Once upon a time, our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors thrived on eating “meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.” This nutrition recommendation, as described by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, forms the basis of what many refer to as the Paleo diet. Although deemed radical and intimidating to some, the Paleo diet is gaining popularity as its wide-ranging benefits transform lives worldwide.
Proper nutrition is paramount to optimal performance, and anyone who considers himself or herself a fitness guru can attest to that. Whether it’s Zone, GOMAD or Paleo, for better or for worse, diet is contagious in athletic communities: It’s mentioned, it piques interest, it drives experimentation. This is exactly what we have seen happen with the Paleo diet in the CrossFit community, many of whose constituents are devoted Paleo-ites. Nevertheless, even outside that niche, athletes and nonathletes alike are turning to our ancestors to improve their health and performance.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet, popularly coined the caveman diet, is an eating regimen that is dictated by the diets of our ancestors. To follow it, one simply chooses to eat foods that were available to our ancestors. By default, this means eating foods sourced from living things — plants and animals — rather than processed breads and cereals. How hard can it be to follow a diet that mandates us to eat the same whole foods as our ancestors did?
Let’s break it down and set things straight.
Is it true that …
➤ … Paleo is an all-meat diet? No. Although meat, fish, seafood and eggs are Paleo staples, the diet is far more encompassing and would in many ways be incomplete without fruits, vegetables, coconut products and nuts.
➤ … you can’t eat carbs on Paleo? No. The Paleo diet is not the Atkins diet. Nor is it a must-be-low-carb diet. The Paleo diet includes a wide variety of carbohydrates; in fact, all those that grow and are natural whole foods (e.g., sweet potatoes, squash varieties, fruits) are fair game.
➤ … vegetarians can’t be Paleo? No. Vegetarians can follow a Paleo-based diet by indulging in any and all fruits and vegetables they desire. While it can be a little trickier to ensure adequate nutrition intake for athletes unwilling to eat fish, seafood or meat, it can be done. For example, protein can be obtained from eggs and nuts, while healthy fats can be obtained from avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and coconut butter.
Why Can’t I Eat Grains?
According to estimates, cereal grains (e.g., wheat, maize, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, rye, millet) account for more than half of the protein consumed worldwide. In Dr. Loren Cordain’s renowned scientific review of cereal grains, he points out that we have become incredibly dependent on this food source, despite its absence from our diets for the vast majority of our presence on Earth. In fact, humans existed as hunter-gatherers without eating cereal grains from the emergence of Homo erectus 1.7 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, after the agricultural revolution, when things started to change. Cordain eloquently makes his case that there is little, if any, evolutionary precedent for human consumption of cereal grains. The Paleo diet argues that if mankind thrived for more than 99 percent of our time on Earth without grains, they can’t be that inherent to optimal health.
But there are other reasons to avoid grains. Just as we employ our own survival mechanisms, so do grains, which contain several compounds called anti-nutrients. As the term implies, these compounds do the opposite of nourish. Upon digestion, they actually have the potential to work against our bodies. Keep in mind, grains don’t want to be digested; they want to be excreted as intact as possible in order to foster new offspring. Examples of anti-nutrients include phytates, exorphins, lectins and the most well-known and vilified, gluten. Anti-nutrients can interfere with our metabolic machinery, strip us of minerals (e.g., calcium, zinc, magnesium) and irritate our gut.
When considering macronutrient profiles, fruits and vegetables put grains to shame. The cereals, breads and pastas that we often hear are “healthy” are often fortified with nutrients because by the time they hit the store shelves, they would otherwise not have much to offer. Unfortunately, when foods are enhanced with vitamins and minerals, the bioavailability of the nutrients in the final product can be subpar, especially compared to whole-food sources. Pass on the fortified bread and opt for real food to ensure you’re getting the most out of your diet.
What Does the Paleo Diet Look Like?
➤ Eat real food and step away from processed foods and oils. Pay attention to food labels! (Hint: If you can’t find it occurring naturally in the world or if you can’t pronounce its ingredients, it’s not Paleo).
➤ Avoid added sugars, artificial sweeteners and alcohol. This includes the sugar you add to your coffee, the high-fructose corn syrup that food manufacturers add to your ketchup and barbeque sauce, and the beer in your fridge. Do we really need to make a case for sugar and alcohol being detrimental to your health? Sure, the Paleo diet might be more appealing if Oreos grew on trees and frozen yogurt dripped from cows’ udders, but that’s just not the case. Turn to natural sources (e.g., fruit, raw honey, maple syrup, dark chocolate), in moderation, to mitigate that sweet tooth. Sugar from whole foods like fruit comes packaged with fiber, a combination that leaves us more satisfied than the synthetically dense sugar from a pack of Sour Patch Kids. Besides, follow the Paleo diet for a couple of weeks and these cravings should subside.
