Paleo Diet 101
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet (sometimes referred to as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet, or primal diet) was created by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. It’s based on the idea that to achieve optimal health and prevent disease, one should mimic the diet humans ate during the Paleolithic Age when food was either hunted or gathered. This basically means living on unprocessed, whole food sources of protein, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Cordain’s reasoning for suggesting one eat like a caveman is due to the food industry’s technology and manufacturing advancements. He believes the changes to our food supply have been so rapid that our bodies haven’t had time to adapt to these new forms. The result of eating modernized, processed food is inflammation that has led to chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as obesity.
What can you eat?
Pretty much all animal proteins (fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs), vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and oils and fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado are included in the Paleo Diet. However, animal proteins and produce should be organic, local, and grass-fed when possible to mimic the prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifestyle and to limit chemical intake.
What can’t you eat?
Legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils, as well as peanuts), grains, dairy products, potatoes, processed foods, and refined vegetable oils are excluded from the diet. This means that almost all foods in a box, can, or bag are off-limits. Added sugars and alcohol are also excluded. If you must have one or both, it’s advised that you choose one that is closest to what cavemen might have had, such as a natural sweetener like honey for added sugar and red wine for alcohol. The Paleo Diet nixes salt too, but this is an exclusion that even many strict Paleo followers are unable to totally give up. Additionally, there are some Paleo Diet variations that allow sweet potatoes and an occasional white potato, particularly if a participant is very active.
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So how does it stand up nutritionally?
Paleo diets are typically higher in protein and fat and lower in carbohydrates when compared to the USDA’s recommended guidelines. While the Paleo Diet is lower carb, it’s not necessarily as low in carbs as the Atkins Diet unless one chooses to avoid or greatly limit fruit and vegetable intake. The elimination of dairy makes the diet low in calcium and Vitamin D, and the elimination of grains impacts intake of some B vitamins. Additionally, the assumption is that participants will consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to provide a good assortment of vitamins and minerals. If a person has limited produce intake or limited variety though, then there may be additional nutrition concerns.
Is this a diet or a lifestyle?
Many follow the Paleo Diet as a way to lose weight. However, Paleo advocates are quick to say that Paleo isn’t a diet (and certainly not just a weight-loss diet), but rather a holistic lifestyle approach. In addition to whole, unprocessed foods, the other key components of the Paleo lifestyle are stress management and exercise that focuses on mobility and functional movements. Functional moves—lifting, pulling, pushing, squatting, and carrying heavy loads—are those used in everyday tasks and exhibit how cavemen hunted, gathered, outran predators and thus stayed fit and alive.
What are the proposed health benefits?
Cordain and other Paleo researchers claim that following the diet reduces inflammation, the root cause of today’s chronic diseases, decline in health, and increase in obesity. Scientific findings that back up the Paleo Diet’s claims look promising—weight loss, lower blood pressure, improved blood lipids, and increased satiety. However, the number of research studies to date is limited, and many have low sample sizes. Most health professionals feel that a larger body of research on the Paleo Diet and its outcomes is needed before promoting the diet and potential health benefits.
What are some other Paleo Diet benefits?
While researchers and health professionals might not be ready to recommend the Paleo Diet, there are some aspects of it that have been shown to lead to health improvements.
- Processed foods are typically high in sodium and low in potassium, so eliminating (or even greatly reducing) processed foods can reduce blood pressure. These foods are also a common source of added sugars and/or fats, so elimination can reduce total calories ingested. Reducing total caloric intake and reducing added sugar intake has been shown to aid in weight loss and to improve the body’s insulin usage.
- The Paleo Diet advocates an active lifestyle through a combination of routine tasks and exercise. Increasing movement and activity (even if only through increased steps in daily tasks) can have a multitude of positive effects including weight reduction, increased mobility, reduced blood pressure, better stress management, and improved psychological outlook.
What are the downsides to Paleo?
The concept seems simple, but there are some daily challenges to eating a Paleo Diet.
