So, you’re thinking about going paleo.
Maybe you want to lose weight, maybe you’re just looking to get healthier and feel better. Either way, you’re not alone. Paleo was the most googled diet in 2014, and chances are you have at least one friend who swears by it. BuzzFeed Life asked three experts some basic questions about what the paleo diet is, why it works, and how you can make it a part of your healthy lifestyle.
1. Know which foods are allowed on the paleo diet and which are not.
To many, a strict paleo diet may seem restrictive, as it eliminates foods that have long been thought of as healthy staples, like whole grains and legumes. Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution (and pretty much the unofficial king of all things paleo), tells BuzzFeed Life why the paleo diet emphasizes certain whole foods and completely eliminates others. “Paleo foods are the most nutrient-dense foods you can get,” he says. “When you start including grains, legumes and dairy, the nutrition goes down while the caloric load goes up.”
Infographic source: What To Eat On The Paleo Diet
2. If you’re up for it, go strict paleo for 30 days. You’ll see changes faster this way.
The Whole30 program is a 30-day challenge that can be a good way to dive into the paleo diet. The website is a great resource for advice and recipes. And best of all, the Whole30 Approved list tells you exactly what store-bought products are 100% paleo, so you don’t have to read every single label.
Wolf is a strong advocate for going all in right away, to start seeing benefits as soon as possible. “When you look at cognitive behavior change studies, people tend to affect the greatest changes by doing something significantly different,” says Wolf. He explains that when people change things slowly, “you’re eliminating enough of the stuff that you really like that it’s annoying, but you’re still eating enough stuff that’s deleterious to your health that you don’t get the results you want.” When people dive in for 30 or 60 days, he says, they see significant results, and then they can decide whether the changes they’ve made are worth it or not.
3. If the all in approach absolutely doesn’t work for you, focus on eating only unprocessed foods, then eliminate one thing at a time.
While going all-in for 30 days might be motivating for many people, it can be too overwhelming for others. Plus, some people are interested in adopting paleo eating habits to feel healthier in general, but aren’t as interested in following the diet perfectly or seeing quick changes to their bodies. Keri Gans, RD and author of The Small Change Diet, believes that gradual change can be more effective for a lot of people in the long run. “I believe in making small changes, because I believe that whatever behavior you change, it can take a while for it to stick,” Gans tells BuzzFeed Life. “It can take longer to lose weight, but it will probably stay off longer, too.”
If you want to ease into the paleo diet, start by removing all processed foods from your diet. Then, continue to eliminate things one at a time. “Cutting out gluten, refined sugar and grains is going to be the best first step,” Erica Giovinazzo, RD tells BuzzFeed Life. (Check out 14 ways to eat less sugar for some tips that might help.) Give yourself a few weeks to adjust to the change, then eliminate legumes and soy as well. Lastly, eliminate dairy.
4. Find a community of like-minded people for support.
Making big changes to your diet can be hard, so it’s good to have people to talk to who are in the same situation. “It’s easier to make changes if the people around you are doing it also,” says Giovinazzo. Try getting a friend or two on board, or look for a paleo meetups in your area. A paleo online community can also be a good place to ask questions or vent frustrations.
5. Get rid of everything in your kitchen that isn’t paleo.
If you have unopened canned or dry goods to get rid of, find a local food bank and donate them. And what about all of the opened condiments, wheat flours, grains, refined sugars, and refined oils you have in your pantry? Give them to friends, or throw them away.
6. Stock your pantry with paleo staples.
Though the paleo diet is made up of mostly perishable meat and vegetables, it’s important to stock your pantry with paleo-friendly cooking oils, condiments and seasonings, snacks, and ingredients for the occasional paleo baked good. “I like to cook with coconut oil and then use olive oil to drizzle on vegetables,” Giovinazzo says. And, she always has a variety of nuts on hand. “Nuts and seeds are cool because each one is high in a different vitamin or mineral.”
7. Understand that you’re not necessarily on a low-carb diet.
“Paleo isn’t necessarily low-carb, but it tends to be low-glycemic load,” Wolf says. “A banana, even though it has a decent amount of carbohydrate in it, also has a lot of water and a lot of fiber. So what it does to your blood sugar isn’t as crazy as a piece of bread or a tortilla.” If you’re eating fruits and starchy vegetables, you’re still eating carbs, they’re just paired with other macronutrients that slow down digestion and help avoid blood sugar spikes.
But if you’re trying to lose weight, you might want to go low-carb paleo.
“if you’re trying to lean out [lose weight] but maintain all of your muscle mass, you need a high protein intake, moderate fat intake and, assuming you’re exercising, carbs just to support your activity level,” says Wolf. “Start your meals with a decent amount of protein, eat as many low GI vegetables as you can, then have a little bit of fruit or starch from squash or sweet potatoes. That’ll make you full, but you’re not eating a ton of calories.”
