Besides trying to explain to people what the Paleo Diet is, answering the list of questions, such as “why don’t you eat quinoa when it’s good for you?” has made me realize that besides knowing the diet guidelines, understanding why you’re supposed to eat or not eat certain things is extremely important.
Modern society has convinced us that certain foods are good and bad or “heart healthy”, etc… While a lot of this is definitely beneficial in different health situations, most of these common dietary guidelines like eat whole wheat or brown rice are to tell you IF you are in the situation where you need to pick between whole wheat and white, pick whole wheat. It’s picking the “lesser of the two evils”; however, that does not mean it’s actually healthy for you.
Through this blog, we hope to educate you on why certain things that are deemed “good” might actually have negative affects on your body and we hope to inspire you to change your way of thinking and open your palette to a new way of eating. This will be an on-going list evolving as more topics come up!
Quick Guide to Frequently Asked Questions
- Why are soy products not allowed?
- Why no peanuts or legumes?
- Why no quinoa?
- Why no dairy?
- What about whole grains? Aren’t they good for you?
- What about potatoes, rice and corn?
- What about chocolate?
- Aren’t eating so many saturated fats bad for you?
- Where do you get calcium?
- Where do you get energy if you don’t eat carbs?
- Do I need to eat every 3 hours?
- “But cavemen had short lifespans! We live way longer now”
Why no soy?
I’m Asian. I ate tofu, edamame, miso soup, soy sauce, soy milk, etc… often. If my ancestors ate it and lived long healthy lives then why couldn’t I? There are so many studies why soy is good and bad for you. However, there are more studies that show soy causes malnutrition, digestive problems, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, even heart disease and cancer.
Soy also contains phytoestrogens, which cause disruption of the normal, delicate balance of sex hormones in both men and women. In addition, most soy sold these days are genetically modified (GM). Studies like the one published in the Huffington Post show the dangers of GM soy to reproduction, other genetic issues, and an increase in allergies.
The main reason paleo restricts soy is because it is a legume that needs to be processed to eat. Raw soy cannot be consumed in its natural state and like other legumes, it contains a high amount of phytates, which bind to minerals like zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium and make them unavailable for you to absorb. It also contains high amounts of lectin, which can cause nutritional deficiencies and immune reactions along with leptin resistance. However, by fermenting soy (like in Japanese nato) most of the lectin and phytate content is removed.
Why no peanuts or legumes?
Legumes are known to be a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, and protein; however, despite appearing “healthy” there are more negative health benefits from eating legumes than positive ones. In the paleo diet there is no need to consume legumes (like lentils, black beans, etc…), as the vegetables and meats consumed not only have higher amounts of fiber, vitamins and protein than legumes but also are digested and absorbed more completely in the body (most legume nutrients go to waste due to high levels of phylic acid).
Raw legumes are toxic. An entire process to “detoxify” legumes only partially neutralizes the toxins (or lectins), but does not eliminate them. Lectins are resistant to digestion and certain types create damage to the wall of the small intestine (which increases gut permeability, aka microholes in your gut) and causes an imbalance of gut bacteria. Regular exposure to lectins can promote inflammation in the digestive tract, but also elsewhere in the body since the lectins escape through the holes!
The one “legume” that is approved are green beans. Although they are considered a legume they do not contain the high amounts of lectin as the other legumes. So if you need a “bean” fix eat some green beans!
Oh, and peanuts are NOT nuts, they are legumes (so no peanut butter).
Why no quinoa?
Same reason as grains and legumes. Yes, they are high in fiber, protein and nutrients, but as all grains & legumes, they cause more problems (especially in the gut) than are worth the benefits. Tim Ferriss’ article “How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream” will make you never want to eat quinoa again! “In the case of Quinoa, it contains soap-like molecules called saponins. Unlike gluten, which attaches to a carrier molecule in the intestines, saponins simply punch holes in the membranes of the microvilli cells. Yes, that’s bad. Saponins are so irritating to the immune system that they are used in vaccine research to help the body mount a powerful immune response.”
Why no dairy?
