What is the paleo diet?
Widely recognized as one of the healthiest ways to eat, the Paleolithic (or paleo) diet focuses on nourishing the body with only unprocessed, unrefined foods – eating as nature intended.
Extensive research in the fields of biochemistry, ophthalmology, dermatology, biology, and a number of other disciplines has shown significant indications that many modern health problems and degenerative diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, infertility, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, and even allergies can be partially rooted in our contemporary diets. Eating foods high in sugars and trans fats causes a wealth of proven health concerns, and is thought to cause many more – studies continue to determine all the negative impacts refined foods have on our bodies.
However, we can fight some of these health concerns by making changes to the way we eat, avoiding the foods that do us more harm than good and fueling our bodies with whole, nutrient-dense foods. The lifestyle framework provided by the paleo diet offers a unique approach that takes genetics into account, ensuring you can stay strong, lean, and energized.
Where did this diet come from?
The idea behind this diet is simple. While the human body has evolved over millions of years, our bodies are adapted to the basic diet of humans from the Paleolithic era – before the advent of more modern agricultural technologies. Back then, we didn’t eat any dairy or grains. Milking animals wasn’t even considered, and milling grains would have required technology that just didn’t exist during the hunter-gatherer era.
Although we have now been eating dairy products, refined grains, and other kinds of processed foods since the agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, our bodies haven’t yet caught up with these new kinds of foods. This is proven by the increasing rates of health issues that can be attributed to our modern diets.
A return to the eating habits of our ancestors allows our bodies to function the way they were meant to – giving us the power to tap into our unique genetic potential and live healthier lives. Focusing on easily accessible and unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and nuts makes up the basis of the paleo diet – inspired by our cave-dwelling great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
What can I eat?
- Lean proteins
Protein is important for the development of strong muscles and healthy bones, and provides significant support to the body’s immune system. Eating protein can also enhance your feelings of satisfaction and fullness, helping you avoid unhealthy snacking between meals. The paleo diet encourages plenty of lean protein from sources like beef, bison, chicken, duck, fish, turkey, and even eggs. However, keep in mind that as grains are not a permitted part of the paleo diet, it’s best to find sources of protein that are primarily grass-fed.
- Fruits and vegetables
Rich in healthy antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and valuable phytonutrients, fruits and vegetables make up the majority of the paleo diet. High concentrations of these important nutrients have proven to lower an individual’s risk of developing a number of health issues, including degenerative diseases and neurological failure. The key to a healthy paleo diet is to keep your produce to primarily vegetables, with one or two servings of fruit each day.
- Healthy fats
According to scientific research, a diet that contains rich amounts of monounsaturated and omega-3 fats can contribute to a reduced likelihood of concerns ranging from obesity to cancer. Fats are important fuel for both your body and brain, and for people who eat a paleo diet, healthy fats provide the body with its main source of energy. Good sources for these healthy fats include coconut oil, olive oil, butter and ghee, avocados and avocado oil, and animal fats.
What should I avoid?
As a general rule, a Paleolithic diet will exclude any consumption of processed and refined foods. If you have to look at a list of ingredients to see if a food is allowed on the paleo diet, chances are it’s not – especially if that ingredient list is full of hard-to-pronounce names of various chemicals. You’ll need to stay away from:
- Dairy products
- Fruit juices (processed, with added sweeteners)
- Soft drinks and energy drinks
- Grains and legumes
- Processed meats
- Unnaturally salted foods
Cutting out grains and legumes is one of the more difficult aspects of adopting the paleo diet, but this step is important as according to this diet, they are considered to be “unnatural” foods. This means no beans, cereals, corn, pasta, peanut butter, tofu, or crackers. Grains are comprised of carbohydrates, which are turned into glucose by our bodies – and any glucose that isn’t used for energy gets stored as fat.