8. If you’re going paleo to help you lose weight, watch your portion sizes.
Lots of people choose paleo because it makes them feel healthier (eating lots of fresh, whole foods will have that effect!). But some people choose paleo as a means of losing weight or achieving a certain body composition that they find desirable. And if that’s your goal, you’ll have to pay attention to how much you’re eating.
“A paleo diet is really good, because all of the foods are really nutrient dense,” Giovinazzo says. “But if you’re eating quality food and not getting the body composition results you want, then you need to look at quantity.” She says that people often go crazy with healthy fats. “They start adding avocado to everything, and they use a lot of coconut oil, and they eat a lot of nuts.” For weight loss, you should only be eating one serving of fat with every meal, and maybe one additional serving as a snack.
Here’s what one serving looks like:
1 serving of nuts = 1 ounce
1 serving of nut butter = 2 tablespoons
1 serving of avocado = 1/4 avocado
1 serving of coconut oil/olive oil = 1 tablespoon
9. Limit paleo “treats” to a few times a week.
Another thing that can get in the way of weight loss is going overboard with paleo “treats” and dried fruits. It’s totally fine to recreate your favorite desserts using paleo ingredients, but you should know that these things are usually high in calories.
Recipe (because you should indulge sometimes): Paleo Dark Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies
10. Grass-fed meat is best. But if you can’t afford it, grain-fed meat is also OK.
In fact, Wolf thinks that people put too much emphasis on the role of grass-fed meat in a paleo diet. “It’s really a sustainability story,” he says. “Grain-feeding is a system that’s just not sustainable over time.” And while there are fat-soluble toxicants that accumulate in the fat of grain-fed meat, these same toxicants exist in much higher levels in conventional grains.
Those who can afford to eat grass-fed meat should do so, but, “if you’ve got a family of four living right on the margins and they’re looking to improve the way they’re eating, grain-fed meat is just fine,” Wolf says. Grass-fed meat is the “gold standard,” but it’s definitely not the only way.
11. Don’t be afraid of animal fat.
“I don’t mind a good amount of animal fat,” Giovinazzo says. “Fat in foods makes us feel full, so sometimes we eat less if we eat a meat that’s higher in fat, and we’ll stay fuller for longer.”
And if you’re worried about “artery-clogging saturated fat,” your fears might be unfounded. Though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that diets high in saturated fat could cause heart disease, recent studies suggest that this may not be the case. You can read more about the saturated fat debate here.
12. But, don’t ONLY eat bacon. It’s important to get a variety of seafood, poultry, and red meat.
While Giovinazzo tells her clients not to be afraid of fat, she also says that lean protein can help with weight loss. “If you’re going for a leaner protein, it could help you because it’s lower in calories,” she says. “It’s kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other. The main thing to remember is variety.”
Eating a variety of animal proteins also means you’re getting a variety of fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, which is important.
13. Eat tons of vegetables, too.
“When you eliminate grains, you are lowering your opportunities for fiber,” says Gans. “Fiber is important for regularity, and for regulating cholesterol levels.” On the paleo diet, almost all of your fiber will come from fruits and vegetables, since you won’t be eating grains. You can even cook them in bacon, if. you want.
14. Cook in big batches so that you have leftovers for work lunches and weeknight dinners.
“Preparation is the key to success, so being prepared with your food is always helpful.” says Giovinazzo. On Sunday, do your grocery shopping for the week, then cook enough vegetables and meat to last well into the week. Here’s some good advice for cooking and storing big-batch meals.
15. Look to paleo food blogs for creative recipe ideas.
Eating a plate of unadorned meat and vegetables for dinner every night can get boring. Luckily, there are plenty of delicious ways to spice things up.
16. Invest in a slow cooker to make dinner with little effort.
Slow cookers are great for making paleo-friendly stews, soups and other braised meat dishes. Just add all of your ingredients to the slow cooker in the morning, then set it and forget it until dinner.
17. Make paleo versions of classic favorites by mastering a few easy ingredient swaps.
Make tacos, wraps, or sandwich wraps using lettuce instead of a tortilla.
18. Eggs are a super easy and versatile breakfast option.
“I’m big on eggs. I really love eggs and salsa, and that’s kind of my breakfast every day,” Giovinazzo says. You can also do a lot with leftovers. Serve roasted vegetables with fried eggs on top, or bake them into a frittata. Also, if you have leftover tomato sauce, one of the most delicious things you can do is heat it in a skillet, crack a few eggs on top, and simmer everything over low heat until the whites of the eggs are cooked through (the dish is called shakshuka, and it’s incredible).
Also: 2 eggs + 1 banana = Paleo pancakes.
These don’t taste exactly like pancakes, but they’re sweet and pretty delicious in their own right. Mix two eggs with a banana in a blender to make the “pancake batter,” then cook the pancakes in a skillet with a little coconut oil.
