Here’s your definitive guide to the Paleo diet. Learn what to eat when going Paleo and what foods to avoid, along with some caveats to ensure that the Paleo diet works for you.
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I’ve been enjoying what I call a Clean Eating diet for years. I aim to eat food in its most natural state, avoiding processed and packaged ingredients. Give me kale, lightly sautéed in avocado oil, and hold the deep fried kale chips. For the last year or so though, I’ve been moving more towards my own version of the Paleo Diet, and have been really happy with the results.
The shift from clean eating to paleo has been a subtle, but significant one. My recipes have always been gluten free, dairy free, and refined sugar free, but going paleo means ditching grains and legumes too.
Grains run the gamut from rice and corn to gluten free options like oats and millet. Legumes include all colors of beans – red, white, black, plus lentils, peas, soy, and peanuts. I know getting rid of quinoa and black beans required a pretty big shift in my cooking, but I've found the results worth it.
Let’s take a deeper dive into why you might want to consider giving some of these items up to go on a paleo diet.
The Genesis of the Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet started as a way to return to the same style of eating that our tribal ancestors used over two million years ago. Our ancestors were strong, strapping, agile folks, and well, we are not. Why aren’t we as healthy? Two words – modern agriculture.
We’re currently eating a whole mess of grains that have been processed and sprayed with chemicals, and our bodies can’t handle it. So we’re getting sick, developing cancer and a whole range of other diseases and autoimmune issues. The theory goes that our systems haven’t evolved that much from our ancestors so we should return to a simpler, less processed way of eating for improved health.
I know when I first heard the tribal ancestor story, all I could picture were monosyllabic men sitting around a campfire in loincloths, cooking their kill for the day. That didn’t sound like something I wanted to replicate, but I’m a believer in simple, unprocessed eating, so I decided to investigate the Paleo diet further.
Say Goodbye to Grains
While I’ve been gluten free for a while, I’ve leaned heavily on my GF oats and millet for many meals. Then I started paying super close attention to how my head and body felt at the end of these grain-fueled meals. The answer was not good. I was sluggish and fuzzy headed, but I always attributed those feelings to other things. I must not have gotten enough sleep I thought, or I‘m just busy and stressed. It wasn’t until I removed the grains that I started noticing a big physical and mental shift. My energy was higher and my thinking was much clearer. Minor aches and pains also went away.
Cereal grains can be super hard to digest. The modern processing of wheat has stripped away essential minerals and nutrients while bringing in a host of other problems. These grains have lectins, phytates, and other hormones, which are all difficult for your body to process. Lectins can wreak havoc on your digestive tract causing leaky gut and a compromised immune system, leading to inflammation and a host of autoimmune diseases. Phytic acid can bind to essential minerals and nutrients like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, and remove them from our bodies. This is not what you want.
If you’re concerned about losing precious fiber by ditching grains, don’t be. Eat your greens and you’ll be getting so much more bang for your buck. You’re going to get all of the vitamins and nutrients of the greens, plus insoluble fiber. Grains can’t compete with that.
Dr. William Davis, author of the best selling book, Wheat Belly, said, “From arthritis to acid reflux to schizophrenia, these can be either caused or made worse by wheat.”
A little while back, I spoke with Paleo guru Mark Sisson from Primal Kitchen. He talked about how his IBS, arthritis, upper respiratory tract infections, and overall body inflammation were virtually eliminated when he ditched grains. He’s seen people reverse type two diabetes by following a paleo diet, which brings us to the sugar issue.
Beans, Grains, and the Insulin Problem
The carbohydrates found in beans and grains raise insulin levels in the body. Sisson says, “When grains hit your gut, a bunch gets converted to glucose, and that raises your blood sugar just as rapidly as a spoonful of sugar from the sugar bowl.” Yeah, a spoonful of sugar. I’m sure that’s not what you had in mind when going for a bowl of black beans.
Your system works like this. When you eat beans, grains or another carb, it gets broken down in your body and converted into a simple glucose sugar. Insulin jumps on the scene to escort the glucose out of the blood and into another area of the body (often the liver or fatty tissue) to use at a later time. When you go for a workout, your body taps into that glucose reserve and gives you energy. Sounds great, right? Theoretically yes.
The problem comes when a person eats too many carbs and insulin floods the body to respond to the added sugar. Suddenly you have too much insulin floating around. Your body stores the excess insulin as fat, instead of burning it off as energy. Then you have the whole problem of insulin resistance. So not only will you gain weight from the stored fat, but you’ll get into an endless cycle of sugar cravings. Pretty cruel.
