The paleo diet is a popular go-to for health chasers and fitness fanatics everywhere. In fact Shape Magazine recently claimed that it is the “most popular diet among Americans.” That’s saying something! The Paleo Diet benefits must be significant to beat out the Military Diet, Zone, the Mediterranean Diet, Keto, Vegetarian AND Atkins! Whether you’re thinking about starting it as part of your New Year’s Resolution, looking to get more healthy today, or you’re an established paleo nut (pun intended) who fell off the wagon and is climbing back on, then this guide is a great place to start. Learn about what the paleo diet actually is, why it’s a great choice, and more importantly HOW TO DO IT without going crazy.
Why is the paleo diet so popular?
Well, for starters, the paleo diet benefits reach far and wide:
- Clean eating removes chemicals, preservatives and additives
- The foods have anti inflammatory benefits
- Ingesting of more iron from consumption of red meats
- Have less hunger due to adequate protein intake
- Experience increased energy and weight loss
Not to mention, it’s trendy! Many CrossFit affiliates promote a paleo lifestyle, some doctors recommend it, and anybody who’s ever worn lululemon apparel has heard about it. Hearing about it and knowing what to eat in a paleo nutrition plan are two different things. It isn’t just a fad diet making its rounds in the new age fitness cycle. A focus on paleo nutrition is a lifestyle and mindset that revolves around fueling your body with clean, natural energy sources. Beginning involves more than just knowing the definition of the paleo diet, it takes understanding of the reasoning behind it, and why it is so beneficial.
What does Paleo mean?
In simple terms, Paleo is a way of eating more akin to our ancestors. Paleo is short for paleolithic, the era of human development before homosapiens, agriculture and farming. It was the time of the cave people. The paleo diet incorporates foods that were consumed by hunters and gatherers in that period. It includes:
- Leafy Greens
- Seasonal Fruits
It’s a long-ish list, but it doesn’t include a lot of what’s eaten nowadays. Here’s what we normally stuff our faces with that ISN’T on the approved foods list:
- Processed meat products (bye-bye hot dogs, veggie burgers, and other piecemeal “meats”)
- Food that comes in a box or bag with a list of ingredients longer than the number of fingers on your hand
- Refined sugar (all forms of it)
- Grains (sayonara cereal, pasta, pastries and bread)
And for many that is where the ambition to start stops.
What else is left to eat?
It seems impossible to make it through a day of meals on the paleo list of approved foods. It seems like torture to get rid of the bottom five because they probably equate to literally everything you love.
But that’s why we’re here. Remember why it is worth attempting. The health benefits. Continue by following our simple guide for getting started. It won’t be as nightmarish as you’re probably thinking. Calm the pizza loving panic, and read on. The Paleo Diet is worth it. We promise.
Why should I follow the Paleo Diet?
Let’s answer that question with another one. Why are you here? No, we don’t mean existentially (although reflecting on purpose is a great practice), but why are you reading this article? Why are you looking for nutrition advice? Chances are you want to be better. Whether you’re a fit mom looking to lose the last few pounds, an active dad who wants more energy, or lost in the world of health and looking for a place to start, paleo is the way to make the next step. Eating clean, whole foods will take you from where you are, to the next version of yourself. It won’t be a magical solution to all of your health problems, but it will solve a bunch of them. How? The answer to that is found in revisiting the history of our species. Although we are homosapiens, which were the only form of humans alive in the Neolithic period, we don’t have a Neolithic diet. That’s because agriculture and farming from that time period irreversibly changed the way we gathered food and what was consumed. This was both a good and a bad thing. That is why we have the paleo diet from the paleolithic period instead of the Neo one.
Variety and Balance
When we began to farm animals and grow crops, human food sources became more specialized. We ate more of the same foods more often. Think of it this way: steak is a healthy source of protein and fat. But, what would happen if you ate steak at every meal, every single day? It wouldn’t be as healthy anymore! Our bodies need variety and balance. When agriculture came into existence, variety decreased. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance (so, don’t beat yourself up for choosing chips over celery, they’re easier to access and that habit is part of your DNA). Grains, vegetables and farmed meat products were available with less effort than traditional hunting and gathering. This trend has continued and now we primarily consume what comes from the store or our favorite restaraunt’s menu. Which means both we, and our ancestors, reduced the amount of variety in our diets. The paleo diet remedies this by offering a balanced palate of food options. It includes:
- All of the Macronutrients. Our body needs protein to synthesize muscle, make enzymes and hormones, and to repair tissue. Carbohydrates provide energy. Fats help proteins do their job, provide additional energy, create insulation and protection of vital organs, and transport important vitamins and minerals. With the paleo diet you get some of all of them and this variety keeps you healthy.
- So many Micronutrients. These vitamins and minerals are essential to keeping our bodies running like well-oiled machines and are found in the plant based foods prioritized by the Paleo diet. By consuming leafy greens, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds, your body will be given a wide variety of vitamins and minerals that lead to better overall health. It also means you may be able to ditch that expensive, gross tasting horse pill of a vitamin you’re taking everyday (or the guilt you feel over not taking one).
