An Introduction to the Paleo Way of Life
First and foremost, notice that the title above includes “the Paleo way of life” and NOT “the Paleo diet”. To some, this may be nitpicking and all in the name of semantics. To those that actually follow the Paleo way of life though, they will be quick to tell you it is anything but a diet.
Paleo is all the rage in many circles over the past few years, and just like anything that grows quickly popular, it has earned itself a bit of controversy as well. For every person who swears by living their life by the guidelines of Paleo, there will be another who claims quite ferociously just how wrong Paleo followers are.
Some of you may have just read the above two paragraphs, read the word “Paleo” multiple times, and scratched your head saying, “what the hell is Paleo?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone, as while popular, Paleo is still anything but mainstream.
So what is Paleo anyways?
Paleo is short for Paleolithic – the era tens of thousands of years ago when the world humans lived in was vastly different to the world humans live in today. Obviously there were no cell phones, laptops, cars and other pieces of modern technology which we now take for granted.
There was also no pizza, pasta, cereal, bread, cakes and other delicious goodies that modern humans love to eat so much. While this might sound like a negative, as far as science can prove, the diseases which modern humans suffer from today were also non-existent. Humans might not have lived as long as they do today, but when they expired it was due to natural causes (sometimes from being eaten by another animal!), rather than the entirely preventable diseases afflicting the human race today.
Believers in the Paleo way of life, believe that a large number of the world’s health problems are caused by the foods that most humans are eating. In particular, the foods humans are eating that are entirely unnatural, or that Paleolithic humans of the past never had access to. Foods which contain ingredients you’d need a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry to pronounce correctly. Foods which are artificially flavored, and contain no whole ingredients. Foods that contain ingredients one couldn’t feasibly grow, source or hunt on their own, if they were so inclined and had the time to do so.
Take a look around you, and see how many people passing by you are overweight, or even obese. Then take a look at the types of foods these people are eating. While it’s easy to see a correlation between the guy who eats fast food every day for lunch and his expansive waist line, people are more resistant to the correlation when it comes to other seemingly healthy foods. Sandwiches, spaghetti and soy all fall into the category of foods that cause people to gain weight and lead unhealthy lifestyle, yet are still touted as healthy foods. At the root of the problem, is the fact that most people simply don’t want to admit that their favorite foods are bad for them.
What foods are banned by the Paleo way of life?
While most Paleo followers tend to live their life by making good food choices, rather than demonizing poor ones, it is much easier for the uninitiated to focus on what’s not allowed instead. One simple way to describe the Paleo way of living, is that it excludes any foods that weren’t around until mass agriculture was introduced into our society. This includes foods like:
Grains – This is by far the biggest banned food group, and the one that causes most people to be wary of attempting a Paleo lifestyle. People over the years have come to love their grains, and most governments recommend you eat them, almost by the truckload. Have a look at the US government’s food pyramid, and you’ll see that they recommend grains make up the majority of our diet, with 6-11 servings per day. Then take a look at obesity rates in the US, as well as grain consumption in the US, and put 2 and 2 together.
Grains include wheat, rye, barley, rice and even corn. Yes, corn is not a vegetable, but a grain. Flour is also produced from grain products and is to be doubly avoided, as it is refined grain. Many health “experts” tout the benefits of whole grains or whole wheat, and while maybe marginally better than processed grains, still fall into the same category.
Wheat and Gluten – Yes, wheat and gluten are part of the grain category, but warrant being addressed separately. Many people who have never heard of Paleo, are aware of a recent trend of being gluten free. Gluten is a protein contained in wheat endosperm among other grains. People with Celiac disease are wholly intolerant of gluten and become extremely ill at the slightest exposure to it.
The average person is more tolerant to gluten, but that doesn’t mean it’s without side effects. Gluten contributes to gut inflammation, weight gain, lowered immune function among many other nasty side effects. Gluten is the number one enemy of people who follow a Paleo lifestyle.
Sugar – Did you know that up until around 100-200 years ago or so, sugar was a real luxury all over the world? Even though it is incredibly cheap today, people have not been consuming sugar in the amounts they currently do for very long at all. The problem with sugar, apart from the fact that the refined version has absolutely zero nutritional value, is that it causes a massive insulin response. Your body has to work double time to react to the sudden blow it’s dealt when you consume sugar.