Ditching Sugar in All Its Forms
High sugar consumption is one of the big issues that the Paleo diet tries to curb. When your body has excess sugar in it from grains, legumes, sweets, processed food and even alcohol, your system is constantly struggling to process it. There’s usually too much to burn so it gets stored as fat, in addition to causing a host of other mental and physical issues. Reducing sugar intake allows your body to burn fat for fuel, which results in a smaller waistline, better cognition, and overall better energy. Mark Sisson told me, “giving up sugar is the number one thing anyone can do across any eating platform to benefit themselves.”
Sugar is downright toxic. It makes you age faster and can even damage your skin by binding to collagen so the skin has a more difficult time repairing itself. It takes a little time, but once you give up sugar, the cravings will diminish and you’ll see reduced inflammation in the body. You’ll sleep better, think better and should see the pounds drop. That’s some good inspiration.
Sugar comes in many forms. Processed food, boxed snacks, candy, and soda are the obvious ones to avoid on a paleo, or really any, diet. We covered grains and legumes so let’s look at other sources of sugar.
Starchy vegetables are carb-laden so they have the whole insulin issue working against them. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to limit your starchy vegetable intake.
I still eat sweet potatoes, squash, and beets from time to time. They can fill a sweet craving in a much healthier way than many alternatives. When I do eat them, I eat them in the evening for better processing, sleep, and energy in the morning. You can see exactly what ingredients to look for on a paleo diet in my paleo pantry list here.
Fruit is sugar too. It’s fructose, which is much better than high fructose corn syrup, but it’s still sugar. If you have candida, you definitely want to limit, or completely eliminate fruit, until you get your candida under control.
For most, I don’t think it’s necessary, or even advised, to completely give up fruit. I do limit my fruit intake though and try and focus on fruit that is lower on the glycemic index. I stick with berries, avocados, and citrus fruits.
Be sure to stay away from the fruit bomb smoothies that can include your sugar intake for the week! My smoothies are vegetable based with loads of greens. I’ll throw in lemon, apple or apple cider vinegar to cut the bitterness. Sometimes I’ll also include an avocado for added creaminess, as well as fat and protein.
And keep your pesticide intake to a minimum and try and buy organic fruits and vegetables that are on the Dirty Dozen list.
Die-hard paleo peeps will say no sweeteners, but I use a little Stevia every now and then for baked goods or other items that need a little lightening. Stevia comes from a plant so I consider it fairly natural. Just make sure to look for organic, whole green leaf, which is the least processed. They just take the leaf, dry it, and then grind it into powder form. I like this one.
On occasion, I use a little honey or dates. There are some benefits to both and they’re definitely better than uber-processed refined sugar.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend using any sweetener on a regular basis. You want to get your body used to the natural taste of things and break the sugar cravings cycle. Only when you have that under control should you consider adding a sweetener, and again, only on special occasions.
Yes, alcohol has all kinds of sugar in it. I know, it makes me sad too. I love wine and while you might want to talk about the health benefits of the resveratrol in red grapes, the truth is you need to drink gallons of the stuff to get the resveratrol effect, which then cancels out the whole healthy paleo diet thing.
I can’t say that any alcohol is good for you, but I’m also not a die-hard paleo purist who says there’s no way you can drink while being paleo. You can read all about how to drink healthier in my post here.
I’ve definitely cut down on my drinking, and dang, I sleep better, think better, and overall operate so much more efficiently. The good news about reducing your drinking is that when you do indulge, you only need a few sips to get a relaxing effect.
I aim for the purest, most minimally processed cocktails (or wine) when I do drink. Vodka martini or vodka, soda, and lime are usually my go-to’s. You definitely want to avoid all the sugary mixers, fruit juices, and sodas. Those just add insult to injury.
Going Dairy Free
I’ve been dairy free for quite a few years. Research has shown that milk isn't as healthy as we were led to believe growing up. Many cows are given a hormone to increase their milk production and that often makes them sick, which then leads to antibiotic intake. Remember that thing about you are what you eat? Well you are also what you eat, eats too.
Dairy is actually the most common food allergy with 75-80% of adults having a sensitivity. There's also mandated Vitamin D that gets added to the milk so injecting the milk with this is really turning the whole thing into a processed product. I'd much rather get my Vitamin D from all natural, leafy greens.
