What Should I Eat on a Paleo Diet and Why?
This post details foods a paleo diet recommends eating and avoiding, plus why we should avoid those foods. There's also a handy list of 'smart swaps' you can make to help transition towards a paleo diet, and also the benefits you'll see from eating this way.
FOODS TO EAT
A paleo diet recommends eating food that our ancestors could procure and eat by themselves. It recommends eliminating anything that needs to go through a process to be eaten.
A paleo diet recommends eating:
- Meat, poultry and seafood, eg. beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, squid, shellfish. Buy the best-quality animal products you can afford. Choose grass-fed meat, free-range pork, organic chicken and wild-caught fish. If you eat bacon, try to buy it free-range and without added sugar, nitrates or gluten. Also if it’s possible, avoid supermarket meat. Find a butcher in your area and get to know them! The butchers I’ve met are passionate about what they do and love explaining to their customers what’s in season, what sauces or vegies best go with the meat, and the best ways to cook it. Plus, good quality meat from a butcher isn’t too much more expensive than supermarkets. That said, if this isn’t not possible for you, that’s completely fine. It’s not in everyone’s budget or easily accessible for everyone. Do the best you can with what you have.
- Vegetables. Non-starchy and Green leafy veg should be eaten in abundance. Starchy vegetables - like sweet potatoes and parsnips - have a high carbohydrate load and should be eaten less often, or based on your exercise/activity levels.
- Eggs. Free-range and ideally organic/bio-dynamic
- Some fruit.
- Nuts and seeds. Activated nuts are best for the digestive system
- Healthy oils. When baking, frying or roasting, it’s best to use coconut oil or ghee. (Ghee is clarified butter – the milk solids have been removed, so it’s low in lactose and is almost entirely the good kind of saturated fat.) This is because these oils are the most stable at high temperatures and won’t oxidise or turn rancid easily, which would create harmful compounds including trans fats. Olive oil is best cold, in homemade dressings or to drizzle on salads. (Note: Avoid all forms of vegetable oil. This includes canola, soybean, peanut, cottonseed, safflower and sunflower seed oil. Also, remove margarine from your life forever. It’s very bad news)
- Fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut (more info here).
FOODS TO AVOID
Foods to include:
- All grains (eg. bread, bread rolls, focaccias, wraps, white potatoes, rice, pasta)
- Legumes (peanuts, soy, lentils, chickpeas)
- Dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice-cream)
- Anything processed (pretty much anything packaged)
- Added sugar
- Vegetable oils (canola oil, margarine).
Many drinks are not good for your health. Stay away from:
- Regular soft drinks
- ‘Diet’, ‘zero calorie’ or ‘lite’ soft drinks
- Tonic water (basically a soft drink – packed with sugar)
- Takeaway coffee (even with ‘skinny’ milk)
- Bottled fruit juice
- Alcohol, especially cocktails (often made with sugary syrups) and beer (including low-carb beer)
YEAH, BUT TELL ME WHY THESE SHOULD BE AVOIDED?
When most people hear you’re trying to avoid grains and dairy, they’ll come up with standard ‘conventional wisdom’ lines like this: “But wholegrains are healthy, they’re full of fibre and give you energy! And we need dairy for the calcium. Plus vegetarians are all about lentils and soy milk, so they must be good for you, right?” Unfortunately, no. This is not because people are stupid, ignorant or uninterested in health. It’s because for decades, governments and health authorities have promoted that grains are important for energy, dairy is needed for calcium and strong bones, and fat makes you fat.
However, these ideas come from guidelines that were shaped by:
- biased studies from the 1950s
- political strategies to support (and heavily subsidise) the agricultural and dairy industries in the 70s
- the rise of ‘nutritionism’, or the ideology that the key to understanding food is reducing it to its nutrients (eg. anything with saturated fat is bad, anything with vitamin C is good) instead of focusing on food as a whole.
Here’s a way to understand why nutritionism is bad: with packaged foods, clever advertising and attractive packaging can position unhealthy products as healthy by using buzz-words like ‘gluten free’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. For example, breakfast cereals that are made of grains and packed with sugar can play on conventional ideas about health by marketing themselves as ‘low fat!’ and ‘made with real wholegrains!’. How can foods that are sold unpackaged and in bulk, like fresh fruit and vegetables, compete with this? They can’t. Nutritionism helps marketing reduces foods to their ingredients, nutrients and minerals instead of focusing on the food holistically. And unfortunately, more and more food manufactures are jumping on the health bandwagon and producing products that claim to be healthy that are often not – in fact, they’re usually the opposite. This is the ingredients list for an Atkins Advantage bar, which is marketed as a low-carb friendly health food. Yuk!
