I believe that the majority of today’s health issues are directly related to the overconsumption of highly palatable, industrially processed food. I’m on a mission to help people regain their health by eating nutrient-dense foods.
We live in a world that is far removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Some people liken our modern environment to an unnatural, zoo-like setting. We work long hours, mostly sitting down under florescent lights, with long commutes in gas guzzling cars to come home to our toxic dwellings, wrapped in plastic siding and covered in wall to wall laminate, to watch a box of flickering images telling us why we want the next cool gadget and how X convenient food will save us so much time in the kitchen and has “a taste kids love”. We exercise indoors on a hamster-wheel like contraption while watching more flickering images of how our bodies should be looking. The toxic pollution we breathe in, the chemicals that surround us in our homes, offices and lawns, and pharmaceutical and recreational drugs and alcohol, are foreign stressors to our bodies. We aren’t sleeping enough and are addicted to caffeine to keep us going. We’re in over our heads with mortgages, car loans, college debt, yet we’ve never before had such a high quality of living, compared to our ancestors.
We are spending our food dollars largely on convenience foods which are making us fat. I highly recommend a Paleo Challenge to my clients. This can happen in “baby steps” by cutting out wheat and sugar first, then slowly transitioning to paleo, or by going “cold turkey” and doing a 30-day Paleo Challenge. I work with my clients to determine which approach, along with lifestyle changes and supplements, will best work for their individual situation.
A 30-Day Paleo Challenge:
For those who are new to the concept of eating “Paleo”, I suggest a 30-day introduction where you are eating 100% paleo with no sweeteners of any kind, then transitioning to an 80/20 (80% paleo foods, and 20% healthy, non-paleo options)
Preparing yourself: This can be a BIG shift in eating for some of you who are new to the idea. If this all seems too overwhelming, I suggest considering the “baby step” protocol: eliminate all gluten and refined sugar from your diet for one full month. This is a huge step and this alone can result in amazing health benefits. After one month, transition your breakfast to paleo for the next two weeks, then both breakfast and lunch become paleo for the third and fourth weeks. Finally, start your 30-day challenge of squeaky-clean 100% paleo (no grains, legumes, dairy or sweeteners). For other people, just eliminating all non-paleo foods from the get-go is the best choice. Decide for yourself, and make it happen.
Fat Sources: Butter*, ghee and tallow from grass fed cows, bacon fat and lard from pastured pork. Olive oil is great for salads and low-heat cooking but saturated fat is ideal for high-heat cooking. Coconut oil is another fantastic saturated fat and favorite among paleo chefs, but is not a locally produced item for most of us, so I limit my use of coconut oil. Foods that are good sources of fat include: avocados, egg yolks (from pastured chickens), fatty cuts of meat from pastured animals. *see my section on dairy
Protein Sources: Eggs from pastured chickens. Eat sustainable, local fish & shellfish if you live near the coast. Grass-fed, locally produced beef, lamb, goat and pork are fantastic. Chicken and other poultry are actually not quite as sustainable as larger herbivores and most wild fish, because they are harder to source sustainably. Game meats, like venison and elk, are excellent. Organ meats, such as liver, are very rich sources of vitamins and can be included in your diet on a weekly basis. Sausage and bacon are great but be careful of what they add to the sausage – sometimes breadcrumbs are added to Irish sausages. Another common ingredient in sausages and other processed food is “hydrolyzed vegetable protein”, which means gluten. I prefer to make my own sausages so I know exactly what goes into them.
SPECIAL SECTION ON EGGS
Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are a significantly better source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from chickens that have eaten grain exclusively. Eggs labeled “organic” usually mean the chicken has had organic grain, but not necessarily their natural diet of grass and bugs, which is what pastured chickens consume.
Know your terms: There are lots of different ways to raise chickens and some of the terms can be confusing to the public. The typical eggs sold in most grocery stores come from chickens raised in cramped cages and usually given antibiotics. Artificial lights are often used to increase egg productivity. Conditions are stressful, cramped, and the air in these facilities is thick with dust and ammonia. This technique is banned in some areas of Europe.
“Cage Free” doesn’t really mean much. These chickens simply were not in small cages but are typically raised indoors in crowded conditions. In addition, there is no guarantee the chickens weren’t given antibiotics or fed anything other than GMO grain.
“Fed Vegetarian Feed, All-Natural, Farm Fresh, Omega-3 Eggs” just means they were fed grain and possibly other vegetable matter but they did not get access to the outside (or else they would have consumed bugs and even mice, which is what chickens LOVE to eat). In fact, these words mean nothing as far as the welfare of the chickens is concerned and, most of the time, they are raised in cages. Omega-3 eggs might have more omega-3’s from some additional flax seeds in their grain mix, but beware of thinking these are eggs from birds who saw the light of the outdoors.
