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What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleolithic diet, also known as the Paleo diet or the caveman diet, became a somewhat popular diet trend in the early 2000’s with the release of Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet.  More recently, however, the diet was made widely popular by the intense exercise craze called CrossFit.  Touted as the premiere diet to build muscle and burn excess body fat for a flawless physique, the Paleo diet has made its way into popular media and popular culture.  Interestingly, it is simply founded on clean, whole foods the human race has thrived on for the past 2 million years: namely meat and fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and eggs.

The foundation of the Paleo diet is based off of research findings that our ancient, Paleolithic ancestors were in exceptionally superior health than people today, with little disease and stable blood sugars.  Ancient bones leave clues about diet and health, and researchers often attribute the great health of the Paleolithic people to a combination of diet and the intense lifestyle of the ancient hunter gatherer.  Today, the intense lifestyle is often mimicked with intense exercise regimes and frequent workouts for extraordinary physical condition.

The Paleo diet requires that one give up dairy, grains, preservatives, additives, processed foods, legumes, and vegetable oils, all foods that Paleolithic people were unable to attain.  What is left is a whole, clean diet that is packed full of nutrients and healthy fats that will help your body run as efficiently as possible.  Unlike the standard American diet that is loaded with simple carbohydrates, saturated fats, chemicals and preservatives, and sugar, the Paleo diet is loaded with whole foods that are derived from the ground, rather than a factory.  These foods are the key to the long-lasting energy and vitality needed to function on a daily basis.

According to one of the leading Paleolithic diet experts, Loren Cordain, the diet is comprised of 19 to 35 percent lean proteins, 22 to 40 percent carbohydrates, and 28-47 percent fats, while the standard American diet today is comprised of 15 percent protein, 49 percent carbohydrates, and 34 percent fats.  Looking at the numbers, the Paleo  diet is more evenly distributed amongst protein, complex carbohydrates, and fat than standard diets, which allows for a better distribution of nutrients while preventing blood sugar from quickly rising.

The fats allowed in a Paleolithic diet are beneficial, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are often full of omega-3 fatty acids, rather than the saturated, trans-fats that currently overload the standard American diet. Main sources of fat in the Paleo diet include nuts, olive and coconut oils, and lean meat. It is highly unlikely, according to Drs. S. Boyd Eaton and Stanley B. Eaton III, that ancient Paleolithic people would eat anywhere near the amount of saturated fats that the average American eats. The negative health effects associated with saturated fat, such as heart attack and stroke, would have been nearly nonexistent.

And, unlike a low-carbohydrate fad diet or the standard American diet, the Paleo diet allows as many carbohydrates as one would like, as long as they are derived from fruits and vegetables, rather than grains.  By eating this type of carbohydrate, the body gets plenty of dietary fiber, something that grains cannot offer.  These complex carbohydrates help regulate the body’s blood sugar, leaving you feeling high energy levels throughout the day.  Simple carbohydrates can make your blood sugar spike and then plummet, a major cause of after-meal fatigue.  Furthermore, carbohydrates derived from fruits and vegetables have cancer-fighting properties, whereas grains have little to no cancer-fighting properties, according to Eaton.

Ultimately, the current trend of eating paleo is derived from the belief that since the agricultural era, food has changed significantly for the worse, and that the diet eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors was the main factor in physical health and the expansion of our brains.  And, with ample scientific evidence proving the health benefits of the diet, paleo eaters can feel confident in the healthfulness of their choice.

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Paleo Diet History

The Paleolithic diet (Paleo for short) , or caveman diet, is founded on the basic principle that our bodies are better suited to eating like our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors.  With stable isotope analysis of bone and dental records suggesting that our Stone Age relatives were healthy and strong, primarily due to diet and exercise, it is no wonder that the paleo diet is now a popular craze in America.  Endorsed primarily by followers of the exercise trend CrossFit and others who engage in other high-intensity workouts, the paleo diet, in which 10,000 years ago was a necessity, has now become one of the leading weight-loss and fitness diets in America.

