I’ve decided recently to start going towards a paleo diet. I know I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been learning more and doing more towards it as time goes on. My sister-in-law’s sister has been on it for three weeks and has already lost 11 lbs, and that’s after eating clean for a few years!
What Is Paleo?
Paleo is short for paleolithic. The diet is also known as the caveman diet, the primal diet, or even the ancestral diet. It is basically a “back to the basics” diet. Our bodies are essentially identically to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and since it takes so long for things to change significantly genetically in our bodies, we still process the same kinds of food best. That means that natural, raw, organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, tubers, and meats are best for our bodies. Our ancestors didn’t have much, if any, dairy, legumes, or grains, and certainly none of the overly refined and processed stuff we have.
The Bad and Kinda Bad Stuff
Refined foods are the sort of things you find in bags and boxes all up and down grocery store aisles. It is food that is processed, has all sorts of artificial ingredients and preservatives, is loaded with things like sugars (often disguised by different names), high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives, and which are consumed by Americans in alarming amounts every day. Many of these are so stripped nutritionally that they have to have vitamins added back in–that’s why you see things like “enriched flour” in the ingredient list. It is so bad for you that they legally have to add back in some nutrition so we don’t die of malnourishment as we stuff our faces.
What’s particularly horrible about this is that our bodies can’t digest most of these refined and process foods in the state they are in. Whole foods carry all of the vitamins, fiber, etc, necessary to digest them. If a food requires calcium to digest it, it contains enough calcium. They often carry extra vitamins and nutrients, in fact. But processed foods are so stripped that even the nutrients added back in don’t compensate for what was lost, so our body has to draw from its own resources to digest the food. If the food requires calcium to digest it, our body draws the calcium from–guess where?–our bones! These foods are health problems in a package.
That’s not to say that all foods that come in a box or wrap are bad. It just takes some discernment. A few, natural ingredients aren’t bad. Just read the label.
The Grain Verdict
The USDA food pyramid recommends grains to be the largest portion of food we eat every day. And frankly, a lot of Americans do that, and often not even whole grains. But get this–the USDA is a government department. The government subsidizes grain agriculture (that includes corn!). They profit from us eating lots of grains! Is it any wonder they grab at anything that says “grains are healthy” and shove it at us in their recommendations?
It is true that whole grains are better than the refined grains so many of us eat, and many people do maintain fairly good health with a moderate amount of whole grains in their diet, like in the eat clean diet. Whole grains like whole wheat, brown rice, and oats are more suited to our bodies than processed grains like white flour. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great for our bodies, and for some people they’re downright bad. Look at gluten intolerance and other grain-related issues! A lot of people do best with grain moving much higher up the pyramid and being only whole grains, or disappearing altogether. You can replace your white or wheat flour with something like almond flour for baking.
The paleo recommends that grains disappear altogether, but the 80/20 rule (the rule that you will still get the benefits of the diet if you do it 80%, as long as the other 20% is mostly healthy still) allows for a little bit of whole grains if your body does alright with them.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit….! Okay, I’ll stop. I’m not talking about green beans when I say legumes, though. Green beans are…well, are they a fruit or vegetable? Don’t they have seeds in them, which would make them a fruit? Oh well, doesn’t matter. They’re not a legume. I’m talking about thinks like kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, and lentils. Legumes are actually poisonous if eaten raw–I don’t think kill-you-if-you-eat-a-handful poisonous, but definitely something our paleolithic ancestors wouldn’t have eaten until they discovered that boiling the crap out of them made them not-poisonous and just gave them bad gas instead. They’re also not as good for us as many other food choices, and not as natural to our diet. It is another thing that might be part of your 20% in moderation, but which you should just avoid altogether if they bother you (such as if they give you indigestion) or if you want to be stricter paleo. Lentils are the best if you’re going to have legumes.
Dare to Eat Dairy?
Technically milk is a no-no, but many paleo eaters decide that cheese, yogurt, butter, sour cream, and heavy cream fall into a gray area that make them okay to use occasionally, especially if you get them from grass-fed and unpasteurized sources. These sources have little or no lactose left but the protein and fat remains, which is good. Grass-fed butter is great for cooking with. Some people say that raw milk is acceptable. Its okay to cut dairy out altogether too–the paleo purists would say you should.
Some people balk at reducing or cutting out dairy because they aren’t sure where else they’ll get their calcium and vitamin D. Okay, people. Seriously. Dairy is not always the best source for those vitamins–fruits, veggies, meat, and sunshine provide plenty, and often more than a glass of milk. Also, a diet based on those foods will help your body absorb nutrients better, which means you’ll get more of whatever calcium, vitamin D, and other good things that goes into your body. All the supplementation and dairy in the world won’t help you if your diet reduces or even prevents nutrient absorption.
Chocolate? Dark chocolate that is mainly cocoa–so no Reeses, sorry–is okay to have sometimes.
Alcohol? A glass or two of beer or wine every day is alright. The occasional party out with friends won’t hurt, but moderation really is best.
Caffeine? A couple cups of coffee per day is fine. So is tea. Soda and energy drinks are a no-no.