Vegetables: The benefit of eating vegetables is their vitamin and antioxidant content. Vegetables are great at making you feel full while consuming few calories. This is useful if you’re looking to lose weight. Some vegetables are ok to eat raw, like lettuce and other easily digestible greens, however, I prefer most of my vegetables cooked. In particular, cruciferous vegetables like kale, cabbage, bok choi, and broccoli should always be cooked in order to lower the goitrogens content and break down cell walls for better nutrient absorption. Spinach, swiss chard and beets should also be cooked to reduce their oxalic acid content.
On white potatoes I know most people who write about the paleo diet are against eating white potatoes. In my book, as long as they’re peeled, I feel that white potatoes are an excellent source of starch for replenishing glycogen stores after working out. They’re also surprisingly high in many vitamins and minerals. Peeling the potato removes the anti-nutrient components of the potato, which can wreak havoc on your digestive system. White potatoes are higher in calories than sweet potatoes and winter squash, but as far as digestion goes, most people without an active autoimmune disease do very well with peeled white potatoes. To me, white potatoes taste better and are also easier on my stomach. If eating potatoes freaks you out though, feel free to substitute sweet potatoes in my recipes for the white potatoes. I know others who thrive on white rice and even other gluten free grains. My advice is to do a 30-day paleo challenge then tinker with your macronutrient ratio, and if you thrive on white rice, then go for it!
A Note on Carbohydrates in General: I see many people avoiding roots and tubers while on a paleo diet because they are trying to reduce their carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates do have benefits such as: lowering cortisol (stress), fueling highly glycemic workouts (like CrossFit), and acting like a pre-biotic in your intestines (by feeding your good bacteria). In my nutrition practice, I commonly see people unnecessarily restricting starches. The common signs from very low carb (under 50g per day) a diet include: sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, low energy, dry eyes, GI distress and weight gain. Yes, you can actually gain weight from being too low carb. So if you feel that you are suffering from any of the above issues and have been limiting your intake of roots and tubers, please consider including them back in your diet. Those with diabetes or other blood sugar regulation issues generally do better initially with lower carbohydrates.
Fruit: Local, seasonal fruit andberries are an ideal choice for treats, both nutritionally and when considering sustainability. If you’re looking to lose weight, moderating your fruit intake (like bananas) is a good idea.
Salt: Natural sea salt has the best profile of minerals. Though, surprisingly, sea salt has very little iodine. You can get some iodine from seaweed once a week or so. I buy sheets of nori to use as wrappers for “sandwiches” and dulse or kelp flakes (we have local Atlantic sources!) to sprinkle it in my soups and stews.
Sweeteners: Try to avoid sweeteners. Enjoy natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup sparingly after your 30-day challenge. Be careful of over consuming sweetened things, even when they are marketed as “paleo”. Paleo cookies, muffins, and cakes are still cookies, muffins and cakes don’t have a place in daily consumption. Please consider them occasional treats.
Condiments, Herbs and Spices: This is defiantly an area where I do include some non-local items in my diet. It is possible to cut out all spices and just focus on seasonal herbs and local salts, but in my kitchen, I have decided that the small amount of spices and condiments I use greatly enhance the flavor of my meals, so it’s a trade off I’m willing to make. I’ve found that for many of my nutrition clients, in trying to cut out sugar, it may be helpful to naturally sweeten a meal by using spices that have sweet flavors like: allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. I also frequently use cumin, coriander, cardamom, thyme, fresh ginger, basil, and paprika. I include a few paleo condiment items like Thai Red Curry Paste, Dijon mustard, and coconut aminos. I also love including garden fresh herbs like basil, cilantro and fresh tarragon in many of my dishes to add flavor.
Flours: I have to admit that I rarely use “paleo flours”. When I do, I avoid nut flours and stick to coconut flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch.
Nuts and Seeds: I’ve included a few recipes that include nuts but, in general, I don’t eat a ton of nuts or seeds. Although they are a really great source of nutrients, they are very calorically dense and easy to eat in excess, especially when salted. Also, the proper way to prepare raw nuts is to soak then dehydrate them before eating, which few people have the time to do.
Grains and legumes: Grains and legumes affect people differently. For some, there is
clearly gastrointestinal autoimmune reaction to gluten. Others get rashes, headaches, indigestion or “brain fog”. The truth is, they are not as nutrient dense as other sources of starches, such as roots and tubers, and actually contain anti-nutrients that can block absorption of vitamins and minerals. I’ve found most folks feel much better when they eliminate gluten and other grains from their diet. After your 30-day Paleo Challenge, if you feel that you’d like to occasionally consume them, make them part of your 80/20 lifestylekeeping them in the 20%. Record how you feel after reintroducing them and note any digestive or functional changes happening in your body after consumption.
Gluten, the protein in wheat, rye and barley, is problematic not only for people like me with diagnosed Celiac Disease, but also can cause a host of problems for many other people. Symptoms can be silent; in fact, almost 50 percent of newly diagnosed Celiac patients do not have regular GI distress. However, traditional testing for Celiac only screens for antibodies to alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase-2, however there are multiple components which are not tested for, and which can cause reactions. This is why some people who have tested negative for CD feel better when they are gluten-free. So, while you may be one of the people who feel little difference in your digestive system when you eat bread, gluten could still be wreaking havoc on your system and decreasing the absorption of nutrients.
