The Paleo Diet for Dummies

Are paleo dieters just another crazy cult or are there some real merits behind what they preach?
Are paleo dieters just another crazy cult or are there some real merits behind what they preach?

Like death and taxes, there is one other certainty in this world we’re living in; the unending flow of trendy diets that promise to trump all others and finally, deliver the results you’ve been waiting for your entire life…blah…blah…blah……

…we’ve heard it all before.  The low-carb craze ushered in by the Atkins diet.  The South Beach Diet.  The 17 Day Diet.  They all promised to help you lose weight, improve your health, and show you the light you’ve apparently been unable to find on your own.  Honestly, I don’t get too excited by any of this stuff.  I think they’re all easily summed up – sure, they might work temporarily, but these diets aren’t permanent solutions because they are too restrictive and don’t amount to the lifestyle change you need.

Lately, there’s been one diet in particular that’s generated a lot of buzz.  While the Paleo Diet isn’t brand new, it’s certainly become harder to ignore and more difficult to write off as a passing trend.  What’s really caught my interest as of late has been the positive feedback some elements of the medical community are bestowing upon the Paleo Diet.  It’s clearly something a lot of you guys at home have been hearing about because related questions have slowly but steadily been increasing in regularity.  With all this in mind, I felt I owed it to myself and everyone looking for advice to really take a hard look at the Paleo Diet and break down…

  • What it is and how it works
  • The pros and cons of adopting the Paleo Diet
  • My final opinion on the effectiveness of the Paleo Diet

Consider the following guide, Paleo 101 – your go to guide for a complete and thorough overview of the Paleo Diet.  I’m certain there will still be more questions floating around, so don’t be shy – feel free to leave a comment below and myself or our resident nutritional expert, Dr. PK Newby will be happy to get back to you.

The Paleo Diet For Dummies

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo is simply another eating plan with its own set of rules and theories.  Sometimes referred to as The Caveman Diet or Paleolithic Diet, this diet is based on eating within the confines of what our hunch-backed relatives used to consume roughly 10,000 years ago.  These foods will include – meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts/seeds, vegetables, fruits, roots, and certain oils.

What are the key exclusions from the Paleo Diet?

No dairy, no grains, no legumes, no alcohol.  Eliminate processed foods, refined sugar, sugar substitutes, and starches. More specifically, things like oatmeal, hummus, greek yogurt, and black beans are out. Basically, if it’s highly processed (hot dogs) or something cavemen weren’t eating (dairy) you shouldn’t be eating it.

Why should we eat like Cavemen?

The theory behind the Paleo Diet suggests our bodies are genetically geared towards eating like early humans ate.  Supporters of the Paleo Diet suggest we’re simply eating the way nature/God (you take your pick there) intended.  By eating a diet more in line with the way we were supposed to eat, we can avoid a host of health issues, lower cardiovascular risk, cancer rates, obesity, etc.  Basically, it’s the most natural and sensible way to eat, according to supporters.

Is this how cavemen really ate?

This is actually up for debate.  There are quite a few scientists out there who posit early humans were largely fruit and vegetable eaters, supplementing this diet with animal protein only on occasion.  Word of advice, don’t assume the owner of that Crossfit gym up the street is the final word on the early eating habits of man during the Paleolithic period.

So no grains or refined sugars – isn’t this just like the Atkins Diet?

Actually it’s not – the Paleo Diet promotes the inclusion of fruits and other carbohydrate-dense vegetables and roots.  If you recall, the Atkins Diet doesn’t differentiate and makes sweeping recommendations that you limit all types of carbohydrates in your diet.

What constitutes an “ideal” meal on the Paleo Diet?

An “ideal” meal would include a fist-size portion of wild protein (NOT farm raised factory cattle), two fists worth of vegetables, and perhaps some healthy fats.  It is also stressed that you should forget about “meal times” and simply eat when you’re hungry.  Additionally, you should eat until satisfied, NOT stuffed.

I want an example – give me examples!

Okay, calm down.  So here is a hypothetical day’s worth of meals on the Paleo Diet.

  • Breakfast: Mixed berries with coconut milk.
  • Snack: Hard-boiled eggs
  • Lunch: Broiled flank steak salad with olive oil, vinegar, and lemon juice.
  • Snack: Raw vegetables and guacamole
  • Dinner: Pork tenderloin with steamed vegetables

I’m a vegetarian and eat a lot of tofu to replace animal protein – can I still do the Paleo Diet?

Sure, you can still do the Paleo Diet.  Just understand tofu is a no-no because it comes from legumes, and if you want to strictly maintain a Paleo lifestyle, the tofu has to go.

Everyone tells me legumes are healthy, why can’t I eat them on the Paleo Diet?

Legumes no doubt are full of antioxidants, fiber, and a host of other nutrients your body craves.  However, since legumes weren’t consumed by our hairy ancestors and they apparently contribute towards inflammation and inhibit nutrient absorption in the intestines, they are restricted.  Don’t look at me – I didn’t make these rules up.

