut oils, and even real butter to name a few. Avoid the following oils: Canola, Cottonseed, Margarine, Safflower/sunflower, soybean oil, corn oil, partially hydrogenated oils, trans fat, and vegetable shortening. For a full description of good vs. bad oils, reference the Primal Blueprint, pg. 132
- Berries-this can be grouped with fruits, but berries in particular are fantastic for you. Think blueberries, goji berries, acai berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, huckleberries, etc.
Enjoy in Moderation:
- Dark Chocolate. At a minimum, find chocolate that is at least 70% Cocoa. I prefer 85-90%. I can find Lindt bars at my grocers for less than $2.50. Cocoa beans are almost solid plant fat and contain lots of antioxidants
- Alcohol-No more than 1-2 glasses of beer or wine a day, preferably red wine for its resveratrol content
- Caffeine-A lot of the die hard Paleo Diet freaks will tell you to stay away from caffeine. If it’s in the form of a soda or over the top energy drink, yes you should. If we’re just talking about tea or coffee, I feel its ok-so long as you don’t use the caffeine as a crutch for waking up in the morning or staying up at night (unless you’re a college student-I did 5 years of architecture school so I know fully well the necessity of coffee for such things!). If you’re doing most everything else Paleo, your energy levels should be balanced and you should wake up refreshed anyways. If you’re like me and really just enjoy coffee, go ahead and have a cup or two each day!
- Dairy-You will note below that milk is prohibited. From a purists point of view, anything with milk is prohibited. Most Paleo supporters feel that dairy products like cheese, yogurt, butter, sour cream, and heavy cream fall into a gray area that make them ok to use occasionally. My personal take is that such products are tasty and nutritious. Some kind of process has removed the sugars (lactose) and left behind the protein and fat (the tasty stuff!) I cover dairy in depth in an advanced article.
- Natural Sweeteners. Honey existed during Caveman times, and I’m sure they didn’t hesitate to enjoy it if the opportunity presented itself, but I doubt with their technology this was very often. That said, using local raw honey can help with allergies and boost your immune system. Some other sweeteners such as agave nectar have health benefits and a relatively low glycemic index, but are expensive. Real Maple Syrup is delicious. It also has a very high GI index. Hopefully since you aren’t eating pancakes anymore you won’t have a need for syrup.
- Some natural grain/starchy carbs- This mostly includes sweet potatoes since these are so high in nutrients, but I can also think of teff, quinao, and lentils.
You ever notice how dogs only drink when they really want to? The same should apply to you. Despite all the advice from doctors and coaches to hydrate, hydrate, hydarate and that age-old adage to drink 8 glasses of water a day, it’s really ok to just drink when you’re thirsty. Sisson points out that there is no conclusive scientific data to validate that 8 glass a day recommendation. Furthermore, we get quite a bit of water from the food we eat. Your body will tell you when it’s thirsty, listen to it.
Now, for the food you should AVOID:
Sugar, anything with high fructose corn syrup, bread, tortillas, pasta, muffins, pastries, pancakes. anything with wheat or flour. Just about any food that comes packaged in a box.
- Potatoes (except for yams or sweet potatoes, see above)
- Peanuts (technically a legume, not a nut!)
- Corn (technically a grain, not a vegetable).
- Milk and non-European yogurts (yogurts that have added sweetening or other stuff, like “Fruit on the Bottom”)
The “Non-Rules” of Eating
To me, one of the most beautiful things about the Paleo Diet, is that other than what you shouldn’t eat, there are no guidelines.
1. You do not have to limit portions, because your body will do it for you once you get all the junk out of your system. Your body will be getting all the nutrients it needs, thus sending the proper hormonal messengers to your brain signaling satiety. Even if you willfully try to eat too much, as long as what you’re eating isn’t triggering a large insulin response, your body has other mechanisms in place to regulate itself. Still, practice eating until you are no longer hungry, not until you are “full”.
2. You do not have to eat 3 square or 6 small meals evenly spaced throughout the day as society or trendy diets dictate.
3. You don’t have to eat certain types of food for any given meal. It’s interesting how Americans have come to view cereals, eggs, bacon, pancakes, biscuits etc. as only “breakfast” foods. We also consider a sandwich to be a universal “lunch” food, and for “dinner” we usually have some type of meat with vegetable and bread sides. Try eating fish for breakfast and eggs/fruit for dinner sometime!
4. Adding to #3, you don’t have to combine foods to balance a meal or for that matter worry about combining too many different foods.
Cavemen hardly ever had a secure supply of food for such eating habits, so his genes evolved to adapt to this. Maybe he would wake up and happen to kill a rabbit or be next to a grove of fruit and nut trees, so he would fill up on these foods while he had the chance. He might go the rest of the day without finding anymore food, until right before dark, when he discovered a bird’s nest with some tasty eggs. He might go another two days eating only wild berries he found along his journey before reaching a river that had bountiful fish! We obviously don’t live in times of food insecurity like they did, but, we have modern stresses that can simulate those conditions: a deadline at work forcing one to skip lunch, an early morning meeting that leaves no time for breakfast, an urgent home repair forces dad to skip dinner. You get the point. Just east the right things, and eat until you are no longer hungry (as opposed to eating until you are full-see the difference?) and you’ll be just fine. After a few weeks of being on the Paleo diet, your body will be relying more on fat as an energy source rather than carbs. Unless you have completely depleted your blood and muscle glycogen stores ( intense physical exercise 2 hours or more), your hormones will not be signaling extreme hunger pangs, so the discomfort of hunger should not be as great as before when your body relied mostly upon carbohydrates for energy. Glucose can run out quickly. Fat, you have quite a large reserve of it, even those of us who are very lean. At about 6% body fat and 165lbs, that means I have about 10 lbs of body fat. 1 lb of fat is equal to 3500 calories worth of energy, so you can see that this would last me quite some time!
Caveman might not have gotten all his required nutrients in a single day, but let’s say over the course of 4 days he did. The body is good at averaging out in a situation like this. So, if you feel like eating fish for breakfast and eggs for dinner, or only feel like eating meat one day and only vegetables the next, or just feel like eating one huge meal at breakfast or lunch and being content for the rest of the day, go for it! There are no rules! Our ancestors went through a lot of hardship to develop these abilities, so I suggest you take full advantage of them.
Here is the kicker though. Those first two weeks of transition might be tough. You will probably feel weak, tired, maybe even light headed. Be patient and have faith that your body will soon adapt to the food it was meant to eat. If you are an athlete in the midst of training or racing, you must be willing to sacrifice your results in a race or two and some of your training intensity during that time, but trust me, subduing short term pleasure is well worth the results you’ll see long term.
5. one of my favorites- you get to eat with the best eating utenstils ever invented-your hands! I love eating with my hands. They are more efficient than silverware. Instead of my brain telling my fingers telling the fork what to do, I just let my hands have right at it! There are social occasions where a fork and knife are still proper, but when I’m at home I’m using my hands. Don’t be afraid to indulge your inner Caveman and give this a try.
One last thing to add involves how you prepare and eat your food, i.e. cooked versus raw. In almost all instances, food closest to its natural state will be healthier for you. Please check out my post on raw food here