The controversial paleo diet, aka “caveman diet,” has its advantages and disadvantages from the standpoint of enhancing your health and well-being. The diet advocates eating only those foods which were consumed by our “caveman” ancestors, i.e. meat from wild animals, natural fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, eggs and seeds. Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of the paleo diet, firmly believes that such a diet provides the most nutritional value for the body, making it the healthiest option for people today. “These nutritional guidelines,” says he, “(puts) our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genetics, which in turn positively influences health and well-being."
In order to gain the full benefits of paleo diet, users pretty much have to stick with organic foods, shunning processed foods and any food that has been exposed to pesticides, antibiotics or other chemicals during the growth process. This excludes quite a bit of foods and restricts the use of others, which is where the controversy begins.
The paleo diet offers many health benefits, despite restrictions on the types of food you can eat. According to Dr. Cordain, paleo eating increases vitamin and nutrient intake as compared to conventional eating habits and provides your body with the perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats. The diet is quite strict in its guidelines of what you should eat, with paleo-friendly options falling within these categories:
- Lean meats (chicken, lean beef, pork, turkey and bison)
- Fresh fruit
- Non-starchy vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach)
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans and pistachios)
- Seeds (sunflower and pumpkin)
- Plant-based oils (olive, grapeseed, walnut or coconut oil)
Foods that are “banned” under this diet include:
- Whole grains (oats, barley, wheat, rice): This cuts out such basic food staples as bread, cereal, pasta and rice.
- Starchy vegetables (corn and potatoes): This eliminates potato chips, corn chips, popcorn and tortillas.
- Legumes: This means no beans, peanuts, peanut butter, soy foods or hummus.
- Dairy products: Say good-by to milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
- High-fat meats: No more salami or bologna sandwiches; pepperoni on pizza or BBQ hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs on holiday occasions.
- Sugars: No more sodas, jam, syrup, pastries, candy or sports drinks.
- Processed foods and trans fats
- Salty foods
As can be seen from the above list, the paleo diet tends to favor protein over carbohydrates. Users will need to prepare menus in advance to ensure they’re eating a balanced diet. Due to its restrictive nature, the paleo diet may not be the best for everyone. Athletes, for example, may require more carbs than the diet allows. By exploring the pros and cons for your specific situation, you can get a better idea if it will work on your behalf.
Before jumping on the paleo bandwagon, you should have some idea of what the diet has to offer. Here are some of the main benefits of adopting a paleo lifestyle:
Because the diet advocates eliminating processed foods and replacing them with organic products, you benefit from fewer chemicals, additives and preservatives in your body which can cause inflammation, bloating and digestive problems. Cutting out processed foods also reduces your salt and sugar intake as many prepackaged products contain an overload of these substances. The less salt, sugar and harmful chemicals you have in your body, the healthier you’ll feel. Under the paleo diet, you’re eating natural foods that are easy to digest and absorb into the body.
The diet advocates eating fresh fruits and veggies, which gives you greater nutritional value in the form of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Plant nutrients also provide greater anti-inflammatory properties to protect you from sickness and disease.
The paleo diet promotes eating animal flesh in the form of lean meats and fish which increases your protein, iron and omega 3 intake for improved health. Protein helps build muscle mass which can help to enhance your metabolism – a plus in burning more energy and reducing fat cells. Protein also supports neurological body functions, aids in digestion and helps keep your hormones in balance to minimize mood swings.
Salmon, a paleo favorite, is rich in omega 3s, a nutrient that’s sorely lacking in most people’s diets. Omega 3s contain DHA which is good for your heart, eyes and brain development. Omega 3s also help lower blood fat and have been highly effective in combating cardiovascular disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases. Iron helps transport healthy oxygen to cells throughout the body and fights against anemia.
Promotes Weight Loss
The paleo diet is designed to be a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. The removal of processed foods is the first step towards reducing carbs and controlling your weight. Eating protein rich meals can also facilitate weight loss as the meals make you feel fuller which prompts you to eat less. Less food combined with regular exercise can help you shed those extra pounds.
Community is yet another plus for Paleo dieters. You’ll find ample Paleo online forums that you can refer to for help, encouragement and support. According to Dr. Cordain, the Paleo diet wasn’t designed to be a temporary fix for losing weight or improving your health. It was designed to be a permanent change in eating habits to promote a healthier way of life.
By slightly modifying the diet, you can enjoy some of your favorite foods and still benefit from what paleo eating has to offer. Some “outlawed” veggies such as potatoes could be added in moderation and worked off through exercise. In general, alcohol is discouraged under this diet; however, red wine is acceptable within limits. If you must use a sweetener, honey is the preferred choice over sugar or artificial sweetening products.
Like many other diets on the market today, the paleo diet has its down sides. Here are just a few:
Too Many Food Restrictions
Some nutritionists feel the diet has too many food restrictions that can cut into a person’s health. Whole grains, dairy products and legumes, for example, strict no-no’s under the paleo diet, contain nutrients that fight against heart disease and high blood pressure. Cutting dairy products out of your diet also reduces your intake of Vitamin D and calcium – two nutrients that help fight against osteoporosis.
