Before you listen to all the stereotypes of Paleo being the “caveman diet”, where you’re only eating huge hunks of meat like our paleolithic ancestors may have done, rethink what you’ve heard. The Paleolithic diet, or Paleo diet cuts out dairy and grains, but focuses on incorporating a variety of whole foods into the diet. “The truth is, there are plenty of foods you can besides meat while eating a Paleo diet, including fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds,” explains Autumn Enloe, MS, RD, LD, CLT of Autumn Enloe Nutrition.
Unlike Whole 30, which is similar in that it’s high in protein, low in grains, and eliminates processed foods, Paleo is not a 30-day meal plan, nor is it designed as an elimination diet. It’s not a “fad diet,” but an actual lifestyle change that is meant to be a way of restructuring eating so you can permanently stick with new habits, dietitians point out. And it can make a profound impact on your health. Brittany Beaver, MS, RD, CSP, LD made the switch to a Paleo diet (actually an even stricter form of Paleo designed to manage autoimmune diseases) when she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at a young age. Following the nutrient-dense Paleo diet has helped make her symptoms much more manageable and have enabled her to wean herself off of the arthritis medication she was taking.
By eating a Paleo diet, you won’t be skipping out on any of the necessary nutrients in your diet. Yes, you’re not consuming dairy, but that’s not to say that you won’t be getting enough calcium in your food. “You can get calcium from other food sources besides dairy products, including leafy greens, broccoli, almonds, sardines and salmon,” Enloe says. It’s also a great eating regimen for athletes, according to Enloe, because you’re packing your diet with everything you need to sustain a long workout, race, or training session: healthy fats, good carbs, and protein. But along with the rise of the Paleo diet trend comes junk food that tries to masquerade as healthy food--dietitians urge you to stay away from the cookies, brownies, which are typically not made with valuable nutrients, and eat whole, preservative-free food instead. Here are some more ways you can master a Paleo diet and level-up your daily meals.
The Spartan's Guide to Eating a Paleo Diet
1. Make sure your plate is colorful.
We’ve already established that eating Paleo is not just about meat--it’s about achieving a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables. “Focus on getting a variety of nutrients and color on your plate (I recommend at least 3 different colors) by always having a vegetable, high-quality protein sources, and healthy fats in your meals, and save the ‘treats’ for on occasion,” Enloe says.
Beaver goes even further to say that half of your plate should be filled with veggies, and the other half with protein (which could also come from veggies as well, if you choose beans or legumes) as well as healthy fats.
2. Choose wild-caught protein when possible.
When selecting your proteins, if they are animal sources of protein, go for wild-caught fish, or grass-fed meat whenever you can--this will be the more nutrient-dense choice in terms of healthy fats. “Going grass-fed or wild-caught actually improves the fat profile for both meat and fish, increasing the Omega-3 content,” Beaver explains. “And, toxins can be stored in the fatty tissue of animals; therefore, choosing a well-fed, healthier animal translates to an overall healthier protein option.”
3. Balance protein, carbs, and healthy fats.
These are the main three nutrient goals for Paleo athletes, according to dietitians, because they can give you the most solid energy stores. Remember, many fruits and vegetables also break down as carbs in the body. “Focusing on a balance of carbs, protein, and healthy fats can help keep athletes full and energized for endurance activities, because the body uses up fuel from carbs first, and then dips into our protein and fat stores,” Enloe says. “Getting a balance of all three macronutrients will help provide energy for a longer period of time,” she adds.
4. Pack your pre-workout meals with protein
It’s important to be strategic about what you’re eating before you exercise. You may even want to go with a pre-workout mini meal, or a couple of mini meals throughout the day. “Planning a small meal prior to a workout, and a protein-heavy meal within 30 minutes after a workout can helpful,” Beaver says. That way you can make sure you have enough protein in your tank before and after to repair your muscles. And don’t reach for one of those Paleo protein bars before your workout--it’s just empty calories. “Processed carbohydrates tend to digest quickly and leave you feeling hungry and dissatisfied,” Beaver adds. If you’re really doing Paleo right, you’ll have eaten enough protein and healthy fats to tide you over from one meal to the next.
5. Remember that you’re enjoying more foods than you’re avoiding.
Paleo is not about elimination, and is rather about adding more whole foods, including protein, to your meals. Yes, you’ll be eating fewer inflammatory foods, like refined carbohydrates, sugars, and dairy, but that’ll ultimately make you feel less sluggish and will leave you with more energy. “Try not to focus on the foods that you’re avoiding, like grains, dairy, processed oils, and sugar. Focus instead on the positives of removing inflammatory foods from your diet, like how much better you will likely feel,” Beaver says.
Related: How to Eat Real Food
6. Work on exercising and stress management, too.
A dietary change like Paleo goes beyond food; be mindful of your workouts, alcohol intake, and other self-care practices too, to reap all the benefits of the Paleo lifestyle. “Do realize you can't just eat Paleo and expect everything else to fall into place--watching your beverage intake, getting enough sleep at night, managing stress, and moving your body daily are also just as important,” Enloe says.