Paleo Principles: The Paleo Template
What would you think if you went to the zoo and saw the keepers feeding animals junk food? What would you think if you saw a monkey eating cake or a lion eating Kraft Dinner and chicken nuggets? What if you found out that that food was a part of these animals’ standard diets? Would you think the animals were being mistreated? Would you wonder how that food might be affecting the health of those animals? Would you want the lion to be eating what lions (as a species) are supposed to eat?
Probably. So why don’t you think the same way about yourself and the people around you? Why don’t you ask what humans are supposed to eat?
As advanced as we may be in so many areas (i.e. technology and medical advancements), physically we are still animals, and as much as we might hate it, our bodies are still more connected to nature than to technology. We focus on societal advancement, but meanwhile our society is suffering from worsening health: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and many other conditions have been spreading endemically through the population. Decades of pharmaceuticals, fad diets, and official recommendations have passed and things have gotten worse. These things don’t seem to have worked.
Paleo is a step back from the “conventional wisdom” of Western society to look at why – despite all the best intentions – the recommendations from governments and official organizations have failed to produce results. Paleo asks what humans are supposed to be eating to lead healthy, active, and long lives.
The answer to this question is a difficult one because there does not seem to be one answer that can apply to EVERYONE. Instead of attempting to answer this impossibly large question in one shot, therefore, scientists and other experts interested in the ancestral outlook form and test hypotheses from various angles. Some people, like Dr. Loren Cordain, look at the question from an evolutionary biology perspective. Others, like Dr. Weston A. Price and Mira and Jason Calton, look at the common threads in traditional cultures that still exist in isolated pockets in the world today. Still others base their ideas in hands-on experience with patients, clients, or even themselves (as in the case of Dr. Terry Wahls).
The Paleo Template, then, is just that: a template. It is not a firm set of rules: it is a set of informed recommendation based on the most up-to-date scientific information, and it is willing to bend or change entirely based on individual needs or new information.
The following explanations of Paleo’s recommended inclusions and exclusions are a very short summary of my layperson’s understanding of them. I will write more detailed posts about many of these in the future, but for now follow the links I’ve provided to get the information from smarter people than myself.
The Paleo Template
GLUTEN – Gluten is present in certain grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten causes damage to human bodies, even to the bodies of people who test negative for Celiac or gluten intolerance. It interacts with the gut, contributing to intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) and negatively affecting the digestive system, the immune system, and many other systems. It is remarkable how many health conditions have been shown to be linked to gluten, especially in the form of modern wheat. The wheat that exists today is not the same wheat that existed even a few decades ago. In the 21st century, the wheat that goes into our food has been genetically modified: it is no longer traditional wheat, but there have been no long term tests done on the effect of this genetic modification for humans. We are the Guinea pigs.
For a comprehensive look at the effects of gluten on the human body, read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist who saw dramatic changes in his own health and his patients’ by eliminating wheat.
NON-GLUTEN-CONTAINING GRAINS – This category also contains pseudo-grains like buckwheat and quinoa. Many of these grains are not as harmful as gluten, and many individuals may be able to tolerate the consumption of these grains. In fact, many people in the paleo community encourage the consumption of white rice as a “safe starch” for those who tolerate and/or need a higher-carb diet. It is suggested that everyone try to eliminate all grains for at least 30 days and then try reintroducing some if they choose.
It is recommended that individuals who do choose to eat non-gluten-containing grains to soak, sprout, and cook the grains before eating them in order to remove most of the damaging anti-nutrients.
My personal reason for choosing to avoid grains (though I do treat myself to white rice on occasion) is twofold. The first is laziness: it takes so much time to properly prepare grains by soaking and sprouting them that I really can’t be bothered to do it. The second is nutrient density: I have only a limited amount of food that I can consume each day and I want to get the most micronutrients that I can. I would rather eat a pile of vegetables than a serving of rice or quinoa because I’ll get more nutrients out of the vegetables.
