Taking the Leap: A Grizzly Guide to Paleo
This one is a monster, grab a coffee (or tea), have a seat and buckle up!
There are a plethora of resources available to the paleo community from books to blogs and everything in between. My goal for this post was to provide a baseline, something akin to a Crossfit intro class, give you the information you need to make an informed decision. Whether that decision be to take the leap and dive into learning all you can about the paleo diet and lifestyle; or be it to take a step back and acknowledge it might not be for you. I’m an extremely analytical person, to the point of often over analyzing. Therefore, I did a lot of research before deciding that Paleo would be a good fit for me, I want to provide you all with the resources to do the same. Paleo guides are like “Goldilocks” some are too short and leave you wanting more, some are so long you get a PhD mailed to you when you finish; I hope this one will be just right. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, much of this information is well documented all over the place, I just want to put it in one place; I’ll do my best to cite as much as possible – feel free to comment if I missed any!
The world paleo, is short for paleolithic, which refers to the prehistoric era in human history covering approximately 2.6 million years. According to wikipedia, “During the Paleolithic [era], humans grouped together in small societies such as bands, and subsisted by gathering plants and hunting or scavenging wild animals(1).” This categorization has never sat well with me, not because it’s incorrect but because of the connotations it has when brought up amongst my friends and family. There is a misconception that because I choose to live in a fashion that emphasizes health and performance that also maximizes my happiness; which just so happens to be called Paleo, I must also forage for my food, reject modern conveniences, and live in a cave. Of course none of this is true, but I don’t like being so quickly categorized as a fanatic or extremist before even explaining myself. So let me explain myself.
The Lazy Caveman has written a great intro to Paleo; what Paleo is and what it is not.
A lifestyle, not a fad diet Believe me when I say that sticking with Paleo and seeing the results you want to see will make you never want to go back to eating insulin-spiking, gut-irritating junk. In addition to diet, there are recommendations on fitness, sleep and stress.
A cure to the problems associated with a wheat, rice, dairy, soy, and corn-based society Most people will read this and say “You’re wrong, I function fine with those things in my diet!” Do you really? Do you know what it’s like to have the energy to do anything, sleep like a baby, recover from workouts twice as fast and not get cranky when you don’t eat for a few hours?
Based on science But not the science you’ll find in most traditional textbooks or medical school programs. It’s a combination of food science, physiology and anthropology. The foods that are recommended are older than the USDA, the food pyramid, and Big Agriculture
Emphasizes food quality This is a big one that a lot of people misconstrue. This lifestyle is not Atkins 2.0. We’re here to emphasize eating whole, real food that comes from a reliable source. We believe in organic fruits and veggies and pastured, grass-fed and wild meats, eggs and fish. Simply put, your food should make you healthier and you should feel good eating it.
Paleo is not:
An argument against vegetarianism/veganism I completely respect the desire to not kill and eat animals. And if you’re happy with your weight, digestion, musculature, athletic performance, biomarkers, stress levels, sleep, mood and energy, then stick with what you’re doing. You may be one of the very few people whose genetics trump anything you put in your mouth. But if you have doubts or feel that maybe your diet is making you ill, then you owe it to yourself to consider Paleo.
An avenue for pushing expensive products and supplements I was a slave once to whey and casein protein powders, fat burner pills, useless herbs and miracle drugs. I’ve finally figured out that you really can get everything you need from food and sunlight. The only things I may recommend are fish oil and a Vitamin D supplement on cloudy days.
Impossible to stick to If you are patient and really pay attention to the program, the results will become your fuel, and your desire to cheat will reduce dramatically. For many of us, food is addictive and has emotional ties, and breaking both the mental and physical stranglehold it has on you is part of the Paleo lifestyle.
Expensive I totally fell for this pitfall early on, but quickly realized that the Paleo lifestyle can work on any budget. You may have to make some compromises in quality of food, but you can still easily stick to it.
Open to interpretation There are foods that fit with the science, and foods that don’t. The only things that will change that are your goals, be they fat loss, athletic performance, or managing an autoimmune condition.
