Since I’ve switched over to a Paleo way of eating for pregnancy as well as my forseeable future (the rest of my life, maybe!), I’ve gotten quite a few questions that need answering on what Paleo really is. Before I go into details, let me just say that I go by the Whole 9 Life way of eating, and I’m not sure if that’s different from a traditional Paleoist. I am not a completely and wholly strict Paleo eater, and occasionally eat white potatoes, honey, and non-grain-based cooking alcohols, and don’t bother micro-editing out the ingredients in things like bullion, additives to canned tunafish, etc. because I don’t eat those things often enough to make a huge difference anyway, and it’s often too expensive to buy the 100% pure kind.
As well, I’m not trying to convince you you need to change what you eat! I have sensed that some people tend to feel guilty or defensive when I talk about eating this way, but please don’t! If you feel healthy and comfortable with your diet, good for you! I personally think Paleo is incredibly beneficial, but it can be difficult for some people to stick with, and sometimes downright impossible!
So, let’s get to it!
The Paleo Diet, if you google it, is based on a presumption of what our ancestors would have eaten long, long ago, and basically includes only foods that they would have been able to hunt or gather. However, after reading It Starts With Food, I think that’s a very poor definition. From what I understand, Paleo isn’t just diet to do because someone thinks we should only eat what the cavemen ate. It’s a way of life based on personal, logical, and scientific finds to nourish your body with what it needs, and exclude what it does not need.
The beauty of this way of eating is that you aren’t mindlessly following the rules just because a book said so or someone discovered that restricting fat and calories shortcuts your body into losing weight short-term. Via doing The Whole30, you are encouraged to first let your body cleanse itself completely of the five food groups that most people are allergic to or otherwise badly affected by, and then one-by-one reintroducing them to see whether they affect you (in which case, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it not to eat that ever again), or don’t (in which case, feel free to eat it forever.)
To me, it just makes sense. So with the Paleo way of eating, this is the shortlist of do’s and dont’s:
Do not eat: Sugars (including artificial sweeteners), grains (including corn), legumes (includes soy products and peanuts), dairy (excluding clarified butter, which has all the dairy cooked out of it), and alcohol because all of those foods are allergen-inducing, inflammatory, addictive, or otherwise physically and sometimes mentally/emotionally harmful.
Do eat: All meats, seafood, and eggs (unless you just plain don’t like them), all vegetables, all fruits, all spices (without added sugars), all vinegars (again, no added sugar), all nuts and seeds (excludes peanuts: they’re a bean), and lots of healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado (daily!), olives, etc.
I would also go further to point out that you’re also encouraged not to weigh yourself or measure yourself obsessively (or at all), and you’re encouraged to maintain healthy movement. No “go exercise for an hour a day”, just… take a walk. Do activities with your family. Find something that gets you moving and is fun or builds relationships with those you love, and do it. And don’t obsess over your weight, because health is more important.
I get asked a lot of questions — let me stress, a LOT– by people who are skeptical, want to know more, or are just clueless of what Paleo is, ranging from the pleading “please help me, I don’t know what to do here” to the defensive “back THIS one up!” I hope with this list, I can help you understand better the way I eat, and perhaps also why I do it.
So, if you can’t eat sugar, can you eat fruit? Surprisingly, this question gets asked the MOST out of any questions people ask me in regards to the way I eat. Simple answer: fruit is a food, not a sugar. So yes, I can eat fruit. But to explain a little more, fruit is much more than the sugar found in it; it has nutritious value whereas sugar is just… sugar. However, as with anything, moderation is key. You can totally overdose on fruits, just like you can get sick on too much seafood or turn orange by eating too many carrots.
But why not beans? Beans aren’t harmful. Don’t they have lots of fiber? Actually, beans are inflammatory, which is why you get gassy when you eat them, and most of the nutrients in beans are bound to a phytate — an antinutrient — that prohibits our bodies from actually absorbing them. Plus, beans have far more short-chain carbohydrates (sugar) in them than fiber. So all the good things you think beans have for you actually pass right through, and the inflammatory stuff and the empty carbs stick to you. And because those carbohydrates can’t be properly digested by our bodies, they then act as food for the bacteria in the intestines, which leads to fermentation — aka bloating, burping, farting, and in the cases of people with unhealthy guts, a very harmful thing called gut dysbosis, or leaky gut.