SEED and VEGETABLE OILS – North American society has, in the last 60 years, become extremely fat-phobic. For a detailed explanation of how this came about, check out the book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Basically, a few influential people (namely Ancel Keys) were against the consumption of dietary fat and used their influence to spread the idea that fat (especially saturated fat) would cause heart disease and other health conditions. Since then, industrial products like canola oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, soybean oil, and margarine have been clung to by health-conscious individuals. Saturated fats like butter, lard, tallow, and coconut oil were largely abandoned.
There are three main problems with these industrial seed oils. First, many of these oils are the products of genetic modification, and – as with gluten – it is advisable to avoid GMOs as much as possible. Second, these oils contain a lot of omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory and it is recommended that they be balanced with omega-3 fats in an optimal ratio of 1:1 or 2:1. In most vegetable oils, the number of omega-6 fats is much higher than the number of omega-3s. Third, polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) like these vegetable oils are chemically unstable and therefore prone to damage by heat or oxidation. Between processing, bottling, shipping, and cooking, there is very little doubt that the vegetable oils you’ve been cooking with have been damaged or become rancid.
After gluten, this is probably the most important elimination in the Paleo template. For a complete guide to which fats to eat and which to stay away from, take a look at this guide.
LEGUMES – Legumes as a category are similar to non-gluten-containing grains. If prepared in the proper way (soaking, sprouting, and cooking), most legumes (like beans and lentils) are probably not harmful for most people. Again, it is always a good idea to eliminate them entirely for at least 30 days and then try to reintroduce them.
The two forms of legumes that should be avoided as much as possible are peanuts and soybeans. As much as I (having basically lived off of peanut butter for years) hate to say it, peanuts are one of the most highly allergenic foods and should definitely be avoided by most people. As for soy, almost any soy products that you might have access to have almost definitely come from genetically modified soybeans. The only form of soy that may be OK for some people is non-GMO, fermented soy like miso or natto.
REFINED SUGAR – This category is probably the least surprising to see included here, but also probably one of the hardest to eliminate. Most people really enjoy sweet things, and coming from a Standard North American Diet (SAD) we are probably very used to indulging our sweet teeth (tooths?). It is important, however, to eliminate refined sugar because of the havoc it can wreak on our blood sugar regulation and insulin levels. Also, most refined sugars are processed from GMO sources like sugar beets.
While it is a good idea to limit sweet things in general, especially if you have existing blood sugar regulation issues, not all sugars are eliminated in the paleo template. Fruit is still permitted, since it is a whole food source, and natural sugars like dates, raw honey, maple syrup, and molasses are all acceptable as occasional treats. On paleo food blogs and in paleo cookbooks you can find a lot of recipes for cookies and cakes made with nut flours and natural sugar: these foods are meant as treats, not as standard parts of your diet. It is a good idea to eliminate all forms of sugar (except fruits and vegetables) for 30 days to break yourself of the habit of eating sweet things on a regular basis.
Some members of the paleo community support the use of low-calorie sweeteners like stevia and xylitol. I can’t personally recommend either since I don’t use them. There has been some suggestion that stevia might not be as great as people make it out to be, but if you’re only using it for occasional treats, it’s probably fine. I prefer using whole food sources or avoiding baking entirely, but these might be good options for you.
DAIRY – This final elimination is one of the most controversial of the paleo template. Because of the prevalence of both lactose and casein intolerance, it is recommended that everyone eliminate dairy for the first 30 days. For those who are neither lactose nor casein intolerant, however, it seems like adding some forms of dairy back into the diet can be beneficial.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no need to drink milk to get enough calcium in your diet, but dairy does have other health benefits, mostly contained in the dairy fat. For this reason, the best sources of dairy are those highest in fat: forget the skim milk and pull out ghee, butter, cheese, full-fat yogurt, kefir, and heavy cream. To get the most benefit out of dairy, these foods should be from grass-fed cows (or other ruminants) and – if possible – unpasteurized (raw). Raw milk is illegal to buy/sell in Canada and many US states because of the health issues that can arise in unpasteurized milk from grain-fed ruminants. However, there are some areas where it is legal to sell raw milk in supermarkets. Lactose intolerance isn’t as much of an issue with raw milk because it contains an enzyme called lactase which aides in the digestion of lactose. The pasteurization process removes the lactase from the milk while keeping the lactose. For more information about raw milk, check out the documentary Farmaggedon.
