For my next installment of I Tried It So You Don’t Have To, I chose the ever-popular Paleo Diet.
Paleo is really similar to the Whole 30, but let me tell you why I didn’t do the Whole 30 for this post.
I’ve already reviewed the Whole 30, and I found a lot of scare tactics, inconsistencies with actual research/knowledge of physiology, and just plain idiocy in the approach and assertions (birth control increases risk of brain cancer??). Plus, the Whole 30 creators’ shitty tough love approach makes me want to barf and punch someone simultaneously.
I didn’t want to support their cause at all and this is why I went with the Paleo diet.
Paleo has most of the same rules as Whole 30, but is more relaxed in its delivery. Mess up on Paleo and you mess up. Mess up on Whole 30 and you’re back to day 1. Paleo isn’t a cleanse and short term solution like Whole 30; it’s meant to be more of a long-term lifestyle change.
That being said: Paleo or Whole 30, I still had to cut out a bunch of things that I love from my diet, and I wanted to get on with this thing already so I could get back to eating peanut butter.
I have to admit that the Paleo diet had been on my mind for a while, but I wasn’t able to convince myself to start spiralizing zucchini and pretending it’s pasta.
I also LOVE my 4% Greek yogurt every single morning for breakfast, but eventually I gritted my teeth and said goodbye to it for a week.
Otherwise, I was okay with the thought of giving up grains, legumes, other dairy, and sweets. Happily, I could still eat summer fruits. YAY!
Here’s what isn’t allowed on the Paleo diet and why (using my own mostly-sarcastic interpretation):
Dairy: People in Paleolithic times didn’t drink milk and besides, apparently milk causes inflammation and all sorts of horrible diseases.
Any legumes, including tofu and peanut butter: Lectins and toxins and phytates oh my!
Refined sugar or sweets of any kind (except for fruit, although I’m surprised that fruit is included, because did Paleolithic people have peaches from California?): Toxic sugar horribleness!
Grains or pseudograins like quinoa: because they contain lectins and EVIL GLUTEN that causes DISEASE! OMG OMG OMG!!
Any sweeteners: Processed chemical madness or ghastly toxic sugar!!
Alcohol: Made from grains, so see above.
Processed foods: Deadly and….processed!
Salt: Not sure, because any Paleo people who lived near an ocean or saltwater likely had salt.
Refined vegetable oils: Processed!
Potatoes, except for sweet potatoes: see below.
Meats on the Paleo diet should be pasture raised and if they’re not, they should be organic: because grains also do to animals what they supposedly do to us…?
The Paleo diet is high in fat, moderate in protein, and moderate to low in carbohydrate, with most of the carbs coming from fruit and sweet potatoes as far as I can tell.
All fats (except for trans fats, obvs), including a generous amount of saturated fats, are allowed on Paleo. Basically, if you want to eat a steak smothered in lard with a side of bacon, that’s allowed on the Paleo diet. So are Paleo cupcakes, Paleo brownies, and Paleo ice cream. But if you want to eat a cube of cheese, well, forget THAT! Not Paleo!!
There was nothing particularly nutritionally advantageous about the Paeolithic period itself – I mean, you know as well as I do that people didn’t live very long in those days, and they basically had to forage for everything. It’s also pretty impossible to eat a truly Paleolithic diet in this day and age – check out this great article in Scientific American about it.
Some of the rationales for why the ‘non Paleo’ foods aren’t allowed on this diet really are unconvincing.
Lectins and phytic acid: I often see diets using phytic acid and lectins as reasons for not eating grains and legumes.
The truth is that these compounds are at least partially destroyed by heat, sprouting, fermenting, and/or soaking…and are generally not an issue for most of the population.
That being said, some people may be sensitive to lectins – in which case, avoiding lectin foods may be warranted.
This article explains what you need to know about lectins.
As far as phytic acid is concerned, the issue is that it binds to iron, calcium, and zinc in our bodies.
However, it’s looking like phytic acid may actually have benefits that outweigh any of the (maybe imagined) risks. This article explains what you need to know about phytic acid. And FYI – almonds, which are allowed on the Paleo diet, are at the top of the list of high-phytic acid foods. So allowing them on this particular diet doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Dairy: The rationale for cutting out dairy is just as befuddled. Dr. Loren Cordain, the inventor of the Paleo diet, subscribes to the ‘dairy causes inflammation, autoimmune diseases, allergies, and other scary things’ concept as well as the argument that Paleolithic people didn’t drink milk.
Even though I think your diet can be healthy and not contain milk products, it’s lame to scare people or use silly rationales to convince people why they shouldn’t consume something. My blog post on dairy products contains all the research to rebut the anti-dairy argument, so I’m not going to repeat here.
