My Paleo Diet Guide
The Paleolithic diet is an effort to eat like we used to back in the day… Way back in the day. If a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither can you. This means anything we could hunt or find – meats, fish, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, and seeds. Sorry, the pasta, cereal, and candy will have to go!
Stop counting calories! I don’t like keeping track of how much I’ve eaten or obsessing over how many grams of a particular nutrient I’ve had. Not only do I hate counting calories, but I know that calories are really only half of the battle, as they’re not all created equal – 400 calories of Doritos do not affect your body in the same way as 400 calories of high-quality vegetables and protein.
Fortunately, if you can expand your horizons and remove certain types of food from your diet, you can stop worrying about counting calories forever. I’d love to suggest a particular type of eating that doesn’t require counting a single calorie and allows you to eat as much as you want. Oh, and it will help you lose weight, build muscle, and get in the best shape of your life.
So how does the Paleo diet work? Oh lord, another “diet.” I know, it sounds like a fad/marketing ploy, but it’s actually quite legit. You see, tens of thousands of years ago, before Nike, Cap’n Crunch, and Healthy Choice meals, our ancient ancestors thrived as hunter-gatherers. Although it’s been a really long time, our genetics have not changed that much since then.
The average Homo sapiens back then: tall, muscular, agile, athletic, and incredibly versatile.
The average Homo sapiens now: overweight, out of shape, stressed out, unhappy, sleep deprived and dying from a myriad of preventable diseases.
So what the hell happened? Agriculture! A few thousand years ago humans discovered farming, the agricultural revolution took off, and we advanced from hunter-gatherers to farmers. We settled down, formed societies, and the human race progressed to what we are today.
The problem is, our bodies never adjusted properly to eating all the grains that we are now farming. Think of a 100-meter football field. The first 99.5 meters are how long Homo sapiens spent as hunter-gatherers. As they became really good at hunting and gathering, our bodies adapted to that lifestyle over thousands of years. That last half-meter represents our species after the agricultural revolution, where our diet has shifted (but our genetics have not!).
So, instead of loading up on meat, vegetables and seasonal fruits, we’ve become a species “dependent” upon grains – bread, pasta, rice, corn, cereals (hum … Sara!) and so on. The government continues to recommend 6-11 servings of grains a day, and people continue to get fatter and fatter by the day.
66% of us are overweight, 33% are considered obese, and those numbers are only getting worse.
Clearly something’s not right. The Paleo diet is an effort to go back to eating how we’re biologically designed to eat, allowing us to tap into our genetic potential and start living healthier immediately.
What is the Paleo diet? Back in the day, grains weren’t part of our diet.
As Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple points out in his “definitive guide to grains” article: grains cause kind of a funky response in our system. Grains are composed of carbohydrates, and those carbs are turned into glucose (a type of sugar) in our system to be used for energy and various other tasks to help our body function – any glucose that isn’t used as energy is stored as fat.
Rather than me explain that part with thousands of words, just watch this three-minute video – “Why You Got Fat“
For decades we’ve been told gaining and losing weight is all about the calories. Just one little problem: the research says otherwise. Diabetics undergo dramatic weight changes when they adjust their insulin levels - and so do you. Your diet determines how much insulin your body will produce over time.
Next, most grains contain gluten and lectins. What are they and what’s wrong with them? I’m so glad you asked:
Gluten is a protein found in things like rye, wheat, and barley. It’s now being said that much of our population may be gluten-intolerant (hence all the new “gluten-free!” items popping up everywhere). Over time, those who are gluten intolerant can develop a dismal array of medical conditions from consuming gluten: dermatitis, joint pain, reproductive problems, acid reflux, and more.
Lectins are natural toxins exist within grains to defend against consumption! Yup. Grains have evolved to keep themselves from being eaten by us. These lectins are not a fan of our gastrointestinal tract, prevent the tract from repairing itself from normal wear and tear. This can cause all kinds of damage.
As Mark so eloquently puts it in his article: grains are unhealthy at best, or flat-out dangerous at worst.
The Paleo diet also almost completely eradicates sugar. Unless you’re getting your sugar from a fruit, forget it. Sugar causes an energy spike and crash in your system, turns to fat unless it’s used immediately, and wreaks all kind of havoc on our bodies.
To sum up: no grains, no sugar, and no processed foods. Many studies have shown that an incredible number of diseases and lifestyle issues can be reversed with these three simple changes. Take a look at this time magazine article on cancer patients who switched to a zero-sugar diet and saw positive results.
But where’s my energy? So, if we’re not eating 300+ grams of carbs every day, where are we supposed to get our energy from?
Our bodies are designed to operate on a lower amount of carbohydrates than what we’re used to eating, so less carbs isn’t an issue. When there is an absence of carbs (which is how we’re used to operating), our body will take stored fat and burn that for energy in a process called ketogenesis.
To sum up: less carbs = less glucose in your system. Consequently, your body will have to start burning fat as your fuel source. Win!
So all carbs are bad? Nope. Carbs still serve a purpose in our diets, but they’re not essential (check out the Inuit Paradox for a great read on societies that exist without almost any carbohydrates). I prefer to get my carbs from vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fruit. Why is that? These foods are naturally occurring in the wild and don’t need to be processed in any way (unlike grains) in order to be consumed.
The other great thing about vegetables is that you can eat as many of them as you like and you’ll never get fat. They’re incredibly nutrient dense and calorie light – six servings of broccoli with a trickle of olive oil (and who would eat 6 servings at once?) has about 180 calories and only 36 grams of carbs. A single serving of pasta (and nobody eats just one serving of pasta) (without sauce) has at least 300 calories and about 42 grams of carbs.
