Do you ever wonder what it was like to live in a Paleolithic era among cave dwellers? Hunting in tribes, foraging for food, and eating whatever you can find. Sure, finding foods was a lot harder back then, but it seems it had its upsides.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t experience as many chronic conditions as we do today. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are some of the chronic disorders related to our diet and lifestyle that weren’t as prevalent back in the day.
With the Paleo diet, you are supposed to eat like our ancestors, which should result in a diet that is more suited for our needs evolutionary.
No, it doesn’t mean you will have to hunt and forage for food, so put your spears down. You will "just" have to eliminate all processed foods and anything that wasn’t available to our ancestors.
So, what foods are on the menu of the Paleo diet? Read on to find out.
The basic idea behind Paleo is that modern Western diet is contributing to the rise of chronic conditions. We have been evolving for 2 million years, but farming has only been around for 10,000 years. And when we look at processed foods, it’s only been around for a few hundred years.
That is why proponents of the Paleo diet highlight the importance of eating whole foods and ditching highly-processed ingredients.
There is no way we can know everything about the diet of Paleolithic humans. It heavily relied on the seasons and geographical area our ancestors inhabited. Still, there are some general similarities, like consuming non-processed foods you can find in nature, such as fruits and vegetables.
As with almost every diet, some foods are entirely off-limits; others are encouraged, while some fall in between. It is crucial to learn about what you can and cannot eat to experience the full advantages of Paleo.
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What to Eat on the Paleo Diet
Paleo focuses on eating whole foods. This includes grass-fed meats, seafood, shellfish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, mushrooms, herbs, spices, and healthy fats and oils.
Proteins are one of the essential parts of our nutrition. On the Paleo diet, most of your proteins come from animals. You are encouraged to eat grass-fed meat and buy from local, sustainable farms as much as you can.
Go for grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, sheep, bison, goat, rabbit veal, and wild boar. Game meat is also an option, so you are free to enjoy deer, moose, duck, elk, wild turkey, pheasant, and other game animals.
Of course, most of your animal proteins will come from poultry. You can eat chicken, goose, turkey, duck, or quail.
Seafood and Shellfish
Aim for wild-caught seafood and shellfish, as it is the way of our ancestors. You can go for salmon, tuna, tilapia, cod, mackerel, herring, catfish, and other wild-caught fish. Shrimp, crab, lobster, oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels are all on the menu, so feel free to enjoy them when you want.
Vegetables probably make up for the most significant part of the Paleo diet. Locally grown and seasonal produce is always the best option. You can try anything from peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, broccoli, avocados, to green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, green lettuce, arugula, and many more. Root vegetables and tubers are also on the menu, so feel free to enjoy carrots, beets, turnips, yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini, and more.
Potatoes are a bit of a gray area. While some people say that potatoes and Paleo don’t go together, others agree that you can eat sweet potatoes. These starchy vegetables are full of carbohydrates, which doesn’t suit the whole low-carb, high protein appeal of the Paleo diet.
But we say, go for it! As long as you feel good eating potatoes and do it in moderation, you’ll be okay.
The Paleo diet supports eating all fruits. Consider apples, berries, oranges, bananas, grapes, pears, apricots, watermelons, kiwis, plums, nectarines, or any other fruit you can think of.
Some Paleo dieters argue that certain fruits like bananas are not Paleo-friendly because of the high sugar content, but we wouldn’t worry about it.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are important sources of protein, healthy fats, minerals, and vitamins. That is why it is essential to include them in your everyday Paleo diet. A handful of pistachios, Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, chestnuts, almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and cashews go great with any meal. When it comes to seeds, you have chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more.
You should search for eggs from fully pastured or free-range chickens, ducks, goose, or quail. These animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, and they should be able to roam freely and feed outside.
Good news for all the mushroom lovers, as mushrooms are 100% Paleo-friendly. You can try portobello, shiitake, morel, porcini, button mushrooms, or any other type you prefer. These nutrient-rich foods are a perfect addition to your Paleo meals!
Herbs and Spices
Spices and fresh and dried herbs could be the key to delicious Paleo meals. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have access to all the spices and herbs we do today, but use it to your advantage, and make your meals tastier.
Sea salt, black pepper, garlic, onions, parsley, basil, turmeric, rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint, oregano, sage, dill, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, and chilies are just some of the things you can add to your Paleo meals.
Healthy Fats and Vegetable Oils
Cooking with non-refined vegetable oils and healthy fats is allowed on Paleo. This includes avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, walnut oil, macadamia oil, clarified butter (ghee), lard, tallow, veal fat, duck fat, lamb fat, nut butters, and more.
Foods to Avoid on the Paleo Diet
Since Paleo focuses on whole ingredients, you should avoid processed foods, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, trans fats, but also grains, legumes, and dairy.
You probably can’t imagine your diet without grains like wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley, spelt, couscous, etc., but if you want to try Paleo, you will have to cut them out. That means no more pasta, bread, or pizza.
Grains contain common allergens, which is why the Paleo diet is suitable for people with gluten sensitivities as it is completely gluten-free.
However, keep in mind that whole grains are not bad for your health. Most nutritionists recommend them as a part of a balanced diet because they contain complex carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fibers. Because of that, some Paleo dieters incorporate small amounts of whole grains in their diet.
Legumes such as beans, lentils, peanuts, peas, soybeans, lentils, pinto beans, and kidney beans are all forbidden on the Paleo diet.
