The Beginner's Guide to the Paleo Diet

By: Bob's Red Mill | October 4 2016

What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Beginner's Guide to the Paleo Diet _ Bob’s Red Mill

If the word “diet” automatically makes your stomach growl in protest, worry not, despite its name, the paleo diet is not a diet at all, but a way of life. Unlike other diets, eating paleo focuses on the types of food you put into your body rather than the number of calories contained in the food you consume.

Going paleo means eating the way that nature intended humans to eat before we began processing and otherwise altering our food. The paleo lifestyle rejects the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is packed with refined sugars, modified fats, and processed foods, in favor of an all-natural diet filled with nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Put simply, if a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither should you.

What Can and Can’t You Eat on the Paleo Diet?

The core of the paleo diet is about eating whole, nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods that come straight from the earth, just as our ancestors did. Fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs, nuts, fish, seafood, and natural oils like olive, coconut and avocado are all paleo-approved foods.

Whether or not dairy is “allowed” on the paleo diet is a bit of a gray area. Die-hard paleo eaters argue that dairy products should be wholly excluded since cavemen didn’t have domesticated cows. However, grass-fed butter and cheese are widely accepted as paleo, along with yogurt (as long as it doesn’t have any added refined sugar). A good rule of thumb to follow with dairy products is the more processed a food is, the less paleo it is. So foods like ice cream, processed cheese, and sugary yogurt should be avoided.

As for strictly forbidden foods, any processed foods that come from a box, jar, or bag should be avoided (sorry, pasta and Oreos), along with any other foods that were not consumed back then. Grains, added salt, legumes (peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans) alcohol, refined sugar, and artificial sweeteners are all big no-nos on the paleo diet. In general, due to their high starch content and low nutritional value, white potatoes are not considered paleo, while sweet potatoes are okay to eat in moderation. If a food contains a bunch of unpronounceable chemicals, it’s a pretty safe bet that it isn’t paleo.

Cooking Paleo

At first, it may seem that following a paleo diet is more about what you can’t eat than what you can. However, just because you’re eating the same types of foods our ancient ancestors did, does not mean you have to eat like Fred Flintstone. Although eating paleo requires sacrificing certain ingredients, it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to give up your favorite foods, merely modify the ingredients you use to make them. Thankfully, the past 10,000 years have not only given us the gift of modern appliances but also savvy kitchen innovators who have figured out crafty ingredient swaps for making your favorite foods paleo-friendly. Paleo products are becoming more common, so you can still make the baked goods you love while catering to a paleo diet.

For example, mix almond flour (instead of regular all-purpose flour), with bananas, baking soda, cinnamon, eggs, a pinch of salt and voila—you’ve got paleo pancakes. This method of swapping certain conventional ingredients in recipes with their paleo alternatives opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to cooking and eating paleo. From brownies to muffins, cheese sauce, and even pizza, there is not much that can’t be made paleo-friendly with just a few simple ingredient modifications. To find these awesome paleo recipes and more visit our Paleo recipe index.

Nevertheless, finding the time to consistently cook for yourself is not always easy, especially during those weeks when you barely have time to fit in a shower, let alone prepare an entire meal. What’s the key to avoiding the siren call of the fast-food drive through? Preparation. When you know that you have a busy week ahead, do your grocery shopping for the week in one day and then cook enough meat and vegetables to last you well into the week. This Coconut Hazelnut Shrimp with Grilled Peach Salsa recipe would be a great to make-ahead meal. You could even double the salsa recipe and serve it over other grilled meat later in the week. Storing these meals in portioned containers makes dinner a snap and keeps you from dialing that Chinese takeout place down the street.

The Premise Behind the Paleo Diet

Human beings have been around for awhile—I’m talking hundreds of thousands of years. In comparison, our modern diet has only existed since the time of the agricultural revolution, around 10,000 years ago—a mere sliver of our total time here on Earth. During this time, ancient humans, once nomadic hunter-gatherers, began farming grains and domesticating animals.

This monumental cultural shift laid the groundwork for societal formation and ultimately the progression of the human race. However, our bodies, which had previously evolved over thousands of years to function optimally on a hunter-gatherer diet, weren’t quite prepared for this new way of life. Although our diets had shifted, our genetics remained the same.

While our ancient selves were now consuming more calories than ever, instead of filling up on lean meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, like the hunter-gatherers before us, we now depended on farmed carbohydrates like grains to form the bulk of our diet—a troubling tradition that still forms the basis of the Standard American Diet today. Going paleo means returning to our hunter-gatherer roots by eating the types of foods our bodies were biologically designed to eat before the agricultural revolution.

Why Go Paleo?

When it comes to eating habits, our Paleolithic relatives definitely got a few things right. In general, Paleolithic humans consumed three times more produce, more fiber, more protein, more omega-3 fatty acids, more unsaturated fat, more vitamins and minerals, and much less saturated fat and sodium than a typical American does today.

If those numbers alone aren’t enough to convince you to tap into your inner caveman (or woman), research from Emory University suggests that eating paleo helps your body maintain the optimal balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates—with about 35% of calories coming from fats, 35% from carbohydrates, and 30% from proteins. In comparison, the average U.S. diet is loaded with high-carb foods, manufactured trans fats, refined flours, and sugar, sugar, and more sugar. In fact, the top six calorie sources in the U.S. diet today are grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, etc.), yeast breads, chicken-based dishes, sweetened beverages, pizza, and alcoholic drinks.

This type of carb-heavy, nutrient-deprived diet not only leads to weight gain and obesity, but also causes serious, life-threatening diseases like diabetes, heart disease, kidney, and gallbladder disorders, and strokes. However, by replacing those foods detrimental to your health with whole foods like lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, nuts and healthy fats, a paleo diet can help reduce your risk of developing obesity-related diseases while improving your overall health and aid in weight loss.

Tips for Easing into the Paleo Lifestyle

Let’s face it. Giving up some of your favorite foods doesn’t exactly sound fun, especially if you’re accustomed to regularly eating grains and processed foods. If going “all in” right off the bat sounds intimidating to you, try first making small changes to your “modern” life that support what your “ancient” body needs. Try incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your dinners and replacing some, but not all, of your processed foods with paleo alternatives. Once you’ve eliminated all the processed foods from your diet, begin to eliminate gluten and refined sugars. Lastly, eliminate legumes, soy, and dairy.

Guide: The Ultimate Paleo Food List

Another great way to make your transition to the paleo lifestyle that much easier is to connect with other like-minded people who are also following a paleo diet plan. It can be tough to maintain the motivation to make big lifestyle changes when you’re going it alone. Try recruiting a friend or two to join you on your paleo journey or seek out support from paleo eaters on online community forums, Facebook pages, and even local meetups in your area. Having others around you who share similar goals can help remind you why you started and keep you committed to your health goals.

It’s also important to remember not to stress if you can’t be 100% paleo 100% of the time. Eating paleo is a lifestyle, not a diet. As such, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be some days that require you to stray from the paleo straight-and-narrow. You may find yourself having to cobble together a meal of gas station beef jerky and a decidedly non-paleo granola bar. Even so, it’s better than the soft pretzel and Slurpee you may have eaten before. Maybe one day you just need some alone time with your old friends Ben & Jerry. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself every now and then. As long as you remember that the goal of going paleo is health, not perfection, staying on track should be a breeze.

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