Many Paleo followers still sparingly consume honey or natural maple syrup, but any sort of refined sugar is absolutely forbidden. Followers of Paleo who are trying to lose fat, may even reduce their fruit intake, because of the natural sugars it contains, which also causes an insulin response, though not as drastic as refined sugars.
Dairy – There is a bit of a debate on whether dairy is allowed for Paleo or not. Some argue that it comes from animals, the same animals which are allowed to be eaten. Others argue that most humans can’t tolerate dairy as well as they think they can. There is a sub-category of Paleo, known as Primal, which is basically Paleo, but with dairy allowed if you’re tolerant of it.
Most people who want to give the Paleo lifestyle a try should eliminate dairy entirely, and then slowly add small amounts back in and see how they feel after consuming it.
Legumes – This means beans, peas and peanuts. Yes, peanuts are actually a legume and not a nut like the cashew or the almond. These are banned mostly on the basis that they can’t be eaten safely without cooking and that they have high amounts of lectins and other antinutrients.
Legumes, while not nearly as bad for you as wheat or sugar, do have a nasty habit of sucking the vitamins and nutrients out of the rest of the food you eat, making all that healthy eating for nothing.
Unhealthy oils – This includes soybean oil, any type of vegetable oil, peanut oil, palm oil, cottonseed oil and many others. There are far too many oils to list here, so a better way to determine if an oil is allowed or not is to ask: is it a coconut, avocado, MCT, olive or macadamia nut oil? If not, don’t eat it.
Processed foods – Anything that has been processed, whether minimally or to the point it is unrecognizable is a no-no. Whether you have heard of the Paleo way of life or not, most people already know that processed foods are bad for them, and they shouldn’t be eating them.
So what can I eat? What’s left if all those foods are banned?
Great question, and here is the fun part, because instead of talking about what you can’t eat, we’re going to talk about all the things you can. There are still a ton of great food choices left if you want to follow Paleo.
Meat – Paleo is 100% not suitable for vegetarians or vegans, because it is essential to eat meat. Pretty much any type of meat is great, as long as it hasn’t been processed. This means beef, chicken, fish, pork, lamb, seafood – almost any type of meat you can think of.
Meats you would want to avoid though would be hot dogs, and sausages which have been processed. There are still many types of Paleo-friendly sausages and bacon though, so you definitely don’t need to give those up. For most people following the Paleo way of life, meat makes up a decent portion of their caloric intake, and it is very rare for someone who follows Paleo to be low in protein.
To take things to the next level, choose grass-fed or pasture-fed meats whenever possible.
Eggs – There has always been a big debate on eggs, and scientists seem to flip flop on whether they are healthy or not. First they are healthy for you, then they are bad for you, then only the whites are good for you, but the yolks are bad. Paleo folks know the truth, and we eat the whole egg. Just like with meats though, pasture raised is best.
Vegetables – Most people who follow Paleo eat tons of vegetables – volume wise (though not calorically) much more so than they do meat. Just about all vegetables are perfectly fine, and you’ll learn to love the taste of fresh vegetables on your plate at every meal.
The best advice is to pick your favorite vegetables and stock up on a bunch of them. If you hate spinach, don’t eat it! Just eat the ones you like, and lots of them. You’ll soon learn tons of new ways to prepare your favorite veggies, so you don’t become easily bored of them.
Sweet potatoes or yams – These are the best friend of a Paleo follower, as they will probably be your largest source of carbohydrates. While vegetables are technically a carbohydrate, they are not as usable by our bodies as sweet potatoes or yams are. If you are trying to lose fat, then you would be wise to limit your sweet potatoes (and carbohydrate intake as a whole), although if you’re an athlete, then you might be eating these more than once a day.
Fruit – Fruit is as natural as can be, and followers of Paleo love fruit – nature’s candy. That said, most are careful not to overdo it with fruit, because of the amount of natural sugar included which can mean huge spikes in insulin. Those trying to lose weight should limit their fruit intake, but those who are already lean should feel free to indulge every now and then.
Healthy fats – On Paleo, a good percentage of your calories will come from fat. It sounds strange, but eating healthy fat actually helps you lose weight, instead of making you fat.
Healthy fats include anything from coconuts (coconut oil and coconut milk), avocados, nuts, olive oil and grass-fed butter. Cook with them, eat them raw or plain, just make sure you get a lot of them.
