Obviously, I talk a lot about eating Paleo. And how can I help it when it’s been so instrumental in my healing? But I also know that the idea of a “restricted” diet can turn off a lot of people. There a lot of myths and misperceptions about Paleo, and one of the biggest is that it automatically translates to a strict diet that might seem far too difficult to follow. Some might even argue that Paleo’s restrictions could potentially make it unhealthy. But the truth is, there is more than one way to pursue Paleo. Unless you’re a Paleo purist, there are actually various ways of embracing primal-inspired eating, and there’s a good chance you can easily make Paleo work for you.
Before buying into some of the misinformed hype, there are some concepts to keep in mind. If you’re considering how to make Paleo work for you, here are some variations of the Paleo diet, and some important notes to remember:
What is Paleo?
The Paleo diet is a lifestyle nutrition plan which looks to mimic the ways our primal ancestors ate, long before alarming epidemics of diseases like cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders existed. (This is not to say none of these diseases existed; but it’s believed they did not strike nearly at the rate they do today.)
Paleo (derived from the word “Paleolithic”) focuses on eating unprocessed, real, whole foods: organic vegetables and fruits, healthy fats, nuts and seeds, and proteins from animals raised in their natural habitats and on the foods they’re meant to eat (think grass-fed/grass-finished beef, pasture-raised poultry, and wild-caught seafood). It generally omits inflammatory and high glycemic foods like grains, legumes, and most forms of sugar. The result is a clean, nutrient-dense, low-glycemic, anti-inflammatory diet that promotes optimal health. It has become popular among the CrossFit crowd, and appears to be particularly effective for those battling autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
Paleo is Meant to Inspire, Not Be Taken Literally
It’s important to note that Paleo is not meant to be taken literally, as it is impossible to eat the exact foods that our ancestors ate. The idea is to mimic Paleolithic nutrition the best we can with the foods we have available today. We might not be hunting wild boar and gathering berries, but we do have access to pasture-raised beef and organic fruits, for example. (And it’s true that Paleolithic man never ate brownies made with coconut flour and raw honey, but in our sugar-obsessed world, even Paleo folk like to occasionally enjoy a relatively healthy treat. Won’t you have mercy on us?)
If the primal part is still throwing you, it might help to simply think of it as a “clean eating” plan, which includes eliminating processed foods and unhealthy additives, consuming animal proteins raised in their natural habitats and on their proper diets, and eating veggies and fruits raised without synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The idea is to choose whole foods or nutrient-dense foods that have been minimally processed.
Paleo is Not One-Size-Fits-All
To assume that any diet or nutrition plan is one-size-fits-all is just plain silly. Paleo, like most other nutrition plans, should be used as a guide. Not everyone tolerates the same foods, so you have to figure out what works for you and tailor your nutrition to meet your individual needs. Some of us can handle certain “approved” Paleo foods, and some of us can’t. For example, I don’t do well with kale, tomatoes, most raw veggies, or nuts in large amounts. But that doesn’t mean these foods are unhealthy or that Paleo isn’t right for me! It just means I need to make some personal adjustments.
Additionally, how much one eats, or in what ratios one eats (such as protein to veggie ratio) depends on each individual’s complex circumstances: activity level, genetics, health conditions and physiological vulnerabilities, and even how our systems may have been altered by surgery (my two surgeries, for example, have altered my digestive tract and therefore, have changed some of the foods I can or cannot digest properly.)
You are unique. Instead of looking at the rules of Paleo and letting them box you in, use Paleo as a guide and tweak it so that it works for you.
The 80/20 Rule: You Don’t Have to be “Paleo Perfect” All the Time
Depending on the state of your health, you may not have to be strictly Paleo 100% of the time. For many, the 80/20 rule is a more realistic way to follow a Paleo diet. It basically means that you adhere to a strict Paleo diet about 80% of the time, and enjoy some non-Paleo foods about 20% of the time.
For example, you may choose to adhere to Paleo, say, on weekdays or when eating at home, but then have some “cheat” meals on the weekends or when eating out. It’s a realistic way of eating healthier most of the time, but also allowing yourself some leeway when Paleo eating isn’t convenient or when you simply feel like indulging a little.
This is a great way to incorporate enough healthy changes to make a positive difference, but not get burned out and consequently abandon your Paleo habits altogether. Eating healthy for 80(ish)% of the time is certainly better than not doing it all! And it may be enough to make a favorable impact on your health. (Note: I wouldn’t recommend the 80/20 rule if you’re trying to reverse or heal from an illness. It’s more appropriate for relatively healthy individuals.)
Does Paleo Mean I Have to Eat Enormous Amounts of Meat?
No! This is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Paleo. Believe it or not, we are not all bacon-obsessed, knuckle-dragging modern day cavemen. Actually, Paleo is largely about eating lots of veggies. I’m always sure to pair vegetables with any animal proteins I consume for optimal digestion, so veggies are never in short supply. In fact, I eat more veggies now than I ever did previously (including a time when I ate a mostly plant-based diet). The proteins you consume (and the amounts in which you consume them) will come down to your individual needs and preferences. Some people require more protein than others, some less. Some people will choose to limit their meat and fish consumption and supplement with alternative proteins, like eggs and nuts.
Even some vegans have gotten on board the Paleo train, either by incorporating some Paleo principles while still avoiding animal products, or by allowing some animal proteins in their diets as they feel appropriate, such as in the Pegan diet (a hybrid of the Paleo and vegan diets).
For me, incorporating properly-raised animal proteins has been key to my healing. I previously avoided red meat, chicken, and fish a good portion of the time (simply because I preferred the taste of pastas and legumes instead), but it became clear over time that these kind of animal proteins are necessary for my healing. My body told me what I needed: I went from feeling terrible to having a quality of life again. It may take some experimenting, but listen to your body.
The “Gray” Areas: Grains, Legumes, and Dairy (and Alcohol)
Typically, grains, legumes, dairy are considered no-no’s on the Paleo diet. But for a lot of Paleo eaters, these categories are considered gray areas. Some Paleo advocates consider legumes okay to eat, for example, while some don’t. I love legumes and used to rely on them for a huge portion of my diet. (Unfortunately, I learned that wasn’t working for me and don’t do that anymore; but if I could enjoy legumes in moderation and not get sick, you better believe I would!)
By the same token, there are some “cheat” foods that I might be able to tolerate in small amounts (like rice, for example), while the next person may have an unpleasant reactions to that same food. One of my favorite cheat foods is gluten-free pizza (i.e. grains and dairy), and I seem to do okay with it, whereas others can’t tolerate grains and dairy in any amount. If you’re someone who feels better having some grains in your diet, why not incorporate some whole grains (gluten-free, preferably) in moderation? I promise: the Paleo Police are not going to come get you.
Alcohol could also fall in this category. Cocktails aren’t on the typical Paleo menu, but there are Paleo eaters that allow certain alcoholic beverages from time to time. (Cheers to those who can tolerate enjoying a cocktail every now and then. I’m not one of them, but wish I was!)
The bottom line with Paleo gray areas: if you can tolerate it, then eating certain non-Paleo foods in moderation might be okay for you. Of course, if you do choose to indulge in some of these gray areas, it’s best to stick with the cleanest and least processed versions.
Know Your Own Limits
Even though breaking some Paleo rules and indulging in some gray areas may be okay for certain people, some of us have to accept that we do have limitations. Some of us may have to follow our diets more strictly than others. This especially applies to those of us using food to reverse or heal from illness. Some of us may even have to go further than Paleo at times, such as following the Autoimmune Protocol when needed.
Gluten-containing foods, specifically, should usually be avoided in people with autoimmune disease because of the havoc it can wreak on the gut and the immune system. Someone not suffering from autoimmune disease, on the other hand, might be able to moderately consume wheat and other glutenous foods without the same reactions.
Making Paleo Work for You
At the end of the day, remember that the most important part of Paleo is eating a clean, whole food, nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic diet. How you specifically go about achieving this can vary to a certain extent. It’s okay to tailor your nutritional needs to make Paleo work for you, and do what’s best for your individual needs. If you’re new to Paleo and would like professional guidance, be sure to seek help from a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner.
(Note: this post contains affiliate links. To learn more about what that means, click here.)
Further reading about the Paleo diet:
Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC
Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe, NTP
Perfect Health Diet by Paul Jaminet, PhD and Shou-Ching Jaminet, PhD
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