We get a lot of questions about the Paleo Diet. Specifically, "Do you only get to eat meat on this diet?" We're happy to clarify, but you should know there are many different versions of the Paleo Diet. Healthy Girlfriend will give you the low-down on the common factors in this increasingly popular movement, and also our year-long experience eating an paleo, or "ancestral diet."
First of all, the paleo diet does include meat, but it's much more than meat. Typically, it is a lower-carb diet that doesn't shy away from animal protein, fat and vegetables. Loren Cordain is the Colorado professor who introduced the paleo diet to mainstream, health-conscious individuals in his 2002 book of the same name. The diet has evolved to include many different versions since then, and even Cordain has somewhat redefined the components. In general, it is a modern diet that mimics the kind of non-processed, natural food our cave-dwelling ancestors would have eaten, which did not include much grain, if any. Some experts believe that humans have only been eating grains in large amounts for 10,000 years, and that, some paleo folks say, was the beginning of our digestive and dental problems. They maintain that our Stone Age ancestors were robustly healthy and disease-free, dying only from accidents and other misfortune.
Also referred to as the caveman diet, the main features are clean meat (grass-fed beef, wild fish and game, pastured (as in raised in a pasture,) poultry and eggs, plenty of greens and non-root veggies, and perhaps some organic, raw or fermented dairy such as kefir or grassfed butter. The dairy question is largely left up to the individual, based on their personal tolerance, but if a paleo diet includes dairy, its referred to as primal diet. Also, neither beans, carrots, nor potatoes are included because they're starchy carbs. Yams are ok. Moderate use of red wine may be allowed, but certainly no other alcohol.
Many paleo enthusiasts enjoy berries, but generally fruit is not a big part of the diet since our most Northern European cavemen and cavewomen only had access to wild berries during part of the year, also because modern, hybrid fruits are much higher in sugar than wild fruits. Most desserts are verboten as well. Some home bakers have reinvented paleo-style desserts that use nut flour instead of wheat flour and honey as a sugar sub. They tend to be high-calorie fat bombs that without a doubt satisfy a newbie's sweet tooth. In a (paleo) nutshell, those are the basics.
Did we mention that there's NO CALORIE COUNTING? Sorry to shout, but it's a point that makes a huge difference in whether this diet will work for you. Hang on, we'll get to that in a moment.
Well, actually, no they didn't. Perhaps those of us whose ancestry hails from Northern Europe, the Arctic Circle, or parts of Africa did indeed include animals in their diets, but even then it wasn't available every day. When meat was available it may have been predominantly organ meats (including brains,) and whatever else was left after the lions had their fill. That's a far cry from a dry-rubbed rib-eye or plump, saline injected Thanksgiving turkey.
Some early humans lived in the tropics or similar warm weather areas and availed themselves of the freely growing fruits and plants such as tubers. Perhaps they weren't strictly plant-eaters, but it most certainly would have been the bulk of their diets. And lets not forget the Ancient South Americans who had a diet based on corn.
As for the assertion that humans have only been eating grains for the last 10,000 years, archeologists have found tools used for grinding grains that date to 30,000 years ago. It's true that the genetically modified wheat that most people eat today had little in common with the ancient grains our ancestors ate, and one reason why Paleo folks have banned all grains.
Here's a interesting video featuring Dr. Christina Warinner, an expert on ancient diets, who debunks the idea that our ancestors ate a meat-centered diet.
We like the paleo diet for its emphasis on not eating conventionally-raised animals. We like it for its restriction on processed foods. We like it for its inclusion of healthy fats like seeds, nuts, and some raw, organic butter. We like it for its emphasis on greens and vegetables. We like the primal approach of fermented foods because probiotic-rich food is amazing for your gut.
But there are problems with Paleo. Healthy Girlfriend doesn't care for the common paleo belief that calories don't matter, especially calories from animal protein and fat. Proponents believe that as long as you're focusing on meat, eggs, animal fat, vegetables and leafy greens, you will lose weight and maintain the perfect weight because of the high level of quality nutrients. But that's with lots of exercise, which is a big part of this lifestyle. Since our paleo ancestors were extremely active, walking miles, tracking game, fleeing beasts, we should be, too. You'll find a ton of paleo enthusiasts enjoying Crossfit. Google it. In a word, it's intense.
We do believe that being active everyday is essential to a healthy lifestyle. But we also hear from many active women who've tried eating paleo style, who say they don't drop the weight on this diet like men do. It's only when they cut back on calories that they start having some success. Personally, that's what we found when trying the paleo diet. All the emphasis on healthy fat was, well, a little unhealthy for weight loss. Even though we were eating the cleanest of meat and dairy products, one of us (Nancy) had a flare-up of gastritis and experienced other digestive problems along with the weight gain. It just goes to show that the Paleo approach does not work for everyone.
People who are successful on the Paleo Diet generally have moved to this lifestyle from the standard American diet of junk food and sugar. Of course, we agree that this is a nutritional improvement and applaud their efforts to get healthy.
Healthy Girlfriend likes the idea of a partially-paleo diet. We believe that a diet high in raw fruits and raw and cooked veggies along with an occasional (once a week or less) serving of clean animal protein such as wild salmon, is the best way to lose weight and get lots of minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients into your body. We also like the idea of including moderate amounts of organic grain such as corn or brown rice (and organic wheat if you don't have gluten sensitivity) and believe that they can be part of a healthy diet when not consumed in excess.
Most people who turn to a plant-based diet experience effortless weight loss as long as they put their focus on generous amounts of veggies, greens, and fruits. The hard truth is that even lean meat is a high-calorie, high fat food as is even the cleanest of dairy. Leaving those off your plate the majority of the time will automatically reduce your calorie intake without leaving you hungry. We also recommend limiting vegetable oils (even coconut and olive oil) and instead get your fat from a small amount of nuts, seeds, and healthy fats such as avocado. Breads, pastas, and white potatoes are best left off the menu until you've reached your desired weight.
Oh, and also, if you're going to eat animal products it's an especially good idea to look into colon cleansing, which you can read about here.
We always like to provide a daily menu for a typical day of Paleo Diet food. Paleo enthusiasts will tinker with the amounts shown according to individual appetites.
3 cage-free eggs scrambled in 1T grass-fed butter with 2 cups sautéed veggies such as onion, sweet and hot peppers + 2 slices nitrate-free bacon Optional: Coffee or tea
Large salad made with Romaine lettuce, baby greens, spinach (whatever combo you like) Generous portion of raw veggies such as onion, red pepper, radish, tomato Homemade vinaigrette to taste: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, mustard, sea salt 4-6 oz portion of grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, or wild salmon with a rub of herbs or spices
4-6 oz portion of grilled grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken or wild salmon, marinated in your favorite oil, herb, and lemon marinade Plenty of steamed or sautéed greens with grass-fed butter to taste Half of a medium-sized baked yam with coconut oil Berries for dessert, sweetened with small amount of honey Optional: One glass of red wine
Try to avoid snacking, but if you must, some raw veggies or a few macadamia nuts or walnuts are acceptable. But seriously, are you still hungry after all this food?!
Sorry, but even whole grain breads are not allowed on the Paleo Diet.