Did you read our “Paleo for Beginners” article and now feel ready to take the next step towards the Paleolithic way of eating? Are you wondering about the best ways to hone this diet so that you can get the most out of it on an individual level? While this article should not be construed as personal medical advice, there are some general guidelines you can follow to help optimize the ancestral way of eating to promote your health and well-being.
Even if you are not interested in the Paleo diet, many of the tips below apply to a variety of different ways of eating, so consider reading on regardless of your chosen dietary preferences. You’ll learn about the evidence-based methods to determine if a particular food is behind your health issues, as well as the non-standardized tests to avoid if you are looking to reclaim your well-being. Unfortunately, many health practitioners continue to offer these tests, but this article will help you to become a more informed consumer so that you can make the best choices for your health.
If you are on a medically prescribed nutrition therapy for a specific health condition, that diet must be prioritized over the Paleo way of eating.
There are certain health conditions where a person may be put on individually-tailored medical nutrition therapy, such as renal diets where a person will generally have prescribed limits for specific electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and phosphorus). If the choice must be made between a medically prescribed diet or the Paleo diet, the medical diet must always take precedence.
Sometimes a medical nutrition therapy can be combined with the Paleo way of eating, but in other cases, the two cannot be combined. If you are unsure about whether the Paleolithic diet can fit your needs, it is critical to check in with a physician or dietitian who is familiar with your medical history before making major dietary changes. Taking this simple precautionary measure can help ensure that you avoid any potential adverse consequences associated with modifying your diet
If you suspect that certain foods are having a negative impact on your health, confirm it through an evidence-based testing method.
If you are considering the Paleo diet because you suspect that you have an undiagnosed food allergy or food intolerance, it is important to avoid self-diagnosis and get an evidence-based test to uncover the issue. Self-diagnosis may lead to unnecessary food restrictions while problematic foods may be missed. There is also a risk for essential nutrient deficiencies with more limited diets, particularly in children.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) maintains a list of proven methods to diagnose a food allergy. They include:
- Skin prick test
- Blood test
- Oral food challenge
- Trial elimination diet
The diagnosis of food intolerances may require the use of other proven tests, such as the hydrogen breath test for lactose intolerance. If celiac disease is suspected, it is important to remain on a gluten-containing diet during the celiac screening process. Going gluten-free before testing (such as through the Paleo diet) can lead to inaccurate test results.
To complicate matters further, there are certain medical conditions that can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms and skin conditions that seem to be related to the consumption of particular foods. Your physician is in the best position to determine the root cause of the malady, and help you to feel better again
Beware of allergy and food intolerance testing methods that are not based in science.
Unfortunately, some health practitioners actively promote the use of allergy and food intolerance tests that are not evidence-based. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recognizes that these tests “may result in false positive or false negative diagnoses, leading to unnecessary dietary restrictions or delaying the appropriate diagnostic workup.”
NIAID provides a list of these non-standardized tests in their guidelines. Consumers should learn about these tests to avoid to save money and to prevent being taken advantage of. The tests to avoid include:
- Basophil histamine release/activation
- Lymphocyte stimulation
- Facial thermography
- Gastric juice analysis
- Endoscopic allergen provocation
- Hair analysis
- Applied kinesiology (muscle testing)
- Provocation neutralization
- Allergen-specific IgG4
- Cytotoxicity testing
- Electrodermal test (Vega)
- Mediator release assay (LEAP/MRT): The Commission on Dietetic Registration also confirms that there is currently no evidence base for this test.
- Natural Elimination of Allergy treatment (NEAT), also known as Nambrudipad’s Allergy Elimination Technique (NAET)
- Pulse testing
If you have removed a food (or foods) from your diet due to the results of one of the above tests, consider trying to incorporate them back in. They may not have needed to be eliminated in the first place
Don’t let dietary strategies that you are using to promote health become a form of disordered eating.
Even though some research has shown that those following Paleo diets are less prone to disordered eating behaviors compared to some other dietary patterns, those who become overly fixated on eating the “correct” foods may be at risk for orthorexia, an obsession with “healthy” eating that may ultimately compromise a well-being.
Some indicators that a person may have a problem include food behaviors that are negatively impacting their social or occupational functioning, or if they are choosing a diet that is so restrictive that it cannot meet their needs for essential nutrients. It is important to note that body image issues may not be involved and that disordered eating can occur at any weight status. Malnourishment in the form of nutrient deficiencies can occur at any body weight and are more likely to occur when diets are combined (such as Paleo and vegan).
All of the foods we eat contain chemicals. The main difference is whether the chemicals are part of the natural matrix of the food, or composed in a lab. For example, here is the list of chemical ingredients that make up an organic banana (from the book Fat Loss Forever):
Dihydrogen monoxide, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, starch, fiber, glutamic acid, aspartic acid, histidine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, arginine, valine, alanine, serine, glycine, threonine, isoleucine, proline, tryptophan, cysteine, tyrosine, methionine, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, linolenic acid, oleic acid, palmitoleic acid, stearic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, capric acid, ash, phytosterols, E515, oxalic acid, E300, E306, tocopherol, phylloquinone, thiamin, riboflavin, E160a, ethyl hexanoate, 3-methylbut-1-YL ethanoate, pentyl acetate, E1510, ethene.