Dangers in Grains
Paleo includes all of the macronutrient groups and consumption of a variety of micronutrients, but the diet doesn’t include grains. This is usually the hinging point for most critics. How can such a popular item be bad for you? This is also why it is the Paleo diet and not the neolithic one. Before agriculture came into existence, grains would be consumed on a very minimal basis. Hunters and gatherers looked for nutrient dense foods. To put it in perspective, imagine the following scenarios: walking with 9 apples back to camp OR carrying 9 square feet of wheat back to camp. Which would you prefer? The apples. They are exponentially easier to carry and consume, but essentially they are the same. They both contain fiber and approximately the same total amount of carbohydrates (on a side note… it takes about 9 square feet of wheat to make one loaf of bread. Crazy!). Nutrient dense foods give more bang for the buck. Although humans are programmed to take the path of least resistance, it isn’t laziness that led to avoiding primary consumption of grains. Grains themselves pose a threat to the digestive system too. They contain two proteins in particular that create havoc:
- Gluten. Thanks to trendiness, we’ve all heard about gluten, but what exactly is it and why does it have such a bad reputation? Gluten is one of over 23,000 proteins in wheat. It is also the one that gives bread and other baked goods their fantastic texture by binding the ingredients together. It is like glue, and like eating glue it has a host of side effects. Since gluten binds things together, it does the same for our foods. This bonding prevents them from being broken down totally and then they irritate the digestive tract.
- Lectin. This protein is another irritant. It binds to sugar and sugar is a source of energy for organisms as small as bacteria and as big as the world’s tallest man. Lectin is a defense mechanism for plants. It causes irritation because it binds with the sugars that are also being consumed and then the insects and bacteria stay away. The problem is, in large quantities the lectin adds up and has the same effect on larger predators like us as it does on the insects and microbes. It causes damage to the lining of our intestines through continuous irritation as a result of frequent consumption.
Modern Food Blues
In addition to naturally occurring irritants, our food is laced with many man-made problems too.
- Refined Sugar. Sugar is a drug and like drugs, it’s more widespread than society would like to admit. One study looked at all of the processed foods in a grocery store and found that 68% of them had added sugar. It wasn’t a candy store either, there’s sugar in all sorts of hidden places such as sauces, soups, fruit juices, and meat, as well as the obvious culprits like baked goods, sweets and candies. Why is this a problem? Sugar causes inflammation. You know that creaky, achy feeling in your joints when you wake up? It may not be old age. It could be the effects of a high sugar diet. Unfortunately sugar is so common that these symptoms are attributed to natural causes rather than sugar in many cases. Sugar is also a factor in diabetes, obesity and liver disease. Yet we still consume it because like drugs, it has an addictive quality. That’s why paleo is not synonymous with gluten free, organic, or many of the other popular “health food” labels. Sugar is added to many products to act as the glue where gluten isn’t, and it brings all of its negative side effects and addictive qualities with it. The paleo diet is truly sugar free.
- Processed Food. Processed foods are created when whole food sources are broken into tiny bits mechanically, chemically altered to a more refined state similar to digestion, and then blended together for packaging and consumption by you. The chemicals are certainly a problem, but the act of processing foods itself is as well. By breaking down cell walls, the body no longer has to work as hard during the digestion process. As a result, carbohydrates are released into the bloodstream more easily which causes higher spikes in insulin. Also, the missing cell walls means missing fiber when we’re talking about plant based foods. Fiber acts sort of like the gut’s toothbrush. Without it, the intestines can become sluggish and full of residual waste. The paleo diet is processed food free.
- Chemical Additives. Processed foods rely on chemicals to begin breakdown and many manufactured foods include man made ingredients. Common diets today contain more than 3,000 chemical additives. From synthetic sugars and fats to artificial colors and flavors, processed food is laden with problem causing chemicals. It has been found that these additives can lead to cancer, diabetes, a less than ideal immune system and heart disease. None of these conditions are desirable. Therefore, the paleo diet is chemical additive free.
Although the paleo diet doesn’t include popular items such as grains, sugar and processed foods, it does include some pretty significant health benefits.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obviously cutting out processed foods, sugars and additives will lead to weight loss, but paleo’s gains are far more appealing than that. With a Paleo diet you can maintain a healthy weight without measuring, weighing or counting calories. It is a natural way to consume food as fuel for your body. Since the calories come from nutrient rich, satiating sources, those on the Paleo diet will be less hungry. And when they do eat, their insulin levels aren’t going to spike like they would after consuming processed junk that’s high in sugar.
- Decreased health risks. Homeostasis, or the stabilization of blood sugar is part of why the Paleo diet decreases your risk of chronic disease. Spikes in insulin levels that are triggered by high glycemic foods lead to a drastic drop afterwards. This crash not only makes you feel bad (you know exactly what I mean, that late afternoon I-need-a-nap slump), it can lead to cravings for more junk food and snowball into a whole host of negative health consequences. The paleo diet also gives you a rich source of nutrients that promote health while it decreases your exposure to unhealthy foods. The vitamins and minerals found in whole foods improve your overall state and help protect against chronic disease.