Most people, myself included, have a hard time saying goodbye to cheese. Vegan nut cheese can be a decent substitute. I have recipes for a tasty smoky cashew chipotle cheese, as well as a vegan queso made easy in the Instant Pot.
Yes, I know it’s not the same. If you must have some cheese, I recommend eating goat cheese. It’s obviously made from a different animal than cow, and people tend to have fewer sensitivities to goat milk. Goat cheese is also less processed, so if you need a fix, I recommend going goat.
Bring on the Fat
Eating paleo fat is not a get out of a healthy diet free card. Paleo fat does not mean twinkies, hot dogs, and nachos. We’re still talking unrefined, unprocessed ingredients. Nuts like almonds, cashews, and walnuts are a great source of healthy fat. You can grind any of these and make your own nut flour to replace refined flour in your recipes or make a healthy nut butter.
Eating these healthy fats will help fill you up while keeping your internal systems operating at full capacity. When I first gave up grains and legumes, I’d find myself still hungry after meals. It wasn’t until I started layering in the healthy fat that I finally felt satisfied after eating and able to go several hours until the next meal.
Fat also helped stabilize my hormones and definitely improved my memory and mental game. I’m a huge fan of Bulletproof’s Brain Octane Oil, distilled from 100% pure coconut oil. It uses the most potent part of the coconut to give you energy. It’s better than plain coconut oil or MCT oil that contains lauric acid.
Cooking with Paleo Oils
Oils are another great source of healthy fats, but all oils are definitely not created equal (read my whole post on best and worst cooking oils here). You want to avoid refined vegetable oils – no matter what diet you’re on, paleo or not. Those highly manufactured oils do nothing for you except add extra chemicals and toxins to your system. Ditch them. And by them, I mean corn oil, canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut oil, and all of their hydrogenated counterparts.
Instead of refined vegetable oils, look for beef tallow or duck fat from reputable producers like Epic. If you can tolerate butter, make sure to use grass-fed butter like Kerrygold. I have a casein allergy, as do most, but I do ok with grass-fed ghee. I like this one.
Other good oils for a paleo diet include coconut, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil. Just make sure to only cook with oils or fats with a high smoke point like avocado oil, butter or ghee.
I think the Paleo diet has gotten a bad rap for eating large T bone steaks at every meal. Yes, protein is an important part of a paleo diet, but you don’t need to eat an hourly steak. I certainly don’t.
A while back people were told that fat and cholesterol were the enemies. That caused the attention to shift to low-fat foods that were uber processed. So people ate more grains and carbs and subsequently started gaining weight and getting sick.
You can eat your meat, fish, and vegetables and feel great. Always look for grass-fed, pastured animals and wild caught fish that are sustainably produced. You don’t want to be eating any hormones or worse yet antibiotics that the animal consumed, so pay attention to sourcing.
I like to go to my farmer’s market to purchase good protein. You can also buy online from US Wellness Meat. They have good grass-fed products that also include bone broth, nuts, butter, ghee, and organ meat. Organ meat is a nutritional powerhouse with so many benefits. Try my creamy paleo beef liver pate to get a good fix. I also like Vital Choice for sustainable seafood and bacon. Oh yes, paleo peeps love their bacon. Of course, that bacon should have no nitrates or nitrites and be free from added sugar like this one.
Overwhelmed with the Paleo Principles?
All of this said, don’t be a slave to any diet. Don’t let me tell you how to eat! No seriously. Pay attention to your body. Go to a functional medicine doctor and get a full blood panel done to see if you have any vitamin or nutrient deficiencies so you can eat the best diet for your body.
I think most people know that processed food, soda, and gooey desserts aren’t doing your mind and body any favors. Eating food in its most natural state is always going to give you fabulous fuel for your day. You just need to listen to the clues your body gives after eating. Be sure to be honest with yourself on what makes you feel good and what depletes you.
I like that the paleo diet focuses on lean protein, lots of green vegetables and healthy fats. I think that will always be a winning combination. How you tweak the details and paleo rules is up to you and your own unique DNA.
Most important, enjoy your food! One of the best ingredients for a meal is a love and happiness, so eat with joy and gratitude for having nourishing food on your plate!
If you want to know exactly what to eat, where to get it and what paleo recipes you can use, check out my Paleo Pantry post.
One-on-One Coaching for Your Diet
If you’d like more help personalizing a diet for you, let me work with you one-on-one to help you feel your best. Having a little extra support to help you get set up can be super helpful.
Whether you want to explore the Paleo diet or simply learn how to make some better choices with your eating, I’m here to help.