Beans, lentils, and other legumes are excellent sources of plant-based proteins, which is why vegan and vegetarian diets heavily rely on them. Many nutritionists warn that when you eliminate them from your diet, you have to get most of your proteins from grass-fed meats, which may not be the healthiest long-term option.
Most Paleo diet consumers avoid all dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream, and sour cream are off the table.
However, some people include certain dairy products like butter, cheese, or yogurt in their diet. Human-gatherers certainly didn’t milk cows, but these products can be the source of some essential nutrients like proteins, vitamins, and calcium, which is why some people include dairy in their Paleo diet.
You can always substitute milk for non-dairy versions such as coconut milk, almond milk, or cashew milk, and products made with them.
The modern Western diet consists of heavily processed foods that contain a lot of refined sugar, which is not good for your health. With the Paleo diet, you try to eliminate all refined sugar from your nutrition. If you can’t do it cold turkey, Dr. Ann Childers suggests you do it gradually.
A gradual reduction in sugar intake is something most people can do comfortably. Gradually replacing sugars and refined starches (which convert to glucose, aka “blood sugar,” when digested) with well-sourced fats and high-quality protein is an important step to fortify the diet and dampen sugar cravings.
This means no more soft drinks, fruit juices, pastries, baked goods, corn syrup, table sugar, candy, agave, and more. If you are battling with your sugar cravings in the process, try eating fruits instead of candy. Fruits are full of natural sugar, fibers, vitamins, and minerals, making them a healthier snack option.
Artificial sweeteners are a no-brainer since our Paleolithic ancestors certainly didn’t consume them. When buying a product, read its label. Anything with aspartame, neotame, sucralose, saccharin, erythritol, and xylitol is off-limits.
Research shows that even though artificial sweeteners lower caloric count in a meal, they may amplify cravings for sweets (1,2). That can be a considerable set-back if you are trying to lose weight.
Instead of artificial sweeteners, choose a natural option such as raw honey, coconut sugar, or stevia.
Processed foods, including frozen dinners, packaged foods, or snacks, are not compatible with the Paleo diet. If you are wondering if a certain product is Paleo, simply ask yourself if you can find it in nature. If the answer is no, drop it, and go for whole foods instead.
Refined Vegetable Oils
Trans fats found in margarine and refined oils such as sunflower oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and canola oil are not Paleo-friendly. Prepare your meals with a healthier alternative, such as olive oil.
What to Drink on the Paleo Diet
Staying hydrated is essential if you are looking to lose weight. Proper hydration boosts our metabolism and supports digestion.
Your go-to drink on the Paleo diet should be water.
Other allowed drinks include teas, coffee (in moderation), unsweetened sparkling water, coconut water, kombucha, bone broth, non-dairy milks such as almond milk.
Gray Area Foods of the Paleo Diet
While some foods are strictly prohibited on the Paleo diet, others are okay to consume sometimes. This grey area is reserved for alcohol and dark chocolate.
While alcohol is normally a no-no for Paleo, an occasional glass of red wine is allowed. The same goes for dark chocolate. Aim for brands with more than 70% cocoa and no added ingredients.
Some people following a looser version of the Paleo diet occasionally consume dairy products, gluten-free grains, bacon, and other products your typical Paleo diet would prohibit.
One Day on Paleo – Sample Menu
If you are wondering what a day on the Paleo diet looks like, here is a menu to see if it picks your interest.
This sample menu should give you an inside into a day on the Paleo diet. Be prepared to build your meals around vegetables and other healthy foods.
After reading this article, you should have a good idea about what you can consume on the Paleo diet. Fruits, vegetables, lean meat, seafood, nuts, and seeds would be some of the main things you would be eating if you decide to try Paleo.
Grains, legumes, dairy, any processed foods, artificial sweeteners, refined oils, and for some people, even starchy vegetables like white potatoes.
Paleo isn’t necessarily bad for you. In fact, multiple studies show some potential health benefits like lowering the risks of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (3,4,5). However, Paleo isn’t for everyone. Eliminating legumes, grains, and dairy from your eating pattern could lead to certain nutrient deficiencies or impaired gut health. You should talk to a healthcare professional and consult whether Paleo is the right diet plan for you before starting it.
If you are eating a typical Paleo diet, cheese is off the menu. However, some people follow a modified Paleo plan and occasionally eat cheese and other forbidden foods.
Paleo Dieting – The Bottom Line
If you plan on following the Paleo diet, get ready for some sacrifices. Modern diets are almost unimaginable without processed foods. We consume fewer fruits and vegetables than we are supposed to, and we are overly dependent on added sugars.
Like some other diets, Paleo wants to change that. It eliminates all ingredients you can’t find in nature, in addition to refined sugars, oils, dairy, legumes, and grains.
If you want to try the Paleo diet for weight loss, it could be effective because it is a high-protein, low-carb eating plan. This restrictive eating pattern could have positive health effects by reducing the risks of certain chronic conditions, but more studies are needed to draw definite conclusions.
Keep in mind that Paleo is probably nothing like our ancestor’s diet according to an evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk.
Trying to emulate what people ate 10,000 or 100,000 years ago is really difficult. Our foods have changed so much that virtually every item in a supermarket is drastically genetically different from its prehistoric equivalent. This is what humans do: We modify foods so that they become more palatable and digestible.