If you’re new to paleo and you’ve landed here at my little corner of the Internet, I’d like to extend you a warm welcome.
When I looked back through the past 4+ years of paleo blogging, I realized I didn’t have a good post for people wanting to give paleo a try. And since it’s New Year’s Day, I thought this a perfect time to do it.
You see, a lot has changed about paleo as a way of eating in the last six years. I “went paleo” on January 10, 2010. (I have a good memory.) The community was much smaller back then, and there weren’t the hundreds—maybe thousands—of blogs, cookbooks, and pre-packaged products with the word “paleo” stamped on them. It seemed like pretty much everyone, myself included, was eating according to The Paleo Diet®.
The problem with “diets” is they’re one-size-fits all. Can’t make yourself fit and follow perfectly? You fail. It’s a lose-lose.
If you’re here to try something new, it can be really exciting.
But arriving on the shores of paleo-land and wanting to explore everything it has to offer often results in one thing for newcomers: confusion.
I’m going to outline the challenges for users as I see it in this post and give you a practical 3-step solution for navigating your way through the paleo jungle.
For the tl;dr version, skip to the bottom Summary section.
A Diet vs. A Lifestyle
The first challenge newbies often stumble across is the different ways the word paleo is used. On one hand, it refers to a trademarked diet plan with very strict yes / no rules. On the other, it describes a lifestyle, a way of eating, a philosophy about which foods to include to “look, feel, and perform” (to quote Robb Wolf) better that has no consistent set of rules.
Some recipes have dairy, some include acellular starches or even gluten-free grains. Some blogs have nothing but dessert recipes.
People wanting to try paleo for the first time get frustrated because one website says this while the other says that.
How the hell are you supposed to figure out which foods are right and which foods are wrong? (Spoiler, the answer isn’t what you think.)
The Problem with Labels
Call it human nature, but we want to label everything and fit complex ideas like nutrition and fitness into tiny, neat boxes thankyouverymuch.
We don’t like messy, intricate stuff. If it’s black / white or yes / no, it’s so much easier that way! (Or is it?) No more pesky grey areas or “maybe” circumstances that require us to think about and experiment with things. That requires work, and our brains compel us to seek the simple prescription.
So when trying to explain a grey area like human nutrition or an ideal way of eating, we use massive heuristics.
A heuristic is a way to summarize something so we can make quick and efficient decisions about it. Think of it as a “rule of thumb.”
Inevitably, this leads to the most popular question I’ve ever been asked: “Is _______ Paleo?”
- Are green beans paleo?
- Are potatoes paleo?
- Is grassfed Kerrygold butter paleo?
- Are these energy bars paleo?
- Are cookies made with gluten-free acellular starches and soy-free chocolate chips paleo?
If you’re treating paleo as a quick-fix diet with a set of strict yes / no rules which completely ignore your personal context and needs, these questions are simple to answer because these rules of thumb have been defined.
Can you be militantly strict and follow this yes / no list for a short period of time? Sure. Is it sustainable? Not for most people.
If you want improved health for 70 years, not just 7 days, it takes a different mindset.
2016 is the year I stop answering the question, “Is ________ Paleo?” for you. Keep reading for the strategy to answer this question for yourself.
“Please just tell me exactly what to eat and exactly how much of it to eat so I can lose weight.”
You are not a machine. It’s not as simple as adding a predetermined amount of fuel, turning the key, and watching you motor off into the sunset.
I hate to use this phrase, but you are indeed a unique snowflake. This is infinitely frustrating because many people who’ve made the commitment to work on their health just want simple answers, dammit.
- Should I eat _______?
- How much of this is too much?
- How can I lose weight?
- Is this food good for me?
- Is this food bad for me?
Remember our friend the heuristic? I can tell you in general what we know works for most people but I can’t tell you—just by a quick glance—what will work exactly for you. Even if we sit down and take your health history, preferences, and goals into consideration, what will work exactly for you now is unlikely to be exactly what’ll work for you in 1 year, 10 years, or 50 years.
If you care about losing 5 pounds the fastest way possible, I can tell you a simple answer: don’t eat anything for a week. Done.
Will you keep it off once you eat again? No. Is it sustainable? No. Is it an optimal way to lose weight? Don’t even get me started.
So, you see, telling everyone, “Go low carb,” or, “Eat lots of fermented foods,” or, “To do paleo, just eat XYZ,” may be simple but it removes the most important part of the equation: what’s right for you.
What’s Popular Isn’t Always What’s Right
What I’m about to say will probably ruffle feathers and make some people mad.
It’s not my job to follow what’s popular…it’s to give you the best guidance possible.
Paleo is so full of processed foods now that the original heuristic has been rendered virtually meaningless unless you think critically.
Paleo used to mean—and perhaps it still does to some—to focus a majority of your food choices on minimally processed, highly nutritious whole foods like meat, seafood, eggs; veggies, starchy veggies, fruit; and healthy fats.
Now it means—to some—how much marketers and manufacturers can get away with to stamp the word “paleo” on their product. The reality is that paleo is a buzz word worth a lot of money because it signifies something healthier which marketers can then persuade you is superior and you should buy.
I’m not against capitalism and filling real needs in the market, but as a consumer, you have to ask yourself what it all means.
When I see a pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped, shelf-stable “paleo” muffin, I sort of scratch my head because it doesn’t fit that original heuristic (minimally processed, highly nutritious whole foods like meat, seafood, eggs; veggies, starchy veggies, fruit; and healthy fats).