The Paleolithic time period is located within the second half of the Stone Age beginning somewhere between 750,000 and 500,000 BC, when people began using tools, and ending around 8,500 BC, or the modern geologic era. Archeologists and anthropologists studying the period use bone records and dental evidence to determine dietary history and the health of our ancestors at various periods.

According to anthropologists and the creative lay-person, Paleolithic ancestors would have been following a diet of gathered fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds that were easily found in the wild and food that was caught while hunting.  Wild meat would have been primarily lean muscle rather than the fatty muscle from factory-farmed, sedentary cattle and poultry found in today’s diets.  Also, Paleolithic people would have been able to find eggs and small game to supplement their diets when hunting and gathering yields were slim to modest.

Researchers, such as paleo-enthusiast S. Boyd Eaton, find that the general diet attributed to Paleolithic people may have been a significant factor in brain expansion as well as a healthy physique and a significantly lower rate of serious illnesses and diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.  These findings caused a recent surge in the diet’s popularity.

With the breeding of emmer wheat in approximately 8,800 BC, the paleo diet began its steady decline.  It was not reintroduced to modern minds until 1975, when Dr. Walter L. Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet, a book touting the diet’s healthfulness.  Shortly thereafter, S. Boyd Eaton, now widely considered the father of the paleo movement, published The Paleolithic Prescription.  It wasn’t until 2002, however, when Eaton’s The Paleo Diet was first published, that the diet gained widespread notoriety.  In the years since, the paleo diet has attained a positive reputation and, with its foundation in fresh, whole foods and lean meats, has gained support from doctors, fitness experts, and nutritionists alike.

In recent years, CrossFit, an extreme fitness regimen started by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California, became linked with the paleo lifestyle.  For ultimate fitness and athleticism and the ability to make it through the workouts with plenty of energy, Crossfit trainers across the nation find that the paleo diet works well.  The diet provides enough protein and carbohydrates to fuel intense workouts while helping to cut out the bad foods, such as sugar and simple carbohydrates, to create a lean and muscular physique.

The history of the paleo diet begins with our Paleolithic predecessors’ need to survive in some of the harshest conditions our species has known.  Today, the diet is coming full circle.  A whole host of extreme athletes, medical professionals, and dieters have set out to ensure that history repeats itself, arguing that the paleo diet has stood the test of time, offering the right balance for health and optimal physical performance.

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Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet

 

In January 2011, the American Diabetes Association reported that in the United States alone, nearly 26 million people are living with diabetes and 79 million people have prediabetes.  In addition, 1 out of every 3 deaths in the United States has been attributed to cardiovascular disease. Over 149 million people over the age of 20 are overweight or obese, significantly raising the risk of chronic disease and death.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health and the American Diabetes Association all associate the risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes, to a poor diet.  The paleo diet, however, can decrease risk of serious illness because it is loaded with nutritious and natural complex carbohydrates, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables.

According to Stephanie Jew, et al., in an article published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2009, diet is the main cause of chronic illness increasing over time:

“Shifts have occurred from [Paleolithic] diets high in fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and seafood to processed foods high in sodium and hydrogenated fats and low in fiber. These dietary changes have adversely affected dietary parameters known to be related to health, resulting in an increase in obesity and chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, and cancer.”

Jew contends that dietary changes have occurred quickly, faster than the human body can evolve, causing an influx of chronic disease.  However, Jew found with intervention studies that a Paleolithic diet may reverse the risk for or the adverse affects of some diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  Because it is better suited to the body’s current evolutionary state and requires the dieter to eat a higher volume of fruits and vegetables, the paleo diet is a beneficial alternative to the standard American diet.

The paleo diet is also beneficial for people dealing with unstable blood sugars, due to the exclusion of simple carbohydrates from the diet.  Processed breads and pastas often have a high glycemic index, resulting in a rapid spike in blood sugar.  Other grains or oats also cause a rise in blood sugar, which can wipe out energy and increase risk for chronic illness.  Because the paleo diet does away with processed foods, sugars, and grains, the blood sugar remains fairly stable.

