The Paleo diet is an excellent starting place for anyone interested in improving their health. It is important to understand that for many, it is simply that—a starting place. Early humans lived all over the globe in vastly different environments. What they ate depended on geographic location and what the topography, climate, and seasons supported. There was a wide variation in the proportion of protein, fat, and carbohydrate (macronutrients) and the specific types of food consumed in different populations around the world. In fact, their diets were more alike in what they did not contain than what they did
Furthermore, the Paleolithic era is a 2.5-million-year time span. The types of foods available to Paleolithic man changed continuously over time.
In the modern world, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies thrive on anything from mostly plant foods to mostly animal products. Despite these differences, people who eat their traditional diets tend to have good health.
This suggests that different groups of people can thrive on a wide range of foods within a basic Paleo template with tremendous room for variation between individuals.
Some factors that may influence what makes a diet optimal for a person might include:
- Health status
- Activity level
- Life circumstances
The key to personalization is to experiment. No “one size fits all” food plan could really work for everyone, but because Paleo is so customizable, it can truly be a diet framework that fits everyone.
You may want to reintroduce some “gray-area” foods like dairy and white rice to see if you tolerate them or you may want to play around with macronutrient ratios, meal timing and frequency, fermented foods, and several other tweaks.
Understanding that Paleo is a framework on which to create a diet and lifestyle plan that is perfectly suited to you is important when you are looking to achieve your optimal wellness and not be overly-obsessive over what your diet might or might not look like. You can experiment until you feel your best and experience the health benefits you seek.
Stop Chasing Perfection
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
This means that there truly is no ‘perfect’/ Paleo diet – only what works for you. If adding in an occasional non-Paleo indulgence or including a few well-prepared Neolithic foods on a regular basis help you stay the Paleo course over time, then your overall health benefits.
In current times and with the modern food environment, adhering to a ‘perfect’ Paleo diet can be very challenging! For many people, long term compliance (and with that, the most long-lasting health benefits) come from following the plan 80% or more of the time. This would mean that a small number of your meals or snacks may not fall under the ‘strict’ Paleo guidelines and that is perfectly fine. Paleo is simply that – a guideline or a framework. It need not be all-or nothing.
It becomes important to personalize your Paleo diet in any way that best serves you and works for your goals and lifestyle. As long as you are choosing foods that meet your body’s specific needs, then that is the right framework for you, irregardless of how many of your foods are technically Paleo.
Personalization often involves including a few Neolithic foods or Paleo ‘grey’ areas. This can be done in a manner that is more aligned with ancient preparation methods that support the body in dealing with and managing these foods.
Some common foods to experiment with include:
- Ancient and gluten-free grains
- Packaged ‘Paleo’ foods
There are certain people that may need to avoid grains entirely.
Some individuals with autoimmunity or severe digestive system imbalances may need to remain grain-free or gluten-free permanently to feel their best, while others can thrive on a more diverse, grain inclusive diet.
If choosing to experiment with adding some ancient grains to your diet, it is probably best to begin with rice or buckwheat as they have the lowest toxicity and the greatest tolerance. If these are tolerated, you may want to try a few additional gluten-free grains or pseudo-grains
It is crucial to try each grain one at a time, so you can detect how your body is tolerating each one. You may discover that you tolerate some grains better than others.
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Properly preparing grains eliminate most of the problematic phytates and lectins and makes them much easier to digest.
Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains before consumption can drastically reduce toxins in grains increasing their digestibility and nutrient availability. The Weston A. Price Foundation provides numerous resources on how to properly prepare grains.
With many of the anti-nutrient compounds reduced through the soaking and sprouting process, you might choose to add these foods to your Paleo diet on occasion as long as you can tolerate them without issue.
Dairy is a gray area. It is not universally well tolerated, and not right for everyone. There are many people who feel better without it. If, on the other hand, you do tolerate dairy well, it may be something you want to consider.