Surprised? “Chemical-free” food does not exist, and while it is a good idea to limit ultra-processed foods in the diet, I would remain cautious with the concept of “clean eating.” Even unprocessed foods contain chemicals with long names and restricting foods to the point that it develops into disordered eating can lead to physical harm and an overall decrease in quality of life
Consider including plenty of fruits and vegetables in your Paleolithic diet pattern.
Though the food and specific macronutrient components are far from fixed, some early proponents of Paleolithic nutrition proposed that the diet, on average, consisted of approximately 65% plant foods and 35% animal foods. Not only are plant foods a great source of the fiber and phytochemicals that are not contained in animal foods, getting a more extensive range of plant foods into your diet may help you to maintain a more diverse gut microbiome, an attribute that is thought to benefit health.
A large microbiome study using data from the American Gut Project found that those who consumed more than 30 different plant species each week had greater diversity in their gut microbiome when compared to those who consumed 10 or fewer types of plants each week. How many plant foods do you regularly eat each week? The Paleo diet is not an excuse to skip eating your vegetables
While produce is an integral part of many Paleo diets, including adequate protein from meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs is also beneficial to health.
If you are looking to maintain a healthy weight, ensuring that you are including enough protein-dense food in your diet to feel full between meals is important. Not only is protein considered the most satiating macronutrient, but there is some positive evidence for the protein leverage hypothesis, i.e., the calories of protein consumed over time remain more constant than the calories of fat or carbohydrates.
According to the protein leverage hypothesis, it appears that people keep eating until they consume about the same amount of protein each day. Thus, including an adequate amount of protein-dense foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy (if accepted) and seafood in the Paleo diet may help a person to feel satisfied so that they are less likely to overeat later. Plant foods do contribute to protein intake as well, but these foods are typically far less protein-dense, particularly since the Paleo diet excludes one of the best plant-based protein sources (legumes).
Though many iterations of Paleo do emphasize grass-produced and sustainable meats, it is important not to over-restrict your dietary variety because you cannot afford certain items. Without grains and legumes, the protein and B vitamins provided by meat becomes more critical. Choosing conventionally-raised meat is fine if you cannot afford other options.
Ensure adequate electrolyte intake, particularly if you are an athlete or leaning more towards a low-carb or ketogenic style of Paleo.
Though many versions of the Paleo diet include plenty of carbohydrates from fruits and starchy vegetables, some may choose to follow a more low-carb or even ketogenic way of eating. If this is the case, your needs for sodium, magnesium, and potassium may be altered. Athletes are another group that need individually tailored information regarding electrolyte intake, whether following a Paleo diet pattern or not
Have a plan in place for when you dine out.
Whenever you make a significant diet or lifestyle change, it is a smart move to let your family and friends know and ask for their support. Letting them know ahead of time that you would appreciate dining at restaurants that offer Paleo-friendly options can go a long way in making dining out a more pleasurable experience for everyone.
Checking the restaurant’s menu ahead of time can be helpful in finding a meal that fits the Paleolithic diet. Taking advantage of certain phone apps, such as the HowUdish app, can provide assistance in determining whether a restaurant serves meals that fit your dietary pattern. Requesting a burger without a bun and foods cooked in butter or olive oil instead of industrial seed oils are some simple things to ask for that many restaurants will accommodate
Limiting Paleo desserts and treats marketed to those using this dietary strategy may make it easier for you to maintain a healthy weight.
We are incredibly fortunate to have a much wider range of food options available to us than our Paleolithic ancestors did, but this blessing does not always work in our favor. The increase in popularity of ancestral diets has led to an explosion of ready-to-eat “Paleo” ultra-processed snack products hitting the store shelves.
Not only do these products tend to be a deception in the sense that our Paleolithic ancestors did not have ready access to snacks made of coconut oil, almond flour, and coconut sugar, they are often just as high in calories and saturated fat as conventional snack products. If you are trying to maintain a healthy weight, regardless of the health halo that the “Paleo” label provides, limiting consumption of these treats is a smart choice.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding one specific correct way to maintain a Paleo diet, so experiment and find the dietary pattern that helps you meet all of your essential micronutrient needs and that works best for you.
Your Paleo diet may look very different from a friend or family member who is also following the Paleo diet, and that is OK! The Paleolithic way of eating is all about adopting a diet of nutrient-rich and minimally processed foods that fit your lifestyle and personal food preferences. It may not be identical to someone else’s diet
While there are ways to improve upon as well as worsen most dietary patterns, there ultimately is no one “best” Paleo diet for all. The more you learn about the Paleolithic diet, the better equipped you will be to decide whether this way of eating is right for you. Even if you are not interested in strictly adhering to an ancestral diet, don’t miss our recipe section for a wide selection of dishes that help to promote health.
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.