By excluding processed foods and fatty meats, paleo dieters also benefit from a significant reduction in dietary sodium, a significant factor in developing hypertension.  With 65 million Americans suffering from hypertension, according to University of Maryland Medical Center’s Dr. Stephen Havas, cutting out high sodium foods is exceptionally good for one’s physical condition.  When a study was conducted by DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), those who ate diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in fat experienced decreases in blood pressure, which results in fewer deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke.

Overall, the paleo diet is more than just a healthy alternative to the standard American diet.  With moderate to low intake of lean meats and wild-caught or farmed, organic fish and a high consumption of valuable fruits and vegetables, the paleo diet has been scientifically proven to increase the health of the dieter.  Combined with regular exercise, the paleo diet can lead to improved fitness and well-being and a low risk of chronic disease.

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How to Start the Paleo Diet

Beginning a new lifestyle that revolves around diet can feel daunting and complicated.  Eating processed foods and food that is generally touted as healthy, such as whole grain rice and breads, may be second nature to you.  Transitioning to a paleo lifestyle, one that is founded on whole, fresh foods can be simple and beneficial for your overall health and well-being.  The first step, however, is to talk with your physician before beginning any new or sudden dietary changes.

The first thing you should note about the paleo lifestyle is that the transition from the standard American diet to a healthy paleo diet should be slow.  Most paleo dieters are not concerned with an all-or-nothing approach to dieting, but rather encourage a slow progression to healthful, mindful eating of whole, clean foods.  If you do decide to leave out all non-paleo foods at once, expect to experience a few weeks of sluggishness due to your body feeling shocked by the change.  Adaptation occurs relatively slowly, so give your body time.  Take each meal you eat and, as you prepare it, consider what in your recipes you can alter to make the meal more paleo-friendly.  Perhaps eat your burger without the bun or have roasted vegetables instead of French fries on the side.  Or, have your tacos in the form of a salad, without the shell.

As for your home, go through your pantry and fridge and throw out any food you don’t want to have on the paleo diet.  Chips, pretzels, dairy products, cereals, and other processed foods should be thrown away or donated to give you the best chance of staying paleo.  If the food is there, you will most likely eat it.  Also, plan your meals ahead of time.  Take a list with you to the grocery store and do not buy anything you do not need.

You may want to consider first cutting down on your consumption of grains.  The average American ate 200 pounds of grain in 2000, up 50 pounds from the 1970’s, according to the USDA.  For the paleo diet, oats, grains, beans, millet, and rice need to be moderated and slowly excluded from your daily eats until you are comfortable excluding them completely from every meal.  Instead of a side of bread, eat a salad or other fresh vegetable with dinner.  Instead of eating a sandwich for lunch, try a salad or bowl of soup.

Another major factor in poor health is the standard American consumption of refined sugar and sweeteners.  After cutting out refined sugar and products like cake, cookies, and brownies, your body will begin to adjust and cleanse, and you will begin to feel stronger, healthier, and have more energy.  The omission of processed sugar, again, should be done gradually, but being mindful of the sugar you do eat will help you make the switch.  Avoid mindless snacking and choose fruit drizzled in raw, local honey instead of ice cream for dessert.

Dairy should also be eliminated from your diet.  All dairy products should be avoided, as it is unlikely that our Paleolithic ancestors would have had opportunity to milk the wild boars they found while hunting.  Cow’s milk and other animals’ milk contain proteins that are often hard on the digestive system of humans.  Lactose and casein may also cause problems in those who are allergic.  The Paleo Recipe Book author Sebastian Noel even cites a link on his website between dairy and Chron’s disease.  Many paleo dieters believe that a small amount of dairy can be beneficial for some, especially people who have higher caloric needs and those who need to gain weight.

While making the transition to the paleo diet can be daunting, learning how to cook paleo foods will increase your chances of staying paleo and your enjoyment of the diet.  Also, it will help you begin to exclude those foods that are not allowed on the paleo diet.  Learn how to prepare meats in various ways, such as poaching, roasting, baking, boiling, and steaming.  Consider ways to prepare vegetables that make your meals interesting and alter the flavors of your vegetables.  Roasted, raw, steamed, or sautéed vegetables can make your side dishes appealing.  Also, experiment with soups and ingredient combinations.  Fill your pantry with at least 20 herbs and spices to keep flavors interesting.  There are infinite combinations of foods and flavors, so get creative.