The Good Stuff
Fruits and Veggies
Nom nom nom! Lots of these, of all sorts. Except potatoes. Those are so starchy they can be bad for you, especially if you’re already overweight. Try sweet potatoes or yams instead. Sweet potato fries fried up in bacon grease is…amazing!
Its best to get your fruits, veggies, tubers, berries, etc., local and organic if at all possible. Shipping a vegetable requires picking it early, when it hasn’t reached full ripeness and therefore hasn’t reached full nutrition value, and time it takes to ship it further reduces the nutrient value. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t eat fruits and veggies if you can only get them shipped and non-organic, its just to say that they’re better local and natural. Its also best to not overcook them or not cook them at all. Cooking fruits vegetables cooks away nutrients–when you boil the heck out of a vegetable it loses most of the vitamins it had. Raw or steamed preserves the most nutrients, but a bit of cooking or baking is okay. Its certainly better than no veggies.
Ideally, we’d all have a big garden and greenhouse of our own, but most of us don’t. A lot of health-foods store, farmers markets, and fruit stands carry local and organic.
Meat, meat, meat! The vegetarians and vegans are going to have a conniption!
Yeah, yeah, I’m mean. But its true. We are made to eat meat. For my fellow Bible-believers:
Genesis 9:3 Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
Woohoo! We were made to eat meat! That makes happy omnivores like me, well, happy.
Really though, vegetarianism isn’t necessarily bad for you, but its not necessarily as good as its proclaimed to be. Meat is really the best source of protein–in fact, a lot of vegetarians protein sources (soy) increase the risk of breast cancer! Meat also has enzymes that help us fight disease, and provide some of the healthiest sources of good fats, which are essential for good brain function and *gasp* even decrease risk of breast cancer! This seems like a no-brainer to me. Vegetarians are quick to point out that they tend to be healthier and have less diseases than meat eaters, but I must ask…what kind of meat eaters? Are we talking the average American who eats whatever crap that passes for meat at a fast food restaurant, the kind that also eat lots of empty carbs and highly processed foods? The steak-and-potatoes followed by a bowl of ice cream people? The huge meat lovers pizza every week people? Because I’ve got to say, duh. Of course you’re healthier than they are. But how do you compare with people who are on diets like paleo and clean eating? I think we’d measure up favorably, if not better, than vegans and vegetarians.
Okay, back to meat, because its so good. Do you know what paleo allows? Bacon! Yep. The world is a better place now. Really, pretty much any meat is allowed. To reduce fat, eat more of the leaner meats (chicken, turkey, fish), get leaner cuts of meat, and trim off excess fat on your meat before cooking it. But fat really isn’t bad for you, so don’t run away from it–just don’t have excess. There’s nothing wrong with some lean ground beef, a nice pork chop, or a juicy chicken breast. Many people who eat paleo also go for thinks like bison, lamb, even rabbit. You can go hunting and fishing for your own meat too, of course–nothing wrong with some venison! The more hard core paleo people, like the lady at Cave Girl Eats (cavegirleats.com) even try other parts of the animal, like liver or tongue, but I’m not nearly that brave yet. Eggs are also grouped in with meat–they would have been a chicken if they’d hatched, after all. They can actually lower your bad cholesterol, so don’t be afraid of them.
When you buy meat at the store (try a health foods store), try to go with the healthier, natural meats. Grass-fed beef, free range chicken, wild-caught fish, etc. Most of the stuff you get at the grocery store is grain fed and even genetically altered, not to mention kept and cared for inhumanely. You may even be able to find a local farmer or butcher who will sell their meat, and local farmers often keep their animals a lot healthier and treat them more humanely. That’s good for the animals and for you and me!
The Other Stuff
Oils–try stuff like coconut oil for cooking. (Or grass-fed butter or leftover fat, like bacon fat.) Olive oil is alright, but oxidizes at a fairly low heat, so not necessarily best for cooking anything on the stove top. Many other cooking oils are bad for you.
Nuts–peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes. But other nuts are good in moderation.
Natural sweeteners–honey was probably enjoyed by our ancestors when they could get it. It was definitely enjoyed later on when people learned tricks like smoking out the bees and began beekeeping. It can even boost your immune system and has some antibiotic properties. Agave and real maple syrup are yummy and natural, but have a high GI index, so they’re really a treat to be enjoyed only sparingly.
Okay. I think that’s a good overview. Its taking me time to get to this way of eating–we have to get rid of all the bad stuff first, and I don’t like throwing stuff away. But its getting whittled away. I got rid of my legumes this weekend. We’re almost out of oatmeal. Our top ramen is running low. Our rice will take a bit longer, but that’s going too. Flour is taking its time to go too–I need to make stuff to take to work and let me coworkers that don’t care as much about it finish it off for me. I know, I’m horrible! But that’s okay. Its not like they won’t know what they’re eating, after all, and its better than wasting what I paid for! In the meantime, I’m shopping primarily for paleo foods and eating more of them (except the eggnog…just couldn’t pass it up!), so eventually there will be very little to no non-paleo foods in the house. I’ll keep you all updated with the journey!