This is a great summary by TLC, but I have a few points of my own to add. The first is more of an extension on the lifestyle comment. You really have to live Paleo, you can’t just eat Paleo, it’s a big decision that will trickle into every facet of your life. Before I went Paleo I was very dismissive of it’s claims, citing more modern health and nutrition resources, it took a long time for me to even take it seriously as a premise. Now that I’ve been Paleo I wish I could travel back 4 years and write myself this post. Second, I would add that Paleo is incredibly flexible, he comments on it from a budgetary perspective, but I wanted to point out from a tastes and preference standpoint – anything you enjoy in non-Paleo life you can still enjoy in Paleo life, it will just look a little different. Sure you’ll bake with almond flour instead of wheat flour; or you will switch out rice for riced cauliflower, but at the end of the day you can be as creative as you care to be and never feel like you’re missing out. And finally, his point that Paleo is not open to interpretation I think is a bit hasty, yes there is strong science around gluten, healthy fats, and quality protein choices – but there are some grey areas, specifically surrounding starches and dairy. People confuse Paleo with Ketosis, Atkins, or a low carb approach – there are plenty of carbohydrates available to Paleo eaters, the work is up to you to figure out how your body responds to them; personally I took 30 days and slowly lowered carbohydrates to see how my body would respond, this convinced me that I am not a person who can eat a sweet potato every day and reach my goals. You might be the kind of person that could. The same is true for pasture fed, fermented dairy – you might tolerate it just fine, in which case there is no hard science that it will destroy your insides. Paleo can be tailored around the edges but the centerpiece is immovable.
Another great, but lengthy, intro to Paleo, which was my main motivation when first beginning was the one published by Nerd Fitness. This post is a monster, with a lot more information and backstory about modern agriculture and human biochemistry. A subject I personally find fascinating but you might not. In any case he posted a great video that describes the process by which carbohydrates wreak havoc on your body, I’ve posted it too. I’ve stuck to explaining what Paleo is, he’s gone a step further and explained why Paleo is what it is. I highly suggest a full read if this subject interests you. PLUS, he’s got super sweet lego picture to go with his post – I wish I were that awesome.
To conclude this segment, I want to cite his section referring to the criticisms of the diet and his responses, because this section is the one that took my doubts and turned them on their heads. At one point or another I had each and every one of these questions and criticisms, mostly they were just excuses not to have to change and try something new. One of my favorite sayings is, “There will always be an excuse, but there will not always be a reason.” So if you’re even thinking about Paleo, there’s clearly a reason – don’t make an excuse.
If you’re not careful, this type of diet can get expensive. But as we know, with a little research, we can make eating healthy incredibly affordable. Admittedly, while I recommend eating organic fruits and veggies, free range chicken, and grass-fed beef, these products can be a bit more expensive in conventional stores due to the processes needed to get them there. However, farmers’ markets often have well-priced meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables that are locally grown and incredibly healthy. Even if you’re spending a little more money than before, when you factor in your overall health, spending a few extra bucks on healthier food now is a wiser investment than thousands later on costly medical expenses.
It’s tough to eat Paleo in today’s society! A normal breakfast in the US consists of bagels, muffins, toast, cereal, or donuts. NONE of those things have any nutritional value, they’re loaded with tons of carbs and calories, and are composed of processed grains that can jack up your stomach. Eating out at restaurants can get tough, and “paleo-approved” is not something you’ll usually find on a menu. Eating in this manner requires careful planning and tons of willpower, but it can be done if you’re dedicated.
“But cavemen had short lifespans! We live way longer now” – I agree with you here, but only because you don’t have to deal with the dangers of living back then. Give those hunter-gatherers access to modern technology and medicine and I bet their lifespan would easily surpass ours.
Lastly, there are those that claim that all of this “we’re not designed to eat grains” stuff is garbage – that plenty of societies around the world consume grains and aren’t fat and unhealthy like us. The China Study is frequently cited when criticizing the Paleo Diet – here are some essays, reviews, and a debate between the author of the Paleo Diet and the author of the China Study that might help you reach a decision.
But this is just a meat diet, and eating all meat is bad! First of all, consider your sources and do your research before jumping to the conclusions. Next, this is not an all meat diet or zero carb diet like Atkins. The biggest component of the Paleo Diet? Vegetables! Every meal in a true Paleo diet has a moderate amount of healthy (properly raised chicken, grass-fed beef, hormone free, etc.) meat combined with nutritious veggies or a moderate amount of fruit.
1.McClellan (2006). Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-8360-1. Page 6–12
Eat this NOT that
Eat this NOT that
If you’ve ever read a Men’s Health magazine you’ve seen this phrase, I used to live by it, substituting old standby’s for increasingly processed lower calorie/lower fat options. This section is all about what Paleo recommends and what Paleo will change for you.
What do I eat?
Meat, Fish & Eggs I put this one first because it lands itself on the bottom of most Paleo food pyramids. I was tempted to put vegetables first, from a volume standpoint your diet should include at least a 1:1 ratio of meat to vegetables if not greater. The reason Paleo keeps people so full and lowers total calorie intake is because vegetables are so damn filling, and combined with a reasonable portion of protein its almost impossible to overeat. This will of course depend on your goals and implementation, but high quality protein sources are crucial to successfully living Paleo.