What about dairy? Dairy’s a tough one, as most Paleo folks tend to stay away from it – a portion of the world is lactose intolerant, and those that aren’t usually have at least some type of an aversion to it. Why is that? Because no other animal in the entire kingdom drinks milk beyond infancy. Hunter-gatherers did not lug cows around with them while traveling – milk was consumed as a baby, and that was it. As with grains, our bodies weren’t designed for massive dairy consumption.
Here’s a great read on the benefits/criticisms of dairy.
Personally, I’m split on dairy, as eat moderately yogurt without any sort of issue and I consider adding it back into my diet when I need to get enough calories to bulk up.
What do I get to eat on this diet? Okay, so if we cut out the grains, almost all processed foods, and dairy, you’re left with only things that occur naturally such as:
Meat - grass-fed (preferably not grain-fed). Grain causes the same problem in animals as they do in humans. Fowl - Chicken, duck, hen, turkey… things with wings that (try to) fly. Fish - Wild fish, as mercury and other toxins can be an issue in farmed fish. Eggs - Look for Omega-3 enriched eggs. Vegetables - As long as they’re not deep-fried, eat as many as you want. Oils - Olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil – think natural. Fruits - Have natural sugar, and can be higher in calories, so limit if you’re trying to lose weight. Nuts - High in calories, so they’re good for a snack, but don’t eat bags and bags of them. Tubers - Sweet potatoes and yams. Higher in calories and carbs, so these are good for right after a workout to replenish your glycogen levels. Steak with asparagus and sweet potato fries, grilled chicken salad, massive omelets that will fill you up for the whole morning, apples dipped in almond butter (my favorite snack ever), and so on. Pick any of the things from that list, and eat as much as you want of them (with the noted exceptions). You’ll feel better and be healthier.
How come I won’t get fat? Because these foods are so nutritious and filling, it’s almost impossible to overeat.
To get the equal number of calories from a bag of Doritos or bread (which, as you know, you can eat all day long and never really feel full), you’d have to eat 2-3 Mack trucks full of broccoli and spinach. A giant plate of vegetables and a reasonable portion of meat can keep you full for hours, while eating carb-heavy foods can result in being hungry again soon after.
Whenever I need to lose weight for vacation, I go 100% Paleo and I can drop a few body fat percentage points in a few weeks.
But I can’t give up my muffin/pasta/bagel/pizza/bread! Okay then, don’t try the Paleo diet! Simple as that.
If you’re happy with how you look, your energy levels are good all day, and you don’t see any room for improvement, then keep doing what you’re doing – I won’t force you to eat like this. However, if you’ve been struggling with weight loss, have no energy throughout the day, need eight cups of coffee, hate counting calories, and want to start turning your life around today, why not give it a shot for 30 days?
How much should I eat of each nutrient? Keep it simple: Try to get a really good protein source with each meal (eggs, steak, chicken, fish, pork, and tofu) along with some vegetables or fruit. That’s it. If you’re having trouble getting enough calories daily, add some healthy fats to the equation: avocado, a handful of almonds or walnuts, almond butter, olive oil, etc.
Now, fruit does have quite a bit of sugar in it, and nuts have quite a few calories… so if you are following the Paleo diet but not losing weight, check your fruit and nut consumption and see if you are loading up on those at the expense of vegetables and healthy protein.
Finally… I’m a fan of the Paleo diet because it makes logical sense to me. I know we existed as a species 150,000 years ago, I know the agricultural revolution didn’t happen until 10,000 years ago, which means we had 140,000 years without grains. In that time we learned to thrive as a species without grains (or else we wouldn’t be here).
The other reason I’m a fan is because you can eat what you want (provided it’s Paleo), when you want, and eat however much of it you like. Eat a huge breakfast, skip lunch, and a big dinner. Eat a small breakfast, two snacks, and then dinner. Do whatever makes you happy and fits in your schedule. I like this kind of stress-free and flexible eating.
Regardless of whether or not grains should be vilified, I love this diet because I know it works. I know people that have lost incredible amounts of weight and changed their lives within a matter of months.
Regardless of how you feel about grains, we can all agree that eating more natural foods and less processed foods is better for you.
Where can I get even more info? If you’re looking to read more about the Paleo diet, I have a few resources to recommend. The main links are free resources:
Mark’s Daily Apple - Easily the most comprehensive resource on the Internet for the Paleo diet – Mark writes an article every weekday about everything Paleo, and it usually blows me away. Some of the posts can get overwhelming, so I suggest starting with his Primal Blueprint 101.
Robb Wolf - Another great resource, and a guy I’ve already referenced in this article multiple times. Check out his site for a comprehensive FAQ on all things Paleo, a shopping list pdf (right-click and save), and plenty of humor.
Loren Cordain - Loren is considered the leading expert on the Paleo diet – Robb is actually one of his students/disciples/padawans. Dr. Cordain is probably the foremost authority on this type of eating, which is why I really enjoyed reading both of his books.
Easing into it The method I recommend is the 80% method – eat really well during the week (all Paleo), and then give yourself a day on the weekend to eat whatever you want – pizza, ice cream, cheeseburgers, bagels, etc. Get it out of your system on that one day, and then get back on track the next day. For some people this helps them stay on track, when for others it can be derailing. That will be up to you.
Get rid of the temptation – if you’re going to go at this thing with a full head of steam, remove all the junk food from your house. It’s going to take a few weeks for your body to adjust to burning fat instead of glucose, and you might want to eat poorly here and there. If there’s no food in your house to tempt you, it will be much easier to stay on target.