To fully experience the benefits of paleo eating, it’s important to stick to these rules and only eat the natural, unprocessed foods that were available to our ancestors. Some people will slowly add in certain things (like the odd beer) after a period of adjustment – and if your body can handle these occasional toxins without inhibiting the benefits of the diet, you’re welcome to incorporate them into your diet plan. However, it’s recommended to reintroduce foods slowly and one at a time, to allow you to understand how each specific food impacts your overall health and well-being. Then, you can make a decision about whether or not to continue consuming this unapproved food.
What are the health benefits of a paleo diet?
Eating a Paleolithic diet is a challenging adjustment for most people to make, but it’s easy to see why so many health-conscious individuals have made the switch when you understand how this kind of food can impact your body in a multitude of ways. When you think about it, it’s obvious how eating the foods of our ancestors can improve your health – today, the average human is overweight, unhappy, stressed-out, and struggling with various ailments. But the average homo-sapien, in Paleolithic times, was muscular, athletic, versatile, and agile.
As such, people who follow a Paleolithic diet have reported improvements to their overall health and wellness through a variety of important benefits.
One: The paleo diet improves lipid profiles.
A lipid profile is used to evaluate cholesterol and triglycerides, which can help give medical professionals an idea of an individual’s possible risk factor for certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease and forms of pancreatitis. Studies have revealed that individuals who eat a Paleolithic-type of diet, without restricting calories, showed significant improvements to the lipid profile associated with insulin sensitivity.
A short-term “intervention” of this type of eating was enough to improve these profiles in otherwise healthy test subjects, even without weight loss. In many of the participants, research also showed a 72 per cent reduction in the levels of a blood clotting agent which is thought to lead to heart attacks and strokes. According to experts, the effect of a Paleo diet on an individual’s cholesterol profile is similar to six months of a traditional pharmaceutical treatment.
Two: The paleo diet promotes brain health.
Eating a Paleolithic diet helps reduce inflammation in the body – which also means reduced inflammation in the brain. Moving away from a traditional Western diet, full of seed oils, sugars, and empty calories can provide important protection for your brain, helping fight diseases like Alzheimer’s and other debilitating neurological disorders. The foods that make up a basic Paleolithic diet enhance neuronal signaling, keeping your brain functioning efficiently and effectively. With all their vitamins and minerals, vegetables in particular can provide your brain with tools to prevent neurological breakdown.
Neurological disease has been associated with diabetes, as rates of both conditions seem to be increasing among populations around the world. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, higher average blood sugar can lead to a higher risk of dementia – potentially attributable to the damaging amounts of free radicals our diets leave in our bodies.
Three: The paleo diet helps build muscle.
Thanks to the healthy, efficient way your body functions when fueled with Paleolithic-type foods, it’s far easier to spend energy doing important things like building muscle and burning fat. When it isn’t forced to waste time struggling with bad foods and an overload of toxins, your body will really benefit from every last workout and meal.
While the paleo diet does promote weight loss, the proteins and fats consumed when eating this kind of diet are ideal to help your body rebuild damaged tissue and strengthen muscles. This actually helps with the weight loss – we all know muscle revs your metabolism and helps burn fat. Paleolithic eating also gives your body more of the nutrients it needs to work properly, so any of the conditions and issues that might be contributing to a lack of ability to gain weight or build muscle can potentially be resolved with a cleaner, healthier diet.
Four: The paleo diet keeps your gut healthy.
Your gut is where most of the exchanges between your body and the outside world take place – your body processes nutrients from whatever you consume, and filters out the waste. Obviously, this is the area where most pathogens and toxins come into the body, and the gut is where most diseases actually begin. The bacteria in your gut make up about 70 per cent of your immune system, so having a healthy gut is hugely important to your overall health.
The strict requirements of a Paleolithic diet are great for anyone who suffers from ailments related to gut bacteria, and the elimination of dairy, nuts and seeds, and sugar can make a huge difference for people with autoimmune disorders. Conditions associated with gut problems include gastroesophageal reflux disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease. People diagnosed with schizophrenia or autism spectrum disorders could also benefit from building healthier gut bacteria.
Five: The paleo diet increases your intake of vitamins and minerals.