Vegetables As I mentioned above, vegetables, vegetables, vegetables! They should be everywhere, they are ubiquitous in the Paleo lifestyle. Think green, when shopping for veggies green is your power color, it gives you strength like Popeye. I eat more green vegetables than I know what to do with (and anyone else I know); typically broccoli and kale, but also spinach, chard, celery and whatever else is in season or looks yummy. Secondarily, add some color. Generically speaking, colored vegetables have a different niche and provide different nutritional resources; think squash, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, and peppers.
Nuts & Seeds Nuts & seeds are delicious, satiating, and a great source of minerals and nutrients. They are also dangerous when not controlled, they are incredibly nutrient dense (calories included) and it’s very easy to consume 1000 calories of nuts without even realizing it. They are however a great snack and an awesome garnish or side-dish and should be a part of your lifestyle.
Fruits & Starches Fruits and starches are a bit trickier. These are up to the individual caveman to figure out for themselves. Of course they’re allowed and should be eaten, but how much and how often is up to you. Personally I shy away from the excess carbohydrate because my body is very sensitive to any excess, if you are an endurance athlete or workout multiple times a day, you’d be hard pressed to keep up your activity level without them. I should also mention that sweet potato is just about the only root vegetable that is well accepted in Paleo, white potato and legumes are often shunned.
What can’t I eat?
First – don’t think of it as can’t, think of it as don’t have to. In the end what Paleo cuts out are non-nutritious, toxin filled, artificial food sources that your body is not designed to consume. So consider yourself free from their burden, not burdened by your freedom.
Wheat & Other Grains This is the big one folks. Wheat sucks, not only does it introduce a high GI load, it also contains lectins which are toxins. Also – it’s in everything, because modern agricultural practices have made it cheap and ubiquitous. You’ll find yourself asking at restaurants and scrutinizing ingredients lists; and you’ll be surprised where it shows up (like a package of almonds). Gluten-free products aren’t as bad, but still contain the same GI load that gluten products do because usually all that gets replaced rice for wheat. This removes rice, oats, quinoa and all grains, even whole grains. This is where most people stop reading and close the page. Don’t be that guy.
Dairy I’ve touched on this previously, but dairy is a bit of a grey area. Humans are the only animals to drink other animals milk. That should be one of the first clues that dairy in our diets is a bit strange. Most people are raised on dairy, yogurt, cheese and milk are cornerstones of most childhood memories (think cookies and milk, grilled cheese, and yogurt in your lunchbox). My point is that most people don’t realize how they feel when “off” dairy, because it’s been there since the start. You’d be surprised how dairy free feels.
Sugar & Processed Foods This one should be the easiest to defend because most mainstream diets will already have this in your mind. Long story short sugar gets put in everything because humans are programmed to respond to it, our brains love sugar and will have you eat it to the point of sickness. It will also put on fat faster than just about anything else, it will mess with your blood sugar and therefore insulin, which in turn will mess with all kinds of bodily functions. Get rid of it. The same goes for processed foods, chemicals are bad mmkay?
Is It Right For Me?
Is Paleo Right For You
By now you have a really solid baseline of Paleo knowledge. Understanding the philosophy and mindset behind it will be crucial to this next section. Now the task is to take a good hard look at yourself. This lifestyle is not for everybody, but odds are if you’re even reading this then somewhere in your mind you have doubts about your current state of being. Either you don’t feel healthy, you have an auto-immune condition, you don’t sleep well or have energy problems throughout a day, or you simply want to look and perform better. This is where Paleo flourishes, in a nutshell the goal is to nourish your body, avoid toxins, and eat real food; simple enough right?
Know your limits and the kind of person you are. Personally – I’m a diver, I go head first at everything I do, like this blog, one day I didn’t have a blog, the next day I had a blog. When I get to the ocean I don’t wade in, I run in and get a wave to the face. If that’s you then grab a garbage bag, clear out your kitchen and go to the store. Cold turkey is tough, most people refer to a “paleo flu” as your body acclimates to new sources of energy, but it is the quickest way to become Paleo. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum and like to introduce change slowly and methodically, do that. I’d recommend getting rid of just grains first, then after a few weeks, try to cut out processed foods, and maybe a few weeks later you get rid of dairy. Then in 6 weeks you’re Paleo. The final option is an 80% method, which I personally disagree with. The idea is to eat 100% paleo 80% of the time to see the benefits. However the affect of gluten on the body can persist for upwards of a week, so if you cheat once a week, to your body, you’re not Paleo; and thus I wouldn’t call you Paleo either. If it helps you acclimate, great, but I wouldn’t recommend the 80% method as a long term approach.
