Is The Paleo Diet Right For You?
Fans of the popular paleo diet swear that what cavemen ate is exactly what the modern woman should be dining on, too.
A Paleo Refresher
Chances are that you’ve heard of the paleo diet before. The paleo diet rests on the premise that eating what our ancestors did is more compatible with the evolution of our genetics – and our bodies’ needs – which in turn results in better overall health. But our experts, naturopathic doctor Mahalia Freed and registered dietitian and nutritionist Jaime Slavin, both point out that there are some cracks in that line of thought. First, our ancestors come from different parts of the world and their diets would have reflected that; two, the nutritional and fat profiles of our ancestors’ vegetables and meats would be quite different from today. However, both say eating paleo might be the right fit for some people, including those who face autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal conditions and skin issues like eczema or psoriasis, because it cuts out foods that may be allergenic, difficult to digest or cause inflammation.
While there are slight variations depending on the form of paleo you try, the basics are the same: grains, legumes and dairy products are no-nos. So is refined sugar and oils that are high in omega 6 fatty acids such as canola oil. This leaves fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, fats like coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil, and unrefined sweeteners like honey on the table. You have to consider the quality of your ingredients, too, say the experts. For example, grass-fed beef is preferable to conventional. “Cows are able to convert grass into the omega 3s that are good for our body, whereas cows fed grain are going to have fat higher in omega 6s, which are inflammatory,” explains Dr. Freed. While animal-based proteins are an essential part of the paleo approach, Slavin notes you don’t need to eat a lot of meat or fish, which can be expensive. “The bulk of your meal should come from things like vegetables and nuts and seeds and good-quality fats.”
Transitioning to paleo: 3 easy paleo-friendly swaps
- Instead of soy sauce (soy is a legume) opt for coconut aminos, a sauce made from aged coconut blossom sap that mimics the salty seasoning.
- Replace your go-to hummus with cashew dip. Soak raw cashews in water for four hours, then drain and blend with cilantro, a bit of garlic and lemon juice.
- Say goodbye to your wheat-based pasta and hello to roasted spaghetti squash! Shred your spaghetti squash into spaghetti-like “noodles.” Slathered with a hearty meat-filled red sauce, it’s just as delicious as a classic spaghetti dinner.
Ready to try more? Click through for our 7-day paleo meal plan.
Monday: Shake it out
Toast and cereal are off the menu, so now what? Chia puddings and smoothies that have a balance between low-glycemic fruits like berries, and some healthy fats like avocado and a good protein powder are good go-tos. Dr. Freed is a big fan of breakfast skillets, too. Fry a starchy vegetable like leftover baked sweet potato with steamed green vegetables and one or two eggs, and serve with salsa and avocado. “Let go of the notion of breakfast food, per se, and then the range of possibilities for what you can eat expand exponentially,” she says.
Tuesday: Remodel your dinner plate
Typically, a dinner plate is composed of meat or fish and two vegetables, but Dr. Freed says it’s helpful to balance it differently on a paleo diet. She recommends thinking about food in a modular way: combining protein (meat) with three vegetables – a leafy vegetable, a salad, and a starchy one like sweet potato, squash or rutabaga. This is helpful at the beginning when your body is adjusting to the change in the amount of carbohydrates you’re consuming, she explains.
Wednesday: Max out on minerals
Make sure to include dark leafy greens in your meals. They’re a good source of calcium, and since you’re cutting out dairy, you need to find other sources of the mineral, says Slavin. A green-friendly favourite at Dr. Freed’s house is roasted spaghetti squash with sautéed rapini, sundried tomatoes, vegan pesto and sautéed chicken breasts. Slavin also suggests topping salads with calcium-rich tahini dressing, canned salmon, or if you’re up for it, sardines; any fish with small “mushable” bones is packed with calcium, she explains.
Thursday: Snack attack
When you’re considering what to grab as a snack on a paleo diet, zero in on nutrients or food groups you might be lacking. Have you had any fruit today? Do you need a boost in the fibre department? A few classic paleo-friendly snacks are fresh figs dipped in tahini and honey, or a green juice made with a ratio of 70 percent vegetables and 30 percent fruit (to avoid spiking your blood sugar) that you drink alongside a handful of nuts.
Friday: Get in the game
Though in moderation, you may be eating more meat than you’re used to on a paleo diet, so try diversifying the types of meat you eat, suggests Slavin. In addition to grass-fed beef, organic pasture-raised chicken, duck, venison and bison are also
on the paleo menu. “Wild game is often forgotten, but it’s a really good source of lean protein and depending on the type of animal you choose, it may eat berries and other foods high in antioxidants, so in turn you’re reaping the benefits,” she says.
Saturday: Bake up a storm!
Going grain-free doesn’t mean you have to forgo all muffins, loaves and breads, so take some time to play with gluten-free baking ingredients, suggests Slavin. Coconut and almond flours are both paleo-friendly, though they shouldn’t be substituted at a one-to-one ratio for wheat flour in most recipes. That means it’s best to start with tested recipes that call for them. And, be sure to keep these flours in the fridge since their higher oil content makes them vulnerable to going rancid in the cupboard. Arrowroot flour is another option that paleo bakers are fond of. “It adds a good fluffy rising texture,” explains Slavin. In terms of sweeteners, try pure maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar or fruit purées in small amounts to liven up your baked goods while still being true to the meal plan.
Sunday: Get With the Plan
You’ll be making the majority of your food from scratch on the paleo diet (since packaged paleo foods are hard to come by), so a bit of planning and prep for the week ahead will make mealtimes easier. Take Sunday as your day to plan for the upcoming week: roast a bunch of different vegetables, cook some chicken breasts, and wash and prep your greens and fresh herbs so salads are easier to put together in a hurry.