For these reasons and many more, the diet promoted as being ideal – with high amounts of grains and low-fat dairy – is actually very unhealthy and unsustainable in the long-term.
Here’s a lowdown on why these foods are not actually good for you.
Grains and carbohydrates
Problematic grain products include cereal, bread, rice, corn (not a vegetable, as commonly thought) and pasta. While grains contain some minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium, they also contain anti-nutrients called phytates. These phytates bind to the minerals so the body can’t absorb them. Basically if you can’t use the minerals, they may as well not even be there.
Additionally, different parts of the grain can pass through the gut barrier and let other substances – like food particles, bacteria or viruses – into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the body mistakes these foreign substances for invaders and the immune system mounts an attack, creating antibodies against them. This can trigger an immune response and promotes inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can manifest itself as allergies, arthritis, asthma, coeliac, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, psoriasis or endometriosis, just to name a few. The effects can even be seen in the brain – inflammatory messengers in the brain are associated with depression, anxiety, and even conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This gut reaction is the reason why coeliacs or people with gluten sensitivities should avoid gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. (Gluten gives foods a stretchy, elastic structure and can also be hidden in soy and oyster sauces, vinegar, oats, salad dressings, sauces, soups, biscuits, lollies, chocolate and ice cream – so avoiding it isn’t as easy as not eating gluten-containing grains.)
Lastly, grains are high in carbohydrates, which promote excessive levels of insulin. High levels of insulin in your body is not good for many reasons.
When you eat any type of carbohydrate – like grains, sugar, white potatoes and soft drinks – the body breaks the carbohydrates down and converts them into glucose in the bloodstream. When glucose is constantly in the bloodstream, it does a few bad things: it clogs your arteries, binds with proteins to form harmful end-products, causes systemic inflammation, and increases your risk of heart disease.
Because the body doesn’t like too much glucose in the blood, for the above reasons and more, the pancreas produces insulin – a storage hormone – which has the job of taking that glucose out of the blood and storing it somewhere. Muscles store some glucose as glycogen, but they can’t store much of it – enough for one day, or about 500 grams (which is 2000 calories) worth. So when our muscles reach their glycogen limit – which is very easy – glucose needs to be stored somewhere else. This somewhere is our fat cells, which have an unlimited capacity to store calories, causing people to put on weight. This also means your body isn’t able to burn fat for fuel – which is actually the body’s preferred method of burning energy. (When your body is in a state of burning fat for energy instead of glucose, it’s called ketosis. This is a perfectly natural state that humans existed in for thousands of years and shouldn’t be confused with ketoacidosis, or when there’s very high levels of glucose in the blood due to insufficient insulin. Read more about ketosis is here and here.)
“The notion that glucose is the preferred fuel for your body is a pervasive one. Everyone from diabetics to top athletes are advised to make sure they eat “enough” carbs to keep their systems from crashing. This is unfortunate, as this misguided advice is at the very heart of many of our current health failures.” – Physician and nutritionist Dr Joseph Mercola.
Some anthropologists suggest that our ancestors consumed only about 80g of carbs a day – when you compare that to the 350-500g a day in today’s typical diet, it’s not hard to see why rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses are off the charts.
Eating no carbohydrates whatsoever is possible – for example, think of the Inuits who survived on a diet of whale blubber (fat) and seal meat (protein) – but that would mean excluding all fruit and vegetables, which isn’t something a modern-day healthy diet is about. Excluding grains, dairy and sugar doesn’t mean eating no carbs, it’s just lower in carbs – carbs aren’t evil!
“Carbohydrates and insulin are a normal and natural part of human nutrition and biochemistry. What is not normal is our mass consumption of processed carbohydrates, both in unnatural forms and in never ending supply regardless of season.
“A paleo diet free from grains, dairy, vegetable oils and sugar will make you healthier and leaner by helping you re-adapt to using your stored fat as energy so your fat cells can go back to being the batteries they are supposed to be instead of the warehouses they have become.” –Beyond Vegetarianism: Insulin Resistance
It’s just better getting carbohydrates from plant-based sources – like fruit, vegetables and seeds – and importantly, in an amount that doesn’t encourage the body to store fat.
There are many reasons why dairy is not suitable for adult humans to consume.
Firstly, the proteins and sugars in dairy products are common allergens. Milk and aged cheese in particular contain casein, a protein that people are often intolerant or allergic to. Casein upsets the immune system and can aggravate asthma, allergy symptoms, headaches and sinus problems. Dairy also causes skin problems like breakouts, eczema and acne. People also don’t tolerate lactose, milk’s main sugar. Up until humans are about two years old, when breast milk is the preferred food source, the pancreas produces lactase, an enzyme which digests lactose. But after that, out bodies stop producing it.