Let me be clear: I’m not against the occasional treat and I’m certainly not advocating a perfectionist, orthorexic approach to nutrition. But remember, you need to clearly think about if these things are right for you given your context.
Some will argue that these options give people a healthier alternative and help people transition to a better way of eating. I’m not 100% against that, but we can do better and the messaging put out there does matter.
Okay, at the risk of sounding too Eeyore, it’s time to talk about solutions and strategies.
A Paleo User’s Manual
Step 1: Apply the Original Heuristic
Choose high nutrient-density, minimally processed whole foods like meat, seafood, eggs; veggies, starchy veggies, fruit; and healthy fats a majority of the time.
Nutrient-dense foods contain lots of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, etc in proportion to their caloric value or macronutrient ratio. Basically, choose foods that contain a lot of nutrient bang for the calorie buck.
Make it a game: How much nutrition can you pack into your day?
Can you swap your protein sources for those with more vitamins or from higher-quality sources?
Can you add one more vegetable to your routine?
Can you start to fortify your nutrition with powerhouses like fermented foods or bone broth?
Step 2: Is It Minimally Processed?
Next I’ll present a couple questions (inspired by super smart friend of mine Jamie Scott) to ask yourself when selecting the foods to eat for a healthier lifestyle. First:
Is this food minimally processed?
The most nutrient-dense, optimal foods are by nature minimally (or not at all) processed.
Where do we draw the line at what processed means? Technically, cooking and preserving are processing but let’s be frank: eating a strictly raw food diet isn’t possible (or optimal) for most people.
And here’s where some critics throw punches at paleo. “Well, we aren’t hunter-gatherers anymore, so why bother trying to eat that way?” We cannot replicate the exact foods that were available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors because…evolution. But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Make the majority of those foods you eat minimally processed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t opt for some items of convenience such as canned full-fat coconut milk or jarred tomato sauce or that you can’t cook your food.
But think about food items with “paleo” stamped them.
Just be reasonable: eating a lot of highly processed foods that have been stripped of fiber and contain preservatives, even if they fit the paleo heuristic by technicality isn’t optimal.
Step 3: Is It Right For Me?
Remember that pesky grey area I mentioned that requires us to think about our unique needs, challenges, health status, and goals? It’s time to address it.
Even if a food passes the first two tests, it may fail this next question:
Is it right for me?
I’m sorry, but there’s no prescription that works for everyone. If there was, I’d be sipping bone broth on a tropical island, enjoying early retirement.
This is why I’m a huge advocate of doing a 30-day elimination when you first start your paleo journey.
You get to press the reset button for a month and temporarily avoid the foods that can be problematic for many people. The journey doesn’t end there though. Think of a short-term elimination as a reconnaissance mission. You’re gathering data to help you forge the path forward.
If you want better long-term health, you’ve got to do some tinkering.
Please don’t approach paleo as a simple one-size-fits-all prescription.
Paleo challenges and other detox programs aren’t a way to eat for the rest of your life. Strict—dare I say, generic—yes / no rules don’t take your needs into consideration. They’re also unnecessarily restrictive when you consider that long-term optimal health can be achieved with a less intense approach.
I can’t tell you what ratio optimal / less-than-optimal foods is right for you. Is it 80 / 20? 90 / 10? I don’t know. I’m not you.
Make a majority of the foods you eat fall into the category of minimally processed foods that are right for you.
A perfect example is someone like my husband. He has a histamine intolerance. Most basic paleo elimination diets actually encourage the foods that flare his intolerance such as eggs, fermented foods, avocado, spinach, even leftover meat.
Your unique health challenges may mean that yes, you always eliminate certain foods.
For example, if you’re a Celiac, please avoid gluten. If you have an autoimmune condition, you’ll want to avoid nightshades. If you have a legit allergy or you hate a certain food, respect that.
You may also push the boat in a certain direction given your context. Doing lots of CrossFit / high-intensity training? Include more carbs. Dealing with insulin resistance? You’ll likely want to be more conservative with your carb intake. That’s just one example of many.
Take My Advice…
I’ve helped thousands of people transition to a paleo lifestyle, and here’s my best advice:
If you’re new, go slow and keep it simple.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about all the supposed “rules” of paleo and get analysis paralysis.
You’re not going to figure it out overnight. Sometimes it’ll feel hard. You won’t always get it right. Perfection is not the goal.
Start by cutting out junk food. Make better choices. Apply the three steps outlined in this article.
Don’t let stress over food choices make your progress a moot point.
A truly healthier lifestyle can’t be achieved only by focusing on food, but trying to make too many changes at the beginning is too much for many people. After you’ve been making better dietary choices for a while and you’ve got the hang of it, think about where you can work on better sleep, movement, exercise, and stress management.
Think about what you can sustain for decades, not just days.
- “Paleo” the way most blogs / books are using it these days means an overall way of eating or a lifestyle. However, many users try to follow a rigid set of rules long-term, and fail to take their needs into consideration. This creates dissonance.
- People love heuristics because they make complex, grey area topics simpler to navigate. However, heuristics are often problematic because they fail to take individual needs into consideration.
- Deciding which foods are “paleo” has become more confusing as manufacturers take advantage of this growing and relatively untapped market.
- Start with a basic template, then tweak according to your context.
- When deciding which foods you should eat, apply these 3 questions:
- Am I selecting highly nutrient-dense, minimally processed whole foods like meat, seafood, eggs; veggies, starchy veggies, fruit; and healthy fats a majority of the time?
- Is this food minimally processed?
- Is this food right for me?
- Go slow and keep it simple.