Potatoes: I need to say something about Paleo’s hatred of white potatoes while allowing sweet potatoes.
Dr. Cordain writes that white potatoes aren’t Paleo because they’re high on the Glycemic Index. Sweet potatoes, however, are Paleo because they’re lower on the Glycemic Index than white potatoes. This may be true if you’re gnawing on a raw potato. If you’re boiling the potato, it’s going to lower the GI of it. If you’re adding butter to it (or coconut oil…sorry, Paleo), you’re lowering the GI as well. The glycemic load of boiled white potatoes is lower than that of boiled sweet potatoes. So putting sweet potatoes on the Paleo diet and restricting white potatoes doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.
Cutting out added sugars, refined vegetable oils, and ultra-processed foods doesn’t bother me as much. I just don’t think you need to cut things completely out of your diet all the time in order to be healthy. Although many people don’t do well in the long-term by such restrictive diets, some people are fine with them. This is okay, because not everyone is the same and there’s no one-size fits all prescription for nutrition.
I know that many of you have a preconceived notion of dietitians being vehemently against restrictive diets like this one, but I’m actually not.
If you don’t want to eat certain foods, just ensure your diet is otherwise complete – meaning, you’re still getting all the nutrients that your body needs.
I have plenty of clients who avoid dairy, and I’m the first person to tell you that you don’t need milk products to get your daily dose of calcium. You do need to get it, then, from leafy greens, nuts, and other plant-based calcium sources, which can be done. Want to cut out grains? Sure, go right ahead. Get your fiber, B vitamins, and proteins from beans, vegetables, and other foods. Supplements can be used as ‘insurance’ to get micronutrients, but really, getting your vitamins and minerals from foods is best. So please don’t think you can just pop a pill and get everything you need.
So how did I do on the Paleo diet?
I don’t really want to be on a Paleo diet beyond this blog post, because I don’t feel the need to eliminate the forbidden Paleo foods from my life.
Here’s what I ate on a typical day:
Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with vegetables.
Snacks, am and pm: fruit, nuts (sigh)…really nothing else
Lunch: A huge salad with 2 small cans of tuna and ½ an avocado, and balsamic vinegar.
Dinner: Some sort of protein and tons of vegetables.
Snack: Nuts. Fruit.
I lost 1 lb in a week, which shocked me. I think I had been eating a lot of popcorn with melted peanut butter and this diet put the kibosh on that. Paleo sweets are a thing though, and if you do this diet, it’s important to remember that crap is crap…even if it’s Paleo crap.
What I did notice was that I gravitated towards almonds and fruits a lot during the week because I didn’t really know what else to eat.
The Paleo diet takes some thought – you can’t really fly by the seat of your pants, because you’ll find yourself eating nuts three times a day like I did. And fruit – I’m not even sure that the amount of fruit I ate was even legal on the Paleo diet, but at that point I wasn’t in the mood to care. I think those kinks would be ironed out though if I did the diet for longer. Paleo snacks like boiled eggs, roasted vegetables, and avocado are easy to pack and eat and if I did this diet again, I think I’d eat more of those things.
I didn’t find that my workouts were affected at all. Unlike when I was doing intermittent fasting, with Paleo I had energy and could run no problem.
All in all, the Paleo diet was a lot like my normal diet, minus the milk products and chickpeas. For people who eat a lot of processed food, this diet is going to be tougher to implement, but it’s not that difficult to do and I can imagine doing it long term without many issues.
The Paleo diet is pretty strict, but if it works for you, then sure, go right ahead.
If you’re a vegetarian, I’m not sure how you’d do the Paleo diet at all: you’d eat a shitload of eggs. Forget it altogether if you’re a vegan.
The Paleo diet is pretty realistic in terms of sustainability. You can eat a full and healthy diet while restricting the foods the Paleo diet doesn’t allow.
People who normally eat a lot of processed food may find it difficult to adjust to the Paleo diet, but they can do it!
If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll probably find yourself eating a lot of nuts and other easy Paleo foods. Be ready to cook for yourself.
That being said, if you restrict foods from your diet, it should be because of a legitimate, well-founded reason. I found a lot of unconvincing reasons why certain foods aren’t allowed on the Paleo diet.
The Paleo diet, if followed properly, includes grass-fed meat. This can get really expensive.
Paleo sweets and junk food are lipstick on a pig. In other words, still junk and still shouldn’t be eaten regularly. They are NOT healthier because they’re made with coconut oil…
Ratings, on a scale of 0: really poor to 5: really good
Sustainability: It really depends on who you are, but average would be 3/5
How I felt physically: 5/5 How I felt mentally: 4/5
Weight lost: 1lb in a week
The Bottom Line:
The Paleo diet is a diet that can be nutritionally complete and may work for some people.