But even if you don’t react badly adverse to casein or lactose, it’s worth keeping in mind that dairy products aren’t a great choice because of where they came from:
“The cows probably ate a diet of corn and soy while confined in a very tight environment. As if that wasn’t enough, most milk is skimmed to reduce the healthy saturated fat, then pasteurized which renders some enzymes and good bacteria ineffective.” – The Place of Dairy on a Paleo Diet
Secondly, dairy – like grains – provokes an inflammatory response in the gut and raises insulin levels, leading to issues mentioned above like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, endometriosis and obesity.
Another problematic element to dairy is that it’s often low-fat or fat-free products that are promoted as healthy. These are actually worse for you than full-fat products. Our bodies need fat to properly absorb the vitamins and minerals in the rest of our food. The process that removes the fat from milk also removes the enzymes needed for our bodies to absorb the calcium, so low-fat products can cause problems like bloating and stomach pains (ie. not good for gut health). (An exception to this is fermented dairy products, explained more here.)
Lastly, while we’ve been taught that dairy is essential because of the calcium it provides, research shows high levels of dairy can increase the risk of bone fractures. Getting our daily recommended intake of calcium is entirely possible through getting some sun each day (our bodies need vitamin D to properly absorb calcium); keeping our insulin and cortisol levels low (high blood sugar levels enhance cell activity that breaks down bones and high cortisol levels inhibit the activity of cells that build bones); and eating other calcium-rich foods like green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach), meat and seafood (organ meats, bone broth, sardines, salmon), and nuts and seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts).
‘Diet’, ‘low-fat’ or ‘lite’ products
Contrary to everything we’ve been told for decades, eating fat does not make you fat or sick. Fat is essential to keeping us full and satiated, our brains healthy, and our cells functioning properly. However it’s the good kind of fats we need – from products like grass-fed meat, salmon, avocado, nuts, coconut oil and chia seeds – not the processed junk.
When products have their fat taken out, sugar and fillers are added in to make the products palatable. Sugar is proven to largely contribute to weight gain, diseases, lethargy, hormone imbalances and disrupted metabolic function, just to name a few. Avoiding sugar and processed carbohydrates is essential to weight loss and general health and wellbeing.
I recommend always choosing full-fat foods. (The exception to this is conventional meat, especially mince. Animals raised in feed lots that are fed diets of processed grains (corn) and soy, instead of being pasture-raised that feed on grass, store toxins in their fat. Grass-fed meat is always the way to go, but if you do have to buy conventional meat, choose low-fat mince, trim the visible fat off red meat, and stick to chicken breast over thigh.)
Although sugar has previously been considered harmless in moderation, the latest science is proving how damaging it is, even in small amounts. (But let’s face it, it’s rare that anyone actually has sugar in small amounts.) Research of the highest standard showing is that it’s actually sugar – not fat – that is the major contributor to illnesses and chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cancer and ageing.
There are several different types of sugar that affect the body in different ways, but the two most well-known currently are glucose and fructose, thanks to new information and much debate surrounding the negative effects of fructose. In its natural form – from fruit and honey – fructose has minimal health effects, because those foods also come with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. But it’s the fructose from sweetened drinks, processed foods and even in placed you’d never expect like bread and pasta sauces that is doing the damage. I Quit Sugar guru Sarah Wilson notes why:
- “Fructose makes us eat more, because humans haven’t evolved an ‘off switch’ for fructose to signal when we’ve had enough (all very well back when we were cave people and sugar was rare).
- It converts directly to fat in our bodies rather than to energy for our immediate needs.
- It inhibits our immune system, making it harder to fight off viruses and infections
- It upsets the mineral balance in our bodies, causing deficiencies as well as interfering with mineral absorption.
- It messes with fertility.
- It speeds up the ageing process.
- It is linked to dementia.
- It’s been connected with the development of cancers of the breasts, ovaries, prostate, rectum, pancreas, lung, gall bladder and stomach.
- It causes an acidic digestive tract and indigestion.
- It can cause a rapid rise in adrenaline, as well as hyperactivity, anxiety and a loss of concentration.” – from I Quit Sugar at the Daily Mail
If you remove grains, dairy and processed and packaged foods from your diet, you shouldn’t be consuming much sugar at all, except in the form of fruit and safe sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and rice malt syrup. (Although honey and maple syrup have a fair amount of fructose, in their raw states they are alkaline-forming foods that contain natural vitamins, enzymes, powerful antioxidants and other important natural nutrients, as previously mentioned. So in small amounts, I think they’re okay. But when cooking or baking in large quantities, rice malt syrup, which contains virtually no fructose, is a good way to go.)
