Easily the most common question I get about starting the paleo diet is “so what do I eat?” People who have been eating paleo for a longer time seem to forget how confusing this can be for someone just interested. “Meat and vegetables” is this typical response with “some fruit and nuts” thrown in as an after thought. Ok, that’s helpful but what do I use to fry things? I have to up-end my entire way of eating, can I get a little more help?
Many people approach paleo the same way they would approach low fat—high carb or vegetarian diets, focusing on the right and the wrong foods to eat. I believe this approach has often led to the question of “well what am I supposed to eat?” Low fat—high carb has a simple answer, “lots of fruit and veggies, as little fat as possible, unsaturated whenever possible.” Vegetarianism too, “as little meat as possible” with various steps up and down such as “I just eat chicken”, pescatarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegetarian, and vegan. (There’s definitely complexities here around how to structure a healthy vegetarian diet so as to prevent malnourishment. Most vegetarians don’t advocate living on twinkies, I’m just simplifying for sake of brevity.)
So what do I eat?
Paleo is less of a prescribed “eat this, don’t eat this” approach and more of an understanding of ourselves that provides a basis for us to make informed decisions and experiment to find what works for us. Put another way, ancestral health (paleo) is about knowing how we, as a species, evolved and understanding that the closer we get to that original diet, then the more optimal our health will be. It is not about never touching a cookie again. I don’t advocate the “have the cookie or you’re missing out on life” view because I believe there’s a way to shift your mindset from “if I don’t eat the cookie I’ll be missing out” to “I’d rather not have the cookie because I have this delicious chocolate that won’t make me feel sick afterwards”. But I am also not the cookie police, nor am I “holier than thou” if you do have a cookie. I only advocate for an informed decision. If you know what choice you are making and the basics of the reaction your body has when you eat it then by all means make the choice and go on living, you are not ostracized from paleo and no one is going to judge your decision.
I still don’t know what to eat…
Ok, I hear ya. I’m not being very helpful. The unhelpful answer is: what our ancestors ate 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors were hunter gatherers. Most people know that, but what’s news is that the emphasis was on the “hunter” half rather than the “gather” part. Meat is far more nutrient dense than plants so eating other animals would have been the optimal way to fuel our bodies and our evolution. Eating meat is what allowed us to divert more energy to growing our brains. Herbivores have longer digestive tracts and use more energy to digest food than carnivores or omnivores because it’s much harder to get nutrients out. It also requires much more food which necessitates constant grazing and digestion. When we required less energy to digest foods, our brains were able to consume more. So the short answer is: “eat meat and vegetables because that’s what made us human.” That includes fatty meats. Our ancestors would not have been trimming the fats from the bison they brought down.
Our ancestors also would have eaten much more fat and protein and less carbohydrates than we do today. The refined carbohydrates we have simply would not have been available to them. Their carbs would have come from leafy vegetables when vegetation was available. During the winter they would have subsisted mainly on meat and some tubers and winter vegetation they could find and dig up. The Inuits are a perfect example of a culture that thrives on a mainly animal-based diet in a climate that doesn’t support abundant vegetation.
Understanding that our ancestors ate animals frequently and plants when available gives us a basis to make decisions as to what we should be eating. Would they have eaten the occasional potato? Probably. Fruit every day? Definitely not. High carb? Some people will tell you yes, based on my research I would say highly unlikely. Grains? No. They would have been very difficult to process and considered not worth the effort for the amount of satiety they provided. No grains is one of the few hard and fast “rules” of paleo because of the inflammation, gastrointestinal damage, and auto-immune responses they cause.
Hopefully that clears up why it’s often so difficult to get a prescription-like answer as to what to eat on the paleo diet, it’s a very hard question to answer. Know as much as you can about our past and rest your choices for the future on that.
I do have a cheat sheet for what to eat and what to avoid. With an understanding of the principal behind paleo you can experiment with the “maybe” and “sometimes” sections. Check it out here.
Source: Rx Primal Blog