Milk, cheese, ice cream… are all on the “not approved list.” Now most of us love dairy. I’m lactose intolerant (meaning I lack the ability to properly break down milk sugar) and yet I still suffered through the pain to enjoy a four cheese grilled cheese or homemade ice cream. However, I should’ve taken the hints from my body and stopped consuming dairy. There are more than 25 proteins in milk that can lead to allergies, and worldwide estimates suggest that two-thirds of the population has trouble digesting milk because of lactose intolerance (aka like me!). So why stop consuming dairy if you’re not lactose intolerant?
First of all, dairy provokes an inflammatory response in the gut, which can adversely effect how you digest and absorb your food. This chronic inflammation in your gut can cause “microperforation” (tiny holes) of the intestinal lining leading to all sorts of health issues and allergies.
The primary protein found in all dairy products is casein. Studies have shown that casein increases risk for cancer (especially liver cancer) as the protein promotes cancer development. It is also shown that a gluten-free & casein-free diet can have positive affects on children with autism as most autistic children have GI problems.
Dairy products are generally laced with antibiotics (unless they come from grass-fed, all-natural animals). These drugs are fed to farm animals to fight the diseases that are endemic to their tightly confined living conditions. The antibiotics are then passed to us when we consume milk and meat products. For more information, my favorite article is the Dairy Manifesto on the Whole9 blog.
What about whole grains? Aren’t they good for you?
No. The only difference between “whole grain” and refined white flour is the ratio of fiber to the other stuff. The USDA has skewed all Americans into believing we should consume 6 to 11 servings of grains a day (most of it due to cheap production and government marketing to help aid commerce)! Talk about a lot of empty calories! Although there are some good nutritional aspects to grains like certain vitamins & minerals, you can also find them in vegetables. In the end, the negatives outweigh the positives.
Grains, a food group that we didn’t eat for 97% of our human existence, aren’t good for most mammals as they cannot be digested properly! Grains contain gluten (aka grain lectin) and phylates. Lectins are resistant to stomach digestion and cause gut inflammation as they destroy the gut lining leading to small “microperforations” or tiny holes in your intestinal lining! These holes allow toxic substances to enter into your bloodstream and can lead to many autoimmune conditions.
Grains are also full of carbohydrates and elevate insulin levels. Processed grains when broken down turn into glucose (blood sugar) quickly. When this process occurs the body responds by releasing insulin to lower the blood sugar. If there is too much blood sugar in the system, your body runs out of places to store it as useful energy, and will store any excess as body fat. If there is too much insulin is in your system, your cells become desensitized and the pancreas is prompted to release even more insulin when your body doesn’t need it. Summary: Grains (aka carbs) are making everyone fat and diabetic!
What about potatoes, rice and corn?
Potatoes and corn are NOT vegetables, sorry. All are too high on the glycemic index (the measure of how quickly blood glucose levels rise after eating) and too high a glycemic load. What does this mean? The sugar these foods carry is too rapidly delivered into the bloodstream – glycemic index – and the amount is much too dense – glycemic load. Although they are all gluten-free, it is recommended not to consume them on a paleo diet.
Potatoes are also in the “nightshade” family along with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Nightshade foods contain alkaloids, which are substances that can sometimes provoke allergy-related symptoms, impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function in animals and humans, and may also be able to compromise joint function.
Sweet potatoes, however, ARE approved. Despite the name, they are NOT potatoes (they don’t even come from the same plant family)! Sweet potatoes contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
What about chocolate?
Pure paleo diet says chocolate is not allowed because 1. cavemen probably didn’t eat it due to the fermenting process needed to produce it and 2. nowadays chocolate is mixed with sugar, milk, and other additives. So, what exactly is chocolate? Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree (or cocoa beans). The cocoa bean is fermented and the product is cocoa butter (which is used in the production of white chocolate) and solids (which is used to prepare dark chocolate). Cocoa solids are extremely bitter and hence why sugar and milk are added to produce what we know as yummy sweet creamy chocolate!
HOWEVER, if you start having chocolate withdrawals, then the healthiest chocolate option would be DARK CHOCOLATE (with >70% cacao). Studies have shown that dark chocolate has many positive health benefits with moderate intake (so don’t go eating pounds of it at once), such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Dark chocolate is rich in minerals (manganese, iron, copper and magnesium) and it contains a powerful compound called flavonols, which act as antioxidants. Flavonols help increase blood circulation and lower blood pressure. So, if you need your chocolate fix, then eat 70%+ dark chocolate!
Aren’t eating so many saturated fats bad for you?
