Ok, so the original plan was to have this article up on my blog in December last year as a build up to all your healthy New Years resolutions. The reality however is that for one reason or another (health related), it’s taken me until February to get this article together, but hey, better late than never right? So, was one of your New Years resolutions to start eating healthy, lose some weight or start looking after yourself better? Are you struggling or have you already fallen off the waggon? …. Then why not try the paleo way of eating. I’ve had a number of enquiries over the last few weeks asking about the benefits of the paleo way and where to start. This short guide will give you the information and tips you need to get started and be on your way to a healthier you, for life!
In October 2013 I embarked on a journey to help improve my health. Since 2009 I’ve suffered from ME/ CFS and I’ve tried many different types of natural treatments, methods and supplements, but have been unable to find anything that helped improve any of my symptoms. I had tried individual methods but never really tried a holistic approach (holistic meaning whole/all of), so when I went to see a private specialist, one of the top UK doctors treating CFS I knew there would be some big changes to be made. The Doc began her work in the field of allergy and intolerance where she began to find a common pattern between allergy/intolerance to foods/toxins and CFS. Since then she has gone on to do a tremendous amount of research and studies with CFS patients. Her work aims to find out the cause and to find methods to help improve the symptoms. As a result she recommends CFS suffers follow a stone age diet (Very similar to the Paleo diet) and in some instances also a ketogenic diet to help reduce/ manage symptoms alongside pacing, rest, removing toxins from your lifestyle and a good sleep routine. For this post, I will be focusing on the Paleo diet, mostly because it was one of the most googled topics of 2014.
The word Paleo comes from the word Paleolithic meaning ‘older’ or ancient, especially relating to the geological past. The paleo diet, also referred to as the caveman diet or stone age diet is based on how our ancestors ate back in the stone age – foraging for foods that grew naturally or catching animals/ fish. This era lasted for around 2.5 million years but ended about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals. It is believed that the human body has not evolved/ become adapted enough to metabolize foods that have become available as a result of agriculture (such as grains) and has resulted in some people suffering from various different illnesses stemming from food intolerance and allergy.
The paleo diet today is slightly different to that of our ancestors for a number of reasons. Firstly – we live in the 21st century so we don’t live in cave, we don’t have to cook over a freshly made camp fire and we don’t have to catch our own food! Secondly some of the ‘fresh’ foods that are grown have been genetically changed over the years (e.g to help it grow better) or they contain high levels of (natural) chemicals that are bad for you. Stone agers wouldn’t have known this but recent research shows foods high in these chemicals can cause us big problems (see legumes below for more info)! Thirdly – we live in a day and age where we have slow cookers, yogurt makers, ice cream makers and so on, which enables us to make delicious foods from the fresh ingredients. No, our ancestors weren’t able to make Paleo chocolate chip ice cream but it doesn’t mean we can’t!
Why some ‘fresh’ foods aren’t paleo
We all know that there are certain foods that are bad for us such as sugars and processed foods etc, but what you may not realise, is that some foods which are often promoted as good for you – are actually likely to be what’s making you sick! One prime example food group are grains (wheat, rye, spelt, flour, oats) and the reason is because they are very damaging to the digestive system/ gut lining – even ‘gluten-free’ options. Gluten free just means that the item has been made without the gluten protein (whether naturally gluten-free ingredients, ingredients processed with the gluten removed, or has been made in a Gluten free environment). If it contains gluten-free grains – you are still eating grains, whether it’s gluten free or not! Want to know more – then click here to read Paleo Hacks article.
Other foods such as beans, legumes, soya products, are promoted as good for you but these can cause the body severe discomfort and symptoms such as acne, skin rashes, bloating and congestion problems. The reason for this is because they contain high levels of (natural) chemicals known as phytates and lectins. Phytates bind to the minerals in food which prevent the body from being able to use them. Lectins are a type of protein which the body finds really difficult to break down and have been linked with health problems such as IBS, Chrohn’s disease and arthritis. They also bind to foods causing digestive problems and damage to the intestinal lining. These chemicals are in lots of foods, but in soy, beans and legumes the chemical is very high. For more details check out The Ultimate Paleo Guide here where it explains more about legumes.