Unfortunately for Diet Coke fans, artificial sweeteners are not a healthy or safe alternative to sugar. While buying Sugar Free Vitamin Water may make people feel like they’re doing the right thing, they’re actually not. There are many dangers to common ‘harmless’ sugar substitutes, despite health authorities claiming they’re safe.
Aspartame, used to sweeten most diet products and also sold as ‘Equal’ (the small tabs people put in their tea or coffee), has been shown to play a role in mood disorders, memory problems and other neurological illnesses. (The documentary Sweet Misery – A Poisoned World delves into the stories of people who attribute consuming aspartame, mainly in the form of soft drinks, to multiple sclerosis, depression, seizures and anxiety.)
Aceslulfame-K, a known carcinogen (something that causes cancer), is still legally and widely used. Sucralose, commonly known as ‘Splenda’, has shown to cause shrinking of a gland that regulates our immune system and disrupts liver and kidney function. Sucralose also reduces healthy intestinal bacteria, which are needed for proper digestion and can impact the effectiveness of prescription and other medicines.
The takeaway from this is that artificial sweeteners and diet products are not the healthy option they are often touted to be. Avoid them (and sugar) altogether and you’ll be much better for it.
Pseudo-grains and legumes
Personally I avoid ‘pseudo-grains’ or ‘grain-like’ seeds (quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth) as well as legumes (beans, lentils, soy, peas, chickpeas and peanuts).
Those kinds of foods affect the body in a similar way to grains – they have considerable amounts of phytates, a high carbohydrate load, and can cause gut problems like bloating and stomach pains. I wouldn’t cause a fuss if a friend made me a dinner with chickpeas in it, and sometimes I may have a quinoa salad if it’s the only healthier option at a café, but I wouldn’t cook with those ingredients at home.
There’s actually no such thing as oil from a vegetable – ‘vegetable oil’ is just a broad term to describe oils from fruit (coconut, palm, olive and avocado), nuts (macadamia, pecan, etc) and seeds (canola, soybean, safflower or sunflower). There is nothing wrong with fruit oils and most nut oils, but seed oils – which are what most people are referring to when they say ‘vegetable oil’ – are very dangerous.
Vegetable oils are easily oxidise (undergo a chemical reaction) when the type of fatty acids they contain (polyunsaturated fatty acids) break down. This decreases the nutritional value of your food, produces damaging free radicals (molecules responsible for tissue damage) that contribute to premature ageing, and can attack every cell of your body and contribute to inflammation. Vegetable oils are also very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which again have an inflammatory effect that is involved in the development of chronic diseases such as cancer, arthritis and autoimmune conditions. (Omega-6 fatty acids aren’t inherently “bad” – they’re important for our bodies for many reasons, like for growth maintenance and general good health – but we’re just getting too much of them. The ideal omega 6:3 ratio is 1:1, but in a modern Western diet, this ratio is more like 15:1 or can even be up to 20:1.)
Moving towards a healthier doesn’t have to be extreme and see you spending an hour a day in the kitchen. A good start is to make smart swaps by choosing these products over their refined, processed alternatives:
- Sweet potatoes over white potatoes
- Homemade granola over store-bought muesli or cereal
- Almond butter over peanut butter
- Dark chocolate over milk chocolate (if you don’t really like dark chocolate, start with the 40-50% and build it up to 70-85%)
- Quinoa over rice
- Coconut oil or olive oil over vegetable oil
- Ghee or butter (grass-fed and organic if possible) over margarine
- Water and herbal tea over black tea and coffee
- Almond milk over cow’s milk
- Red wine over white wine
- Vodka with soda water instead of gin and tonic
- Grass-fed, pasture-raised meat over conventional grain-feed meat
- Shopping at fresh food markets and bulk whole-food stores instead of chain supermarkets
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO EATING THIS WAY?
The great thing about eating this way is that you’ll see effects immediately.
- You’ll sleep better. Falling asleep will be easier, you won’t wake as much during the night, you’ll wake up feeling more refreshed, and some people even end up ditching the alarm clock as their body gets into a natural ‘sleep-wake’ cycle
- You’ll have more energy. Mornings will be easier, even without coffee. That ‘3pm energy slump’ many people talk about will disappear
- Your blood sugar levels will stabilise
- Your skin will clear up. Consuming dairy is strongly linked to acne and general breakouts
- Your moods will improve
- You don’t have to starve yourself.