And, as you are probably already vaguely aware, peanuts — also a bean and not a nut — contain a protien called lectin that induces an immune response that leads to allergic reactions and inflammation.
Side note: green beans and sugar snap peas are the exceptions to the rule. Read why here. (That only talks about green beans, but the same application goes to sugar snap peas as well.)
What about soy? Aside from being a legume, soy also contains a high amount of estrogen, which is really only beneficial to premenopausal women. There are ways to process soy so that you can eat it safely if, for example, you are vegetarian or vegan and don’t want to eat meat, but I’m not well versed on that so I can’t tell you how.
I thought grains were full of fiber, too? The fiber in grains, just like beans, is bound to that same phytate that prevents our bodies from processing the fiber, so it just goes right through us. You’re probably also aware that grains contain gluten, to which a high population of humans are allergic. And when they’re processed, the germ and bran — the two parts of a grain that carry nutrition — are pretty much removed. With unprocessed whole grains, however, your body cannot access that nutrition because of that sticky phytate. The only way to get some nutrients out of a grain is to soak, sprout, and ferment it, and even then you’re not breaking down all the phytates and you’re still not getting very much nutrition.
So… where do I get my fiber if I can’t have beans or wheat? Oh, I don’t know, you could try avocado, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collard greens, kale, turnip greens, mushrooms, pumpkin, peas, peppers, rhubarb, spinach, sweet potatoes, apples, bananas, berries, figs, raisins, apricots, dates, guava, kiwi, oranges, pears… um… have I said enough? 😉
I’m pretty sure dairy’s not that bad. Why not eat it? First of all, milk was designed for a very specific purpose: to feed and grow a child. And when you grow up, you don’t really need the specific nutrition that dairy gives you, and your body ceases to be able to process and use everything in dairy, which causes various problems when you consume it.
Dairy contains a high amount of casein and whey. Casein, when you’re a baby, contains building-block sequences you need to grow. But once your body ceases to need it, it causes a specific immune system reaction that can cause headaches, seasonal allergies, exacerbation of asthma, and GI tract issues. It also shares similar components with gluten, so many gluten-allergic people will also be allergic to casein. Whey is a blend of proteins and hormones that are highly growth-inducing and insulogenic, so releases high amounts of insulin when eaten. (Diabetics, beware) As well, drinking milk also promotes an elevation in IGF-1, which induces growth in children, but in adults has been linked with the promotion of various cancers. Obviously you’re not going to get cancer if you drink milk, but if it induces the growth of cells, including harmful ones, it’s not really helping your body at all.
Lastly, the carbohydrate in milk, lactose, can also be an issue. If it can’t be properly digested — and you all know someone who is lactose intolerant — it leads to bloating and gastrointestinal upset, and in unhealthy guts (again), gut dysbosis.
So then… where do I get calcium? Sardines, salmon, almonds, Brazil nuts, okra, collard and turnip greens, arugula, kale, spinach, broccoli, kelp, oranges, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, figs, celery, garlic… and I’m sure there’s lots more.
So some alcohols are bad for you, but what about wine? Isn’t it good for your heart? I’m not saying that you forever cannot indulge in an occasional drink if you want to, but here’s the thing: do not do it for “health.” Do it because you want some wine. Because the part of the grape that is actually good for your heart is the skin, which not even IN wine. So if you’re worried about heart health… just eat the grapes. Seriously.
Not everyone is affected by these foods, though, so why should I try any of it? I could argue that everyone is affected by at least one of the above foods, and possibly even to some extent that everyone experiences negative affects of eating any of those five food groups whether they notice it or not, but the only way you’ll ever know if you’re really affected is to go for it. Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself!
If you think you’re fine, and you don’t have any symptoms that happen on a regular basis or upset your daily life, good! But if you come to realize that you get regular (even mild) headaches, seasonal allergies — even those you’ve taken for granted your whole life–, gas, indigestion, general tiredness, eczema, skin problems, dizziness, difficulty gaining or losing weight, heartburn; if you need a pick-me-up at 3pm, or you have a hard time waking up in the morning; if you don’t sleep well, or sleep too much; if you’re suffering from bigger medical problems like diabetes, chronic back pain, asthma, migraines, and a LOT more, you’re probably affected by one of the five, if not all. And it’s not going to hurt you to quit eating them for 30 days if you really want to find out.