Since the main food group involved with a Paleolithic diet is vegetables, it’s no wonder that eating this way can increase the amount of vitamins and minerals you put into your body. Consuming more of these important nutrients can make a big impact on your overall wellness, and has tons of benefits – physically, mentally, and even aesthetically. You’ll notice clearer skin, healthier hair and nails, and a brighter outlook on life. You’ll have stronger, healthier bones, and you’ll be able to correct nutrient deficiencies you maybe didn’t even know you had.
However, you do need to keep track of what you’re eating to make sure you are getting enough of all of these important nutrients. When you’re following a strict diet, knowing what you’re putting in your body is very important, so make sure you’ve got a solid understanding of what you need to eat and where you’re getting it from.
Six: The paleo diet limits your fructose consumption.
Sugar can cause a multitude of problems in your body, but can be confusing since you do consume fructose from many natural and healthy sources. Fructose must be processed by the liver, which can easily get overwhelmed by too much sugar and ends up transforming it to fat – sending it into our fat cells for storage. This can cause damage, lead to an insulin resistance or fatty liver disease, and be just as bad for your liver as alcohol.
Following a Paleolithic diet, though, cuts out most of those other sources of fructose, ensuring that the limited sugars in your body are natural and easier for your body to process. About half of the sugar you get from fruit is actually glucose, which your body uses for energy, and you’d have to eat more than 100 grams of sugar from fruits each day to start seeing issues with your body.
Seven: The paleo diet promotes healthy digestion.
Conditions that cause digestive issues, including lupus, interstitial cystitis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and Celiac disease, can be incredibly debilitating for sufferers. Eating a Paleolithic diet, though, has shown to help treat and even cure a number of these issues – since they are primarily “new” conditions for human beings. Returning to the eating habits of our ancestors can encourage the body to fight off some of these more recently developed digestive problems.
The most easily digested foods include meats, fats, and cooked vegetables, which make up the primary food groups of the paleo diet. If you struggle with digestive issues, it’s even more important that when you decide to make the switch to Paleolithic eating, you don’t slip up and let in the occasional “treat.” One small intrusion could send you right back to the beginning, facing similar digestive issues that you thought you had eliminated.
Eight: The paleo diet reduces allergy symptoms.
Seasonal allergy sufferers are familiar with the runny nose, itchy eyes, coughing, irritated throat, and rashes that can pop up when your immune system starts overreacting to environmental stressors. A switch to a Paleolithic diet can help keep these symptoms from becoming a nuisance, and can even help prevent them altogether.
This style of eating promotes a healthy intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows has been correlated with fewer incidences of the symptoms associated with seasonal allergies. In a study that examined the effect of fish oil on asthma sufferers, results indicated a connection between the supplement and respiratory health – which indicates that an increase of omega-3s could be beneficial for allergy sufferers, as well. The diet is also rich in other foods and nutrients that have shown to help with allergy symptoms, including fruits and vegetables and vitamin E.
Nine: The paleo diet reduces inflammation.
This might be one of the biggest benefits of following a Paleolithic diet. Chronic inflammation is one of the leading causes of many serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease, but also contributes to more minor conditions like acne. Even the brain can be activated during the body’s inflammatory response, which can cause issues with how your brain communicates with other important functions and systems.
The best way to avoid inflammation is through diet – and specifically, a paleo diet, as many other elimination diets aren’t enough to completely remove the immune triggers that lead to this inflammatory response. Avoiding gluten and focusing on nutrient-dense foods that are high in protein and antioxidants gives your body the tools it needs to prevent inflammatory reactions, making you feel better and reducing your chances of developing some significant health problems down the road.
Ten: The paleo diet promotes healthy weight loss.
According to some research, the obesity epidemic currently facing society can be explained by our bodies’ struggle to adapt to our changing food environment. We’re built for food scarcity, with fat storage that helps us stock up when food is available and live on reserves during times when it’s not. However, we’re dealing with an overabundance of easy-to-find processed foods that contain very little nutritional value. All these empty calories mean that we’re constantly gaining weight – even though we’re technically malnourished.
