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So What Exactly Is Paleo? An Explanation Of The Diet Everyone Is Talking About

what-is-paleo

Paleo is the diet that has been taking health and fitness communities by storm.

It’s driving grocery stores and your favorite restaurant to offer new food options. And it’s creating some incredible transformations, leaving its followers happier — and healthier — than ever before.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the paleo diet, whether from the media or your family and friends.

But do you want to truly understand it? With all the hype out there, sometimes it’s tough to separate the truth from fiction.

If you’ve been curious about what the Paleo diet is and how it could work for you, keep reading!

What Is The Paleo Diet?

The term “Paleo diet” gets thrown around a lot these days, but there are plenty of misconceptions about exactly what it is. Scientist and writer Dr. Loren Cordain popularized the term back in 2002. His book, The Paleo Diet, launched a movement by describing a new approach to nutrition and health, based on his lifetime of scientific research.

A key thing to understand: Not everyone who follows a Paleo diet eats exactly the same foods. At its root, the Paleo diet is a framework for healthier eating. It’s more flexible than a super strict “diet.”

The idea?

To mimic how our ancestors ate before the agricultural revolution. Because we’ve changed our diets so drastically since then, our bodies haven’t evolved yet to thrive under newer foods (like grains).

Going Paleo turns back the clock by ditching grains, sugars, and other processed foods to better align with how our ancestors used to eat.

How To Start The Paleo Diet

Intrigued?

Great! Now you’re probably wondering how to get started.

The typical western diet, which is loaded with grains, carbohydrates, and countless processed foods, is pretty much the exact opposite of a healthy Paleo diet.

A big reason for this: the USDA’s food pyramid (now replaced by the slightly better “MyPlate” guidelines) is being steadily dismantled by modern scientific research. Mainstream nutrition organizations have told us to eat lots of grains and to limit certain fats that are actually good for us. Their recommendations are based on outdated (and in some cases flawed) data.

What To Eat On The Paleo Diet

Here are three major categories to focus on:

Lean Proteins

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors appreciated the importance of animal protein, and so should we.

Protein gives us the raw materials necessary to maintain – and build – muscle. But it does a lot more than that. It’s involved in “virtually every cellular process,” whether it’s transcribing DNA or controlling cell division and your metabolism.

Carbohydrates are processed extremely quickly in the body. When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar shoots up, much in the same way it does after eating sugar.

You get a boost of energy before it all comes crashing down once your body secretes the hormone insulin. Doing this too often can lead to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other major health issues.

Protein, on the other hand, is processed slowly. It offers a much steadier source of energy — not to mention, it keeps you feeling full for longer than carbohydrates, which can be helpful for weight loss.

Focus on lean Paleo proteins like:

  • Lean beef
  • Poultry and eggs
  • Seafood
  • Turkey
  • Wild game (deer, elk, etc.)

Fruits And Vegetables

One thing most nutritionists agree on is the importance of fruits and vegetables. The Paleo diet is no exception.

High-quality produce forms the foundation of any healthy Paleo diet. The more servings you can get a day of these (barring just a few exceptions), the better.

Most Paleo dieters follow an “unlimited vegetable” rule. At a bare minimum, they try to have a serving or two with every meal.

Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale are a good base to build on. You can always mix it up with broccoli, beets, cauliflower, or whatever else is in season. Embracing different colors will expose you to a variety of nutrients!

Fruits are fine in moderation. The only thing to watch out for here is the sugar content We don’t want to have so much that we trigger serious insulin responses (like we would after eating a bunch of carbohydrates.)

Some fruits contain a lot more natural sugar than others. A large banana, for instance, has 17 grams of sugar, while a cup of raspberries only has four.

Focus on lower-sugar fruits like:

  • Apricots
  • Berries
  • Cantaloupes
  • Figs
  • Grapefruit
  • Guavas
  • Kiwis
  • Melons

If you’re switching to the Paleo diet to lose a lot of weight, you can cut out fruits entirely until you get closer to your target weight.

Healthy Fats

The term “healthy fat” might sound like an oxymoron to you, but not all fats are created equal.

The typical western diet is full of the wrong kinds of fats. Vegetable oils, hydrogenated fats, and trans fats are a health disaster. They’ve been linked to everything from inflammation and obesity to an increased risk of heart disease.

Healthy fats, however, help strengthen your heart and give your brain the fuel it needs.