Personally, I feel if dairy is defined as the gallon jugs of milk in the supermarket that are laden with artificial hormones and antibiotics, then dairy can be firmly labeled “not Paleo.” When it comes to organic, raw, grass-fed dairy free from any additives and pharmaceuticals, including it in your lifestyle becomes a question of your personal tolerance.
Goat camel, and sheep’s milk products can still provide the benefits of dairy with less of the reactive sugars and proteins found in cow’s milk.
Goat’s milk can be a good alternative to cow’s milk. The form of casein in goat’s milk (A2 casein) is not inflammatory, unlike the casein prevalent in most cow’s milk (A1 casein) that creates gut issues, allergies, eczema, and acne. Goat’s milk is also easier to digest so it doesn’t cause stomach discomfort for most. It also has high levels of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which boost metabolism and brain function, and higher levels of vitamin A, which is good for your skin.
Sheep’s milk is also similar in composition to goat’s milk, but offers higher levels of calcium and phosphorus.
Even though many milk-intolerant individuals report being able to tolerate raw goat, sheep, and camel milk, make sure to carefully test for tolerance, as reactions can still occur.
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Choosing Packaged Foods
When choosing a packaged product labeled as ‘Paleo’, it is less about whether the product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather about exploring your available options and making an informed decision about whether to eat it (or not!). A few pointers to help you decide might be:
Read the Ingredients
What you see on the ingredient list will determine whether the food is Paleo at all, and if so, whether it complies with the foods that work best for you and your body. On your personal Paleo journey, you get to decide what is most appropriate for your circumstances.…
Food additives are often used to help food stay shelf stable are included in many packaged foods. Try to avoid additives such as food colorings, MSG, artificial sweeteners, and sulfates. These ingredients are not Paleo and do not support optimal health.
Check the Fat
This is not a search for the fat content to ‘count’ fat grams (following Paleo principles, you know fat is not the enemy). Healthy fats are good for you and encouraged on the Paleo diet. You are checking for the source of fat, specifically trans fats. Make sure you avoid these.
Identify the Sweeteners
Cane sugar, corn syrup, HFCS (high-fructose corn sugar) and other ‘natural’ sweeteners can sneak their way into supposedly healthy foods. Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols may also be added. Based on your needs, goals and personal tolerances you may want to avoid certain sweeteners entirely.
Read the Nutrition Facts Label.
The ingredients list tells you what is in a product, but not how much. In some cases, the ‘how much’ matters. Check what a serving size is and determine whether this is the appropriate amount to eat. Often serving sizes are distorted – no one eats ½ of a 40-gram bar!!!
If your preference, for example, involves limiting carbohydrates or sweet foods create cravings or discomfort, a small amount of carbohydrate per serving might be what you are looking for. If the Nutrition Facts says “5 grams of carbs per serving,” and you are aware of how many servings you will be eating, this may or may not be a choice for you at this time.
Look for Trusted Certification
There is no regulation for how companies are allowed to use the term “Paleo” on a product or label. Because marketing (particularly food marketing) can be so deceiving, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of reading food labels, especially the labels on processed and prepared foods.
Certified Paleo is the Paleo Foundation’s highest level certification for Paleo-compliant products. Certified Paleo Products are products that contain are monitored and tested to ensure they are made with Paleo ingredients, but may have some 21st-century processing or packaging methods allowing for shelf stability.
Food manufacturers can engineer and create junk food to technically follow Paleo guidelines. Paleo ingredient based ‘junk’ food is still exactly that – ‘junk food’ and, no matter what the package may say, is not necessarily an optimal choice for YOU.
Read the ingredients, read the nutrition facts, and then decide whether the food is right for you and how it’s going to fit into your diet. Do you due diligence, and you decide.
Your Personal Paleo Diet
As long as you are eating real food most of the time and making lifestyle choices for optimal health based on Paleo principles, your dietary choices definitely do not have to fall into a one size fits all box, or be the same all of the time. Dietary choices should evolve with your needs, which change based on seasons of the year and seasons of life. The food that you eat should always nourish and serve you, not the other way around.