As I've researched the Paleo style of eating, I've found that proponents of this lifestyle vary in their suggested nutrition guidelines, which is expected. Nevertheless, they share some of the same opinions. For example, they all agree that we should eat significantly more natural foods than we eat today and significantly reduce the processed foods common today—including all the empty calories found in things like bread, rice, pasta, sweets, and soda—if not eliminate them completely. I will explain more why in a future post. They also promote eating more protein (meat) and fat (e.g., animal fat) than our society eats today, and more than the USDA Food Pyramid promotes.
In my search for Paleo pyramids out there, I found quite a few, which you can view here, but the Paleo Pyramid I preferred was the one by Mark Sisson (below). No pyramid will be perfect because, again, each person has different requirements and goals, but I do like how this one provides a little more detail than the other pyramids I found. His suggestions are merely a guide. We can adjust details to our particular needs and goals and incorporate other Paleo-like ideas.
Using the pyramid below, I'll start by outlining what the pyramid promotes, but I will also provide more detail and other suggestions. As you can see from the pyramid below, our diets should be founded in the following things (in order of importance):
- Protein with Saturated Fats: We need protein and saturated fat to build muscle, for energy, satiety (feeling satisfied), and cell and hormone function. Eating our protein with fat is important because that is how our bodies trigger us to be satisfied (to stop eating). Let's also not forget to include organ meats (also known as offal or sweetbreads), because they contain essential nutrients our bodies require. They include liver, intestines, heart, among other things. In one of the other pyramids, bone broths was listed in the meat section, as well. This is a good "organ" to include, (though it's not really an organ per se), as bone marrow is an excellent source of protein and fat. Again, fat is very important because our body uses it for fuel/energy. Our ancestors thrived on the fattest animals they could find, and they left nothing to waste.
- Vegetables: They provide nutrition and antioxidants, but remember that some vegetables can be very starchy, and limiting these types of vegetables is suggested. Vegetables high in nutrition include things like leafy greens: kale, collard greens, chard, and cabbage, among others. Starchy "vegetables" include things like potatoes, corn, and legumes (beans). The bullets below include more detail on seaweed and legumes.
- Seaweed: Seaweed contains iodine, something our bodies require. Dr. Wahls recommended eating seaweed because many Americans are grossly deficient in their iodine. In my post about her testimony, I noted that she recommended to eat it once a week. She did so because you do not require large quantities of iodine. Her summary did not include the appropriate amount to eat, but on her blog/forum, she says to buy dulse flakes (coarse, edible, red seaweed) and to sprinkle it on food as a spice, but no more than 1/4 teaspoon, per person, per day.
- Legumes: These are essentially beans, and although they do contain protein, the amount they contain is low as compared to the high amounts of carbohydrates; beans are quite starchy. One of the better beans is the lentil, since it has a higher protein content, but even still, there are other reasons to minimize your intake of legumes. Although legumes contain minerals, they are particularly difficult to digest and are rendered useless if the body cannot digest them. For the nutrients to be useful, the beans need to be soaked properly or they cause flatulence (which goes to show you how difficult they were to digest). Peanuts are another example of a legume (not a nut). Most Paleo followers do not include them in their diets because they're still legumes, but there are people who believe in the benefits of eating peanuts, and include it in their diets on occasion.
- Other Fats/Oils: These include animal fats, butter, and coconut oil for cooking purposes and things like avocados, macadamia nuts, olives, and olive oil for eating. This does not include highly processed vegetable oils found in supermarkets like canola, sunflower, safflower, or good old "vegetable" oil. Our ancestors surely did not squeeze oil from corn, and if they could have, they could never eat it in the quantities we eat it today. It's unnatural and not recommended.
I'd like to note that proponents of Paleo-like lifestyles highly recommend eating meat as organic, pasture-raised, free-range, hormone-free, wild-caught, and local as possible, and your vegetables, fruit, and berries, as organic and pesticide-free as you can. I suggest that if you cannot do this, at least get your groceries as fresh as you can get them. You're doing well just by replacing empty carbs in your diet with more meat and fat. Also be aware that there is a list called the Dirty Dozen that shows you the produce that is most and least contaminated with pesticides to help you choose which foods to buy organic.
That was the bottom half of the pyramid. Now for the top half, which includes "Moderation Foods" and miscellaneous items such as spices, supplements, and indulgences:
- Moderation Foods: This list includes fruit, high-fat dairy, and other nuts/seeds and nut butters. It also includes starchy tubers (like potatoes), quinoa, wild rice, etc., but it is listed as the carb option for athletes. If you're not an endurance athlete (like a marathon runner), you don't need to eat these. I will explain more in a future post.
- Fruit should be eaten moderately because it too contains sugar: fructose. Our ancestors almost assuredly ate fruit (in combination with nuts) seasonally (likely in the summer to the fall) to store fat for the long winter months. Today we eat them in much larger quantities than they did and all year long, not just seasonally. In addition, the fruit of today has been bred to be sweeter than it was for our ancestors. Nevertheless, when you do have fruit, focus on high-antioxidant fruits and berries, as they will have the most benefit. In addition, if you eat fruit, get plenty of sunlight (Vitamin D) so your body is not tricked into thinking you need to store fat for the imminent hibernation.