Does Paleo food taste good?
It most certainly can, although if you’re a lousy cook, there’s probably not much helping that. Still, most people enjoy bacon and eggs for breakfast, a big salad with chicken for lunch and a juicy steak with a sweet potato for dinner. It doesn’t even sound like being on a “diet” at all, does it?
As you become more familiar with Paleo, it will be much easier to make the proper food choices while shopping. The easiest way to do your food shopping, is to simply avoid the entire middle section of the grocery store. Sure every grocery store is different, but most place the meat and produce around the perimeter, with all the boxed goods in the center aisles. If it comes in a box, and won’t go bad in a week, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
Another great thing about Paleo, is people that couldn’t cook before often learn to cook Paleo food pretty well. Since Paleo food has minimal ingredients and is minimally processed, it isn’t too difficult at all to whip up something tasty.
What results should I expect when I go Paleo?
You almost certainly will become leaner. This is true even if you are already lean, but doubly true if you are overweight. Some people can lose as much as 20 pounds in their first month of doing Paleo, with continued (albeit slower) weight loss after that.
You’ll also feel incredible! You will have a cleaner, more sustained energy throughout the day, less fatigue and no crashes from spikes of high carb lunches where you feel like you need a nap afterwards. Many people also report glowing, clearer skin, improved mental clarity and the ability to focus longer.
Athletes can see strength and endurance gains as well, although they will need to be careful to up their carb intake with the right types of carbs like sweet potatoes, fruit and coconut water to keep up with their energy needs.
I tried Paleo and it made me feel like crap! What’s wrong with me?
Plain and simple: your diet up until you tried Paleo. One of the few downsides of Paleo, is that it can be difficult to adjust to for the first couple of weeks. Your body is used to eating refined and processed carbs all day, sugar and other things that aren’t good for it. It has come to depend on those things for fuel.
When you switch to Paleo, despite making much healthier food choices, there is still an adjustment period. You might feel sluggish, slow and tired for the first two weeks. This is normal, and those who can fight through it, will see far improved levels of energy once they break through.
This happens because your body goes from being fueled by mostly carbohydrates, to being fueled by mostly protein and fat. Once your body is fueled by protein and fat, it becomes a fat burning machine and you will lean out at a rapid pace and feel like you can conquer the world. If you’ve started Paleo and it feels like it isn’t working, just give it a little bit more time to do its thing.
Is Paleo low carb?
By definition, no. In practice though, most people who follow Paleo tend to eat low carb. This is because there are far more options available for protein and fat on Paleo than there are for carbs. Most people, especially those who aren’t constantly exercising, don’t need anywhere near the amount of carbs they think they do. A very minimal amount of carbs (even less than 100 grams per day) should be more than sufficient.
If you are working out all the time though, training for a sport, or doing something very physically strenuous, then just make sure to grab a piece of fruit or a sweet potato to fuel yourself for the activities ahead.
What happens if I break Paleo?
This is the beauty of Paleo. It’s not like being a vegetarian or a vegan which is often based on morals and ethics. A vegan would not only get very sick if you gave them meat, they would become angry for having their morals broken. With Paleo, it’s not like that.
When you break Paleo, the worst thing that happens is that you feel like crap for several hours, and maybe even into the next day depending on how much junk food you ate. While this seems bad, it often serves as a good reminder as to why you eat Paleo in the first place.
Most people walk around every day, not knowing that they actually feel terrible. Their diets has become so commonplace in their lives, and they’ve become used to feeling constantly awful, that it becomes the norm for them. It isn’t until they start a Paleo lifestyle that they realize what feeling good all the time actually feels like.
Are you ready to try Paleo?
It doesn’t take much to get started. In fact, unlike almost all the other fad diets out there, there’s nothing to sell you to get started, and very little way to make money off of “dieters”. Most people who are involved in Paleo communities online, do so because they have seen firsthand how much it has improved their lives, not because they are interested in cashing in on it monetarily.
The best way to get started, is to throw away all the food in your house that doesn’t comply with Paleo, to remove temptation. Better yet, donate all the food so it doesn’t go to waste. Then go out and replace your food supplies with good, healthy Paleo food. Follow the program strictly for a whole month, and see how you feel.
Most people lose weight, gain energy and become much happier than ever before – all from the foods that they had access to this whole time.