Here are some of the best Paleo-approved healthy fats:

  • Avocado
  • Coconut (and coconut oil)
  • Fats from lean animal protein (seafood, poultry, beef, etc.)
  • Nuts/seeds
  • Olive (and olive oil)

These healthy fats work well in seasonings, sauces, and on their own. They are also fantastic energy sources, because they’re the most calorically-dense Paleo foods — which means they’ll keep you feeling full while you get through your job, family time, and workouts.

What Not To Eat On The Paleo Diet

Now that we’ve covered which foods to focus on, let’s turn our attention to what not to eat on the Paleo diet.

Remember, the idea here is to imitate what our ancestors ate before the agricultural revolution. That means the following foods are out:

Grains

Grains are staple foods in the typical western diet. Imagine someone having cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Seems like a realistic scenario, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing. By the time most grains make their way into our mouths, they’ve been processed heavily. Someone has to grow the plants (often spraying them with herbicides and other chemicals), harvest them, and grind them into something edible. After all that, we still have to cook them to make them edible.

Your body processes grain rapidly, which spikes your blood sugar and (if you do it often enough) can make you insulin-resistant. For comparison, eating a bowl of cornflakes has a more dramatic effect on your blood sugar than a Mars bar does!

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While grains do contain nutrients, they are not as nutrient-dense as lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. On the Paleo diet, we want to get the best nutrient bang for our buck. How can we get the most nutrients out of a limited number of calories? By swapping grains for Paleo foods.

Finally, grains contain anti-nutrients like gluten and lectins, which can damage your intestinal lining, disrupt your digestion, and even trigger autoimmune conditions.

Most Paleo dieters stay away from the following grains:

  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Wheat and/or wheat products (like flour)

Other Carbohydrates

Avoiding grains will drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake. But we also have to consider other carbohydrate sources, like sugars and starches.

Sugars are a huge problem in the typical modern diet. They’re in everything from our morning coffees, to the ketchup we have with lunch and the chocolate bar we have on the way home from work.

The average American consumes over 60 pounds of added sugar a year! You know the “sugar rush?” You’re energized for a few minutes, then you crash as your system floods with insulin. Excessive sugar has been linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, accelerated aging, and memory and cognitive deficiencies. Not to mention it’s addictive!

Paleo dieters avoid processed foods to reduce their sugar intake. Sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) is popping up in more and more unlikely sources. You might not think you’d find it in certain foods, but check the labels and prepare to be shocked.

Beans and legumes are another no-go, because cooking them doesn’t destroy all the saponins, lectins, and phytic acid. All of these compounds are designed to protect the beans and legumes from being eaten. They can limit mineral absorption and wreak havoc on your intestinal tract.

We also want to watch out for potatoes. This topic is controversial in the Paleo community, as some people don’t see a problem with them. But the most conservative approach is to skip them. They may not be as harmful as grains and sugars — but because they’re basically pure carbohydrates with limited nutrients, better alternatives are available.

Dairy

I know, I know. It’s the question you’ve been waiting to ask. “Can I have cheese on the Paleo diet?”

Sorry!

Humans didn’t eat dairy products until the agricultural revolution when we domesticated cows. Although dairy is a decent nutrient source, it contains other compounds that can lead to health issues.

For one, dairy is extremely “insulinogenic,” which means it spikes your blood sugar (and causes a serious insulin response) after you consume it. These are exactly the kinds of spikes we want to avoid for more sustainable energy.

Dairy products can also interfere with proper digestion. Sixty-five percent of the world’s population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Casein, a dairy milk protein with a similar structure to gluten, can also cause inflammation and digestive troubles.

Camel Milk: A Notable Paleo Exception

Dairy may be off-limits, but you can get creative and explore an interesting alternative: camel milk.

With a taste similar to cow milk (although some say it’s subtler), it’s still sweet and creamy enough to get that taste you’re looking for. It’s been consumed throughout the Arab world for thousands of years.

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What makes camel milk different?

It’s much better for your blood sugar, for one. Drinking cow milk spikes your blood sugar and floods your system with insulin. But camel milk has the opposite effect. Several studies found that it actually improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.

While the sugars and proteins in cow milk cause inflammation (an immune system response), camel milk is anti-inflammatory. That makes it much healthier for the body.

Last but not least, camel milk is easier to digest! Camel milk has a lower lactose content than cow milk. It also lacks the problematic A2 casein protein. This makes it a feasible alternative for those with lactose intolerance and cow milk allergies.

Health Benefits Of The Paleo Diet

All of this sounds great — but does the Paleo diet actually work?

Absolutely!

Although this diet is relatively new, it is growing increasingly popular. More scientists than ever are willing to explore the effects of following an ancestral health framework. They’re conducting studies all the time – and publishing exciting results.