But I don’t know how to cook without (insert food here)! What do you eat? Below is a typical breakfast and dinner in my day. For breakfast, I almost always eat scrambled eggs because I am a creature of habit, and being a tomato addict they’re pretty much never without those. I also add whatever vegetable is handy or sounds good that day. My top favorites are asparagus, spaghetti squash, cabbage, and zucchini. I also have fruit or fruit juice(the latter of which is part of my more lax approach to Paleo), and always coffee with almond milk.
Lunch generally consists of leftovers from the night before, or something quick — such as a tuna waldorf salad, or a piece of chicken cooked up with whatever spices are handy, and some vegetables. Dinners are the most varied, because I have a husband who *ahem* only likes certain things, and I do my best to convince him that cooked vegetables are not from the devil. But we pretty much always have a filling component such as sweet potatoes, regular potatoes (another somewhat non-Paleo thing), cabbage, or squash, as well as meat (generally chicken most of the time because we can’t afford more, but I try to always have beef and fish at least once a week each), and another lighter vegetable like green beans, asparagus, or raw carrots/bell peppers/whatever.
Keep in mind, though, I love to cook and I am always using a plethora of spices and flavorings, so it never gets boring! Plus, excluding things like grains and dairy really ups the joy of cooking for me and makes it SO much easier to choose and make food. I don’t know why, it just does.
Whatever the case, with meals one of the only semi-rules of Paleo is to have at least: 1-2 palm-sized portions of protein, a thumb-sized-ish portion of healthy fat, and the rest of your plate full of veggies with every meal. If you need more, you eat more, but don’t eat less to try to cut corners and lose weight. It won’t help.
Of course, along with every technical side to a diet, there has to be a personal side! Below are a few more questions and general points to why I think Paleo eating is the bomb.
How do you even eat survive without wheat/sugar/dairy/whatever? Well, aside from feeling a whole lot better, cooking without wheat or dairy or sugar is really, really easy. Believe me. I cook tastier and more creative meals now than I ever did when I relied on wheat and dairy to get us through meals, plus it’s more fun! I’m cooking with more ingredients, more variety, more spices, more… everything, rather than dumping macaroni from a box into a pot and pouring cheese over it. Which, I will admit, is delicious but also really not worth it.
Plus, having things like homemade mayo (all eggs and oil, all delicious) and clarified butter (in which all the milk solids are cooked out) makes me feel like I have much more freedom to cook “normally.”
What do you get by excluding all of those foods? First of all, I am extremely dairy intolerant now that I’m pregnant, and was so previous to pregnancy, but for a while I ignored it because it was mild and I love half and half in my coffee. However, after a while I started to get heartburn, which I figured was just pregnancy, right? Nope. After ceasing the dairy, which also made me fart like the devil, the heartburn went away. And also, no more gas. It was so bad that I don’t think I’ll ever go back to eating dairy regularly.
Sugar, of course, is really addictive and most people would agree even if they’re not Paleo eaters that you should limit or cease your sugar intake altogether. For me, it’s like a train with no brakes: once I start eating candy, I will sit there and eat every last bit no matter how piggish I feel halfway through. Aside from that, I would also wake up the next morning with what I call a sugar hangover — feeling groggy, achy, and generally just gross — whenever I had sugar.
Beans, like dairy, affect me very adversely with the gas, but also with really, really painful stomach cramps. To the point that I had to sit down and wait for it to pass before I could get up and go on with my day. And since the only bean dish I’ve ever loved was hummus, it’s pretty easy to give that up. Mostly.
Grains affect me the least, I think, but even now I can see the little things: they aren’t filling or satisfying, I always end up eating more than I should despite what my stomach is telling me, and I just noticed that after I eat grains, I wake up a lot groggier.
So overall, giving up these foods is pretty dang worth it. I wake up easier, I have more energy, I feel better, I don’t get the gross sugar-coated teeth, no stomach cramps, no indigestion, no headaches, no heartburn… the list could go on, but those are the biggest things that convince me I’ll eat this way forever.
