If you are looking for information about the Paleo Diet, you have come to the right place! As a family, we’ve taken a Paleo approach to food ever since a friend of ours (thank you Anita) gave my husband a copy of Mark Sisson’s Paleo Blueprint and a Paleo Cookbook as a birthday present. 3 months later he was fitter and healthier than he’d been in many years.
One thing to be clear about from the start is that the term diet is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to Paleo. We really prefer to look at it as a lifestyle choice. Of course, this may sound a bit weird when talking about something that has so many different names, The Caveman Diet, The Primal Diet, The Hunter-gatherer diet and the Paleolithic Diet to name just a few.
Not only are the multiple names confusing but it can be a bit confusing to understand the ins and outs of this diet. What do you eat? How do you get started? Are there any drawbacks? Getting your head around all the details could make you give up before you start! Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Welcome to The Ultimate Paleo Guide – this really is everything that you need to know to get started.
Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Welcome to The Ultimate Paleo Guide-this really is everything that you need to know to get started.
Why Paleo? Paleo actually refers to Paleolithic era man. This is, in fact, an incredibly broad period, covering basically everything from man’s first use of tools over 2,5 million years ago all the way up to a relatively recent ten thousand years ago. Although this period includes a fairly large chunk of human evolution, the point is that humans lived and ate in a fairly constant way.
The invention of the first stone tools turned man from a gatherer into a hunter-gatherer and placed meat firmly on the menu. Whilst these tools certainly evolved, man remained a hunter, relying on his skills to chase down game, from that day onward. Even if you prefer to buy your steaks from the butcher rather than take your bow and arrow out of the closet, we are still essentially hunter-gatherers.
We have no direct evidence of the exact make-up of paleo man’s diet. We know that it was composed of fish, meat, shellfish, fruit, nuts and leafy vegetables (as well as insects and anything else that was available). But it is impossible to be sure of the exact proportions and this probably varied from place to place and over time. The only issue was survival and primitive man ate what was available, which would vary tremendously from season to season for example.
The early Paleolithic period was also before the discovery of fire which definitely impacted on our diet. Before this, there is a good chance that a large majority of the diet was plant-based, with a relatively small part coming from animal protein, particularly things like eggs and shellfish that could be scavenged. After the advent of fire and the ability to cook meat (which would also help to preserve it), animal protein probably became quite a lot more important as part of the diet.
While there are a few people who may claim that they are the inventor of modern Paleo, only one guy can really say that he is responsible for making it so popular. This man is Dr. Loren Cordain. He runs one of the biggest Paleo sites on the net and has written several books dealing with everything from Paleo basics to implementing this diet if you are an athlete.
His story is actually quite a fascinating one and gives some valuable insight into paleo as a system. He first became interested in what we eat and the effects that this food can have on our health and well-being at an early age. Both his parents encouraged him to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. His father also gave him books about stone age man and was instrumental in developing Cordain’s inquisitive mind.
He really started thinking more about the connections between diet and health as a serious college-level athlete. He became interested in anything that could improve his performance and began to find that he benefited from things that went against the grain of the commonly-held beliefs of the time which promoted a starchy carbohydrate-rich approach to nutrition.
Initially, he looked towards vegetarianism and plant-based diets as the answer. Whilst there were certainly some advantages for him, it was when he began to implement a ‘caveman’ approach to eating that his results really took off. This helped launch his graduate studies at the University of Nevada and his doctoral work at the University of Utah, where he specialized in body fat, diet, and athletic performance.
After reading Dr. Boyd Eaton’s groundbreaking 1987 paper entitled “Paleolithic Medicine ” in the New England Journal of Medicine, all the ideas he had been working on seemed to fall into place and modern Paleo was born. Thirty years and five bestselling books later, he is still at the forefront of the movement towards a more natural, healthier eating style for everyone.
You will find a host of different interpretations of Paleo, depending on where you look and whom you listen to. Let’s start with a definition that should work for most people. The Paleo diet is an effort to return to traditional eating as practiced by man for thousands of years during the paleolithic era and after. It is a diet where you avoid any processed goods, chemical additives or artificial ingredients including sugar.
As a base definition, this will do pretty well. Most Paleo fans will also tell you to remove grains from your diet because the paleo era was before the advent of agriculture. The same is true for dairy products because man didn’t keep animals for their milk or transform this milk into butter, cheese or whatever.
