What is Paleo Nutrition?

I've been getting a lot of specific questions about Paleo nutrition lately and I thought that this post may be helpful for readers and clients that are new to Paleo living.

As many of you that have been following my journey know, I first discovered the Paleo diet through my adventures in the Crossfit community.  At that time, I'll admit that I thought of Paleo as little more than a fad.  I was a vegetarian (which I strongly believe contributed to my health problems, but I will save that for another post) and Paleo sounded a lot like the Atkin's diet to me.  In fact, Paleo is not the same as the Atkins diet, as you will soon learn.  It wasn't until I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease that I started following the Paleo lifestyle.  To say that it's been a blessing is an understatement!  Paleo nutrition has changed my life is so many ways.  I no longer suffer from a long list of health problems and I am much healthier and happier overall.  I felt so strongly about the positive effects of whole food nutrition on health and wellness that I went back to school for a nutritional therapy certification with the Nutritional Therapy Association and I have built an entire health and nutrition consulting practice around a real food approach!  Don't just take my word for it though, because a simple Google search will reveal that there are thousands of other individuals that have benefited from eating real food and following this lifestyle.

What is Paleo Nutrition?

Paleo nutrition is a framework based on the concept of eating real food.  The template is popularly compared to the diet that our Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer ancestors would have consumed prior to the dawn of the agricultural era that occurred approximately 12,000 years ago.  The premise of Paleo nutrition is that the agricultural-based, processed diet of today is not ideal for optimal health and functioning of the body.  The advent of agriculture resulted in major dietary changes, with even more of a drastic metamorphosis occurring just in the last 50-200 years with the onset of industrialized farming and food production and the chemical revolution.  Despite radical changes in what humans eat, genetics have not changed all that drastically to allow humans to thrive on modern foods, resulting in poor nutrition, a lack of immunity, and an epidemic of chronic diseases. By following a framework based on consuming real, nutrient-dense foods from high quality sources, similar to the diet of our ancestors, it is possible to nourish the body with the fuel it needs to achieve optimal health and wellness.

What to eat on the Paleo diet

The modern Paleo diet involves eating real, whole foods that your body can easily digest.  Paleo nutrition includes 5 basic food groups:

Paleo Nutrition Pyramid

Examples of foods from each of the food groups include:

  • Meat, Poultry, Seafood, and Eggs- Beef, Lamb, Bison, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Salmon, Tuna, Cod, Shrimp, Lobster, Sardines, Chicken Eggs, Duck Eggs...When choosing cuts of meat and poultry, full fat cuts are preferred to lean.
  • Vegetables- Cabbage, Beets, Brussel Sprouts, Kale, Cauliflower, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Artichokes, Cucumbers, Sweet Potatoes, Squashes...use your imagination!  The vast majority of vegetables fit into the Paleo framework, with the notable exception being the controversial white potato.  Many people that follow the Paleo lifestyle limit or eliminate white potatoes all together because of their high starch content that can contribute to impaired sugar handling and metabolic dysfunction.
  • Fruits- Watermelon, Blueberries, Apples, Bananas, Pears, Oranges...and all  other fruits and berries!
  • Traditional Fats- Beef Tallow, Coconut Oil, Olive Oil, Bacon Fat/Lard, Walnut Oil, Avocado Oil, Duck Fat, Grass-fed Butter & Ghee...and other traditionally prepared fats and oils.
  • Nuts and Seeds- Almonds, Walnuts, Cashews, Pepitas...and a variety of other nuts and seeds.

Other things that you can consume on the Paleo diet include:

  • Beverages- Coconut Milk, Almond Milk, Coconut Water, Herbal Tea, Water, Fresh Squeezed Juice...
  • Herbs and spices- Basil, Cilantro, Cinnamon, Clove, Coriander, Cumin, Dill, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger, Lemongrass, Mint, Mustard, Oregano, Parsley, Pepper, Thyme, Tumeric, Vanilla...
  • Natural Sweeteners- Small amounts of raw or unprocessed honey and maple syrup.

