In transitioning to a paleo diet from either a vegetarian diet, an industrial food/Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), or a conventional low-fat “healthy” diet (dry whole wheat toast with skinless chicken breast, etc.), following three simple guidelines during meal preparation will get you most of the way there:
- Replace a grain-product (like bread or pasta) with a vegetable.
- Replace a sweet beverage with a non-sweet beverage.
- Slightly increase “good fat” content.
You might replace a cereal+milk+OJ breakfast with a vegetable-cheese omelet and coffee. For lunch, a sandwich and a soda might get replaced with sauteed salmon and vegetables and a salad, with either water or tea.
What are the “good fats”?
- Butter from grass-fed cows (high in Omega-3’s and vitamin K2)
- Coconut oil (medium-chain fatty acids that increase metabolism)
- Extra-virgin olive oil (monosaturated fats, which are associated with lower BMI for some genotypes — specifically one or two G’s at rs1801282 [23andme account required])
- Fresh nuts and seeds (which contain protein as well as fat, and are loaded with minerals and vitamins)
If you follow those three rules, you’re most of the way there.
What Are The Benefits?
If you’ve been eating a Standard American or vegetarian diet for twenty or thirty years and you’re in perfect health, good for you. Don’t change a thing. Why are you even reading this blog post?
For myself and many other people, neither of those options led to perfect health. As a vegetarian, I was lean, but found it impossible to put on muscle (I realize this is NOT true for many vegetarians — I’m speaking for myself only). I was also hungry all the time, never feeling satisfied after a meal. I also had bad gas and other digestive issues.
Adding meat again, my digestion improved, but in my thirties I gained weight, and began to experience asthma symptoms which continued for many years.
Switching to a more-or-less paleo diet, I experienced the following:
- fat loss, waist back down to 29″
- strength gains — I’m not a gym rat but I can do several pullups while my 40lb daughter is holding on to my legs — at age 43 this is the strongest I’ve been in my life
- cessation of asthma symptoms (paleo + supplement vitamin D)
- fewer colds and flu, on average once a year instead of three or four times a year
- more restful sleep
Does the same hold true for everybody? Nope — everyone’s different. But many people experience positive results from reducing gluten, sugar, and starch, and increase vegetables, and modestly increasing protein and good fats.
The last few years I’ve relaxed my diet a bit, adding back some gluten-free grains (brown rice mostly) and well-cooked beans. If I consume these foods in small amounts then I don’t notice any negative health consequences. If I eat too much starch then I’ll put on a little fat around the middle, but cutting back quickly gets me back in shape. I’ve also cut back on red meat somewhat, especially since I learned I carry one of the mutations for hemochromatosis (risk of accumulating too much iron). Since I only carry one mutation I don’t express the disease, but since my iron levels are usually slightly high when I give blood, I’m erring on the safe side.
I follow the a principal of “minimum effective strictness” — what’s the broadest, most varied, easiest diet I can get away and still be in great health? Lately my way of eating has veered in the direction of a Mediterranean diet, or a paleo-med hybrid.
There are benefits to being more paleo even if you don’t go full paleo (impractical for most people, since it would involve reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle). Most recent interpretations of the paleolithic diet are really paleolithic-neolithic hybrid diets (including some agricultural products — not pure hunter-gatherer fare). Mark Sisson’s “Primal Diet” and “The Perfect Health Diet” are hybrid diets that are generally grouped in with “paleo”.
Below is video of ducks who have never seen water getting into water for the first time. I think going “more paleolithic” is a similar experience for humans — at first it feels a little weird but we quickly get used to it. What does a “more paleolithic” lifestyle entail?
- diet based on vegetables, fruits, animal products, nuts and seeds, much less refined starch and sugar
- less artificial light and screen time, more sleep, earlier to bed, more “quiet wakefulness“
- short bouts of intense exercise, lots of walking and playing, less “pain exercise” (pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion, either with cardio or strength training)
- lots of time with friends and family (your tribe), as little social hierarchy and as much freedom as you can get away with, teamwork and cooperative effort
And here’s the duck version — exercise your evolutionary prerogative!
What else to consider, in terms of diet?
There are a few common questions that come up when people are considering moving more in the direction of a paleo or ancestral diet. I’ve already weighed in on beans … here are a few other common questions, and my take on them. My answers are based on my understanding of the latest reputable clinical research, not on the “would a caveman eat it?” hypothetical question.
- What about fruit? Eat it if you like it, but avoid too much sweet fruit, dried fruit, and fruit juice. Fructose stimulates insulin secretion and fat storage, and suppresses leptin (you need leptin to feel full). But there’s no reason to avoid eating reasonable amounts of berries, apples, and whatever other fresh fruits you enjoy. They’re packed with vitamins and healthful phytonutrients.
- What about organic? I think eating only organic foods is too restrictive, especially if you want to eat out at restaurants. But generally buying organic produce is worth the extra money. Here’s the latest on the Stanford study that is getting so much attention. I buy mostly organic produce because it tastes better (for fruit especially, you usually get a smaller, less sweet, crisper, more flavorful item). And why wouldn’t you want smaller amounts of chemicals in your body that have been shown to disrupt both hormonal and neurological functions?
- What about grass-fed/humanely raised animal products? This is even more important than organic, for both ethical and health reasons. It’s cruel to raise animals under industrial/factory conditions, and as consumers we have the power to stop it. Eggs from pastured chickens can cost up to five times more than factory eggs, but even then they are a relatively inexpensive source of high quality protein and vitamins. Food products from grass-fed/pastured animals are higher in omega-3 fats and many vitamins. And the animals live happier lives. It’s the right thing to do!
- Cured meats? I say limit cured meat consumption. There is kind of a “bacon is health food” trend among paleo bloggers, like this post from Chris Kesser (who otherwise offers excellent health advice). The jury is still out on nitrates and nitrites (which are found in many vegetables), but processed and cured meats are higher in sodium, heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and advanced glycation end products (all implicated in inflammation and/or cancer). Cured meats are delicious, but potentially not-so-great for health.
What to expect if you make a fast dietary change?
If you go cold-turkey on gluten and milk, expect a few days of grumpiness and aches and pains, and maybe a slight headache. This is exorphin withdrawal, and it should resolve after a few days.
If you don’t start feeling good after a week or two, then change something up. It just doesn’t make sense to stick with any diet for months on end hoping that you’ll eventually feel better.
A final thought … social friction and food attitude
How much social friction do your dietary choices generate? Gluten-free and grain-free are at least as mainstream as vegetarianism these days. Veganism, on the other hand, consists of going to special restaurants and either being very picky or high maintenance at dinner parties, or having mostly vegan friends. Same goes for raw foods diets, strict paleo, zero-carb, strict kosher, 100% organic, etc.
You have to ask yourself, if your diet is that strict, is it worth the social cost, and the willpower expenditure? Food is such a huge part of life — our experience of food should be broad and adventurous, not narrow and fearful.