Paleo is definitely one of the big buzz words around the health and fitness industry at the moment. It’s a lifestyle that has come to be correlated with eating Flinstones sized portions of meat, particularly offcuts and offal, and is perceived to be very low carb.
I’ve followed the movement with some interest since first hearing about it and have heard of some amazing results from people using the diet. Being a bit of a health and fitness nerd and always looking to fine tune the best dietary approach for our clients, I thought it was about time I give it a crack. I committed myself to four weeks of giving Paleo a go.
What’s the big deal with Paleo?
I wouldn’t just try any old diet because it is the latest craze, but the Paleo diet, in essence, seems to fit within our overall nutritional approach at New Image of favouring whole, unprocessed foods and preparing them simply. My reference for the plan was a book leant to me by my amazing client Di Ragg – The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel.
The crux of the Paleo message is that we once survived in an environment where we could only eat from the land. Our Paleolithic ancestors’ lives were highly active, travelling from tribe to tribe and chasing and running away from animals. There were limited foods – entirely plant and animal – available, and Paleo man would eat the whole animal, including the cuts that most of us today would find undesirable. There was no concept of eating low fat, or opening a packet, and their food preparation methods were simple.
As hunter-gatherers, we ate some combination of the following: land animals (including organs, fat and marrow), seafood, eggs, nuts, fruit, honey, vegetables, birds and insects. The selection available and proportions of each food group varied widely seasonally. Industrialised grain production had not yet been innovated.
It is argued that during this time humans were not plagued by the kind of lifestyle diseases that are killing us now.
Millions of years later, our genetic makeup has not changed, and yet our lifestyles have dramatically – we’re largely sendentary and our diets are highly processed and often of low nutritional quality. Wild foods of the past trump domesticated or cultivated foods of today in terms of fibre, sugar, protein and fat content.
All sounds good, right?
What can you eat?
Or, what can’t you eat is more to the point! Now comes the List of Modern Foods to Avoid. No dairy, no grains, no legumes, potatoes, yeast containing foods, processed and canned fish, alcohol or sweets.
I could see immediately that an all or nothing approach just wasn’t going to work for me. Any time you focus on what you can’t have you are really setting yourself up for failure. And how boring! Food is a joyous part of life! My plan was instead to focus on increasing my intake of beautiful whole foods – vegetables, fruit, grass-fed meat and poultry and eggs – with the goal of “crowding out” most of the stuff on the BANNED list. I know myself well enough by now to know that an all or nothing approach for me usually results in a late night trip to Coles for a tub of ice cream.
What I ate
On a good day, the Paleo lifestyle reasonably closely mimics how I have been living anyway. An example of my diet was something like this:
Breakfast – Confession: My oats cooked in milk for breakfast every morning did stay in my diet, as I couldn’t see how I could struggle through my 3:30am starts without it. I did switch to black coffee however to cut down my dairy intake, a change that I’m really enjoying.
Morning snack: Carrots and celery with almonds and walnuts (some versions of the Paleo diet cut out nuts as well. There are a lot of fairly arbitrary rules around this diet that undermine its relevance. I’ll get to that).
Lunch: Poached chicken breast, roasted sweet potato, steamed broccoli dressed with olive oil and fruit.
Afternoon snack: Fruit and a hard boiled egg or sliced smoked salmon. More black coffee.
Dinner: Slow cooked lamb shanks with vegies, big salad with roasted pumpkin, pine nuts, rocket and avocado. A big serving of raspberries.
How I coped with the changes
At work, I found the changes to my food intake easy to cope with. Ensuring that all my meals and snacks were made from animals and plants that had not been processed required a lot more food prep and planning, but it was a change that we as a family were happy to make and it has improved all of our diets.
As with all dietary changes, the real challenge came when the weekend struck. But the big cravings came not for a schooner at the pub or a giant bowl of creamy pasta. Cutting out most of the grains from my diet had been easy enough – until I watched my daughter eat a vegemite sandwich. I really really would have loved a sandwich!
I lost 1.5kg in the first week and was feeling pretty well on track with my plan.
In the second week, I stuck to my plan of no processed foods centred around plants and animal protein. My main challenge in that week became fuelling my body pre and post workout. I found that I wasn’t able to train as hard without grains in my diet and so I changed the rules a little and created space for grains before or after my workouts to ensure my glycogen stores were adequately available.