- Planning and prep time are required. Eating more natural, less processed foods is something many know they need to do, but following any diet that excludes or greatly limits processed foods requires planning and kitchen time. Throwing together a quick unprocessed meal is difficult if you don’t have foods around like salad greens, cooked protein such as chicken or steak, a homemade dressing, and nuts and ripe fruit. And, some basic cooking skills such as roasting and sautéing are needed.
- It can be expensive. The other downside to following a Paleo diet for many is the expense. Processed foods are often cheaper than whole, unprocessed ones, so switching to unprocessed can raise grocery bills—not to mention some have a shorter shelf life due to the lack of preservatives. Choosing grass-fed meats and organic produce is also significantly more expensive than buying conventional ones.
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What are the nutritional concerns with Paleo?
Many dietitians and health professionals also have nutritional concerns with the Paleo Diet.
- The diet focuses on food quality but not quantity. While someone may be making healthier food choices, the quantity isn’t measured or emphasized, making it easy to consume extra calories especially from higher fat foods such as nuts, avocado, and oils. Food choices play a role in weight loss, but calories do, too. Following the Paleo Diet won’t automatically lead to weight loss unless you’re consuming fewer calories than you’re burning.
- The diet is higher in protein than recommendations, and a Paleo dieter’s intake usually exceeds their RDA. This puts extra strain on the kidneys. The diet is also low in calcium, which is linked to an increase in bone loss and high risk of developing osteoporosis. But, there’s also research suggesting that diets high in protein and low in calcium may cause calcium excretion that even further contributes to bone loss. This isn’t good for anyone, but especially not for females already at risk.
- The sticking point of the Paleo Diet for many dietitians is that it excludes perfectly healthy foods, such as black beans, garbanzo beans, black-eye peas, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, milk, oats, quinoa, and brown rice. These foods are great sources of nutrition, and the idea to exclude them because the caveman didn’t eat them and our bodies can’t process them properly is hard to support without definitive research.
What is the overall diet rating?
Despite the nutritional concerns, the Paleo Diet might be a good choice for people who eat a highly processed diet or for those looking for a diet “reset.” Since it focuses on whole, unprocessed foods, the Paleo diet eliminates many people’s food triggers, refined carbs with added sugars and/or added fat such as snack foods, crackers, pasta, bread, sodas, and sweets. This decrease in refined grains, added sugars, and refined fats is a change many could benefit from calorie-wise and health-wise. Furthermore, following a restrictive, unprocessed diet like Paleo quickly increases self-awareness of past reliance on processed foods and the effect these foods have on energy and cravings. This awareness may continue even after getting off the diet and could possibly lead to healthier food selections. On the flipside, the restrictiveness is also what makes it a diet plan that you likely couldn’t live on long-term.
If you’re interested in trying out a few Paleo recipes, check out the next few slides. Omit or decrease salt further if you’re trying for strict adherence.
Salmon with Walnut-Avocado Guacamole
Salmon is a staple in paleo diets as it's incredibly rich in healthy fats. The dish contains 32 grams of total fat: That's the amount in three Butterfinger candy bars. But the quality of the food—salmon, walnuts, avocado, olive oil—is premium, fresh, and delicious. You'll walk away happy, satisfied, and comfortably full—a fullness that will last for hours. Bonus: It's fast food, ready in less than 20 minutes.
Gift-Wrapped Sesame-Soy Tilapia
The "gift" of these foil-wrapped packets is more than their quick prep and easy cleanup; the method also steams the fish and vegetables perfectly. Carefully unwrap the packets yourself, or bring them to the table for each person to unwrap.
Fast Chicken Chili with Butternut Squash
Chili doesn't get much faster. Just 30 minutes delivers long-simmered satisfaction along with mashed beans, butternut squash lends color and starch to thicken. Rotisserie chicken also helps make this hearty chili superspeedy without sacrificing rich, deep, and complex flavor.
