The third installment of the series on eating patterns is about the Paleo Diet. Last month, we explored the Vegetarian Diet and discussed alternative ways to meet protein needs without meat. Ranked #33 out of 41 total diets in the U.S News Best Diet Rankings, the Paleo Diet didn’t fare well as it is perceived to be too restrictive to be sustainable. While that may be true for some, the Paleo diet has a cult-like following and isn’t as ‘unreasonable’ as it may seem at first glance.
Paleo Diet: ‘Eating like a caveman’ is how this diet has been described, although a better description would be ‘eating non-processed foods.’ In this case, ‘processing’ includes even grinding wheat into flour. Basically, Paleo Dieters eat meat, fruits and vegetables; and avoid dairy, legumes (beans), grains and added sugars. The original idea for the diet stemmed from a desire to avoid any sort of food ‘processing’ that wasn’t available way back when, thinking that by doing so one could also avoid ‘modern day’ diseases, such as Type 2 Diabetes. While the validity of that claim remains to be seen, one certainly can improve their health by increasing their fruit and vegetable intake while decreasing their intake of nutritionally poor foods, such as highly processed grain and dairy products full of added sugars.
Nutritional Considerations: Contrary to popular belief, the Paleo Diet is not a high-protein diet. Overall protein intake should remain approximately the same, and any energy intake usually gotten from grains and dairy should be replaced with additional fruits and vegetables. Nor is it a low-carb diet. Again, energy from carbohydrates should come from increased intake of fruits and vegetables and overall carbohydrate intake should remain about the same. Many opponents of the diet identify calcium as a concern due to omitting dairy, but calcium is also found in dark leafy greens and those following a Paleo Diet can easily get enough through vegetables. Coconut oil is often the fat of choice on the Paleo Diet, and while it is high in saturated fat (one of the only plant-based fats with saturated fat), its unique fatty acid profile appears to be more beneficial for our bodies than saturated fats found in animal products. While we’re on the topic of saturated fat, it’s important for Paleo Dieters to choose lean meats as their sources of protein, just like everybody else. Eggs and fish are also an excellent source of protein for those following a Paleo Diet. Bottom line here: By eating a variety of produce and avoiding nutrient poor ‘paleo’ junk food, dieters can meet all their nutritional needs without sources of grains, legumes and dairy.
Target Audience: Those avoiding gluten for health reasons may enjoy a Paleo Diet, as it excludes all gluten-containing foods. Some studies have shown gluten and dairy to be pro-inflammatory, so anyone trying to manage or improve an autoimmune disease with diet may find trying Paleo to be beneficial. Those trying to lose weight may benefit from going Paleo, as it excludes both food groups that tend to be over consumed and include most of our added sugars (grains and dairy). Because the diet is mostly made up of meat and produce, it may be slightly more expensive, however, those on a budget can find less expensive forms of protein, such as eggs, canned fish and cheaper cuts of meat.
Foods to Highlight: All the produce! The Paleo Diet encourages increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, so make more than half your plate contains non-starchy veggies at all meals. Nutritional yeast, which was mentioned in the column on the Vegan Diet, is a powerhouse full of protein and fiber that provides a ‘cheesey’ flavor (traditional cheese is a no-no on the Paleo Diet) to dishes. Another lesser-known-but-becoming-mainstream item is coconut milk. It comes in cans and can be used in place of milk or cream in dishes to add creaminess, such as in a curry. Lastly, while the Paleo Diet is relatively meat-centric, opt for lean meats as much as possible to decrease your saturated fat intake.