What is Paleo?

When family and friends ask how I lost weight I try not to simply say "I eat Paleo style", as I've found that this always raises the question "What's that?" Instead I respond that I've completely changed how I eat, so I no longer eat grains and starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, and that the way I eat is based on something called The Paleo Diet. That often still raises questions, and it can be a bit long-winded explaining what Paleo is, but here's the answer.

The Paleo Diet was popularised in the mid-70s and based on the fact that we, as a species, have only been argricultural for the last 10,000 years. This was when we began farming and eating a grain-based diet, leading to our eating of what we consider the staple foods of bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. If you look at your plate next time you eat, how much of your food falls into one of these categories? Chances are your main meal of the day is a small amount of meat, a few vegetables and a large portion of potatoes or pasta.

If you think in terms of human evolution, we've been around for some 2.5 million years, so 10,000 years is an incredibly short time and genetically we have hardly changed in around 40,000 years. This may well explain why there seems to be a growing number of people discovering that they are gluten or wheat intolerant. In evolutionary terms these foods are a new addition to our diet, yet we've not genetically adapted to them.

Although I'm not a strict Paleo eater, I'll explain shortly, I still refer to my way of eating as Paleo or Paleo/Low-Carb rather than simply Low-Carb as there are negative associations with Low-Carb diets. Paleo isn't specifically a Low-Carb diet, it's just that removing grains and potatoes from your diet will naturally reduce the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming. Other Low-Carb diets tend to replace the carbohydrates with fats and don't necessarily look at the quality of those fats. The Atkins diet has a reputation for being a high-fat diet and this is bad - particularly as many of those are saturated fats.

The fats in Paleo are good fats, which are found in fish, fatty fruits and vegetables like Avocados and in nuts. The premise of Paleo is that you increase your protein consumption, change to eating foods containing good fats, and eat a good amount of non-starchy fruits and vegetables. You will still be consuming carbohydrates in your fruit and vegetable intake, and much of it will be fibre making this a good way of eating for those requiring a high-fibre diet. Protein fills you up, and it's very hard to over eat protein. Why do you think there are giant steak eating contests that are so hard to complete? How often do you go back for extra meat when you've eaten your meal? Could you really eat more than one good sized sirloin steak in one sitting?

The Paleo Diet Rules
  1. You can have all the lean meats, fish and seafood you can eat
  2. You can have all the fruits and non-starchy vegetables you can eat
  3. No cereals
  4. No legumes (peas, peanuts etc)
  5. No dairy products
  6. No processed foods (so no shop bought burgers etc)
This is where I confess that I'm not a strict Paleo eater because I occasionally eat peas and I eat dairy. I don't eat much seafood, having never been a big fan of fish and having a shellfish allergy, I have to give myself an additional protein source and dairy meets this need. But, although I love full fat dairy I tend to try and stick to the low fat varieties. Not only does this reduce my consumption of saturated fats but I have noticed that low fat cheese has more protein than regular cheese!

The rules may look very restrictive, and to start with they seem daunting - and eating out can still be a challenge - but if you try you'll find that removing grains and starchy carbs from your diet will naturally lead you to eat more protein and more fruit and veg. You'll probably find that you get more than your 5 a day if you switch to a Paleo style diet!

The Keys of Paleo
  1. Eat a relatively high amount of animal protein (if you're vegetarian you can still try Paleo, but you need to steer clear of Soya-based meat replacements as Soya is not only disallowed on Paleo but has been identified as playing a part in thyroid disorders and "leaky-gut syndrome")
  2. Eat fewer carbohydrates - make sure that your carbs come from non-starchy fruits and vegetables
  3. Eat lots of fibre from non-starchy fruits and vegetables
  4. Eat a moderate amount of fat, concentrating on the good fats like fish oils, avocado and nuts. Try to eat an equal amount of Omega 3 & 6 oils.
  5. Eat foods with a high potassium content and low sodium content - so less of the salty foods
  6. Eat foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants - this will happen naturally as you eat more fruit, veg and nuts!
Omega 3 & 6? Yes, we know that these are good oils. We've been told this for a few years now, but where can you get them from? Well, the main source is fish and seafood. If, like me, you're not great with fish then there are other sources:
  • Flaxseed Oil - you can use it in your cooking, or you can buy Vegetarian Omega 3 capsules, which are made from Flaxseed Oil, from your local Tesco
  • Free-range Chickens
  • Pasture-fed Beef
  • Omega 3 Eggs
  • Walnuts and Macadamia nuts
  • Leafy green vegetables
A lot of people will try to tell you that Paleo is a fad, and that eating too many nuts is bad for you, that you won't get all the nutrients you need. The only reason you need to be careful with nuts is because they are fatty, and if you're not careful you can start to undo the weight loss by overdoing the nuts - this is the voice of experience! Paleo isn't a fad, it's going back to how our ancestors ate for millennia, and in recent terms has been around for something like 40 years. If you look at the foods that you're encouraged to eat, your meals will have a lot of fruit and vegetables - probably more than when you were eating grains and potatoes - so clearly there are a lot of nutrients being consumed. Compare a plate of Sirloin steak with a large leafy salad to a plate of Sirloin steak with peas, onion rings and chips - which is the healthier and has the most vitamins and nutrients? It's not hard to see that Paleo encourages healthy eating!

Losing weight on The Paleo Diet

The main reason people turn to a Paleo, or Low-Carb, diet is to lose weight. There are a number of reasons this works, by making lean protein a major part of your daily diet you will find that:

  • you can't overeat protein
  • lean protein raises your metabolism, so you burn more calories
  • lean protein satisfies your appetite, so you snack less
  • lean protein improves insulin sensitivity, which means that more of the nutrients will be used by your body rather than stored for later use or simply excreted
In my experience, if you follow a Paleo style diet and eliminate grains and starchy carbohydrates from your daily diet you will see a dramatic weight loss. This can be worrying to friends and family, who will tell you that you're losing weight too fast and that this can't be healthy. The truth is that you will lose weight quickly because by not eating lots of carbs your body needs to find other energy sources, so the first thing it will do is burn up the stored energy you are carrying in your excess fat. Over time the weight loss will slow and stop when your body reaches it's natural lean state - remember this is your natural lean state and will not be the same as your friends or mine. Once you've reached lean and stayed there for a few months your friends and family will notice that you have 'stabilised' and, hopefully, they'll understand from that point that there is nothing wrong with this way of eating and that you will now just maintain your shape and size.

Further reading

If you want to learn more about The Paleo Diet, the basis for my meal plans and my healthy way of life, then visit The Paleo Diet website.

There are a number books available about The Paleo Diet. I found The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat by Loren Cordain to be a great source of information on the background of the diet, how it works and how to eat a Paleo diet.

Loren Cordain has also written a cookbook containing recipes and meal solutions that adhere to the Paleo way of eating: The Paleo Diet Cookbook: More Than 150 Recipes for Paleo Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks, and Beverages.

There is also a cookbook tailored to the British market: Paleo/Caveman Diet And Gluten Free Recipes Tailored For British Tastes Using Foods Commonly Available In English Stores And Supermarkets