What you can and can’t eat on the paleo diet

When it comes to diets, sometimes going back to the basics is a great choice.

Taking inspiration from our human hunter-gatherer ancestors, have you tried the paleo diet?

A brief history of the paleo diet

The paleo diet is unique, bringing us back to the presumed diets of our predecessors during the Paleolithic era (from 10,000) years ago. It is also called by other names like the caveman diet, Stone Age diet and the hunter-gatherer diet.

The human diet is permanently changing and has evolved from hunting and gathering to farming, and moved on even further – currently, we are on conveniently mass-produced, highly processed foods. 

Time to get back to basics! Paleo comes from the hypothesis that the bodies of modern-day humans remain essentially unaffected from the Paleolithic era and that our present diets are out of sync with what our bodies actually need for optimum function.

How to make the paleo diet work for you?

If you’re curious about the paleo diet but don’t feel you want to be so rigid in following it, you don’t have to be. For your approach, consider adopting some eating patterns from paleo and cutting the ones that don’t work for you. 

For instance, try eating more fruits and vegetables and lessening added sugars. If you feel uncertain about grains or dairy, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian to resolve what’s most suitable for your body.

Although there’s no scientific evidence to back up some claims about the diet, many still practise it. For example, advocates of the paleo diet state wheat consumption links to chronic digestive and inflammatory illnesses, although there’s no substantial proof that people who have not been diagnosed with autoimmune celiac disease should avoid wheat and other gluten-laden foods [1]. 

The paleo diet eliminates dairy because its supporters say many people are lactose intolerant and because consuming dairy associates with Crohn’s disease, among other claims. While you wouldn’t want to eat lactose (a sugar found in dairy) if your body can’t take it, there is no proof that dairy causes Crohn’s or aggravates signs in those diagnosed.

Which foods to eat during Paleo Diet?

It is relatively easy to choose which to eat based on if your predecessors could hunt or gather it; it is allowed on paleo [2]. 

The list includes:

Eggs: are allowed because they are high in protein, B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In addition, they are affordable and easy to prepare. Organic and organic cage-free eggs are suggested for a higher omega-3 content than eggs from chickens raised in cages.

Nuts and seeds: are full of healthy fats, fibre and protein; they were foraged in prehistoric times, so you stock up on them. Remember that peanuts are not paleo because they are technically legumes.

Paleo Nuts & Seeds

  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts
  • Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • Sunflower seeds

Healthy oils: oils are a bit trickier. Loren Cordain, PhD of The Paleo Diet Movement, details which are healthy for paleo: avocado, coconut, flaxseed, macadamia, olive and walnut oils are allowed, as they are directly from the plant. 

While our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely did not ingest flaxseed oil, it is included in the diet because of it contains high alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid.

Paleo Oils

  • Avocado oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Macadamia oil
  • Olive oil
  • Walnut oil

Fresh fruits and vegetables: although there is an argument over the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, they are full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. The only concern for paleo dieters is that some vegetables are starchy (potatoes), and some fruits are higher in sugar (bananas). 

Eat these in moderation if you’re trying to lose weight or watch your blood sugar levels. Potatoes are even banned from some strict versions of the diet.

Paleo Fruits

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries: including blackberries, blueberries and strawberries
  • Citrus fruits
  • Grapes
  • Melon
  • Peaches
  • Plums

Paleo Vegetables

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes

Grass-fed meat: choosing grass-fed is more nutritious for you and more comparable to what our ancestors ate. Most meat and seafood fit on a paleo diet. 

Meat is a source of lean protein; the building block of all cells and tissues. Look out for pre-marinated and cured meats that may contain added sugar. 

Look for chicken raised without antibiotics, also try to get your meat from a local farm and learn more about how it was raised [3]. Choosing wild seafood over farm-caught may aid with boosting your omega-3 intake, and it’s not always the case, but better look for wild salmon and other sustainably-caught seafood when eating paleo.

Paleo Meat & Seafood

  • Bacon
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Cod
  • Pork
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Turkey

Which foods to avoid

A simple guideline is, if it looks like it was from a factory, don’t eat it.

  • Artificial sweeteners: acesulfame potassium, aspartame, sucralose, cyclamates, saccharin – use natural sweeteners instead.
  • Dairy: Avoid most dairy, especially low-fat (some versions of paleo do include full-fat dairy like butter and cheese).
  • Grains: Includes bread and pasta, wheat, spelt, rye, barley and others.
  • Highly processed foods: Everything labelled “diet” or “low-fat” has many additives.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils and many others.
  • Some vegetable oils: corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil
  • Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup: candy, fruit juices, soft drinks, table sugar, pastries, ice cream and many others.
  • Trans fats: are usually called “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.

Remember that paleo is both a diet and a lifestyle. Although it doesn’t propose going full-on hunter-gatherers, it highlights doing as much physical activity as possible. Also, consult a medical practitioner before starting any diets, especially if you have underlying conditions to be considered.

[1] https://www.everydayhealth.com/celiac-disease/guide/
[2] https://www.eatingwell.com/article/290612/the-complete-paleo-diet-food-list-what-to-eat-and-what-to-avoid/
[3] https://www.eatingwell.com/article/290142/clean-eating-buyers-guide-to-chicken/

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