Difficult to Implement
The paleo diet can be a bit difficult to follow as it requires that you plan menus in advance and take time to cook foods properly. People who live a busy lifestyle may find the paleo diet impractical to keep long term. In order for the paleo diet to be effective in weight loss, you need to be diligent in following your diet plan. Straying from the diet or going back and forth could make it difficult to reach your goals. Sticking to paleo eating may also be a stretch for people who like to dine out, making it necessary for them to adjust this part of their lifestyle.
Keeping up with paleo protein can be pricey for the average family. The paleo diet excludes inexpensive sources of protein such as beans and soy and promotes eating healthy meats such as lean beef or skinless chicken which costs much more than traditional cuts. Even a switch from traditional peanut butter, a paleo no-no, to the acceptable alternative of almond butter which goes for roughly $13 a jar can be a costly addition to your budget.
Despite the controversy surrounding paleo eating, the diet has quite a few followers in the fitness community who consider the health benefits of paleo diet worth the cost. Certified CrossFit trainer Ginger Calem of Georgetown, Texas, credits the paleo diet for increased vitality, less problems with bloating and a decline in joint pain and inflammation.
Paleo eating isn’t averse to snacking as long as the snacks stay within the paleo diet guidelines. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll want to be selective in the snacks you choose in order to reach your goals. So, what do paleo dieters snack on? Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Unlike conventional muffins that use flour and sugar, omelet muffins are comprised of eggs, vegetables and pieces of lean meat mixed together and baked in a muffin tin. The result is a tasty, protein-rich, non-grain, low-calorie snack that you can enjoy throughout the week.
Natural Trail Mix
Rich in protein, fiber and healthy fats, seeds and nuts mixed with dried fruit makes a delicious and nutritious trail mix snack for the entire family. A quarter cup of this mixture has approximately 175 calories. You can also get the same health benefits by buying ready-made trail mix with no sugar added.
Eggs with Veggies
For a quickie mini-snack/meal, you can scramble a few eggs with your favorite greens. Adding veggies to your eggs makes it more nutritious and delicious. Your choice of veggies can range from diced tomatoes to red or green bell peppers, broccoli, carrots or even kale. Tossing in a few spices such as garlic, sea salt, black pepper or basil will give your mix more flavor. This low calorie snack is easy to make, delicious to eat and packed with nutrients and protein.
Veggie Sticks with Guacamole Dip
Guacamole is a savory and nutritious dip that you can use for any festive occasion. If you’re making this snack from scratch, you’ll need ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions, pinch of salt and lime juice. Simply mash the avocados, add diced tomatoes, finely chopped onions, pinch of salt and lime juice to taste. Rich in healthy fat and antioxidants, guacamole fits right in with paleo eating. Use fresh carrot or celery sticks or cut cucumbers and bell peppers to dip into your guacamole for a yummy treat.
Tuna Salad over Tomato Halves
Homemade tuna salad over tomato halves makes a refreshing and nourishing afternoon or evening snack. Simply combine tuna with diced avocados and hard boiled eggs. If you want to add mayonnaise, make a batch at home using natural oil. After mixing in your mayo, spread the tuna salad over half a tomato and enjoy.
Homemade Banana Chips
If you’re looking for something sweet, consider homemade bananas chips. Simply slice several bananas, cover with lemon juice and bake until the slices are crisp, flipping frequently. Bananas are a great source of potassium, an important vitamin that enhances muscle strength, revs up metabolism, improves water balance and helps restore electrolytes after body workouts. Banana chips can also be purchased in ready-made packages for your convenience.
Fresh Fruit with Coconut Milk Topping
Fruit with coconut milk is yet another sweet and healthy treat that falls under the paleo diet guidelines. You can top a bowl of your favorite fruit such as berries, mango chunks or melon cubes with the sweetness of natural coconut milk to make a yummy and nutritious treat. Raw coconut milk is a healthy paleo-friendly alternative to whole milk or cream. A fruit coconut milk snack will help satisfy your hunger while providing vitamins and nutrients to promote good health and well-being. A cup of fruit topped off with quarter cup coconut milk comes to less than 200 calories.
Made of such nutritious ingredients as almond meal, pecans, eggs, bananas and applesauce, gluten-free banana breakfast muffins will get your day off to a good start. Paleo banana muffins are loaded with protein and fiber and are low in calories. By preparing muffins in advance, you can have them ready to eat for morning, afternoon or evening snack. Banana muffins are easy to prepare and provide a nourishing treat that can be enjoyed throughout the week.
Dark Chocolate Nut Clusters
Although chocolate shouldn’t be a regular food on your paleo diet, dark chocolate nut clusters do make a special treat. Made with melted dark chocolate, crunchy almonds, fresh cherries and raw coconut shavings, these clusters are sure to satisfy your cravings while adding valuable nutrients and antioxidants to your body.
Knowing what to expect from the paleo diet can help you make a better informed choice as to whether a paleo lifestyle is right for you.