➤ Turn to fruits and vegetables for carbohydrates, not grains (which should be considered a processed food). See “Why Can’t I Eat Grains?”
➤ Omit soy and legumes like beans, peanuts and peanut butter from your diet. Although research demonstrating that legumes wreak havoc on our bodies is limited, it is clear that when not properly treated (e.g., soaked and cooked), the presence of anti-nutrients can be problematic. Fruits and vegetables also have more to offer in the way of nutrition than legumes, so skip the beans.
➤ A strict Paleo diet does not permit dairy. Yes, dairy is technically natural, so this is a tricky one. In fact, in many opinions, dairy could be classified as Paleo. However, the Paleo diet in general excludes dairy as a whole because of several health concerns:
1. Dairy is considered to be highly insulinogenic (i.e., induces insulin secretion) and can activate growth factors that play a role in conditions like acne. For people who have acne, metabolic derangement (e.g., insulin-resistance, Type 2 diabetes) or an autoimmune disease, dairy should be avoided. It also can be very difficult to lean out while incorporating dairy.
2. Research suggests that dairy, because of its protein constituents, can be problematic for people, especially those with celiac disease. Allergies to the milk protein casein are also possible.
3. Aside from health concerns, humans are considered to be the only species who habitually consume another species’ milk as adults. Interestingly, many adults are unable to tolerate milk because they can’t digest milk sugar (i.e., lactose intolerance).
Some people following a Paleo-based diet who don’t experience overt adverse effects when consuming dairy may include certain forms of it in their diet. In the Paleosphere, many refer to this as the “Primal diet.” If you do not suffer from an autoimmune condition or acne and you have your metabolism in check, there are potential benefits to consuming dairy. Importantly, not all dairy is created equal. We want the quality stuff from grass-fed cows, which seems to be less problematic and have more to offer. Research suggests that dairy from grass-fed cows contains good fats such as conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to aid fat loss. Individuals training hard and trying to build muscle and put on weight also may benefit from consuming grass-fed dairy. If you’re going to allow dairy in your diet, shoot for grass-fed options and opt for butters, cheeses and the occasional full-fat yogurt rather than milk.
These tips should make it easier to adopt the diet as a lifestyle.
➤ Indulge in bacon and eggs for breakfast, not pancakes, bagels or cereal.
➤ Pair your eggs with hot sauce, salsa or guacamole, not fructose-full ketchup.
➤ Add coconut milk or almond milk to your coffee and ditch the chemically sweetened Cinnabon creamer.
➤ Eat nutritious cauliflower rice, not carbohydrate-loaded, nutrient-poor rice.
➤ Eat spaghetti squash, not spaghetti.
➤ Eat mashed sweet potatoes, butternut squash and cauliflower, not bread or instant mashed potatoes.
➤ Drizzle olive oil on your salads, not vegetable- or soybean-oil-based dressings.
➤ Eat lettuce-wrapped burgers with avocado or guacamole, not grain-wrapped burgers with ketchup or vegetable-oil-laden mayonnaise.
➤ Eat tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews), not peanuts.
➤ Eat nut butter (e.g., almond butter) with celery and apples, not peanut butter with crackers.
➤ Bake with coconut flour and/or almond flour, not white or wheat flour.
What Are the Benefits of Eating This Way?
➤ Getting more bang for your buck. Meats, tubers, vegetables and fruits — the most nutrient-dense foods — make up the Paleo diet.
➤ Crap-free eating. Paleo eating inherently eliminates empty-calorie foods and processed foods from your diet.
➤ No need for calorie counting. Once your body adjusts to using whole foods for fuel, you can start to rely on your mind and body for accurate hunger/satiety cues.
➤ Happy hormones. Our hormones work with us when we follow a Paleo-based diet. For example, people have reported increased energy, reduced sugar cravings, better performance and improved sleep quality after as little as two weeks of Paleo eating.
➤ Ab discovery. By eliminating sugars and empty carbohydrate foods — bread, pasta, rice — the Paleo diet is usually associated with a welcome reduction in belly fat.
The truth is, the Paleo diet comes in many flavors. This makes sense, considering that our ancestors ate whatever was readily available to them. Their diets probably varied day to day, depending on the hunting environment they occupied. Their diets were also likely dictated by season and region. When first transitioning to a Paleo diet, it’s important to try different foods and listen to your body. Remove foods from your diet for three to four weeks and then add them back to see which ones you can and can’t tolerate. At the end of the day, it’s all about you — your health and how you look, feel and perform.