But how can you never eat peanut butter cups or ice cream again or pie again? Never say never! That’s the other thing I loved about reading It Starts With Food– they made total sense in everything, even in giving up the food. Because once in a while, if you just really need a Reese’s peanut butter cup and it’s personally worth it to break from clean eating… then do it. Don’t try to fake the dessert by making it “Paleo approved”, because we all know that there is nothing better than a genuine peanut butter cup, and you’ll just end up dissatisfied and still craving the real thing. So no, I’m not going to never eat these food groups again. If we’re invited out to eat, if we go to a party, if it’s a holiday gathering, if we go to someone’s house for dinner… I still do my best to choose the healthier foods, but I also don’t worry about it. If a certain food sounds delicious even though I know it’ll give me symptoms later, I eat it anyway. It’s one day, and it’s not going to ruin me forever.
Is it hard? Yes, and no. The first time I excluded all of those foods from my diet, which was when I did the Whole30, it was really hard. I was changing up my entire perspective of how to eat, and since nobody I know eats this way, I was jumping in blind. If my husband hadn’t done it with me, I wouldn’t have made it through the thirty days. Plus, having to explain over and over that I couldn’t have whatever food someone cooked for us felt rude as well as disappointing. I missed all of the foods I couldn’t eat, and probably spent most of the time wishing for no-no foods rather than focusing on what I could have. Plus, my body was going through withdrawals because I’d been eating badly for so long, and while they weren’t strong withdrawals, they were still there and it was miserable.
But now, surprisingly, it’s pretty easy. I don’t need my husband to eat this way with me — and he still has his dairy and grains when he wants them — in order to stick to it, because the second time around I am more aware of how beneficial it is, and I’ve done a little more planning and am much more comfortable with how to cook and what to choose. It’s still hard to resist tuning out on the weekends to eat whatever I like, and I miss things like popcorn and Pringles if someone is eating them near me, but the worth of not eating them far outweighs the temporary craving to have those foods.
Besides which, since I’ve pretty much committed to eating this way forever, I don’t feel as restricted because if I am presented with the opportunity — going out, for example — to stray from Paleo, it’s okay because it’s just one meal. I don’t feel the despair and guilt that used to come over me knowing that this wasn’t really that special because we ate terribly all the time. Funnily enough, restricting my daily foods is incredibly freeing. I can occasionally indulge, because I know it’s not going to send me on a binge, whereas before… indulgence meant overeating which led to giving up which meant binge all night and on into the next few days because I’d failed. On any other diet, having one bad day meant I’d just ruined the entire diet.
And sometimes, there are days when I just don’t feel like cooking, I just want to be lazy and eat snacks all day, and I miss the convenience of boxed foods. But the way I feel without them is worth the effort it sometimes takes to cook something and eat right.
I think those are pretty much all of the questions I have been asked so far, and I hope that explains it well enough! I have to say that the beauty of this way of eating is that it’s not a “diet”. It’s not as restrictive as you might think, and I’ve found much more freedom to eat and cook this way than I ever feel when I cook with dairy and flour. It’s fun to cook with fresh vegetables all the time, and use lots of spices and get creative with what I’m eating, rather than just dump a box of macaroni into a pan and that’s it.
I think I am also in the perfect position to transition and get used to eating this way: I’m pregnant so the maternal instinct to nourish the baby has kicked in, but he’s not here yet so I don’t have to struggle with eating a new way AND taking care of a kid. By the time I’ve got a few kids, Paleo eating will be so routine I doubt it’ll ever seem difficult.
So what about you? Do you have any questions I didn’t answer? Do you think Paleo sounds good, hard, stupid…? Please feel free to ask anything I might have missed! I will hopefully be posting recipes weekly that are Paleo now, so anytime you have a question (or even an opposition), please speak up! I’m not saying this is a lifestyle for everyone, even if I do believe that everyone would benefit from it. It’s just something that I have followed and researched and tested and read up a lot about, and I find it to be beneficial as well as wise and solidly logical.
So far, I have yet to come across anything factual that hasn’t made scientific sense. And I can’t say that about any other way of eating… ever. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of It Starts With Food, and also reading everything you can over at whole9life.com.
I hope you all lived through this incredibly long post, and as always, have an absolutely beautiful day!