I often get asked about the Paleo diet. While there are clients that I have recommended this to, I don’t endorse it across the board. What works for some will not work for everyone else. I don’t even associate my own eating habits with single trends or patterns. My meals can vary throughout the year depending on the season, what is in my kitchen or what is on sale. There are pros and cons to all diets and even if you don’t want to follow a strict plan there are good concepts that can be borrowed from just about any protocol without following it to the letter. Maybe not everyone needs to go full on paleo to adopt healthier eating habits, but there are some important takeaways from this craze that we can all benefit from.
So what is paleo?
Paleo, or ancestral eating, is a dietary approach that is intended to mimic what humans would have eaten during the Paleolithic era. Whether or not that can really be replicated in modern times has been challenged, but the basic idea is to eat foods that can be hunted or foraged. This means, strictly interpreted, no eating grains, dairy or beans (including soy). Instead, emphasis is placed on wild game, vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds. This is a positive aspect of Paleo because most of us benefit from cutting back on refined processed starches and eating more nutrient dense foods.
Possible reasons for the popularity of this diet include positive reports on weight loss, improved digestion and remission of autoimmune conditions. It makes sense that when people follow a plan that is naturally lower in refined carbohydrates, some convenient side effects are weight loss and more steady blood sugar levels which leads to increased eneregy. A diet that is higher in quality protein, healthy fats and fibrous vegetables is also very filling so it’s easier to lose weight without feeling hungry or having to count calories. People who did not feel well or experienced GI distress on previously trendy raw vegan or vegetarian plans often notice positive changes when they adopt an approach that still includes plant foods but more quality protein from better sources. This may be due to the fact that some unhealthy vegetarian diets were often inflammatory due to the high amounts of refined grains, processed soy and conventional dairy consumed; and even though beans are healthy those who suffer from IBS have difficulty digesting them. Autoimmune diseases are on the rise and people who cut back on or eliminate gluten, dairy, and in some cases all grains often report good remission of their ailments since these can be common trigger foods in such conditions.
But is meat healthy?
The healthiest interpretations of Paleo still include mostly plant foods with a smaller proportion of meat or other animal products. It is important to note that while animal products are allowed, higher standards are followed for which ones to choose. Importance is placed on grass fed beef, free range chickens, wild caught fish, or wild game. Also, many people who formerly avoided animal products for ethical reasons sometimes feel morally justified buying products that come from animals that were humanely raised and fed a much higher quality diet. The added cost of these types of meats are another reason to get most of your nutrients from plants even if you are eating animal sourced foods.
But not all “Paleo” foods should be staples
Many popular Paleo bloggers have put wonderful recipes out there, but some have gotten carried away on making grain free desserts which call for large amounts of nut flours and other ingredients high in phytic acid. Use caution with these “substitute foods.” While they are great to be enjoyed occasionally, they are not well tolerated by the gut. Besides, even though I wasn’t around I’m pretty sure that the caveman of prehistoric times were NOT eating almond flour Paleo brownies.
While there seems to be a growing number of people who report feeling better minimizing foods that are off limits in the Paleo plan, not everyone needs to completely eliminate them. But even if strictly following this plan is not right for you, there is nothing wrong with eating more whole unprocessed foods, higher quality protein, fresh produce and less processed flour products…and that is a common sense approach that any of us can thrive on.