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What is the paleo diet?

November 22 2017 by Jess

Our nutritionist Jess explains the philosophy behind the paleo diet and compares the benefits and challenges of a paleo lifestyle.

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Maybe you’ve dipped your toe in the caveman way of eating - upped your fresh veggies, eaten more locally sourced meat, or perhaps you’ve tried gong grain or processed food free. But let's delve deeper and ask: Is it worth it? What’s the diet based on? Does the evidence stack up?

Jess, graze nutritionist
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The Paleo diet is based on two central ideas:

  1. We have adapted to eat particular kinds of foods.
  2. To stay healthy, strong, and fit, and avoid the chronic diseases of modernity, we need to eat like our ancestors.

Primates today, like our earliest primate relatives who lived more than 60 million years ago, subsist mainly on fruit, leaves, and insects. About 2.6 million years ago, when our early human ancestors enjoyed big brain adaptations, they started using stone tools and fire, and slowly changed their diet as a result.

Fast forward to 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution hit, and most most of the world figured out how to plant and farm. We went from the Paleolithic period to the Neolithic period, with a consistent and relatively reliable food supply. Without this switch, civilisation could never have developed.

The time-frame since the Neolithic period began, just 10,000 years ago, represents only about 1% of the time that we humans have been on earth.

Many people believe that the shift from a hunting and gathering food style, which was rich in wild fruits and vegetables, to an agricultural based diet, abundant in cereal grains and factory reared animal produce, gave rise to our modern chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

This philosophy is the backbone of the Paleo Diet, and a big reason why adopters of this way of eating say we should return to the meat and produce-based diet of our past.

What are the benefits of a paleo diet?

A focus on nutrients versus calories - Promotes eating whole, nutrient-rich foods.

Increased awareness & attention - Shifting the attention from caring about what you’re eating and where it’s come from, as opposed to eating for weight loss or eating to keep lean has far reaching benefits.

A focus on quality - Free range animal-based foods that are minimally processed is encouraged.

Nutrient deficiencies - Due to the whole, minimally processed foods that are a large emphasis of this plan, nutrients are often intact rather than being stripped away in the processing of processed foods which are ‘not on plan’.

Regular exercise encouraged - When people start paying attention to their eating, they usually start thinking about physical activity too, which improve their ability to turn the food they eat (whatever food that is) into functional tissue (instead of extra fat).

Increased awareness of food & appetite - By choosing more satisfying, higher quality foods, and eliminating nutrient deficiencies, we almost always end up eating less total food. We feel more satisfied without the need to count calories.

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What can you eat on a paleo diet?

So, what does that mean when it comes to food? What's considered ‘Paleo friendly’ and which foods would a caveman not touch with a long stick?!

Paleo friendly foods:

Meats: meat, fish, reptiles, insects, etc., ideally pasture-raised or grass-fed, and usually, almost all parts of the animals, including organs, bone marrow, cartilage, and organs
Seafood: most kinds, ideally wild-caught
Vegetables: any kind, ideally organic and local
Eggs: any kind, ideally pasture-raised or free-range
Fruit: any kind, all in moderation, ideally organic
Nuts and seeds: all kinds, in moderation, ideally organic and with no added oils
Certain oils and fats: mainly saturated and monounsaturated fats (few polyunsaturated fats), ideally organic and unrefined

Some paleo adopters introduce grass-fed dairy (mostly yogurt and other cultured options), and small amounts of “properly prepared” legumes — meaning legumes that have been soaked overnight.

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What can't you eat on a paleo diet?

Grains (even gluten-free grains): Wheat, Rice, Barley, Rye, Corn, Quinoa, Amaranth, Teff, Sorghum, Oats, Buckwheat, Spelt.
Beans and Legumes: Soy (tofu, tempeh, miso, soy sauce, soy lecithin), Lentils, Black beans, Pinto beans, Red beans, Peanuts, White beans, Garbanzo beans. Peas and green beans are acceptable, even though sometimes they’re categorised as legumes.
Dairy: Milk, Cheese, Yogurt, Cottage cheese, Ice cream, Sour cream, Dairy creamer, Buttermilk, Powdered milk.
The only exceptions that are allowable on most Paleo diets are butter and ghee. However, these should still only be consumed if you know you’re not sensitive to them.
High Omega-6 Vegetable Oils: Vegetable oils, Butter alternatives,Canola oilCorn oil, Cottonseed oil, Crisco, Grapeseed oil, Margarine, Palm oil, Peanut oil, Safflower oil, Shortening, Soybean oil, Sunflower oil, Vegetable oil.
Refined Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners: Cane sugar, Cane syrup Brown rice syrup, White sugar, Brown sugar, Agave, Corn syrup (in any form, including high-fructose), Glucose syrup (another name for corn syrup), Dextrose or anything ending in “-ose”, Malt syrup, Splenda, Aspartame, Equal, Truvia, Sucralose).

What are the challenges of a paleo diet?

There are some definite benefits of The Paleo Diet when compared to the typical Western diet of today, though it does have some flaws:

Food is not as simple as “good”, “bad”, “allowed” and “not allowed”. This rule-based approach can encourage an all-in or all-out way of thinking which for some people, can lead to anxiety when it comes to food. The most important thing when it comes to health is how enjoyable food is, how it makes us feel and how consistently we can keep up these healthy eating patterns. Being ‘on plan’ for a short-lived period isn’t as good as following a plan that works long-term.

The evidence for excluding dairy, legumes, and grains isn’t (yet) strong. So as a Nutritional Therapist, I have to say that I don’t subscribe to a one-size fits all diet. Absolutely, some people should avoid or reduce their dairy and gluten intake, and some people enjoy health benefits from keeping their legume and grain consumption low. Feeling good, and performing well doesn’t have to be focussed around eliminating lots of foods, it’s about eating the foods that make you feel at your best, and for some, having a large ‘food to avoid’ list isn’t necessary.

The evolutionary arguments are weak. The human species is constantly evolving, and won’t stop any time soon. When microorganisms first landed on this planet, they have switched, been updated, regressed and advanced, and that evolutionary cycle will never end. To use the Paleolithic era as a point of comparison doesn’t make sense, knowing how many years prior to this era humans have been on the planet. The caveman didn’t live to the ripe old years we’re living to today, medicine has advanced, it’s impossible to make these comparisons and attribute the introduction of ‘the grain’ and other foods as a reason why we have so much diet and lifestyle led disease. There are so many factors to consider, and certainly, diet plays a huge role.

jess notes

As a well researched Nutritional Therapist and coach, I don’t believe there is one universal ‘best’ diet for all. I don’t belong to any specific nutrition camps (vegan / vegetarian/ Paleo/ Ketogenic etc.) or promote a single nutrition philosophy to everyone. Physiologically, the human body can do well under a host of different nutritional conditions, it’s amazingly adaptable.

If having rules helps you, then this could be the right lifestyle for you. If it makes you feel confined and overwhelmed, then probably not.

Enjoyment, sustainability, personal preferences and taste buds should all be considered when it comes to fuelling our bodies.

Jess, graze nutritionist
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By Jess, graze nutritionist.

Our nutritionist extraordinaire, Jess trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is a registered practitioner with the British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She's the creator of our health badges, to help you choose the snacks and boxes that are right for you. Check out everything from Jess on our blog, with recipes and tricks to help you keep making better choices, or go to Jess's blog at jessipes.co.uk for even more.

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