Finally I’ll say, Paleo is not for everyone. There is a lot of effort to being Paleo in a society obsessed with processed foods whose government subsidizes grain production to the point of over-production. You also need at least some time every week to cook, I’ve learned to love cooking, my time in the kitchen, and being connected with my food. If you travel 6 days a week or don’t have a kitchen; do some research and see what other people in your situation have discovered; paleohacks is a great resource for this. If you can’t give it 100% effort, then it might not be for you.
Take the Leap
Take the Leap!
You decided you’ve got the stuff, you can handle Paleo and want to leap in. Great! Where do you go from here? Well I’d start by going to the Kitchen – not to make food, but to rid yourself of the old non-Paleo you. This will feel very wasteful, if you have a local food bank check to see what you can donate (I didn’t end up throwing away very much). First start in the pantry, get rid of those boxes of pasta, bags of flour and sugar, cans of beans, jars of peanut butter and anything else that you don’t have to eat anymore. Next move to the refrigerator, start with the sauces, get rid of the salad dressings, barbecue sauces and soy sauce. Get rid of the dairy, throw out the cheese, milk, yogurt and butter. Now onto the freezer, get rid of anything that you can microwave, pizza’s, pot-sticker’s, frozen dinners – all gone. Throw out the ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt. Next take a step back and realize that you’ve got 3 boxes of cereal on top of the fridge, and a sleeve of cookies in the freezer; ditch those too!
Whew! Feels good doesn’t it? Starting fresh. Now, grab a pad and paper and make a shopping list. Here’s how I split it up. I shop at three places; Costco, Dierbergs (regular grocery store chain), and Whole Foods. I move from largest to smallest.
Start at Costco:
- Large bag white onions
- Bag of 6 avocado’s
- (Sweet potato can be found here too if you know you’ll eat them)
- Large carton of blueberries when in season
- Skin on, bone in, chicken thighs
- Whole roaster chickens
- Whole pork loin (chop up 1/2 for pork chops, use 1/2 as a pork roast)
- Guacamole (wholly mole 100% paleo, 100% delicious)
- Coconut water
- Frozen chicken breasts (great when you need a meal in a hurry)
- Frozen broccoli (see above)
- Bacon (my Costco has uncured bacon)
- Nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts all whole, raw, and unprocessed)
- Almond butter
Regular Grocery Store:
- Kale & Greens that spoil quicker
- Tomato, peppers, chili, garlic (when I have a recipe)
- Sweet potato (I like to have 1 or 2 around just in case)
- Squash + speciality seasonal vegetables
- Eggs (Eggland’s Best 18-pack, usually 2)
- Coconut Milk (full fat!)
- Canned fish (salmon is my favorite, in oil!)
- Pumpkin puree
- Grassfed Beef (only place in town I’ve found it)
- Bulk foods aisle (trail mixes, whole nuts, competitively priced)
- Shredded coconut
- Coconut flour
- Cold pressed coffee
- Dark (>90%) chocolate (only place I’ve found it without soy lecithin)
This is just my take on Paleo shopping, obviously you will have to adapt and find out what works for you – generic shopping lists can be found here: Robb Wolf Paleo On a Budget Whole 9 Primal Blueprint Balanced Bites
Troubleshooting & F.A.Q.'s
Troubleshooting & F.A.Q.
This section is a tricky one, because the troubleshooting is very personalized, and hard to judge without knowing who you are and what you’ve been up to. Instead I want to provide you resources to troubleshoot your own experiences.
First is a recent blog post by Whole9 entitled, “Six Reasons the Whole30 Didn’t Work For You” which discusses personal dedication, patience for the lifestyle to take hold, focusing on the right things, and balancing expectations.
Second is a resource provided by “Paleo Jesus” Robb Wolf aptly titled, “Troubleshooting Guides” which are individualized based on your goals and present simple flow charts to address specific issues.
Lastly, my own attempt at a troubleshooting guide – common problems with diet in general and transitioning from a place of inefficiency to a balanced lifestyle. Also addresses issues with transitioning into Paleo and fat phobia. Paleostasis
Paleo in a Tweet
No grains, no dairy, no added sugar, nothing processed. Grass-fed meat, seasonal vegetables, nuts, some starches, few fruits.**
**This will vary based on your own personal implementation, but is an easy place to start.