Boasting benefits like weight loss, increased energy and reduced inflammation, it’s easy to understand why. But, is it for you? Here, we’ve put together a comprehensive beginner’s guide to the paleo diet, including a basic meal plan for beginners.
What is the paleo diet and how does it work?
The paleo diet is an eating regime based on foods similar to those that were eaten during the Paleolithic era (or Stone Age), which took place between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. It’s relatively high in fat, contains moderate amounts of protein, and low to moderate carbohydrates. Think lean meats, fish, seafood, poultry, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
What is the history of the paleo diet?
The paleo diet was originally created back in the 1970s by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin, who believed that such a diet was what the human body was built to eat. It wasn’t until Loren Cordain wrote his book The Paleo Diet back in 2002, however, that it rose to prominence in mainstream media. Today, advocates of the diet believe it can reduce the risk of modern health issues, as hunter-gathers did not face the same diseases that we see today such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Are there different types of paleo diets?
There are many different varieties of the paleo diet, although these are the most common:
Paleo (normal or ‘strict’): The basic paleo diet eliminates dairy, soy, grains, and processed and refined foods from the diet. In keeping with this, you can still eat meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds.
Primal: While similar to normal paleo, the primal version is more flexible with the foods list. Both eating plans include lots of veggies, protein, and healthy fats while eliminating gluten and artificial sweeteners, although primal dieters eat raw dairy, white rice and the legumes on occasion.
Autoimmune Paleo: Many people who suffer from chronic conditions (e.g. IBS, Crohn’s disease, eczema or arthritis) find that entirely eliminating certain foods reduces their inflammation. The autoimmune paleo diet (AIP), cuts out certain foods - such as nightshade vegetables, fruits, nuts, and eggs - that create inflammatory responses.
80/20 Paleo (or paleo-ish): With the 80/20, you eat clean paleo foods most of the time and then indulge in non-paleo foods on occasion. This version is not the most effective for someone who’s figuring out food allergies (or is wanting to lose large amounts of weight,) but it does work well for long-term maintenance.
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Does it help with weight loss?
The paleo diet is an effective weight loss method because:
- It’s high in protein, which boosts the metabolism and controls several hormones that help regulate weight.
- It’s low in carbs, which studies show are more effective than low-fat diets.
- It reduces calorie intake and helps to create a calorie deficit.
- It eliminates highly processed foods and any added sugars.
Is it safe? What are the dangers/side effects?
“Whilst the paleo diet is fabulous for promoting vegetable and fruit consumption, the fact that it cuts out whole food groups – specifically grains - is problematic,” practising accredited dietician, Natalie Von Bertouch, tells New Idea Food.
“Our gut needs a variety of fuels to function at its best and keep the microbiota diverse.”
In addition, the paleo diet, like any significant dietary change, can lead to side effects as the body adapts to a new way of eating. Here, are a few of the most common:
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) – if taking certain glucose-lowering medications
- Low-carb flu
- Lack of energy initially
- Bad breath
- Change in bowel habits
Can diabetics do it?
As the paleo diet eliminates the consumption of processed foods and limits salt and sugar intake, it may be beneficial for those with diabetes. The low carbohydrate-factor can also lead to improved glycaemic control and some studies show it may reduce incidents of hypoglycaemia and reduce insulin dependence.
That said, it can be tough to maintain this way of eating – especially for diabetics who already have significant treatment commitments.
What can you eat?
The paleo diet is based around whole, nutritious foods that haven’t been processed in any way. These include:
Meat: beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, pork and others.
Fish and seafood: salmon, trout, haddock, shrimp, shellfish (wild-caught where possible.)
Eggs: free-range, pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs.
Vegetables: broccoli, kale, capsicums, onions, carrots, tomatoes.
Root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, etc.
Nuts and seeds: almonds, macadamias, walnuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.
Healthy fats and oils: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil.
Salt and spices: sea salt, garlic, turmeric, rosemary and more.
What can’t you eat?
The following foods should be avoided whilst on the paleo diet:
Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup: soft drinks, fruit juices, table sugar, candy, pastries, ice cream.
Grains: breads and pastas, wheat, spelt, rye, barley.
Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, peanuts.
Dairy: most dairy products, especially low-fat (although some versions of paleo do include full-fat dairy like butter and cheese).
Vegetable oils: soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil.
Trans fats: found in margarine and various processed foods (these are often referred to as ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils.)
Artificial sweeteners: aspartame, sucralose, cyclamates, saccharin, acesulfame potassium. Use natural sweeteners instead.
Highly processed foods: anything labelled ‘diet’ or ‘low-fat,’ or foods that have lots of additives.
Does the paleo diet allow alcohol?
As our ancestors didn’t start drinking alcoholic or fermented beverages until around 10,000 years ago, technically alcohol is not approved on the paleo diet. That said, in some versions of the eating regime, an occasional glass of red wine is allowed, thanks to its rich nutrient and antioxidant content.
Paleo diet meal suggestions:
For those who are new to the paleo diet, it can help to follow a pre-prepared meal plan to keep you motivated. Here’s an example day on a plate to get you started:
Breakfast: Paleo egg cups
Lunch: Roast vegetables with guacamole
Snacks: Bananas with almond butter
Dinner: One-pan pesto chicken and veggies
Paleo egg cups (via A Healthy Life For Me)
Coconut oil or ghee for the pan
12 strips uncured organic bacon, cooked
8 asparagus spears, cut into large pieces
Sea salt and black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 205°C. Grease 12 cups of a regular muffin pan
2. Lay a strip of bacon in each muffin cup, pushing down. It may hang over the sides.
3. Crack an egg in every cup.
4. Distribute the asparagus evenly throughout each cup.
5. Season with salt and pepper and bake in the middle of the oven for 12-15 minutes for soft eggs, 15-17 minutes for hard eggs.
6. Serve the eggs warm.
7. Refrigerate extras and rewarm as needed.
One-pan pesto chicken and veggies (via Julia’s Album)
2 tablespoons olive oil
450g chicken thighs boneless and skinless, sliced into strips
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes drained of oil, chopped
450g asparagus spears ends trimmed, cut in half
¼ cup basil pesto
1 cup cherry tomatoes yellow and red, halved
- Heat a large saucepan on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, add sliced chicken thighs, season chicken generously with salt, add half of chopped sun-dried tomatoes - and cook everything on medium heat for 5-10 minutes, flipping a couple of times, until the chicken is completely cooked through. Remove the chicken and sun-dried from the skillet, leaving oil in.
- Add asparagus (ends trimmed), seasoned generously with salt, remaining half of sun-dried tomatoes, and cook on medium heat for 5-10 minutes until the asparagus cooked through. Remove asparagus to serving plate.
- Add chicken back to the saucepan, add pesto, stir to coat on low-medium heat until chicken is reheated, 1 or 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add halved cherry tomatoes, mix with the pesto and the chicken. Add chicken and tomatoes to the serving plate with asparagus.
Paleo-diet approved snacks:
Since traditional grab-and-go goodies (like pretzels and chips) are off limits, preparation is key on the paleo diet. Here are 10 of the best snacks to keep on hand:
- Boiled eggs
- Kale chips
- Dark chocolate
- Almond butter
- Beef jerky
- Pork rinds
- Nuts and seeds
- Raisins and sultanas
- Dried fruit
- Edamame beans