What’s the point of all this? Well, the theory goes that genetically, we are essentially the same as our caveman cousins. We are adapted for a diet that is far-removed from what we actually eat today and the current obsession with fast food, sugar, and trans-fats is a fast track to the morgue. Even those foods which are on the supposed ‘healthy list’, such as grains and cereals, really aren’t healthy. We can’t digest them properly and they are an irritant that will cause health problems, particularly in the digestive tract. By removing them, we are staying in line with what we are built to eat and guaranteeing a better quality of life.
As previously mentioned, the Paleolithic era is actually over 2 million years of human history and development so it is quite wrong (and in fact impossible) to give specifics of ‘a paleo diet’. However, what is absolutely clear is that there were no artificial ingredients in this diet, no chemical additives and certainly no fast food joints! Without worrying straightaway about the details, keeping to these simple guidelines is key.
The decision to move to paleo is actually pretty easy, especially when you look at the potential benefits. Who wouldn’t be interested in improved health and energy and fewer digestive problems?
Things tend to get a little more complicated when you actually start to put things into practice! You will immediately start to ask yourself questions like “What do I have for breakfast?” or “How do I deal with sugar cravings?”
The key thing is to work your way into Paleo using a transition period. If you currently eat a typical Western diet, going cold turkey on paleo can be a real shock to the system, one that some will fail to deal with and promptly fall back off the wagon.
A transition period means gradually adopting Paleo habits and replacing your old, unhealthy lifestyle one step at a time. Science has proven again and again that the most efficient and easiest way forward when changing habits is one at a time, letting it become solidly ingrained before moving to the next. The best way to start here is by removing all processed foods. This means anything that is filled with chemicals, comes in a packet ready to microwave or is generally far removed from what you might find in the wild.
A transition period uses this principle of adopting habits gradually. It really is hard to transform your life completely. All the more so if you have been eating the same poor food choices for decades. Taking things one step at a time is actually quite easy. Although it means that moving to a completely natural diet might take months, this isn’t a problem. Every single step is a move in the right direction and will improve health and quality of life. If you can make sure that these habits are there to stay, you have done the right thing.
You might think that paleo is going to be quite restrictive. Some people can actually limit their choices because they don’t realize just how much variety is possible. This is one of the problems of the modern world. We tend to buy food that is ready-prepared and we have forgotten how to use herbs and spices and combine ingredients to create flavor without making something unhealthy. Those TV dinners might be handy, but you can make something that is far tastier without spending all day in the kitchen.
Before you do anything, start by making a paleo shopping list. You can copy our paleo diet food list to get you started. Paleo does rely on fresh food because it doesn’t use artificial ingredients to keep things edible for months at a time. Luckily the rise of the paleo diet has coincided with the rise of local farmers markets. Trust me you haven’t tasted beef until you’ve tried locally reared grass-fed beef.
However, if you don’t have a local farmers market don’t despair, there are some basics that you can buy and then use for months and months to create tasty recipes for yourself and others.
Here are a few ideas to help get you started:
Although these will keep well, they can lose their flavor a little over time. If you buy fresh and grind them yourself, you will probably get both better value for money as well as a little more flavor intensity in your dishes.
Don’t be scared to experiment and find combinations that you like. Just because it varies from the recipe doesn’t make it wrong. For example, I really like spicy, peppery food and what works for me will leave others gasping for breath (and reaching for a glass of water!)
These simple ingredients can transform the taste of virtually anything. You might think you know what tomatoes taste like, for example. Now try some fresh, organic Roma tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and rosemary. Now tell me that your TV dinner has more flavor than that!
After herbs and spices, there are some other basics that every paleo cook needs. Here they are:
Once you have got your basics sorted, the rest is down to personal preference. There are a couple of points that you should bear in mind when you are buying your food.
There are a couple of tips that can make shopping easier. Firstly, plan your meals before shopping and simply buy the ingredients that you need. This will stop quite a lot of unnecessary stuff ending up in your trolley.
Secondly, don’t shop when you are hungry! When you are hungry, you will be far more sensitive to all the temptations that await you in the aisles of the supermarket.
These two straightforward tips should lead to cheaper and faster shopping trips and far less chance of you falling off the wagon.