The Paleo Diet and The Gut
If you are considering paleo I really do recommend you do some reading into gut health, as it can be key to recovery. By going paleo you’re already cutting out many foods that can be damaging your gut, but that’s not enough! The next step to good health is to be kind to your gut, so eat foods that help it recover/ improve it. This means foods that encourage good bacteria as well as feed it. We all know that probiotics are good but they don’t have to be taken as a sugary milk drink (as they are often found!). Natural yogurt without any added sugars is good for promoting good bacteria, but if you’re dairy free what do you eat? Well, there’s plenty of choice, you can have coconut yogurt or any coconut products as they are high in antibacterial properties, kombucha (a fermented drink that’s big in America – it’s not as well-known here in the UK), kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir (a culture that’s grown in milk (dairy or non dairy if your intolerant to dairy). Bone broth and gelatin are both really good for gut health. If you want to find out more about improving gut health take a look at Chris Kressers article here. An example of the link between gut and poor health can be found here.
Paleo Recipes and Goods
There are literally hundreds of websites where you can find paleo recipes or stores selling paleo friendly goods, but you don’t have to buy any special ingredients or make any fancy pants cakes or breads to be paleo. The general principle of paleo is eating fresh, natural foods that are free from preservatives/ chemicals and added (‘scuse the word) crap! It’s just honest, fresh, homemade food using natural ingredients (such as a home-made Bolognese sauce instead of a jar/ shop bought!) However some people find it difficult to change their diet or give up foods they love and that’s where paleo versions of bread, cereal and the likes come in handy – they are there to make IF you WANT to but it’s not a key part of the diet.
To give you an example of a simple paleo meal it would be a roast chicken dinner, you have chicken, veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, roasted carrots and sweet potato all served with a gravy. The difference from a ‘normal’ chicken dinner would be that the gravy would be made with the natural meat juices (maybe thickened with arrow-root powder or xanthan gum). The chicken would be roasted in its own juices and if you wanted you could rub the skin with coconut oil or duck fat if you choose. You can also add any spices you like. Paprika and granulated garlic sprinkled over roasted spuds and the chicken skin for instance. There are paleo versions of stuffing, cranberry / apple sauce (made without added sugars), Yorkshire puddings and other side dishes that often get served with the traditional roast if you really don’t want to miss out on these foods, but don’t get hung up on trying to substitute everything. Eating paleo is also a good way to be conscious of what you eat and what your eating habits are like. If you switch to eating paleo and try to substitute everything (such as making paleo breads or crackers and so on) you will probably spend so much on ingredients and get fed up of cooking all the time. Its easier to start by eating simple freshly made meals, with fresh ingredients, then once you get used to it, experiment with making the things you really do miss and don’t want to do without.
But Is It Paleo?
Many people when eating a paleo diet often ask ‘is it paleo’ and get hung up on a ‘yes’ ‘no’ list but there really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ because what one person may be able to eat, might be different to another. There are basic rules for paleo of what is not allowed but when it comes to ‘yes’ foods, it varies. Let me explain, generally people start a paleo diet in order to treat a health condition or identify food intolerance, because eating this way removes a lot of food groups that can cause sensitivities in the body. For example you could start a paleo diet and discover that you don’t tolerate certain foods such as night shades. Nightshades are fruits and vegetables (that belong to the family of Solanaceae plants of the Solanum) and they include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers eggplant (aubergine) goji berries (to name a few, but this list isn’t exhaustive). Some people have terrible side effects if they eat them (such as rashes, painful joints/ aches and inflammation, bloating, and headaches). As a result they have to be avoided, even though they are classified as paleo. Other paleo foods that some people can’t eat are coconut products, nuts, eggs and dairy. However, some people find that they can tolerate all of these foods, so it would be unnecessary to cut them out their diet!