- Improved mood and mental health. One aspect of health directly related to the consumption of vitamins and minerals is your mood and mental state. For example, vitamin B promotes healthy brain growth and function, and it’s found in both red and organ meats. Coincidence that these meats are part of the paleo diet? Not at all. Likewise, iron found in meats and plants relieves fatigue and increases mental power, and magnesium found in spinach, almonds and avocado mitigates stress.
- Enhanced recovery and performance. While stress is reduced through the Paleo diet’s balanced, whole foods, it doesn’t disappear entirely. Stress is a part of everyday life and it is important to recover from it. Whether your stress is healthy and induced by exercise, or unhealthily caused by an annoying coworker, you need to allow your body and mind to decompress and rebuild. Eating paleo foods helps with this because they decrease the amount of inflammation (read: allow you to recover from working out more quickly) and promote positive brain chemicals (read: your mind is able to function optimally even when you’re around an annoying coworker).
All of the benefits of a Paleo diet work together to provide a holistic version of health. It gets your mind and body feeling good, and gives you more energy to chase after better versions of yourself in other areas of your life such as the gym, library or whatever floats your boat. Whether or not to start eating this way is a no brainer. Yet, how to get started is most often the difficult part. Though it took awhile to lead up to this, the truth is that implementing a paleo nutrition program incorporates just a few simple steps. Now that you understand why you should pursue it, all that’s left is to do the work and if the going gets tough you have a solid purpose to keep you focused and motivated. Forget about any other times you may have failed and commit to pursuing health now.
How can I start the Paleo diet?
Learning takes time. It doesn’t all come at once. A baby can’t solve complex equations and comprehend vocabulary, so you can’t expect to fully incorporate the paleo diet without some substantial practice. You need start just like you’d start learning anything new, in increments. You take a step, practice it, and then follow it with another. We’ve put the steps into phases to help you identify where you are and what to do next. Let’s get started!
Make a few small changes at a time rather than diving right in. Decide which change you’d like to make and then commit to it fully. Choose one from the list:
- Remove liquid calorie sources, a.k.a. only drink water and coffee (but mostly water because hydration is key!)
- Discontinue your love affair with dairy. Stop eating milk, cheese, and yogurt but keep the butter as long as it is from grass fed beef. Or better yet, replace butter with ghee.
- Ditch the grains. Bread, pasta, cereal and other grained goodness go by the wayside. Replace them with healthier starches like sweet potatoes.
- Read the labels and get rid of anything with added sugar. Unless it is naturally occurring, sugar needs to go. Keep in mind that natural sugars such as maple syrup, agave and honey are approved, but they may lead to cravings, so if you can – ditch those too.
- Eat only whole foods for a one day. That means the foods themselves look like they did in their natural state, or they were made from scratch by you. No more purchased, processed foods or pre-packaged snacks. Just for one day.
Remove any temptations from your home to help you build the habit. Then once it’s established choose another small change to tackle.
Once you have a few small wins under your belt, you can move on to phase two. Here you want to balance your plate. Choose all around healthier, whole food options and balance the plate by consuming carbohydrates, fats, and proteins at every meal.
Eat clean wholesome foods. Do this by looking up recipes that substitute paleo approved foods for the favorites from your past.
In this phase it’s no longer substitution, but better quality that becomes the focus. The more you substitute for old foods, the more you will crave them. In this phase you want to let go of old habits and embrace this more natural, intuitive way of eating. Stick to the original list of approved foods for every meal:
- Leafy Greens
- Seasonal Fruits
Go all paleo all of the time for 30 days and pay attention to how your body changes. Keep a journal of what you ate and how you feel. If you slip up, record it, document the effects and use it as motivation to move on.
Once you’ve gone through the ringer of eating 100% paleo (or trying to) for 30 days you’ll notice two things.
- It works.
- It may not be sustainable for you personally 100% of the time.
Phase four is about understanding that and using it to mold the rest of your life. Instead of all paleo all of the time, shoot for 80/20, or following the paleo diet five days a week and ease off 2 days a week.
Go with what you can be consistent with and stay true to. If you know you need a “free day” away from a strict paleo meal (say if you dine out with a partner or friends from time to time), stay consistent with your plan and give youself a meal where you can get something off the list once a week.
Make it a lifestyle, not a crash diet.
Are there any other resources?
Besides this awesome guide??? Yes there are a number of available resources for you to gain information, examples and assistance. If you’re looking for more specific actionable tips, read our post Success Without the Stress that includes tips for succeeding on the Paleo Diet.
You can learn a lot about what Paleo looks like by picking up a prepackaged meal and using it as a visual guide. The WholeLife meals here at Project LeanNation are made paleo friendly and abide by Whole30 standards. You could then copy the portion sizes and selection while making your own meals.
Or if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might be good to let someone get you started. Ordering from a trusted, high quality meal service will allow you to accomplish all of the steps and experience the benefits of the full diet without the additional stress of starting something new. Project Lean Nation offers paleo diet meal plans that are freshly made and delivered right to your door.
If you’re looking for more information on the diet itself or the background and science behind it, try these sources:
In Health, Team PLN
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