In a nutshell, Paleo lifestyle and diet take inspiration and cues from our ancestors and the way we used to eat and live. Let’s get one thing clear. It’s not about re-enacting the caveman era. Nobody runs around in in loincloths and sets fires to cook their food (only occasionally). Paleo is about learning from ancestors but it is mostly fuelled by modern scientific and medical research and common sense.
The diet focuses on unprocessed, whole foods – healthy fats including saturated fat, grass-fed, free-range meat and eggs, lots of fish and seafood, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and some natural sweeteners. It excludes grains, legumes, processed sugar and most dairy. Some people include healthy dairy foods like kefir, full fat natural yogurt, some aged cheese and butter. That, of course, really depends on your sensitivities. We love this way of eating because it also focuses on local, organic produce and good farming practices.
The paleo or primal lifestyle also promotes healthier living. Better sleeping habits. Stress reduction. Functional fitness and movement. Adequate sun exposure. Spending more time outdoors. Avoiding environmental toxins and so on. Above all, paleo is not a set of strict rules, it’s more of a framework that you can adapt based on your own goals, health, gender, age, location and current lifestyle. It’s a very holistic approach to wellbeing. Read more about my practical approach to paleo here.
Here is a summary of what’s in and what’s out on the Paleo food list (well at least on our Paleo food list):
- Meat and poultry (including offal) – grass-fed, free range meat is not only a kinder and more ethical way to consume animal products but it is also much higher in nutrients because of the way the cattle was fed and raised. We have a great little interview with a cattle farmer talking about the benefits of grass-fed, pasture raised cattle meat here.
- Fish and seafood – try to choose sustainable, wild fish and seafood when possible
- Eggs – free-range, pasture raised whenever possible
- Vegetables – non-starchy and starchy tubers and root vegetables
- Fruit and berries – stick to low sugar fruit and berries and keep high sugar fruit like bananas and mangos for days when you need a higher carbohydrate intake or when in season and tasting delicious.
- Nuts and seeds – these guys are nutritious but many nuts and seeds are high in Omega-6 fatty acids which can be pro-inflammatory if consumed in large quantities and when your diet is not balanced by an equal amount of Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish like salmon and sardines, eggs and leafy greens. Basically, don’t gorge on buckets of nuts and seeds every day. The same goes for nut meals and flours such as almond meal. Whenever possible, try to activate nuts and seeds by soaking and then dehydrating them back, which makes them easier to digest.
- Spices and herbs – go to town, the more the better! As for salt, use good quality sea salt or Celtic salt to get beneficial minerals and be sensible with it. I love spices and herbs so much, I wrote an e-Book about it.
- Healthy fats – coconut oil, coconut milk and cream, ghee, butter (yep, it’s mostly fat so no big problems with lactose), duck fat, olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, fish oil, sesame oil as well as from grass-fed meats, poultry and fish.
- Condiments – mustard, fish good, quality vinegars such as Apple Cider with mother in it or aged Balsamic, olive oil mayonnaise, low sugar tomato sauces and paste, anchovies, olives, gherkins, capers, salsas and pestos – are all fine, just make sure no nasty chemicals and preservatives are added. Wheat free soy sauce such as Tamari and naturally derived oyster sauce are ok every now and again but it’s better to try something like coconut aminos.
- For baking – nut meals, coconut flour, tapioca and arrowroot flour, sweet potato flour, chestnut flour – use in moderation as these guys are either still high in carbohydrates or may contain high amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids.
- Grains – especially wheat and anything with gluten. White rice is the least harmful of all grains and is added to dishes on occasions or for variety, it’s also part of the Perfect Health Diet protocol, which is what I follow. Rice is very high in carbohydrates and if you’re not active or trying to lose weight, it should be kept to ‘occasional’ use. Learn more about why grains are avoided in the paleo diet here.
- Legumes – beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on. Cashews are not legumes! There are some debates over whether some legumes are safe to consume in moderation, if prepared properly (soaked for 12 hours and then cooked really well to remove the phytic acid and make them easier to digest). You can read this article by Dr. Chris Kresser and this article by Dr. Loren Cordain and make up your own mind like we do. We include green beans and peas but avoid the rest.
- Refined sugars and carbohydrates – bread, pasta, cookies, white sugar, artificial sugar, high fructose syrup, sodas, fruit juices and so on.
- Dairy – especially milk and low fat dairy, and for those with damaged gut or gluten/lactose intolerances. If you’re concerned about calcium intake on a paleo diet read this post.
- Processed vegetable oils and fats such as canola oil (rapeseed), soybean oil, vegetable (Is it really made from vegetables? We don’t think so), and sunflower oils, as well as margarines and spreads made with such oils. Read this post on healthy cooking fats and oils here.
- Gluten containing products
Ok, on occasion:
- Dairy should mainly be avoided, especially if you suffer from gut problems and gluten intolerances, but if you’re in good health and have no sensitivities to lactose (sugars in milk) or casein (protein in milk) then a little healthy dairy can go a long way. Avoid cow’s milk as it has a high Glycemic Index unlike cheese or yogurt. Better options are goat’s and sheep’s milk products, A2 cow’s milk and cow’s milk fermented products like kefir, unsweetened yogurt, aged cheeses, full fat cream, butter, and ricotta.
- Natural sweeteners – honey, maple syrup, molasses, dried fruit, dark chocolate, palm sugar, rice malt syrup for those avoiding fructose.
- Alcohol – dry wines, clean non-grain based spirits.
- Fermented soy such miso, tempeh in small amounts, wheat free soy sauce
- Pseudograins like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are less harmful but they are still dense sources of carbohydrates and contain similar antinutrients to grains. They should be prepared carefully to remove some of the anti-nutrients such as phytic acid. Soak such grains in salted water for 8-12 hours, rinse and then cook well before consuming. Chia seeds also fall in this category. Buckwheat is the safest out of these.
- Fresh corn, green beans and green peas fall into grain/legume category but in our eyes they are totally fine to use every now and then and especially when in season and local.
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This eBook guide to paleo is a fantastic resource that is beautifully designed and easy to follow. Lots of fun graphics to get complex concepts and science across. Worth getting it from here.
Looking for additional reading on Paleo or Primal nutrition? Check out these guide books:
Optimal Health The Paleo Way by Claire Yates
The Perfect Health Diet by Paul Jaminet & Shou-Ching Jaminet
Personal Paleo Code by Chriss Kresser
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, a must read!
The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson
Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo