In the last few years, paleo has become one of the most Googled diets in the world. It has attracted the likes of Jessica Biel, Mathew McConaughey and many other celebs, elite athletes and famous chefs. Its simple philosophy of eating real, unprocessed whole foods and natural living, together with an impressive resume of health benefits and weight loss stories, has turned the paleo diet from a fad trend to a permanent lifestyle choice for many people around the world.
Like with any new trend or movement, for every paleo enthusiast there are twice the critics. The diet – based on excluding grains, legumes, processed sugar, and most dairy – is often scrutinized and portrayed as being unrealistic, nutritionally unbalanced and meat heavy. Yet, despite appearances, there is much more to paleo than you think, and it is a diet that can work in a modern world.
1. All we eat is meat and it will kill us
Here’s what you might have heard about the paleo diet that’s wrong
Paleo is ultimately a label and because of its name origin – paleolithic - it is often associated with the caveman era and lots of meat. In reality, paleo is not as much about eating lots of meat as it is about consuming the most nutrient dense foods available, which animal protein happens to be one of. Still, protein is only a small part of a bigger picture.
The diet is actually 60-70 per cent plant based and any experienced paleo-ite will tell you that we eat more vegetables than a vegetarian. At least half of a plate at any given meal should be comprised of veggies - we’re talking 8-10 cups of vegetables per day here. Does that sound like an “all meat” diet to you? Didn’t think so!
The dangers of meat are often misunderstood
For starters, it’s a myth that meat rots in our colon – it gets broken down by stomach acids and digestive enzymes into amino acids and fatty acids, which are absorbed into the blood stream and the rest travels to the exit gate.
Meat also gets lumped into the ‘danger’ category because of its saturated fat and cholesterol content. The fact is that our body needs cholesterol for many of its physiological functions and it’s only a specific type of lipo-proteins (small and dense LDL particles that carry the cholesterol around the body) that are considered damaging. This damage is caused by inflammation, which is now believed to be one of the major causes of heart disease and cardio vascular disease. Inflammation is caused by excess carbohydrates and sugar, inflammatory foods, lack of exercise, unbalanced gut flora and exposure to toxins – all of which the paleo lifestyle tries to address.
However, it must be noted that there are some dangers in meat consumption and they are to do with the type of meat and how it’s prepared.
Most of the meat we consume today is muscle meat which is high in methionine. It is an essential amino-acid which is thought to speed up the aging process. However, when consumed together with another amino-acid called glycine, the methionine seems to perform its duties, minus the damage. Foods high in glycine are connective tissue, gelatin, bones, bone broth, offal and all the unappealing bits of the animal – all the stuff we as a society stopped eating.
Another meat danger we should be concerned with is the carcinogens that can develop in highly heat-processed, charred meat. These have been linked to certain cancers and should be reduced by avoiding the burnt parts of the steak; using wet, braising and slow cooking methods; and marinating the meat in an acidic mixture for half an hour before grilling, which decreases the production of carcinogens by 80-90 per cent.
The moral of this meat story is pick your protein wisely – grass fed, free range, nose-to-tail, unprocessed - as much as possible, and use a variety of cooking methods rather than defaulting to a BBQ.
2. It’s strictly low-carb
Because the paleo diet avoids most primary starch staples such as rice, pasta, bread or other baked goods, it is often considered low in carbohydrates. If that is what an average person consumes throughout the day, then they will certainly be reducing their carbohydrate intake when switching to a paleo type diet.
However, as covered above, the paleo diet includes lots of starchy and non-starchy vegetables and fruit, and these foods happen to be fantastic, nutrient dense source of carbohydrates. Some people even choose to include white potatoes and white rice on occasion.
So, unless you’re following a specific low-carbohydrate protocol – such as a ketogenic diet, in which you’re eliminating all fruit and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes - you’re not really eating ‘low-carb’. You should be within a low-to-medium range, which is healthy and balanced for almost every body.
3. We’re trying to mimic the cavemen
Ah, the famous rebuttal: “But the cavemen only lived until the age 30. Why would you want to eat like a caveman?”
For starters, the cavemen didn’t die young because of their diets but due to environmental factors, infections, injuries, lack of medical aid, and even lack of food – things that are no longer applicable in today’s living conditions. We’re not trying to be like the cavemen – we don’t run around in loincloths or hunt our food. We hit the grocery store and order it online like everyone else (although occasional wild foraging and visits to the farms are highly encouraged).
Paleo simply takes cues from our ancestors but only in a way that learns what we as humans have thrived on for a long time, be it the food we ate or the lifestyle we led. That anthropological knowledge is then combined with the current research and studies to form the basis of the paleo framework. That framework is then adapted to the individual based on their current health, goals, and their biological uniqueness.
4. It’s nutritionally unbalanced
Paleo excludes food groups, which we’ve been told are good for us, so it’s only logical that many dismiss it for being nutritionally balanced. However, grains and legumes are nowhere near as nutrient dense as the foods promoted in the paleo diet - grass-fed meat, eggs, fish, seafood, healthy fats, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds.
Sure, if you’re only focusing on meat with a side of meat and you stick to the same three vegetables day in and day out, you might end up falling short. The same can be said about a vegetarian who only eats French fries and hummus on bread. However, if you’re doing it right, the paleo diet should provide you with everything you need.
Vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds offer antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre in abundance. Plenty of greens means you’ll be receiving your daily dose of vitamins A, E, C and K pretty effortlessly. Eating a variety of poultry, eggs, fish and red meat ensures you will receive enough B-vitamins, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.
Worried about calcium? Don’t be. Although dairy is a high source of calcium, it is also available in foods such as oily fish and seafood, green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, dried fruit and herbs. In addition, grains and legumes are high in phytic acid - an antinutrient that binds to minerals such as calcium, preventing their absorption in the body. Exclude those, make sure to get enough vitamin D and magnesium for optimal calcium absorption, and maintain a varied paleo diet, and such deficiency becomes obsolete.
Speaking of variety, it’s the key to making sure a paleo diet is indeed nutritionally complete, so let’s get to our last myth…
5. It’s boring and restrictive
Here’s where you’re really wrong. A lot of people tend to focus on what you can’t eat and see paleo as a sort of an elimination diet, but the key to enjoying this lifestyle is to focus on what you can eat - and there’s plenty to dig in to!
By sourcing quality foods and getting creative in the kitchen, it’s easy to create recipes and meals that taste absolutely incredible. In the world of paleo, nothing is actually completely out of bounds. You can create a paleo pizza
or a batch of chocolate muffins
by simply switching a few ingredients. You can replace rice with cauliflower rice like in this pumpkin daal dish
and you can get your takeout fix with this Korean-inspired chicken
recipe. The sky is the limit.
To sum up, let’s make one thing clear.
there is no “perfect” way of eating for everyone, and that’s true of paleo too
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While it sounds restrictive initially, the main take away is that we’re just trying to eat whole, unprocessed food as often as possible.
Paleo is not a one-fits-all formula: it’s whatever you want it to be. You don’t need to follow it 100 per cent to gain the benefits either. Just eat real food – or #JERF as we like to call it – and aim for more veggies, protein and healthy fats over processed carbs and refined sugar, and you will be on your way to a happier body. This is not a myth!
Irena Macri is the creator of Eat Drink Paleo food blog and the co-founder of the 9-week Happy Body Formula program.