Now that we’ve covered the recommended eliminations, it’s time to answer the question “then what can I eat??” Looking at a long list of “no’s” can get overwhelming, but the paleo template really isn’t that difficult if we focus on all the great foods that we can eat once we eliminate the junk from our diets.
VEGETABLES – As far as I’m concerned, vegetables are one of the greatest inclusions in the paleo template. They are full of vitamins and other good stuff, sure, but what makes them great is how much variety they have. You can have them raw (in a salad, with a dip, on their own) or cooked (boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled), and there are so many different types. I never understand when people say that they don’t like vegetables because there are so many different flavours and textures of vegetables out there.
In the video of Dr. Terry Wahls posted above, she recommends that everyone eat at least 9 cups of vegetables each day: 3 cups from each of 3 categories (cruciferous, sulphur-rich, and colourful vegetables). This seems like a good guideline because that way you’re guaranteed some variety and a wide range of nutrients.
It is better if you can afford to buy organic produce, but even if you can’t, just eat vegetables. As a student, I can rarely afford organic, but I do try to frequent the local organic farmers who sell at my neighbourhood farmer’s market. I also try to keep in mind the “dirty dozen” (the 12 foods that are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides), and I sometimes opt to buy organic apples or spinach even though they are slightly more expensive.
MEAT – Meat, especially from grass-fed cows and other ruminants, is extremely nutrient-dense. It contains all sorts of good things for our bodies like iron and omega-3 fats. Humans seem to have evolved to eat meat. The best meat to eat is from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals, but that can be expensive. If you can only afford conventional meat, opt for that, but if you can afford some of the less expensive grass-fed cuts like ground meat or organ meats, I would recommend mixing that in as well. This is a good guide for prioritizing your meat sources. You can also save money by buying good quality meat in bulk (like a half pig or a quarter cow) directly from the farmer.
FISH – Fish is a great source of omega-3 fats and vitamin D (which is difficult to get from food). It is also easy to digest and is a rich source of both iodine and selenium. It is recommended that you eat fish twice a week (preferably wild-caught). If you’re on a budget, canned salmon, tuna, or sardines are great options.
EGGS – Contrary to conventional wisdom, the yolk of the egg is the healthiest part. Yolks contain many vitamins including vitamin D, omega-3s, and B12. Eggs are also one of the least expensive proteins out there, even when you buy good-quality eggs. Unfortunately, egg whites are a very common allergen, and many people (including me) find it difficult to tolerate whole eggs. If the basic paleo template isn’t working for you, this is a good thing to try eliminating.
HEALTHY FATS – There are many types of healthy fats encouraged on the paleo template because fats tend to be high in fat-soluable vitamins and because they are also generally more filling than carbohydrates. You can use fats like coconut oil, lard, tallow, red palm oil, and butter (if you tolerate dairy) for cooking. For salads and pestos, you can use olive oil, avocado oil, or macadamia nut oil. Coconut, avocados, and various nuts are all good whole food sources of fat to include in meals and snacks.
NUTRIENT-DENSE FOODS – For good overall health it is important to prioritize nutrient-dense foods. This category includes organ meats, bone broth, and probiotic foods, among others. Use bone broth as a base for soups and stews; make chicken liver pâté or beef tongue tacos to get some organ meats in your diet; and try making your own sauerkraut or kombucha.
This may seem like a lot of information to digest, especially if you are currently eating a standard North American diet. Unless you’re confident about jumping straight in, I recommend transitioning slowly, eliminating gluten first and then moving on to seed oils and grains. When you are ready, do a Whole30 and then figure out how to tailor the paleo template to fit your specific dietary needs.