If you are ready to start creating your own recipes, Robb Wolf, a paleo expert, recommends each meal be comprised of 4 to 8 ounces of lean meat, plenty of raw or cooked vegetables, and a limited amount of healthy oils such as olive or coconut oil.  Fruit, Wolf explains, should be limited if you are hoping to lose weight, though you may eat plenty of fruit if you are content with your weight or are engaged in an intense exercise regime.

One way to ensure that you don’t run out of paleo-friendly food throughout the week is to cook large batches of food at once.  Instead of baking two chicken breasts, bake six to have throughout the week.  Cook a large batch of soup and freeze half, so you’ll have it if you want or need it.  Keep paleo-friendly snacks with you at all times so you are not tempted to stop at a fast food chain.  When you do feel like eating a piece of pie or a burrito, go ahead and have it.  Depriving yourself of foods you truly love will ultimately lead to long-term failure.  As long as you’re eating predominantly paleo meals, you will notice the positive health effects of the diet.

Once you begin to cut out all the paleo-unfriendly foods from your diet and get creative in the kitchen, you will find the paleo lifestyle comes easily to you.  Within a few weeks, you will notice many health benefits, including increased strength and vitality, energy, and a clear mind.  Remember not to worry too much about being overly strict on the diet.  The goal is overall health, not deprivation.

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Healthly Paleo Diet Snacks

 

Eating a variety of snacks throughout the day may be part of any paleo dieter’s routine, though snacking on a paleo diet is completely at the discretion of the dieter. Sometimes, you may simply find yourself feeling hungry unexpectedly or with a particular craving. While processed, unhealthy foods such as pretzels and crackers are quick, easy, and often convenient, the choice to eat those foods is often disappointing for those trying to maintain a paleo diet. With a little planning, choosing a paleo-approved snack can be just as quick and convenient as prepackaged, unhealthy options.

Snacking on fruit is often a quick choice for paleo dieters. Though you may be limiting your fruit intake, bananas and apples are easily transportable, as they do not need any extra packaging or preparation and can provide the body with essential nutrients and fiber. Sometimes, you may decide to snack on a fruit salad or simply dive into an avocado for a dose of healthy fats. Of course, precut vegetables are always a convenient snack, too. Carrot sticks, raw broccoli, raw cauliflower, celery, cucumber, or olives are easy to grab on the go.

If you are simply raiding the fridge for something savory, last night’s leftover ground beef or pork loin may be the perfect snack food for midday cravings. In a similar vein, a hardboiled egg can provide plenty of protein to keep you full and prevent gorging on non-paleo foods when you are at the office. Pork rinds or beef jerky are other options, as is a can of tuna, salmon, or anchovies. While nuts, in addition to fruit, may be limited, a healthy paleo-friendly trail mix, granola, or handful of nuts may be just the snack you need. These foods are easy, quick, convenient, and taste delicious.

If you are feeling a bit more adventurous or have more time, you can whip up some more complex recipes. Try a dip for raw veggies or plantain chips or a fresh salsa or guacamole paired with kale chips. Baba ghanoush or a tapenade will satisfy your hunger cravings. Or, start your afternoon off with a paleo-friendly smoothie. A green smoothie of spinach or kale, pomegranate seeds, blackberries, and bananas is a sweet treat that is also highly nutritious.

If you are interested in prepackaged foods, there are companies that make and sell Paleolithic snack foods, such as cookies and nut bars. Paleo Snax, a company that sells prepackaged paleo-friendly foods, sells high-protein foods made of high quality beef jerky, blueberries, goji berries, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, cherries, etc. Purchasing this type of food can make snacking extremely quick and easy, though it may cost slightly more than making your own snacks at home.

Whether you plan to precut fruits and vegetables for when a need to snack arrives, plan to whip up some dip and pull out some fresh veggies or whether you order some prepackaged paleo foods, snack time should be a time to enjoy the variety of flavors available on the paleo diet, rather than a time to feel deprived of the foods you love. With so many options available, you should never feel hungry midday.