One big reason to avoid grains in general are because they’re nutrient poor compared to organically grown roots and tubers. Also, people generally consume grains in the form of processed breads, pastas, cereals and sweet foods. If you look at the nutrients contained in one cup of cooked hot whole-wheat cereal and compare it to one cup of a baked sweet potato, the sweet potato wins the nutrient density contest by a long shot. One cup of sweet potatoes contains 38433 IU of vitamin A (769% of the daily value), 39.2 mg of vitamin C (65% of the daily value) and is a very good source of the mineral manganese. What about the fiber? Sweet potatoes, and vegetables in general, are also a fantastic source of fiber.
In addition to increased vitamins and minerals, seafood, vegetables, and meat from pasture-raised animals have a much higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6. Grains, plus meat and dairy from cows that have eaten grains, are very high in omega-6 ratio, which in a diet low in DHA, can be quite pro-inflammatory. The typical American diet tends to contain 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. One cup of whole-wheat flour has a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. One cup of cooked long grain white rice is better, at 4:1. Soybean oil has a 7:1 ratio of omega 6:3. Compare this to kale with a 1:1 ratio, or coho salmon, which has a 1:7 ratio (7 times more omega 3 than omega 6), and you can see where the healthy choices are.
I do think that occasional consumption of properly prepared legumes and gluten-free grains may work for some folks on a health basis in the context of a paleo diet template. However, environmentally speaking, grains are not an ideal crop. This is because generally speaking, grains are grown on a large-scale, mono-crop method. Looking at the sustainability, as well as the nutrition factors, it just doesn’t add up for humans to be eating a grain-heavy diet. Legumes at least fix nitrogen and improve soil quality, and on our farm we do plant them as a cover crop to reduce soil erosion and increase soil nitrogen when a field is fallow.
Dairy: Ideally, you should pull out all dairy for your 30-day paleo challenge. If you would like to reintroduce it after that period, record how you feel. In some people, dairy can cause acne or stuffiness whereas in others digestive issues are the problem. I happen to feel fine with a little raw and fermented dairy in my diet. Plain whole milk yogurts, crème fraîche, and raw milk cheeses from grass fed cows are a great source of fat soluble vitamins and naturally occurring trans fatty acids such as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which can help regulate glucose levels. Dairy is also a source of protein, although casein can be problematic in some people. So if dairy gives you a problem, don’t eat it. Low-fat, ultra-pasteurized milk, American cheese, and low-fat, fruit-flavored yogurts, however, are processed foods with poor nutrient density.
The sustainability issue with the dairy industry should also be considered. Routine antibiotics, conventional grain feeding, and manure lagoons are commonplace on big dairy farms. Large-scale dairy farms are not really the happiest places for the cows, nor the healthiest systems for the animals or the environment. Small-scale, pasture-based dairies are a much better option for the cows, for the environment, and for a more nutritious product for human consumption.
How much to eat?
“How much to eat?” is always the next question I get. A great starting point is the following:
3 meals a day
Protein: the size of your palm, about 4-8oz, depending on your size and needs
Non-starchy vegetables: Piled high on your plate
Starchy vegetables: athletes, the equivalent to about 2 small/medium sweet potatoes a day. Non-athletes should start with about one.
Tablespoon or so of healthy fat (salad dressing, butter, avocado)
Snacks: if necessary, have a handful (not a 5lb bag), of nuts and a piece of fruit
Special considerations: Just because a food is considered “ok” for the paleo diet, this doesn’t mean that you are free to eat ten pounds of bacon at each meal, or chase each snack with a gallon of coconut milk. Athletes should naturally consume more starchy vegetables like roots (ie. carrots and parsnips) and tubers (ie. potatoes and sweet potatoes). The macronutrient combination and calorie load works for a 25-year-old athlete may not work for a 50 year old recovering from hip surgery. It’s best to consider your weight loss goals, stress level, and activity level. For weight loss, consider consuming the bulk of your daily starch intake in a post workout meal. More active people can include more starches. Those who are highly stressed or have certain health issues like thyroid disease don’t tend to thrive on a very low carbohydrate diet. Winter squashes like butternut are lower in calories than potatoes or sweet potatoes.
You shouldn’t feel hungry but it’s also not ideal to eat to overcapacity either. Tracking your total calories can also be very helpful for some folks who have noticed a weight gain. Sometimes, eating a nutrient dense diet can mean you’re over consuming calories. Everyone is unique, so please tinker with your own diet until you find a good ratio that works for you.
Ok, so really, what do I eat?
Even though I try to be clear about what’s “in” and “out” of the paleo diet, I also still get this question towards the end of my workshops. When I attended Robb Wolf’s “the Paleolithic Solution” seminar, I saw a chart similar to this one, and I found it very helpful:
*Starchy veg should be consumed in moderation: A general guideline is about 50-125 grams per day, adjusting up or down depending on activity level.
Think about all of the options this allows. When you mix and match all of these possible combinations, you end up with an incredible amount of options. It’s just all how you look at it!