The Paleolithic diet can help by changing the food environment to fit the way our bodies have evolved. It still requires work – after all, to successfully lose weight, you still need to burn more calories than you consume – but this type of food can help by making you feel fuller and providing you with the nutrients you need to keep your energy up as you work on making healthy choices.
Eleven: The paleo diet boosts energy levels.
Elimination diets can cause low energy and leave you feeling drained and exhausted – but fueling your body with the nutrient-rich foods included in the Paleolithic diet can fight off hunger pangs and keep you feeling energetic and upbeat. Major triggers of mid-morning tiredness or afternoon slumps are refined, processed foods that most of us end up eating as snacks to try and get through the day, but these actually wind up causing more issues than they fix.
Instead, reach for some paleo-friendly carbohydrates to give you a bit of a boost and keep your energy up. If you still find yourself struggling with sluggishness, keep track of the foods you’re eating and ensure you’re getting enough nutrients. Adjusting to a paleo diet can cause a dip in energy levels, but this diet will ultimately help you avoid fatigue on a long-term basis.
Twelve: The paleo diet strengthens the immune system.
A diet heavy in processed foods can lead to the buildup of toxins within the body, and the high-sugar modern diet can cause damage to the intestinal lining. These concerns can contribute to a weakened immune system, forcing the body to deal with an unnecessary strain and creating a dysfunction that can be difficult to correct. By cutting out these harmful contaminants, you’re allowing your body’s immune system to return to the job it does best – protecting you from invading bacteria and viruses that could lead to more serious conditions.
Not only does a Paleolithic diet eliminate many foods that irritate the gut and the immune system, it increases your consumption of gut-healing foods that help build your healthy intestinal bacteria – as discussed earlier. By creating a healthy balance and allowing your body to respond effectively and efficiently to any foreign invaders, a paleo diet plays an important role in keeping your immune system strong.
Thirteen: The paleo diet shrinks fat cells.
We discussed earlier how eating a Paleolithic diet can help individuals achieve healthy, sustainable weight loss goals, but it can also provide your body with the tools to address your “stubborn fat” – deposits of fat cells that are difficult to get rid of through regular diet and exercise regimens. These cells can form a number of different ways: hormonal changes, sedentary lifestyle, insulin resistance, yo-yo dieting, age, and gender.
Eating a paleo diet can help your body start shrinking these fat cells and reduce this “stubborn fat.” This fat is broken down at a much slower rate than normal fat cells, and require a healthy enzymatic balance to stimulate this metabolizing. Eating anti-estrogenic foods, as included in the Paleolithic diet, is a huge part of encouraging this process – things like cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels spouts, and broccoli.
Fourteen: The paleo diet reduces gas and bloat.
Your body’s negative reactions to processed foods, including dairy, grains, sugars ,and salt, leads to retention of both water and stool – fermenting in your gut and causing both bloating and excess gas. When you’re first making a switch to a Paleolithic diet, you may notice an increase in gas, generally attributed to the dramatic increase in your vegetable consumption. However, once your body adapts to the diet, you’ll notice significantly less bloating and gas.
If you still struggle with this, you may have an intolerance to certain types of carbohydrates that are notoriously difficult for certain people to digest. FODMAPs, which stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, are found in many paleo foods – including fruits, vegetables, and certain dairy products. Try eliminating these foods from your diet one at a time to determine which ones are causing you grief, and start enjoying the reduced gas and bloat from your Paleolithic diet.
Fifteen: The paleo diet controls hunger.
Learning what real hunger feels like, and how to deal with emotional and psychological “hunger” pangs, is one of the greatest benefits of embarking on a Paleolithic diet. Understanding the real feeling of hunger can help promote a calmer, healthier relationship with food. Small amounts of discomfort in between meals can help your rewire your brain to appropriately determine what real hunger feels like, and can actually make your food taste better.