Under the Paleo Diet (PD) saturated fats are often a primary source of calories. Eating the right type of saturated fats, such as coconut oil or grass-fed animal fat can serve many functions in the brain, bones, lungs and just about every cells of the body. Fat is a much more powerful fuel for our bodies than sugar and starch “The human body and brains’ primary source of fuel is designed to be fat in the form of ketones – not glucose,” says Nora Gedgaudas in her book, Primal Body, Primal Mind, Ketosis occurs when the body is burning fat, not glucose, as its primary fuel.
The main concern most people have with eating saturated fats is due to all the negative publicity stating that saturated fats lead to an increase in cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. On the contrary, saturated fats actually help heart function and reduce risk for cardiovascular disease by reducing the levels of lipoprotein (LDL) and by raising the level of “good” cholesterol (aka HDL). In addition saturated fats have fatty acids that help strengthen our immune systems and prevent illness and are also necessary for strong bones (they help transport calcium to our bones).
The biggest dietary regulatory body, the USDA, has a mission to promote commodity agriculture (grains and vegetable oils) as a means to make money. Considering our government has recommended tons of grain consumption daily for maximum health for decades and continues to subsidize corn farmers, it’s not too much of a stretch to see why government research into the health hazards of grains has been slow coming. Unfortunately, the dietary advice offered by most doctors is in most cases based primarily on these biased recommendations (Note: doctors receive very little training in nutrition and whatever they receive is generally that which regulating bodies agreed upon. Additionally, doctors are trained with a focus on treating and managing diseases instead of preventing them in the first place).
Where do you get calcium?
The short answer: Dairy is NOT the only way to get calcium. Providing your body with the optimal tools to process the calcium efficiently and properly is more important.
The amount of calcium required per day is mostly dependent on age and sex. Children aged 4 to 8 require 800mg per day while adolescents aged 9 to 18 require 1,300mg and adults require 1,000mg. Adults aged 51 or older, pregnant or nursing women and postmenopausal women require 1,200mg per day, notes the University of Michigan Health System.
It is widely known that dairy products are very high in calcium – they are almost the richest sources of calcium that humans ingest. However, what must be considered is how much calcium is excreted, aka. the “calcium balance”. The calcium balance is heavily influenced by the “acid-base” balance. When we eat foods like cereal, dairy products and legumes (non-Paleo) and even meats and fish (Paleo) our acid levels rise. Higher acid levels cause calcium to be excreted from our bodies. To manage an acid imbalance we need to eat alkaline foods, which are primarily fruits and vegetables, thereby preventing our acid levels from spiking and our bodies from dumping calcium.
The primary sources of Calcium in a Paleo Diet (PD) are dark leafy greens and other vegetables, as well as to a lesser extent eggs, fruits and seafood (such as sardines). Leafy greens, like kale and broccoli, not only contain adequate amounts of calcium, but they supply it in a form that is easier for the body to absorb and use. One might compare this to a USDA recommended diet where the primary source of Calcium is typically dairy and grains. Under PD, while calcium levels may be slightly less than under traditional USDA diets, we are excreted much less as well. The amount of calcium that’ll be absorbed by the body on PD is likely going to be much higher than USDA since the cofactors for calcium absorption are higher across the board in the PD. Vitamin and mineral cofactors required for calcium absorption include Vitamin D (typically 4X greater in PD vs USDA) and Magnesium (1.25X in PD vs USDA). Also, the high amounts of protein consumed under PD (often 20 to 30% of total calories) increases intestinal calcium absorption. Further, maintaining blood-sugar levels by preventing hyperinsulinemia that is commonly seen on a high-grain diet can decrease urinary calcium loss. Similarly, maintaining an acid/base balance as promoted under PD can decrease calcium leaching from bones (leading to osteoporosis), in contrast to the USDA diet rich primarily in acidic foods such as hard cheeses, cereal grains, salted foods, meats, and legumes.
So, by eating a diet that is not only fairly high in calcium from non-dairy sources but also providing balanced nutrition to allow for the absorption of calcium, it’s clear that the need for dairy in the diet as a calcium source is overstated and inaccurate. Furthermore, studies show that the phytic acid in grains (specifically whole wheat products in one study) reduces the absorption of dietary calcium from milk products, which would likely then leave the USDA diet at a much lower level of bio-available calcium than the PD. (source, and more information available HERE and HERE.)
