The Paleo diet: is it a healthy approach to eating, or nothing more than a trendy diet? Sadly, it’s become both. What stemmed from a sound, balanced way of eating is now often mistaken for a fad diet that may perhaps lead to weight loss, but is perceived as either too rigid or impractical to sustain for the long term.
I began following the Paleo diet in 2005 (and guiding clients to implement it in their daily regimen shortly thereafter) for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve seen and heard many misconceptions along the way. By addressing the most common mistakes made when transitioning to a real Paleo approach, my hope is to clear up some of the confusion surrounding this clean eating diet and to paint a vivid picture of how healthy, easy and delicious this alkaline approach to eating truly can be.
1. Not understanding the basic principles
What’s the point of following a diet plan if the reason to do so isn’t clear? The premise of a real Paleo diet, according to Loren Cordain, PhD, who spent over 30 years researching the subject, is to mimic the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors with foods easily found in our farmer’s markets, our grocery stores and even in our own backyards. In other words, if it grows near you (in-season, local and fresh produce) or swims or runs close to where you live (wild and/or humanely raised grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry and pork and wild fish), it’s real food with a high nutrient density and is therefore a good choice.
When eaten in the proper balance, this primarily plant-based diet offers such an alkaline contribution from veggies that the small acidic contribution from meat is insignificant, as the net acid load is negative.
Realizing the goal of the Paleo diet helps to counter many of the mistakes made when attempting to adopt it into your personal day-to-day regimen. It is high in fiber (vegetables have seven to 11 times the amount found in bread and cereal grains). It does contain enough calcium (compare a cup of milk with 225 mg/cup versus a cup of spinach with 200 mg/cup; plus, the spinach is alkaline and thus supportive of bone building, unlike dairy, which is the opposite).
When you consider that an example of a typical meal might be something like a crisp salad with steamed veggies, wild salmon, avocado and olive oil, the Paleo diet really isn’t that “crazy” after all.
2. Eating too much meat
The goal of real Paleo diet is not to eat meat and only meat all day long. Doing so would absolutely create an acidic pH in the body, compromise regularity and not provide adequate micronutrients. In fact, for those who prefer not to eat red meat, it’s not even a must-do for a Paleo approach. I was a vegan for quite a long time, and for years, the only flesh protein I felt comfortable eating was wild fish. It’s all about eating healthy food and balancing properly sourced proteins, veggies and fats so as not to end up in a food rut.
3. Eating too many treats
These days, it’s just as easy to walk into a grocery store or to go online and find just about anything marked Paleo—from granola to bread to bars to ice cream. While there may be a time and a place for a special-occasion treat, far too many people end up eating these packaged items on a regular basis, just like they often do with gluten-free or vegan items.
Even if a brownie is vegan, Paleo and gluten-free, it’s still a brownie. It’s still got sugar, it’s still got zero veggies, little to no protein and it’s still something to enjoy once in a while as a treat. Switching to a different version of sugar to quell a craving does nothing to stop the cycle of craving more of it. At the end of the day, sugar is still sugar, and not relying on it is something all of us benefit from.
“The liver doesn’t know whether sugar came from fruit or not,” said Kimber Stanhope, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies the effects of sugar on health, in a recent article in the New York Times.
4. Not eating enough veggies
Too many of us eat too much fruit and not enough veggies. Fruit is higher in sugar and lower in fiber than vegetables. And while the rationale of fruit being easier to find and eat on the go may be a reality, it needn’t be cause for eating too much of it day in and day out.
Yes, sourcing and prepping veggies as well as proteins may require planning and a couple of hours of your time each week, but isn’t what you put in your body and what you give your family to put in theirs worth that time?
By eating more vegetables, we provide ourselves a richly nutrient-dense chance to nourish ourselves and ensure we’re taking in every micro nutrient we need.
5. Not giving it a long enough try
Change takes time. And with change, it’s to be expected that you’ll experience a transitional phase in which you feel… different. Perhaps your energy will be lower for a couple of days, or you’ll feel just “off”—that’s normal. Feeling like you’re starving and ready to chew off your hand isn’t.
I’ve seen many people simply omit foods that aren’t part of this regimen but not replace the calories with more veggies, more good fat and healthy proteins. It’s not about caloric deprivation; it’s about reframing the constitution of what makes up your eating and allowing your body to make the switch to using real, whole food as fuel, instead of relying on the typical Standard American diet, which is high in sugar and low in nutrition.
If you think you're following the Paleo diet and aren’t regular, you’re not following it properly and probably aren’t eating enough veggies! If you haven’t lost weight, check in and see if you’re eating too many treats. And if you’ve lasted three days eating a pseudo version that has you counting calories and leaving you hungry, at which point you make a beeline to the frozen yogurt shop for a reward for starving for three days, please don’t say you’ve tried Paleo and it didn’t work!
Not only does this affect you and how the real Paleo approach may have helped you reach your specific goals, it affects those around you who also may have benefitted tremendously. Learn about what it really is, then give it the chance it deserves before deciding it doesn’t work.
And remember, if your perfect balance means following a mostly Paleo-inspired approach and having something special now and then (once you’ve gone through trial and error of testing one food at a time to see how your body reacts to it), then you’re ahead of the game.
By tuning into your body and really listening to the feedback you get, only then do you create your perfect eating plan, tailored just for you, by you.