- Eating will become fun
- Your insulin sensitivity will improve, reducingyour risk of diabetes
- You’ll reduce your risk of chronic diseases, especially cancer and heart disease
- Your gut health will improve. Poor gut healthis particularly linked to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s and type 1 diabetes, and skin problems like eczema and psoriasis
You’ll avoid processed food. The one thing every diet professional agrees on is that avoiding processed foods is critical to good health. Processed foods are loaded with refined carbohydrates, sugar, trans fats and vegetable oils, salt, and artificial chemicals, flavourings, texturants, colours and preservatives.
Real, unprocessed, whole food is delicious. If your diet is crowded with processed foods full of sugar, salt and highly refined carbohydrates, you’ve probably become desensitised to how amazing real food tastes. But when you cut out the junk, it doesn’t take long for your tastebuds to recalibrate: fruit becomes delectably sweet, vegetables are incredibly flavoursome (your mum was right all those years – broccoli is good!) and you may start to want good quality meat, chicken or fish (even if you haven’t been a big meat-eater before) that sustains your energy levels. Eventually, your body will crave the taste of real foods so much that rice, pasta, milk and beans will seem tasteless and bland.
You’ll save money. Packaged foods like muesli bars, soft drinks, chocolate, yoghurt, Milo, potato chips, icecream, alcohol, takeaway coffee and frozen meals are incredibly expensive. A 45g packet of chips is at least $2 – for that price, you could buy a whole kilo of potatoes! Eliminating the junk and good quality eating meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds – especially when buying from farmers’ markets, butchers and bulk whole food stores – means your bank balance is going to thank you. (To learn how to eat well on a budget, see here, here or here.)
You’ll save money in the long-term, too. In Australia, the cost of type 2 diabetes (the preventable kind) averages $4,000 per person per year if there are no associated complications and $10,000 per year for people with complications. That’s up to $190 per week! Think of spending money on good quality food as preventative health and don’t look back.
Food with fat tastes better. It’s not rocket science that vegies taste amazing roasted in coconut oil rather than steamed; that a steak tastes better than Weight Watchers ‘lite’ ham; that salads tastes better drizzled with olive oil than fat-free dressing; that full-fat Greek yoghurt with fresh blueberres is better than flavourless low-fat blueberry yoghurt; that roast chicken is better with the skin on. Fat is designed to satiate our palates and make food taste amazing for a reason – so we should eat it!
It limits sugar, particularly fructose. Enough said.
Not counting calories. Counting calories is a completely unreliable way of achieving weight loss (or weight maintenance) or good health. It reduces food to numbers that aren’t even valid – research indicates that the way calories are calculated is completely unreliable, especially given the formula for it was developed over 100 years ago. The process is also restrictive, promotes obsessive behaviour, and dismisses the importance of whole food in its natural state and promotes quality over quantity. (Low-fat yoghurt, margarine and ’lite’ mayonnaise have nothing on calorie-dense eggs, meat, grass-fed butter.)
It also ignores the role of macro and micronutrients – calorie counting, or the premise of ‘calories in, calories out’, implies that eating 100 calories of sugar is going to impact your body the exact same way 100 calories of broccoli would. (Um…) It’s not a long term solution, and in no way should be part of a healthy diet or mindset. Not counting calories is freeing, emotionally and physically. It means you can eat for pleasure, eat as much (or as little) as you want, you don’t have to bother with weighing food or calculating portion sizes, and you learn to tune in to your real hunger (as opposed to eating based on emotions or ‘just because it’s lunch time’).
It’s not just about food. Eating this way improves every aspect of your life. Sleep, relationships, work, family, friends, hair, skin, nails… the list goes on and on. You don’t just make better food choices: when you become disciplined with food, you become better at controlling impulses, you enjoy delayed gratification (when you’ve had a meal cooking in the slow-cooker all day, it’s going to taste that much better), and you become more focused. You’re also helping your community and its surrounds – you’re helping small businesses, local famers, the environment, taxpayers (by reducing your own future healthcare costs, you’re helping others) and even the health of others – perhaps the people you’re cooking for or someone that knows of your efforts will become inspired to make healthy changes for themselves.
For a really detailed background on a paleo diet, visit my What is Paleo? post.
To start start trying a paleo diet out for yourself, visit my How to Meal Prep page.
Think your kitchen will be bare if you remove dairy, grains and legumes? Nope! See my Paleo Food Staples post for how to stock up your fridge, freezer and pantry with paleo food.
To start researching for yourself, my Resources page has an awesome list of people, websites, blogs, books, recipes books, documentaries and lectures.
I hope some of this information inspires you to think about making changes towards a paleo diet. If you have any questions just leave me a comment or visit my Instagram page @jennafelicity for more!