Once you have got paleo food mastered in your home, what about trying it in a restaurant? You might think that it will be impossible to stick to your diet when eating out, but most of the time it is actually fairly simple. Paleo is quite widely recognized, especially in the USA, and many restaurants even have a paleo option.
If you do order this, you would be wise to check exactly what is served. I have seen Paleo options which offer something like steak and vegetables, which is fine but then drown the vegetables with a cream sauce which makes the whole thing a little bit pointless!
Even if there isn’t a specific option, it should be easy enough to order something that fits. Whether you prefer fish, beef or meat, simply ask for it accompanied by vegetables or salad without sauce. You can then flavor it yourself with olive oil and vinegar, for example.
Desserts are more of a problem, but you still have a couple of options. Personally, I believe that there isn’t too much wrong with breaking your diet occasionally. Don’t think that you have ruined everything if you decide to indulge in some ice cream or a piece of pie. Unless you are going to a restaurant and doing this several times a week, you aren’t doing a whole lot of damage.
You can also just exercise a little willpower! Who said that you have to finish your meal with a bowl of sugar anyway? What about simply enjoying your fish or meat and then finishing off with a coffee, for instance?
Most people who give this a try are doing so for their health. So just what are the health advantages of Paleo? Well, fairly obviously, you are cutting out a large amount of the things that are so dangerous in the modern Western diet. Basing your diet around fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish from high-quality, organic sources is a world away from the way that most of us eat from day to day. On top of that, you are replacing unhealthy trans-fats with healthy fats
Just have look at this list of potential dangers that will have disappeared when you step into the world of paleo:
I could go on, but in that short list above, there are studies showing connections to everything from hyperactivity to cancer.
There have also been some pretty interesting studies linking a Paleo diet to significant health benefits. For example, a 2015 study found some solid benefits for weight loss and blood lipid profiles and another from 2009 showed that paleo could be a smart plan for diabetics too.
Anecdotal evidence from users is also overwhelmingly positive. In fact, even those who have dropped off the wagon for various reasons usually don’t have a bad thing to say about the effects on their waistline, digestion or overall well-being.
Whilst those (like me) who have benefited from Paleo will happily talk all day about its advantages, from losing weight to increased energy, there is a certain amount of controversy. Critics will point out the fact that our neanderthal ancestors weren’t exactly visions of health in many ways. Life expectancy was far from today’s levels. However, when you think that they spent a large number of their lives avoiding being eaten, having accidents and the like, this becomes something of a moot point. It is fairly certain that modern diseases like cancer and heart disease weren’t major problems for these cavemen.
The other two issues that are often cited are the excess consumption of red meat and the fact that certain foods like dairy, grains, and seeds are off limits which could lead to deficiencies in some people. In fact, a recent study by US News and World Report actually ranked Paleo last among 29 diets! This should be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because another study by Consumer Report ranked it second overall and it was the most searched-for diet on the internet in 2013.
So what is the truth? If your diet is basically eating large quantities of red meat and little else, this isn’t healthy. However, this isn’t eating Paleo so the diet can hardly be blamed, can it? Likewise, there are lots of ways of getting insufficient quantities of vitamins and minerals and it is important to keep your diet varied in order to cover all your nutritional bases.
Finally, perhaps it is the extreme approach to this diet which is problematic. This is true of any way of eating. I prefer to see Paleo as a way of eliminating modern junk from my diet. I don’t worry particularly about eating some grains or a small amount of dairy. I tolerate these foods quite well, so this isn’t a problem for me. For others, a stricter version of Paleo will work better because they find that something like dairy causes inflammation.
While nobody knows for sure just how our distant ancestors ate, we do have a pretty good idea. They might not have known why, but the vast majority of their diet was composed of things that were helping to keep them alive and healthy. In today’s society, we don’t have the same problems associated with hunting food and avoiding becoming something else’s meal at the same time. Whilst this comfort is certainly a good thing, one downside is that our diet has become a real danger to our health.
Thanks to the efforts of Doctor Loren Cordain and others, a more natural approach to eating has moved back onto center stage. This diet certainly has its naysayers and like any method, you need to put a little thought into what you actually eat, but there is no doubt that for millions of people, Paleo has made a huge positive difference.