Food sources and quality

When it comes to the food that you are consuming, quality does matter!  Modern farming practices have left our food supply devoid of nutrients and full of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals.  Paleo nutrition supports sustainable, local, organic, and humane farming methods.  When buying foods from the 5 basic food groups, look for these key phrases:

  • Meats, Poultry, Seafood, & Eggs:  Grass-fed, Pasture-raised, Organic-fed, Wild-caught, Sustainable, Free Range
  • Vegetables:  Organic, Local
  • Fruits:  Organic, Local
  • Traditional Fats:  Unrefined, Unprocessed, Cold-Pressed, Organic, Pastured, Grass-fed
  • Nuts & Seeds:  Organic

The vast majority of your food should be homemade and prepared from scratch.  When you purchase anything that comes in package, you must carefully screen the product for ingredients that do not fit the Paleo nutrition framework.

What to avoid on the Paleo diet

The Paleo diet eliminates all processed and refined foods, foods that contain antinutrients (components that prevent the absorption of nutrients), foods with proteins that are difficult to digest (such as gluten and casein), and foods that contribute to inflammation and metabolic dysfunction in the body.  This includes:

  • Grains and Pseudo-Grains- Including (but not limited to) refined grains such as cereals, breads, muffins, sandwiches, and pasta, and whole, unprocessed grains such as wheat, buckwheat, corn, rice, barley, rye, and quinoa.  Even grains that do not contain gluten are excluded on the Paleo diet.
  • Legumes- All beans, including peanuts (which are a legume and NOT a nut).
  • Processed Dairy-  Including milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream.
  • Refined Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners- Including white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, refined honey, refined maple syrup, agave, Splenda, Nutrasweet, or any other sweetener that has been man-made or processed.
  • Refined Fats/Oils and Most Vegetable Oils- Any oil that is hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, refined, or otherwise processed including canola oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and rice bran oil.  Any manmade fat such as margarine/buttery spreads.
  • Anything that contains preservatives, food additives, orartificial-anything- This includes most items that are pre-packaged or pre-made.  Check the labels carefully for any preservatives, additives, or any other ingredient that is not Paleo-approved.  Also, be very careful with certain beverages including energy drinks, juice, shakes, smoothies, presweetened coffee drinks, certain types of alcohol, etc. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Paleo:

Isn't there scientific evidence that humans may have consumed grains well before 12,000 years ago?

It wasn't until about 12,000 years ago that grains were domesticated by humans.  In some populations, it took several thousands years beyond domestication for grains to become a staple of the diet.  Prior to that, wild grasses and ancient precursors to the cereal grains of today did exist in nature.  As true hunter-gatherers, Paleolithic humans consumed a varied diet of basically whatever they could find.  It may seem reasonable to think that this would have included wild varieties of ancient grains, however, evidence suggests that any consumption of wild grains would have occurred rarely in small amounts and usually while under duress of lack of other food sources.  Ancient grains were difficult to harvest and unable to be well digested without significant processing (threshing, winnowing, and grinding) and cooking.  It wasn't until 15,000 years ago that the first evidence of grain processing appeared in the form of grinding stones.  Before the tools to process grains were available, eating any significant amount of unprocessed grains would wreck havoc on the gastrointestinal track, making regular consumption highly improbable.  Also, wild grains were small and unlikely to be found in useful amounts in one geographic location, which is a major reason that domestication was necessary.  Because of this, most scientists agree that grain consumption prior to 12,000 years ago, while present in a few populations, was an insignificant part of the diet.

Isn't 12,000 years long enough for genetic adaptation to agricultural-based foods, such as grains and dairy, to occur?

It is true that some types of genetic adaptations can occur relatively quickly, and although 12,000 years is a drop in the evolutionary bucket, it is long enough for people to develop a degree of tolerance to agricultural-based foods.  The degree to which individuals can tolerate agricultural-based foods may depend on a variety of factors, including ancestral background, age, and health status.  It is important to consider that the last few generations have grown up on heavily processed foods and with other circumstances that have not fostered good gut health (a lack of breastfeeding or exposure to antibiotics and other drugs, for example).  The result is that many people today already have a compromised gut that reduces tolerance to agricultural-based foods.  In addition, the characteristics of the food and proper preparation methods come into play, as modern grains have been bred to be much different from the grains consumed even 200 years ago and traditional preparation techniques that make grains safer to consume have been lost in our culture.  While some people may have a greater tolerance to grains and dairy than others, being able to tolerate a food and flourishing on a food are two different things.