People have reported more energy, weight loss, better digestion, and less aching joints and other anti-inflammatory issues — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot can change if you focus on eating real food and cutting out all the processed junk.

With that said, here are three major areas where the Paleo diet can benefit your health:

Preventing Diabetes

Did you know that over 29 million Americans (more than 9 percent) have type 2 diabetes?

It’s true — and it’s only becoming more common. Pass someone on the street today, and there’s a good chance they’re at least pre-diabetic.

We’re simply feeding our bodies more carbohydrates and sugars than they can handle. For many people, this is a pathway to insulin resistance and then an eventual diabetes diagnosis.

Eating Paleo helps you avoid this endless cycle of blood sugar spikes and insulin floods. The research bears this out:

  • One study separated participants into two groups (one followed a Paleo diet, the other followed a “diabetes diet” in accordance with mainstream dietary guidelines) and found the Paleo group had better glycemic control (and lost more weight) after three months.
  • Another study divided 29 patients into two groups (one Paleo, the other Mediterranean diet) and noted significantly more glucose tolerance in the Paleo group after 12 weeks.
  • A third study put 9 healthy individuals on a Paleo diet and found that they significantly increased insulin sensitivity in just 10 days.

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Cardiovascular Health

Eating Paleo is also good for your heart. The combination of nutrient-dense produce, lean protein, and healthy fats strikes just the right balance.

Here are just a few studies of interest:

  • In just two months, eight people switched from a traditional western diet (high in processed foods) to Paleo, and increased their levels of interleukin-10 (a signaling molecule secreted by immune cells) by 35 percent. This is a big deal because scientists believe high interleukin-10 levels fight inflammation and create a “protective effect” for blood vessels.
  • In the third study from the previous section, the participants decreased total cholesterol by 16 percent, LDL (bad) cholesterol by 22 percent, and triglycerides by 35 percent — all in just 10 days!

Weight Loss

The Paleo diet is a great option if you’re looking to lose weight. Because Paleo foods are so dense in nutrients, it doesn’t take many calories to fill up on them. Throw in lean protein and healthy fats, and you have everything you need to stay full – and energized for all your workouts.

Here are a few Paleo-specific studies that support this:

  • 10 healthy women followed a Paleo diet for five weeks and experienced an average weight loss of 4.5 kilograms. BMI, waist and hip circumference, and waist/hip ratio also decreased significantly.
  • In a study comparing the Paleo and Mediterranean diets (the same as the first study in the heart health section), men on Paleo lost an average of 11 pounds and women on Paleo lost an average of 8.4 pounds in just 12 weeks.

Paleo vs Other Diets

The Paleo diet is extremely popular, but it isn’t the only one out there. How does it compare against some of the other popular diets?

Let’s break them down one at a time.

Paleo vs Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods and whole grains. Although it has its strong points by encouraging us to avoid refined oils and added sugars, the emphasis

You could certainly do worse than the Mediterranean diet, but the Paleo diet gives you more flexibility because it allows you to eat animal protein more often. At the same time, avoiding grains will help you eat more vegetables and fruits, which are denser sources of nutrients.

Paleo vs Keto Diet

A keto diet is synonymous with zero (or very low) carbohydrates. The heavy emphasis on fats and proteins keep you feeling fuller, which can help if you’re trying to lose weight.

Paleo is much more sustainable. It recognizes that not all carbohydrates are the enemy. Instead, you get to enjoy the beneficial ones (they’re great energy sources) and avoid the refined stuff.

Paleo vs Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet restricts carbohydrates and focuses on protein and fat. Like the keto diet, it can be a decent choice for weight loss.

However, it’s easy to get so obsessive about limiting carbohydrates that you overlook fruits and vegetables. You could just eat beef and eggs all day and technically follow an Atkins diet. It also allows dairy products and legumes, which makes it less than ideal.

Paleo vs Vegan Diet

A vegan diet forbids all animal products. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and grains. The focus on natural foods is great — but plenty of vegans eat mostly unhealthy grains and sugars.

Without animal protein, vegans also have to be mindful about getting enough B vitamins. A Paleo dieter doesn’t have to worry about that, because the foods they focus on offer a wide variety of nutrients.

A Blueprint For Better Health

The Paleo diet is exploding in popularity, and with good reason. This isn’t just another fad. It goes beyond a rigid diet, and represents a philosophical shift in how we approach food.

The principles are simple. Eat nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods. Cut out the processed junk.

If you’re looking to lose weight, have more energy, or just enjoy better overall health, there’s no better time to start than now.

Have you tried the Paleo diet before? Are you open to the idea? Leave a comment below and share your experience!