Real, physical hunger is driven by your body’s physiological need for additional calories, unlike what most people describe as “hunger,” which is primarily just cravings that are coming from your brain, not your body. Regardless of whether or not your body actually needs that energy, your brain is telling you that you want to eat something specific – generally because you’re stressed, bored, sad, or lonely. When you’re truly hungry, you’ll be happy to eat almost anything.
What else does the paleo lifestyle involve?
For many people, paleo is more than just a diet. In addition to encouraging healthy eating habits, this lifestyle addresses some of the ailments brought on by our contemporary lives by initiating healthy change in other ways – reducing stress, promoting community engagement, playing and exercising more, and becoming more in tune with nature.
Exercise is an important part of the paleo lifestyle. Our ancestors didn’t spend all day sitting at a desk and then come home to veg on the couch all night – our bodies are made to move around! Paleo-style workouts emphasize traditional fitness patterns by focusing on mobility, weight-bearing, and easy, sustained movements. Paleo fitness also encourages practitioners to get out of the gym and enjoy exercising outdoors whenever you can – incorporating fun activities like playing with your kids, hiking in the woods, or kayaking in a lake.
Recovery is a huge part of improving your overall health, and the paleo lifestyle promotes restful sleep. Not only does the paleo diet contribute to healthy sleep patterns, but followers are encouraged to honor the body’s circadian rhythm, aligning their own sleep cycles with the daily cycles of the sun.
Our modern lifestyles keep us indoors most of the time, but the sun is vital to help our bodies produce vitamin D – which plays a key role in many of the body’s chemical pathways. Getting outside every day can help improve your mood, regulate hormone outputs, and provide a positive impact on your overall health.
Another aspect of this reconnection with nature involves taking breaks from technology. While there are certainly benefits that come with our modern gadgets, the paleo lifestyle promotes a healthy balance by encouraging followers to put boundaries in place and make it a point to “unplug” as often as possible.
Relationships are a valuable part of life, providing intimacy and closeness through physical touch, emotional exchanges, and thoughtful conversations. Practitioners of the paleo lifestyle know that with the support of the community comes an improved quality of life, and endeavor to develop close bonds with their loved ones – sharing meals, activities, and important moments.
- Stress management
Learning healthy ways to deal with life’s stresses is an important part of preventing the onset of a variety of diseases and disorders, and is another valuable part of paleo living. Stress management is a very personal thing, so practitioners are encouraged to seek out a strategy that works for them – yoga, meditation, physical touch, or even attending a church service. No matter what technique you pursue, the result is decreased levels of cortisol and a much improved mood.
What should I keep in mind?
Since paleo living incorporates so many different things, it can seem like a lot of information to process all at once. If you’re thinking about embarking on a paleo lifestyle, there are a couple of things you should consider before you get started.
- Paleo is difficult.
Theodore Roosevelt said that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty.” While the transition to a paleo lifestyle certainly won’t be painful, it will require a certain degree of effort.
As your body begins to purge the toxins that have accumulated from eating processed foods and you start to adjust to your new eating habits, you will definitely face cravings, moodiness, and sluggishness. However, knowing what to expect can help you take on the challenge, and once you see the results of your new lifestyle, you’ll wonder what took you so long to get started.
Things that you used to do without thinking, like eating out at restaurants and even just buying groceries, will require a bit more care and preparation. Keep in mind that these things will get easier with time, and this new lifestyle will eventually feel completely natural. If you’re struggling to adjust, there are apps available that can help make the transition smoother.
- Paleo is expensive.
Processed foods are cheap to produce and cost next-to-nothing at the grocery store – but they’re completely devoid of nutritional value. Any healthy eating program is going to require a bit of a financial investment, because real foods cost real money. If you have the space and the time, you might consider starting a garden and growing some of your own fresh fruits and vegetables to save a bit of money, or buy them in bulk when you find them on sale and freeze pre-portioned containers to eat later. There are always reasons to avoid making a change, so don’t let the extra expense discourage you from adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Now that you know paleo is the right diet and lifestyle choice for you, it’s time to clean those processed foods out of your cupboards and hit the grocery store to stock up on all you need to create a healthier you!
How can I get started?
