A decade ago, those who were familiar with a Paleo approach to eating were so small in number that it would have been more likely to think one was talking about the study of dinosaurs. When I began following the approach back in 2005, I had to explain and re-explain the diet to clients and friends.
When Cross Fit began promoting a Paleo approach (sometime around 2008), the explosion to what is now began. Cross Fit headquarters originally pushed the Zone diet, which advocates a specific ratio of carbs, protein and fats and works best when food is weighed and measured. But soon, Rob Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution and former Cross Fit nutrition advisor began covering Paleo in his Cross Fit nutrition seminars, and its popularity in the community spread like wildfire.
Today, not only does your mom, your co-worker and your son’s preschool teacher follow a Paleo approach, you can find brownies and granola marked as Paleo on the shelves of your grocery store and buy an endless array of Paleo energy bars and cookies online.
And, of course, as when anything grows in popularity, so, too, do the number of interpretations of it.
When one website suggests eating bacon every day is a great Paleo protein approach and another suggests making Paleo versions of popular candy bars (all while staying on the path to optimal health), it gets confusing to say the least.
Decoding the Paleo approach
To set the record straight, rather than sift through all the erroneous messages in cyberspace, it’s best to simply recall what the diet is, rather than what it isn’t.
Straight from the scientist (Loren Cordain, PhD) who wrote the book, literally, on what Paleo is all about, here is the short list of what the diet includes:
- Grass-fed meats
- Fresh fruits and veggies
- Raw nuts and seeds
- Healthful oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
The idea is to mimic what our Paleolithic ancestors ate with foods we can easily find in our grocery stores, farmers' markets and even our own backyard gardens. That’s it. Pretty common sense, isn’t it?
One doesn’t need to be a scientist to see how eating the above foods is a far healthier approach than one which includes frequent trips to fast food joints and eating packaged bars and frozen dinners.
The issues arise when the foods get taken out of context with regard to macronutrient ratio (balancing proteins with fats and carbohydrates) as well as timing meals and, finally, simple misconceptions that just miss the point entirely.
Here are five things that can still be enjoyed on a real Paleo diet, some of which might surprise you, as they’ll likely be contrary to some of what you’ve read or heard.
Yes, fruit is, in fact, part of the Paleo diet. Eating too much fruit isn’t the idea, and in actuality, fruit and veggies grouped under one heading may cause confusion, as many people tend to go heavy on the former and not get enough of the latter. This creates a situation where you're getting too much sugar, even if it is from a natural source.
Fructose, or fruit sugars, can play a role in the development of type-2 diabetes. The liver turns any excess sugar intake into triglycerides that get stored in fat cells throughout the body. The more sugar you eat, the more fat you store. Specifically, too much sugar, even from the fructose found in fruits, can lead to a buildup of that visceral belly fat that has been linked to disease.
Including some low-glycemic fruit, such as berries or green apples, in the diet allows for a hint of sweetness without going overboard. It's also a healthy way to reap the extra vitamins, minerals and antioxidants they provide.
While most of the proteins we eat should be lean in nature, as they are when sourced from grass-fed animals, there is room now and again for a fatty, juicy rib-eye or a homemade batch of carnitas, prepared using pasture-raised pork. Just be sure that you don’t go overboard and let bacon creep its way into every meal.
Yes, you read that correctly. A real Paleo diet is not a no-carb approach to eating. The proper percentage of macronutrients should yield approximately 35 percent of calories from carbs, primarily in the form of fresh, local, in-season vegetables. This number will vary, of course, based on a person's activity levels as well as certain medical conditions warranting higher or lower amounts. But carb-less, the Paleo diet is not!
Foods rich in calcium and fiber
A diet rich in leafy greens and all veggies in general provides us not only with adequate calcium to build bones and keep our digestive system functioning well, it does so more than an approach which includes cereal grains and milk.The advantage is that the Paleo approach eliminates the potentially negative consequences of drinking milk and eating a bowl of fortified flakes. According to Dr. Cordain, "The critical dietary factor influencing bone metabolism and hence osteoporosis is not calcium intake, nor calcium excretion, but rather calcium balance."
And what about fiber? Cordain notes on his website, “Compared to fruits and veggies, cereal grains are B-vitamin lightweights. An average 1,000-calorie serving of mixed vegetables contains 19 times more folate, five times more vitamin B6, six times more vitamin B2 and two times more vitamin B1 than a comparable serving of eight mixed whole grains. On a calorie-by-calorie basis, the niacin content of lean meat and seafood is four times greater than that found in whole grains.”
Pass the leafy greens, please!
Wait a sec! Didn’t I just go on and on about how there were so many odd versions of Paleo these days? So how can wine be a healthy thing to include in our regimen?
Here’s the deal: I’m certainly not suggesting a daily bottle of wine is part and parcel of a healthy approach to living; however, it’s without a doubt one thing that is healthy in moderation and something we humans have been enjoying for thousands of years. In my experience, working with clients on their Paleo approach for the last decade, wine is one thing that can make this approach to optimal health feel much more like a lifestyle and not just a "diet."
Try to choose organic and sulfite-free wines, as sulfites can be linked to migraine headaches as well as allergies.
The key, again, is to balance out your macros for the day and on an occasion when you know you’ll be partaking, simply curb fruit that day (you’ll get plenty of sugar from the wine) and up the amount of good fat and vegetables you eat.