One-Pot Chicken with Farro
This easy dish is perfect for a casual get-together with friends. Inspired by arroz con pollo, it is hearty with satisfying complexity. Cumin, saffron, and oregano season rich chicken thighs and nutty farro as the dish simmers. If using saffron, deploy it sparingly; those tiny threads bring subtle flavor and a little color to the dish, but too much will yield a medicinal taste. Serve with a side salad to complete the meal.
Slow Cooker Chicken, Bacon, and Potato Soup
The slow cooker gently coaxes out delicious flavors from simple, hearty ingredients. This soup is perfect for ushering in fall: It's hearty enough for the beginning of soup season, yet brothy and veggie-packed so that it doesn't feel too heavy. Pair it with a slaw or kale side salad and crusty whole-grain bread for a light, satisfying dinner. This recipe is ideal for a weekend, when you can check on the slow cooker after just a few hours; though you won't be able to leave the soup unattended all day, this still offers the benefit of hands-free, fuss-free cooking. Either baby red, Yukon Gold, or fingerling potatoes will work well here, as they'll maintain their shape nicely during cooking.
Honey and Sesame-Glazed Chicken Breasts with Green Beans
Sweet honey and toasty sesame team up for a flavor combo everyone at the table is sure to love. *To make paleo-friendly, substitute ghee for butter.
Beef and Broccoli Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Russets aren't the only spuds worth stuffing. Smoke and heat, achieved with chili powder and ground red pepper, work particularly well with sweet potatoes. This makes for a great paleo main dish, or cut them smaller and serve open-faced as a Super Bowl-style appetizer.
Blackened Steak Salad
Steak-centric salads are a staple of the American gastropub menu. Unfortunately, the “salad” interpretation is a bit loose—the lettuce merely a bed for a Flinstone-sized protein serving, the butter-yellow croutons, tons of cheese, and creamy dressing blanketing all. We kept the chargrilled steak then topped it off with good-for-you avocado and a vinaigrette that complements the vegetables rather than disguise them. This changes not only make it healthier, but it keeps the whole dish paleo-friendly. A little meat goes a long way: just 12 ounces is plenty to serve 4.
Flank Steak with Herb Dressing and Charred Broccolini
Adding the steak's juices into the dressing it's served with boosts savory satisfaction.
Pan-Seared Chicken with Pecan-Scallion Gremolata
Omit the cheese in this savory dish to make it the perfect paleo meal. The lemony, nutty gremolata is addictive. Dollop it over any number of proteins. Serve the chicken with a peppery arugula salad, and you're good to go.
Simple sometimes means the best and the boldest. This fresh apple and celery salad is certainly the crunchiest.
Coconut Pan-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Sesame Seeds
Not all paleo diets include sweet potatoes, but if you are including sweet potatoes then this is the recipe for you. Virgin coconut oil is unrefined and cold-pressed, like extra-virgin olive oil, and isn't hydrogenated. It has a clean, slightly nutty taste that's delicious in this dish.
Deborah Madison, who adapted this recipe from one in a new revision of her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (1997), likes to use a mix of sweet potatoes, but it's fine to go with just one kind. Paler sweet potatoes tend to be drier, so if you use them, add more oil.
Herb Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette
A homemade vinaigrette tops this classic side that is high in flavor but low in calories. Pre-packaged salad takes this dish from the kitchen and to the table in five minutes.
Tomato Salad with Avocado and Onion
Simplicity is key in a paleo diet, which makes this recipe ideal. The tomatos are the star in this side dish, which also works well as a paleo snack.
Asparagus with Olive Tapenade
Don't miss out on enjoying one of spring's brightest stars by serving Asparagus with Olive Tapenade. Kalamata and Castelvetrano olives really make this asparagus dish pop.
Wilted Kale with Toasted Shallots
Toasted shallots swimming in a sea of wilted kale make for one über-nutritious and delicious side dish.
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Classic Slow Cooker Beef Stew
A nutty dark beer adds richness and depth to the stew. Be careful not to choose a beer that's super-hoppy; it will taste too bitter. To get 2 pounds of trimmed meat, you'll probably need to purchase a 2 1/2-pound roast.