Coming up with healthy, nutritious meals that fit the strict guidelines of the paleo diet can be a bit overwhelming at first. Use these recipes to help inspire dishes of your own, and start discovering new flavours as your tastes adapt to the foods of your ancestors. You might find some of your favorite new foods as you experiment with paleo eating!
Morning Frittata (adapted from this recipe)
3 tbsp of butter (not margarine)
¼ cup of coconut milk
1 cup of chopped mushrooms
2 cups of chopped spinach
2 cups of chopped kale
3 cloves of minced garlic
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and begin beating the eggs with the coconut milk.
2. Melt the butter in a large oven-proof skillet, using medium heat. Sauté the vegetables for about two minutes before adding the garlic. Cook for another minute, and then season them with salt and pepper.
3. Pour the eggs into the skillet, over the veggies, and cook it all together for approximately five minutes before transferring the pan to the preheated oven.
4. Bake 10-15 minutes, ensuring the eggs are set. Serve warm.
Muffins with egg whites and vegetables (adapted from this recipe)
24 egg whites
1 cup diced bell pepper
2 cups fresh spinach
3 chopped scallions
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil or butter.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites with the salt and pepper, before stirring in the vegetables.
3. Pour the mixture evenly into the 12 muffin cups.
4. Bake 25-30 minutes, ensuring the eggs are set. Serve warm, topped with scallions.
Chili (adapted from this recipe)
1 lb of ground meat (beef, turkey, or chicken)
1 diced bell pepper
1 diced red onion
3 stalks of diced celery
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups of tomato sauce
2 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of chili powder
½ tsp of cayenne pepper
½ tsp of red pepper flakes
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. Sauté onion, pepper, celery in a large skillet over medium-high heat, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
2. Add ground meat, cooking thoroughly until browned.
3. Add tomato sauce and spices, stirring well.
4. Simmer on medium heat until sauce thickens.
5. Serve warm, and refrigerate or freeze any leftovers.
Honey-almond coleslaw (adapted from this recipe)
8 cups of shredded cabbage (green and purple)
1 cup of sliced carrots
½ cup of sliced almonds
4 tbsp of almond butter
4 tbsp of sesame oil
1 tbsp of raw honey
1 tsp of grated fresh ginger
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 lime, juiced
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. Combine carrots, almonds, and cabbage in a large bowl.
2. Whisk together the remaining ingredients until they are combined into a smooth sauce. Use a blender if you want to achieve a creamier dressing.
3. Add dressing to the bowl and toss to ensure all vegetables are well coated. Serve immediately.
Steak stir-fry (adapted from this recipe)
2 tbsp of sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of grated fresh ginger
1 lb of sliced steak
2 cups of shredded cabbage
½ cup of sliced carrot
2 cups of chopped broccoli
2 chopped scallions
1 lime, juiced
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large skillet or a wok, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
2. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions, and cook for about a minute before adding the steak. Cook until the steak is browned and remove it from the pan.
3. Add the remaining vegetables and cook until they are tender.
4. Combine steak with cooked vegetables and add lime juice. Toss well and serve warm.
Braised greens with Italian meatballs (adapted from this recipe)
2 tbsp of olive oil
2 tbsp Italian seasoning
3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup of almond flour
1 tsp of smoked paprika
½ tsp of sea salt
1 ½ lbs of ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken)
1 chopped red onion
4 slices of diced bacon
1 bunch chopped collard greens
1 bunch chopped swiss chard
1 cup of water or broth
2 tsp of apple cider vinegar
+ salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, mix ground meat, onion, garlic, almond flour, paprika, and salt together.
3. Use the mix to create 2-inch meatballs and place them on a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and coat with Italian seasoning.
4. Bake 20-30 minutes, until meatballs are thoroughly cooked.
5. In a large skillet, brown the bacon over medium-high heat before adding greens. Stir well, coating the greens in bacon fat.
6. Add broth or water and turn heat to low. Simmer greens for about 10 minutes, until they are tender.
7. Serve warm, with the meatballs over the greens.