About Paleo EatingPaleo is the original “good eats”: it focuses on fresh, nutrient-dense animal products (including their fat), vegetables, fermented foods, raw dairy (when tolerated,) and fruit, nuts, & seeds (in moderation)(source). These foods have kept people healthy for hundreds, and likely thousands of years. If you want to see an inspiring story before you dive into the details of paleo eating, watch the 20-minute video below for an overview of Chris Kresser’s amazing story of health recovery with paleo nutrition and why paleo’s taking the world by storm.
Animal products are the backbone of paleo nutrition. They automatically supply vital fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, E, and K2 — in the forms that humans need them. We convert plant forms of these vitamins fairly inefficiently. For example, plants contain carotenoids, the precursors to retinol, the form of vitamin A that we need. Our ability to convert these carotenoids into the form of Vit. A that we can use varies, depending on the type of plant, how much vit. A we already have in our bodies, how old we are (kids are much better converters than adults) and a few other factors (google the acronymn “SLAMENGHI” for the more of the technical details). There’s little guesswork involved when you eat pre-formed vit. A from eggs.
Humans convert some plant nutrients very poorly, such as the plant-based forms of omega-3 fatty acids, found in flaxseed, evening primrose oil, and borage seed oil. There’s a six-step process our bodies use to convert the plant form of the fat to the form we can use it. It’s an open question about whether any one person has all the enzymes needed to complete this process, has enough of them, or whether each of the steps happens successfully all the time. When you eat sardines, there’s no question that the right form of omega-3 fats are there for immediate use.
Some nutrient combinations we need come neatly packaged from animals. For example, we need to eat gelatin — along with the co-factors glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, glycosaminoglycans, and hyaluronic acid — regularly to keep our joints, connective tissues and bones healthy. Drinking bone broth daily (directly or in soups) is the only way I know of to get 3 out of the 4 nutrients in one fell swoop.
The human body runs more efficiently on fat and with fewer health problems than any other fuel. Fats can provide the energy for 60% of the brain’s functions. Animal fats contain vital nutrients that plants lack. For example, palmitic, myristic, and stearic acids regulate hormonal activity. Stearic acid and palmitic acid (also available in unrefined coconut oil) are the preferred foods of heart muscle. The body also needs fats to transport those vitamins I mentioned earlier. Animal fats, unlike most plant fats, do not promote inflammation. Fun fact: Guess which animal has the fat composition closest to human beings? (Hint: look at picture to the right.)
This high-fat stuff sounds wacky!
It blew my mind when I first learned that the human body runs so well on animal fats, too. The sad fact is, though, that the mainstream nutrition model has never had good evidence to support it, although it’s had great marketing. The medical and nutrition establishment authorities have invested so much of their reputations on mistaken nutrition ideas that to suddenly admit their mistakes fully would ruin their credibility on almost everything. But slowly, even researchers from Harvard are revising their thinking, concluding that there’s insufficient evidence to support the long-standing recommendation to consume very low amounts of saturated fat.
That’s not to say that a paleo diet excludes plants — far from it! Plant foods are essential supporting players on your nutrition team. Sweet potatoes and white rice (not brown) are great sources of starch. All the vegetables your parents told you to eat are on a paleo plate, as well as some plant foods off the beaten track. Unrefined coconut oil, for example, is an amazing food: full of nutrition and lauric acid. We convert it to monolaurin: an anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal agent.
The beneficial bacteria from fermented foods supplement the working of your body’s own immune system. Foods like full-fat yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and fruits and vegetables fermented in either water or milk improve your odds of you fighting off seasonal colds and flus that “everybody” comes down with.
Fruits play a minor role in the paleo diet. Early humans ate fruits only when they were in season. Outside of tropical areas, that was the late fall. In addition, early fruits weren’t the sugar bombs that are common now. Early apples, for example, ranged from tart to bitter. If your ancestors came from the tropics, you probably can eat the sweetest fruits — mangos, papayas — more often than someone whose ancestors came from Germany and Russia. But everybody should eat a palmful of berries a few times a week. Berries are high on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capability) scale, with blueberries at the top. Besides, berries taste great dunked in yogurt or covered in real cream.
Nuts are packed with energy for growing a plant. That’s a double-edged sword. You can reap the benefits of this concentrated nutrient source, and a palmful is usually all it takes to complement the rest of your daily food. But they’re so tasty that eating just that amount takes a lot of discipline. Believe me, I know — roasted, salted almonds are my kryptonite.
Like nuts, treats have a small place in the paleo diet. Sweeteners such as raw honey, Sucanat®, and stevia are quite paleo. I make a paleo banana bread, dairy-free chocolate “mousse,” and some mock cookies, so I don’t feel deprived. You can also indulge in some low-sugar (80+% cacao) chocolate.