Despite reintroducing more grains into my plan, I lost another kg in that second week.
Cravings and temptations
It was in the third week that the cravings for food that I had completely excluded from my diet crept in. I could have murdered a bowl of ice cream. I managed to stay on track probably 90% of the time. This was the first week of the plan that I found my energy increasing enough to workout at full pace. I saw a further 1kg weight loss.
In the fourth week, I did four hard training sessions and one practice session at the golf course, and felt like my eating plan was providing more than adequate energy for this sort of intense exercise. I was, however, still getting the odd craving for a sugary snack, but was feeling so good without them that I managed the temptation.
I lost another kg in week four and found that I had slid into a more established eating pattern that wasn’t truly Paleo, but was definitely focused on unprocessed foods.
Essentially, the plan that I settled into is the eating philosophy that I recommend to all my clients, no matter what their goals: fill half your plate with plant foods, and then the rest of your plate has to be shared between protein, unprocessed carbohydrate and healthy fats.
Include more non-grain carbohydrate sources in your diet
The Paleo diet is not necessarily low carb, but turning away from grains means you need to look to other sources for your carbs. Vegies and some fruit are the most nutrient dense source of carbohydrates.
Sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, beetroot, corn, peas, apple, pear, rockmelon and beans are all great sources of carbs. Legumes (beans, chickpeas) are not allowed on the Paleo plan but I think they are an excellent unprocessed source of protein, fibre and carbohydrate so recommend them.
“Crowd out” less healthy choices with nutrient dense whole foods
If your plate is full of vegies, lean protein and healthy fats there really won’t be a lot of room for processed junk. Avoid opening packets, and when you do, look to the ingredient list. Use your common sense. A box of Uncle Toby’s Traditional Oats lists as its ingredient “oats”. The ingredients list on a tub of natural greek yoghurt is similarly short. Its when you start seeing ingredients that don’t stand on their own as foods or have been synthesised in a lab that you need to think twice.
Add leafy greens to your meals whenever possible
They are incredibly nutrient dense wonder foods and provide fibre and bulk to your diet. Add a couple of handfuls of baby spinach to an omelette, blanched broccoli with your salad, and a bunch of bok choy to your stir-fry.
Planning is king
If you want to avoid opening a packet, you must plan ahead. Put together a shopping list on the weekend and spend some time peeling and chopping vegies. Have your home and office fridge stocked with easy to grab options that you have prepared, like roasted whole sweet potatoes, poached chicken breasts, steamed vegies and nuts.
One pot meals like slow cooked meat dishes and casseroles are winter warmers and lend themselves perfectly to leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
Be sensible (but adventurous) about your meat intake
There are some Paleo blogs out there that advocate consumption of large quantities of meat, often the highest fat cuts.
It’s true: Paleo man didn’t just eat the leanest New York cut steak from a cow. However, he didn’t consume meat from an animal full of marbled fat from being stuffed full of corn in an industrial feedlot.
Choose grassfed, organic meat and organic, free range poultry wherever possible. I know, it’s more expensive, but perhaps it’s worth eating it less frequently and enjoying a higher quality, healthier product.
Eating cheaper cuts of higher quality meat is also an excellent option worth exploring. Lamb shanks, osso bucco, beef cheeks, chicken wings and drumsticks and organ meat are great choices. Some of these meats require slow cooking to make them tender and to extract the healthy gelatin from the bones. Roasting a whole chicken rather than just breast or thighs is also a great idea. You can then boil up the bones to make a delicious, nutritious stock.
Eat like your grandma
Straightforward meals like meat and three veg used to dominate the family table. Take the time to learn simple, old fashioned cooking techniques rather than looking to sugary sauces or packaged meals for flavor.
Avoid an all or nothing approach to food
Completely excluding certain foods from your diet will lead to cravings. I don’t agree with some versions of the Paleo diet that ban nutritious foods like nuts, legumes and even unprocessed grains like quinoa and freekeh.
It’s what you do 90% of the time that counts. If you are at a family function and the food on offer is less than ideal nutritionally, you don’t have to make a scene or pass judgment. Enjoy a small portion, and then move back onto your healthy plan for the next meal. It’s when you let going slightly off track completely derail your efforts that you run into problems.
Have you tried the Paleo lifestyle? How do you keep processed foods out of your diet?