Why does the Paleo diet exclude all grains, even those not containing gluten?

Grains contain antinutrients, which are chemicals produced by the plant as a survival mechanism.  The antinutrients in the grains prevent you from being able to absorb and utilize nutrients.  Grains also contain lectins or components that are known to damage the gut lining and contribute to increased intestinal permeability, which plays a role in the development of autoimmune disease.  Some gluten-free grains contain proteins that are similar to gluten and can trigger an immune response in people with a gluten intolerance.  In addition, the high carbohydrate content of grains can contribute to blood sugar swings (even in healthy people without diabetes or other disease), which leads to inflammation and metabolic dysfunction in the body.

How can excluding entire categories of food, like grains, legumes, and dairy, possibly be healthy?  Aren't those foods necessary for good health?

There are no nutrients in grains, legumes, and dairy that cannot be found in other foods.  In fact, the nutrients that are in grains, legumes, and processed dairy are not as easily absorbed or bioavailable as those found in a whole food, nutrient-dense diet, such as Paleo.  When compared calorie by calorie, vegetables, fruits, meats and seafood rank much higher in nutrient density than grains and dairy.  Another concern is that many processed grain and dairy products are enriched with synthetic vitamins and minerals.  Your body does not absorb or utilize synthetic nutrients in the same way as those that occur naturally in real food.  Additionally, the antinutrients in grains and legumes bind to nutrients and prevent your body from using them.

How will I get enough calcium on the Paleo diet?

Bone health is largely dependent upon acid/base balance in the body.  Calcium is a mineral that acts as a buffer to maintain acid/base balance.  The standard American diet is full of grains and processed foods that promote bone demineralization by moving calcium out of the bone in order to buffer the net acid load that is created by eating these foods.  Also, the type of calcium that most Americans are consuming is not easily used by the body and/or binds with the antinutrients in grains and legumes.  The result is that the United States has some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world despite high rates of calcium consumption.  By removing grains, legumes, and processed foods from the diet, the body can shift away from a net acid load, which will help to keep calcium and other minerals in the bones where they belong, leading to a lowered calcium requirement (compared to that recommended by the USDA).  In addition, there are lots of non-dairy foods that are good sources of calcium:  sardines, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and homemade bone broth.  The calcium in these foods is easily absorbed and utilized by the body.

Isn't Paleo like the Atkins diet?

The Paleo diet is not the same as the Atkins diet.  The Atkins diet is a low-carbohydrate diet that focuses on restricting net carbohydrates.  Although there is an emphasis on unprocessed foods with the Atkins diet, there is not as much attention paid to the quality of food sources as there is with Paleo.  Also, Paleo provides a framework for approaching nutrition and there are many different macronutrient combinations possible on the Paleo diet.  The percentage of carbohydrates, protein, and fats consumed can vary greatly between different people following a Paleo nutrition template.  Because Paleo excludes grains and processed foods, it will naturally be lower in carbohydrates than the standard American diet; however, there are plenty of healthy carbohydrates to be found in vegetables and fruits.  Some people find that they do better on a lower carbohydrate version of Paleo, while others require more carbohydrates to function optimally.

Why are things like coconut oil, cocoa powder, broccoli (a man-made plant), etc. allowed on the Paleo diet?  Isn't it true that Paleolithic humans would not have consumed these foods?

The Paleo diet is a template for a nutrient dense, real food lifestyle.  Although there may be a few purists out there, most people that follow the Paleo lifestyle do not try to emulate what Paleolithic humans actually ate.  Paleolithic humans' diet included animals, insects, and plants that would be considered undesirable according to today's standards.  Not to mention that the amount of work that went into gathering, hunting, and preparing this food took up all of their time!  The idea of following the Paleo diet is not to live and eat exactly as cavemen did.  Instead, it should be thought of as a framework for eliminating those foods that are processed and unhealthy, difficult to digest, cause disruption in normal functioning of the body, or just plain don't make you feel good.  The Paleo diet is about choosing foods that nourish your body and allow you to reach a state of optimal health and wellness.

This post is the beginning of a Paleo Nutrition FAQ that I would like to have on the site.  I hope to grow this list with more questions and information for readers.  What questions do you have about Paleo nutrition?  Leave me a comment with your question and I will feature it on the site.