- Dairy is one of the foods that Paleo followers tend to disagree on; some exclude it, some include it moderately, and some prefer goat/sheep milk to cow milk. Dairy appeared around the same time as agriculture did, when our ancestors domesticated animals. Some dairy (like milk) contains its own sugar (lactose) to which some are allergic. Cheese, yogurt, and kefir do not have lactose, but some may be allergic to the casein protein in cheese. Nevertheless, dairy still has some benefits, as it contains protein and fat. However, this may be outweighed by the fact that dairy stimulates insulin secretion, which we generally want to avoid. The Paleo recommendation is to eat it raw, full fat, fermented, unpasteurized and/or organic, non-homogenized. Farmers markets are always good places to look. If you will buy it in a grocery store, always opt for the "regular" (full fat) instead of the "light" and "non-fat" options. The process for removing fat in a product always includes adding carbs into the product. Again, fat is our body's energy source, so we should not be eating low-fat anything.
- Nuts/Seeds/Nut Butters: Nuts can be a nice snack (no more than a handful per day), but eaten copiously is not good for you. They contain phytic acid, which in excess, can strip your body of minerals it needs. In small/moderate amounts, phytic acid actually has benefits.
- Herbs, Spices, Extracts: These are not necessarily bad things—like pepper, cinnamon, cloves, dill, parsley to name a few. They're just never used in such high quantities, so that's why they are at the top of the pyramid. You'll probably never eat large doses of spices in one sitting, anyway.
- Supplements: These are probably listed here for those who like to make sure they are getting enough of certain vitamins/minerals, etc. However, if you eat from nature, your vegetables and organ meats provide these nutrients, probably with the exception of vitamin D, which is more easily obtained by exposure to the sun. As far as protein supplements go, some athletes may choose to supplement their protein intake with a protein powder, but these powders should not be the main source of protein. If you are not an athlete, you probably don't need the protein supplement. Too much protein in the diet without adequate fat (or carbs for those who aren't Paleo yet) is not good. However, if you plan to buy protein powder, make sure you examine the nutrition/ingredients label carefully, ensuring the carb to protein ratio is low. I like Manitoba Harvest Hemp Pro 70 (4.5g of carbs and 20g of protein per serving) and Garden of Life Raw Protein Original (3g of carbs and 18g of protein per serving). They are both non-dairy proteins, but I like them because they don't have any "weird" ingredients and they have great carb to protein ratios.
- Indulgences: As part of a Paleo-like plan, sensible indulgences (things you can treat yourself to) include red wine and dark chocolate. White wine is not recommended because it usually contains more carbs than red wine, and it has significantly fewer antioxidants than red wine does. It's not entirely bad, just not as good as red wine. Dark chocolate is also good for you because of its fat profile and high antioxidant makeup. Just make sure the dark chocolate has a high cacao/cocoa content (I recommend 70% or higher).
- Honey: It's not on Mark's pyramid, but he and other Paleo followers consider honey to be one of those sensible indulgences. For one, it's makeup is not entirely just glucose and fructose. It contains over 100 different compounds, along with minerals, amino acids, and vitamins. Also, the darker the honey, the more antioxidants and bioactive compounds to help your immune system fight off illness. In addition, researchers have found that it can reduce allergy symptoms. Again, for the best benefits, obtain it local, raw, and unfiltered.
- Drinks: This is a food pyramid, so there's nothing about drinks, but I think they're important to include. For hydration, you have a few options listed below. You should avoid juice, soda, and anything sweetened with any type of sugar be it sugar cane, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar to name a few. Remember that fruit juice is essentially a high concentration of fructose, which is extra sugar that your body does not need.
- Water: Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to drink copious amounts of water all day long, especially not the 8 glasses x 8 oz per day. Your natural thirst is your trigger (and contrary to popular belief, being thirsty doesn't mean you're already dehydrated). Drinking water when you're thirsty will suffice. Our Paleo ancestors did not always have water readily available. They obtained most of their water intake from the food they ate. Your body doesn't require as much as you might think, and it's dependent upon your age, your activity level, the climate/altitude in which you live, whether you are pregnant/nursing, etc. In addition, when you start following a Paleo-like lifestyle, you will notice that you are less thirsty. The key thing to remember is just to listen to your body. Our thirst trigger got us through the stone ages. There's no reason why it would fail us now.
- Unsweetened Tea/Coffee: Contrary to popular belief (again), caffeine does not dehydrate you at all. Studies have proven this is so. Since they don't dehydrate you, and they contain water, they are acceptable sources of your daily water intake. Remember not to overindulge, though. I've seen recommendations of no more than 3 cups per day.
- Coconut water: Since you don't require large amounts of water, you probably don't require large amounts of coconut water. However, coconut water has its benefits, as it contains five essential electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, and calcium). It's good hydration for athletes after exercise. If you plan on drinking it, make sure you buy a brand that does not contain other additives besides the coconut water. Remember, it's naturally sweetened, so be careful not to overindulge.
There are numerous Paleo/Primal websites that provide delicious recipes. You can always search for others, but I like nomnompaleo.com, livingpaleo.com and fastpaleo.com.
There is certainly more to say, but I will bring this to a close for now. I'll talk more about this soon. Thanks for reading!