Where do you get energy if you don’t eat carbs?
Fat is a much more powerful fuel for our bodies than sugar and starch “The human body and brains’ primary source of fuel is designed to be fat in the form of ketones – not glucose,” says Nora Gedgaudas in her book, Primal Body, Primal Mind. When there is an absence of carbs (which is how we evolved to operate), our body will take our stored fat and burn THAT for energy (in a process called ketogenesis). It’s even possible for our bodies to convert protein glucose for energy when necessary. Ketosis occurs when the body is burning fat, not glucose, as its primary fuel. Picture fat as the slow-burning log on the fire and sugar is like paper, which burns very quickly. Basically you can get enough of what your body needs from Paleo diet to thrive just as our ancestors did before bread, bagels, pasta and cake became part of today’s diet. So, less carbs = less glucose in your system, which means your body will have to start burning fat as your fuel source. Win!
The 50-70% carbohydrate consumption recommended by the USDA and even worse so under low-fat diets is way too much compared to the diet we’re evolutionarily adapted to eat. Our body is well designed to run primarily on protein and fat as sources of energy. It’s not uncommon to derive energy under the Paleo diet percentagewise 50% from fat, 35% from protein and 15% from carbohydrates (complex, not simple), give or take depending on one’s eating habits. Fat and protein together produce a high degree of satiety. Additional elements of PD which promote high energy levels are an emphasis on proper hydration as well as improved sleep which is typically a result of this more natural diet. When your stores of glycogen (glucose in the body) are depleted and your body doesn’t have enough glucose for energy and produces ketone bodies from fat as a source of energy. Under PD, most of the body’s energy needs are met by ketone bodies. Some will argue that while most cells in the body can use ketone bodies as a source of energy, some brain and kidney cells absolutely need glucose for energy. While this is true, the body can easily make glucose for these cells with proteins by a process called gluconeogenesis. Furthermore, it has been shown that ketone bodies are the preferred source of energy for most cells and that there are some protective and health promoting effects to being in ketosis.
Remember, PD is not a quick-fix diet but a way of life. There’s no expectation of starving when eat only Paleo foods. One must always eat when hungry. This isn’t like other diets where one may be expected to go for long periods being hungry. Some find it’s helpful, especially for the first two weeks on a Paleo Diet, to not to go more than 3-4 hours between meals or snacks. To this end, there is a phenomenon that happens to some people after the first few days on PD which may be called a “carb crash.” The theory is that it happens when a body’s glucose reserves (stored in the liver as glycogen) are used up, but the body is not yet used to running on fat and protein. People tend to have symptoms such as feeling jittery, irritable, fatigued, or just not feeling “right.” Should this occur, one is advised to try eating a serving of low-carb fruit which often curbs these feelings.
Do I need to eat every 3 hours?
Nope. Eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not. Going again back to our evolutionary history, we didn’t always have the luxury of going to a vending machine or drive-through window to pick up food. Sometimes we’d go all day long without finding any food, or even days at a time. Luckily, we’re designed to use our excess fat stores as energy in these situations. Don’t worry about eating every three hours – our metabolisms aren’t that smart. Sometimes, it’s even okay to skip a meal or two, as long as you don’t go berserk and eat 7 pizzas because you’re so hungry afterward. The one good thing about paleo is that eating more protein and fat keep you fuller longer than those sugary carbs! If you need a snack grab a piece of fruit & some almond butter or eat a handful of nuts. It’s that easy.
“But cavemen had short lifespans! We live way longer now”
The facts of this statement are correct, but only because we don’t have to deal with the endless dangers associated with living in Paleolithic times. If you break your leg now, you simply get in a cast, lie on the couch, and watch reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A broken leg 100,000 years ago probably meant you were going to be eaten by a bear. Give those hunter-gathers access to modern technology and medicine and many experts suggest their lifespan would easily surpass ours.
The biggest problem in healthcare today is not medical; it is behavioral (food, fitness & lifestyle habits). Most of us have become incredibly detached from our bodies and health. They do say, you are what you eat! Most modern day medical problems like cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, etc… are all the result of the food & lifestyle in the modern day. Finding the cure for cancer or developing more pharmaceutical drugs is not the answer to a long life, but instead, eating the correct foods and exercising from a young age will help prevent these diseases!