Is it true I can eat as much fat as I’d like?  Isn’t that bad for me?

First off, you should know fat plays a very important physiological role in your body.  It is an essential component and needs to be included in any balanced diet.  Avoiding fat completely and/or going “lite” or “low-fat” is so 1980’s – get with the times.  Fat isn’t the reason you’re “fat”.

Now that we’ve got that out-of-the-way – does that mean all fat is good for you?  No.  Fats found in the Paleo Diet are typically monounsaturated fats which have been found to lower blood cholesterol and help prevent heart disease.  These fats are found in olive oils, coconut oils, fish, and wild, grass-fed meats.

Being on the Paleo Diet (or any diet for that matter) is not a license to eat as much as you please, as long as it’s an “allowed” food.  Healthy food can still make you fat.  Remember, if you’re consistently consuming more calories than you’re burning, no matter how healthy they are, you’re going to gain weight.

Which oils should I cook with on the Paleo Diet?

From the reading I’ve done, it seems the best fats to use for cooking would be ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil.  Both maintain their integrity over medium high heats and possess a range of health benefits.  Because olive oil oxidizes under much lower heats, it is more ideal for salad dressings, marinades, etc.

My doctor told me saturated fats are bad and that I should increase my whole grain intake – is he wrong?

I’m not going to tell you your doctor is wrong.  There are a LOT of very smart people on both sides of the fence here.  But to be perfectly honest, and coming from someone with several doctor friends/acquaintances – doctors aren’t exactly the most knowledgeable when it comes to nutrition science.  Personally, I’d much rather get my nutrition recommendations from someone who has a Ph.D or the like in the very subject they are advising me in.  I’m not saying to ignore your doc, but his opinion isn’t the be all, end all – keep that in mind.

What about studies like this one?  Aren’t red meats bad for me?

Yes, there are plenty of studies that suggest red meat, even grass-fed organic red meat, can be potentially hazardous to your health.  There are of course a multitude of studies on the flip side that suggest the opposite.  This is the biggest thing people struggle with in regards to health and fitness; coming to terms that there are very few black and white answers in this realm.  Any issue will likely have support and critiques from equally impressive and educated authority figures.  At the end of the day, don’t obsess too much over who’s right and who’s wrong.  Do what you think makes you feel the healthiest and contributes towards your health and fitness goals.

How easy is it to stick to the Paleo Diet?

I think it’s quite easy if you are okay eating the same, or similar foods on a regular basis.  There was a period of time I ate brown rice (not Paleo, I realize), steamed veggies, and an organic chicken breast most nights a week for the better part of a year.  I’m not saying the Paleo diet isn’t full of thousands of recipes that will give you choice – but when you take away all grains and dairy, you’ll find yourself gravitating towards similar foods to fill that void.

That said, I think the Paleo Diet is much closer to that lifestyle change I always preach about, than something like the Atkins Diet or the Belly Fat Cure which are either too restrictive and/or downright faddy.

Is maintaining a Paleo Diet expensive?

I can be.  The Paleo Diet is probably a more expensive way to eat than you’re currently used to.  Wild caught fish/shellfish and grass-fed meats are pricy and will make up a bulk of your diet.  Sourcing quality fruits and vegetables takes time, and if you’re going organic (which you should be in most instances) there is a premium to pay.  Actually, there’s only a premium to pay if you don’t know what you’re doing – check out how you can buy strictly organic produce and pay less than you’d pay for the regular stuff in your local super market.

Will the Paleo Diet help me lose weight?

That depends.  How are you currently living?  Do you eat tons of crap?  Loads of white flour products?  If you’re living poorly, sure, a diet like the Paleo will help you cut weight.  If your already living a relatively clean diet (yes, even if it includes whole grains) the Paleo Diet may not do much for weight loss.  If you’re already eating clean and still having weight issues, the issue may stem from the intensity or variety of your workouts.  Give your workout plan a hard look and see if there’s anything you can improve.

My workouts are on point and I eat clean- will the Paleo Diet really not help me with weight loss?

It’s hard to give a definitive yes or no.  If you want to experiment by removing grains from your diet, and replacing them with more Paleo-friendly foods, by all means go for it.  No two bodies are the same, and there is no magic bullet solution for weight/fat loss.  Perhaps your body will respond better to a diet with fewer grains = you never know until you try.  So go ahead and see if the Paleo Diet is the thing that “turns on” your inner fat burning machine.

Will the Paleo Diet help me make better progress in the gym?

I tend to lean towards yes on this one.  Reason being, most people, and especially women, are not getting enough protein in their diets.  As we know by now, in order for new muscle tissue to grow, it needs the appropriate building blocks – your body doesn’t create new tissue out of thin air.  These building blocks are supplied by the proteins in your diet.  The heavy emphasis on protein intake in the Paleo Diet makes it more likely an individual will eat the amount of protein required to build new, lean muscle mass.