There are also some foods that are classed as ‘grey areas’. These are foods like as natural sweeteners such as xylitol or stevia, although they are natural, they can have an impact on a persons insulin levels if eaten in large quantities. You need to be aware that although they are ok to eat – having plates of muffins cakes or treats cooked with xylitol/ stevia wont make you ‘healthy’ just because they are natural! Another few grey areas are potatoes, rice and dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, butter). Potatoes are usually not considered paleo (although sweet potatoes are, or they are at least, seen as more paleo than white ones) because they are very starchy. However (just to get confusing) some paleo sites are allowing potatoes now, because they contain something called resistive starch. This means that when it’s digested, the starch bypasses the digestive process allowing it to feed the good bacteria in the stomach. People with certain health conditions or gut problems such as IBS and Small intestine bacteria overgrowth need to feed their good gut bacteria as it can help improve their health, so resistive starch in the diet is a must! Some people however suffer candida which is another type of bacteria in the body, but it feeds on sugar. But sugar isn’t just the White stuff you have in your tea! Any carbohydrate-containing foods get broken down by the body and turned into sugar, so someone with candida would need to limit their carbohydrates.
So, like I say, it’s not one size fits all but a way of eating healthy and tailoring it to suit your needs/ or health problem if you suffer with one and dietary requirements. Indeed, people suffering with the more severe or debilitating health conditions will probably find they need the assistance of a carer or family member to create some paleo dishes. Certainly, with my CFS, the simplest of tasks can be an uphill battle most days, so my husband does the majority of the donkey work and I’d struggle to eat paleo without his help.
How To Go Paleo
So, you’ve decided you want to start eating paleo but you don’t know where to start? There are a number of ways to do it but again, like the diet itself, it’s a way of life and you need to do it to fit around you and your family. The day I started the paleo diet way back in October 2013, the moment I got home I cleared my cupboards of all non paleo items and cooked recipes from a recipe book that my doctor had given me. I then began purchasing paleo items such as coconut oil, coconut milk, dark chocolate and so on. I started looking on the Internet about the diet and made notes, saved recipes, researched, read and researched some more. In hindsight I would say that it would be much easier to do the research first, find recipes of stuff you already cook but find paleo versions (eg so find a paleo version of cottage pie, Bolognese) then list the items you need. Only once you have the ingredients you need to make the recipes you have, clear out all the non paleo items to remove the temptation.
Alternately you can do it slowly over time, removing non paleo items and adding in paleo substitutes (eg swapping vegetable oils for a good coconut oil). Only you will know what will work for you, but remember, however you decide to make the switch, it will take time to get used to. Your taste buds will change and you’ll get used to working out what foods to swap (eg coconut or almond flour instead of flour, ghee, shortening or coconut oil instead of vegetable oils and margarine).
Check out these great sites to help give you all the information you need.
The Paleo Mom has everything you need to know about paleo, how to make the transition to paleo, what foods are grey areas and plenty of great recipes.
Chris Kresser – This website has a huge amount of information, giving you a great understanding of the science behind healing yourself with food. You can either visit his site here and search for items or Google the words ‘Chris Kresser’ and your query, eg ‘what are legumes’.
Nerd Fitness – has some great Paleo information including debunking and busting myths. Take a look here at ‘Going Paleo? 5 things you need to know’.
Google – is your friend. Always ask google if in doubt, such as ‘is it paleo’, ‘paleo lasagna’ ‘paleo ice cream’ … Searching for stuff this way will help you find hundreds of recipes and useful websites or forums where you can ask the questions you want (paleo hacks has a fab forum!).
When eating nuts and seeds make sure you pre soak them first. Some people find they struggle with stomach ache when they first increase these foods in their diet. Pre soaking will help break down enzymes found in nuts and seeds. Take a look at Original Eatings article here about why soaking nuts and seeds is important.
If you want to follow a paleo diet to detect a food intolerance, or if you have an auto immune disease, follow the AIP (Auto Immune Paleo or Auto Immune Protocol) diet. For this you may have to dive straight in and cut things out then follow a program. For details see the links below.
The Paleo Mom also has AIP information (Link listed above)