Recipe: 2-Ingredient Pancakes
20. When you’re at a restaurant, don’t freak out. Eat protein and veggies.
Look over the menu and find a piece of meat or fish that’s grilled, roasted or steamed. If it comes with grains or dairy, see if the chef can make it for you without them, and ask for a side of vegetables, instead. Most restaurants are willing to do this. “The thing you’ll have to be more lenient on is oil,” says Giovinazzo. “You can ask for something to be cooked in olive oil or coconut oil, but a lot of the time they’re probably going to be cooking in some kind of vegetable oil.”
Wolf says not to lose your mind over these smaller details. “When you’re worried about some soybean oil that they’re spraying on the grill before they cook your hunk of organic grass-fed beef, that is just completely misplaced.” Dining out should be fun, so don’t sweat the small stuff.
21. Throw away your scale.
Basing progress just on a single number can be stressful and counterproductive. “When people look at their scale weight, that’s what causes them to skip meals, and binge and purge and get neurotic, and it’s incredibly unhealthy.” Wolf says.
Giovinazzo agrees: “It can be really helpful for women to throw out the scale, I’ve had women do that and feel so much more liberated.” Plus, the scale doesn’t tell the whole story. “If you’re losing fat but gaining muscle, then your body fat percentage will go down but your weight might stay the same,” she says. “It can be frustrating when you’re weighing yourself and the number isn’t changing, but your body is changing pretty dramatically.” For those people who really rely on looking at numbers to track progress, she says a body fat percentage scale is your best bet, though she advises that you pay attention ONLY to the body fat percentage, not to total weight.
22. Set a performance goal that you can work towards.
The goal of the paleo diet is to make you healthier, which means not just looking better, but also feeling better and living better. “Focusing solely on weight is what leads to disordered eating behavior,” Wolf says. “When people focus on looking good, feeling good, and having a performance goal, it causes them to not just eat, but to eat well.” If you’re not an avid exerciser, it doesn’t have to be anything intense. “It could just be to walk around the block faster. You know, once a week you time yourself, and each week you’re able to go around a few seconds faster.”
If you’re someone who likes exercise and wants to get a little bit more ambitious, Wolf suggests picking a bodyweight exercise, like a pull-up or a handstand walk, as your goal. “I’d love for everybody to be able to do at least one pull-up, walk 20-feet on their hands, and run a mile at a decent clip.”
23. Sleep. A lot.
Wait, what does sleep have to do with losing weight or going paleo? “Slleep is even more important than the nutrition side,” Wolf says, for both weight loss and overall health. Lack of sleep—less than the recommended 7-8 hours per night for adults and 9-10 hours for teenagers—can lead to metabolic changes that may be linked to obesity and diabetes, and adequate sleep is important for blood sugar control, according to the CDC.
24. Don’t stress about eating 100% paleo, 100% of the time.
“We can’t let perfection get in the way of good enough,” Wolf says. And he recognizes that, in real life, sometimes we have to settle for ‘good enough.’ “I can go into a 7-Eleven and cobble together a paleo meal of a slim jim, a banana and a handful of nuts that have soybean oil and salt and stuff,” he says. “Is that the the highest quality food I could eat? Absolutely not. But it’s better than eating a bagel and a slurpee.”
25. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the paleo diet, you can try reintroducing dairy and certain starches and see how you tolerate them.
Ultimately, the paleo diet isn’t meant to be a quick fix. It’s meant to change your life and the way you think about food. While a strict paleo diet is manageable for a month or two, it might not be realistic in the long term. “Think about what can you sustain,” Giovinazzo says. “If this is not a way you can eat for the rest of your life, it’s not a good diet.” She sometimes eats white rice and white potatoes, neither of which is technically paleo.
And as long as you tolerate dairy, it can be a part of your long-term paleo lifestyle. “Reintroduce and see how you do,” says Wolf. “If you don’t really notice any adverse effects, then include it in the diet” And don’t just stick to cow dairy—many people notice that sheep or goat dairy has fewer negative effects.
26. It might actually be helpful to eat your favorite non-paleo “treat” once a week or so.
Some people call this a “cheat meal,” but Giovinazzo doesn’t like the negative connotation. “I don’t like to call it cheat, I’d rather call it treat,” she says. “Cheat makes it sounds like it’s bad, and it’s really just about moderation.” She warns to only eat non-paleo treats once a week or so, since otherwise you risk falling back into old eating habits.
27. Stick to gluten-free alcohol. And view it as a treat.
To be clear: Alcohol is not paleo. Though tequila tends to be the paleo dieter’s alcohol of choice—because it comes from the agave plant, not from grains or potatoes, and it’s lower in sugar than wine—it isn’t paleo. Giovinazzo advises people to stay away from beer, since it’s not gluten-free, but otherwise she doesn’t think one type of alcohol is “more paleo” than another. “In terms of alcohol, I tell people to have what they enjoy, because alcohol counts as a treat.”
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