If you’re already getting enough protein, will the Paleo Diet exponentially help with your training?  Personally, I don’t think so.

I enjoy multiple small meals a day – how can I snack while on the Paleo Diet?

Snacking is pretty easy on the Paleo diet.  Here are some ideas that’ll help get you through the day…

  • Tin of tuna or salmon
  • Beef jerky (best if you made your own)
  • Trail mix containing nuts, seeds, and dried fruit
  • Banana “ice cream”
  • Avocado and crab meat salad
  • Coconut flour pancakes

Do I need to count my calories on the Paleo Diet?

No, there is little to no counting done on the Paleo Diet.  This is a very strong “pro” in my mind.  Diets that have you counting calories, carbs, etc. are near impossible to stick to in the long run.  Are you really going to count and measure your food, every time you eat, for the next 50 years?  Probably not.

I like going out to eat – how can I maintain my Paleo Diet at restaurants?

This is actually pretty simple to do.  Simply have the restaurant replace starches i.e.potatoes/rices/pastas/etc. with extra veggies.  Ask for sauces covering your protein to be held on the side.  Be aware that many sauces contain dairy products which you should be avoiding if you want to be a good little Paleo Dieter.

Or, you could act like a normal person and realize a little cream sauce isn’t going to kill you and relax off the Paleo restriction for one night.  Just don’t let the cult find out…which leads us to our next question.

Where can I find good Paleo Diet recipes?

A good source of Paleo Diet recipes can be found at Nom Nom Paleo.  I’ve sampled a few of their items and have come away mostly happy with the results.

Why do people on the Paleo Diet seem like they’re cult members?

I’ve often wondered this myself, and to be honest, I don’t have a good answer for you.  The only thing I can come up with is people like to “preach” when they think they’ve uncovered something amazing the rest of us are missing out on.  Much like Crossfit gyms develop a bit of a “cult” feel to them, those on the Paleo Diet (which perhaps unsurprisingly is a lot of Crossfitters) have the same vibe.  Don’t take this as a positive or negative – just understand some people think the Paleo Diet is very serious business and can’t wait to tell you about it.

Final Analysis of the Paleo Diet

I think the Paleo Diet is great for someone who is currently maintaining an unhealthy/unclean diet.  If you need some structure or something to get your going, by all means, see if the Paleo Diet is for you.  On the flip side, if you’re frustrated because you DO eat healthy, you DO workout, but still can’t drop the final LB’s….go ahead and experiment with Paleo and reduced grain intake.

If you’re adopting the Paleo diet because you think it’s going to make you live longer, avoid cancer, miss out on heart disease and a bunch of other things that would mess up anyone’s day – I’d think a little longer and harder.  I’m not saying the Paleo Diet can’t do these things.  I’m saying the Paleo Diet isn’t the ONLY way to live a healthy lifestyle.  I’ve written about it before on the blog, but I’m going to touch on it again briefly here – there are areas around the world referred to as “Blue Zones”.  People in these areas have abnormally long life expectancies and reduced rates of heart disease, cancer, and other ailments.  None of these areas follow a “Paleo Diet”.  In my far-from-expert opinion, I think the best course of action is the following:

  • Avoiding animal products most (not all) days a week.
  • Sporadic use of intermittent fasting techniques.
  • Heavy on vegetables and to a lesser-degree, fruits.
  • Low to moderate grain intake.

My approach has elements of several different dietary theories and honestly, it’s simply what I find works best for me.  Many will disagree with my approach, and that’s fine.  I’m certainly not saying my way is the only, or even the best way.  It’s what has allowed me to live a health and fit life thus far, and most of all, is easy to follow.

Whatever you chose to do, make sure you don’t feel like operating within the confines of your chosen diet plan is a chore.  Eating healthy is all about making lifestyle changes; it’s not about adopting a radical diet plan that promises quick weight loss or a life free from disease.  Be sensible about the choices you make and I think you’ll find something that leaves you feeling happy, healthy, and content with your decision.





5 thoughts on “The Paleo Diet for Dummies”

  1. Of course I think its silly but I’m not necessarily against the paleo diet. I’m all for clean eating and since its not like the south beach diet or some other diet that has you buying all sorts of packaged crap I would say go for it. But what I don’t get is in early caveman days we ate to gain weight not lose it since food was scarce and whatever kept meat on our bones was good. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that eating a caveman diet would put meat on your bones? IE gain weight. I don’t think the “science” behind it is well thought out!

    1. I hear you on the whole eat to gain weight thing. I still think our goals these days are to gain weight – but by gain weight, I mean, gain muscle mass. By adding muscle mass, we increase our metabolism and fat burning potential. I think everyone could stand to pack on a few extra lb’s of lean muscle….so in that sense, I think the Paleo Diet is helpful. But like you, I’m not sold on the science behind everything they preach, nor am I convinced eating that much animal product is healthy.

  2. Pingback: Step one: Research | MetroGypsy

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