I’d like to preface this article by saying that I’m not a doctor nor a dietician. The information below comes from my experience coaching athletes and everyday folks for the past several years. I’ve seen countless people improve their performance, their body composition, their overall health, and their lives through the implementation of the Paleo diet.
What is the Paleo Diet?
At its foundation, the Paleo diet is all about maximum nutrition uptake. It’s a simple and easy way to eat as it gives black and white guidelines of what you can and can’t eat. Many people get hung up on the fact that this may not be exactly the way our ancestors ate, but the main idea is cutting out foods that are calorically dense and nutrient sparse, and eliminating any food that is potentially harmful to our bodies. Simply put, it’s just about eating clean and balanced.
Putting “Diet” in Perspective
Many times when people think of “diet,” they think of a short term approach to eating, or a way to lose a few quick pounds. When I talk about “diet,” I’m talking about what you consume every day. So get past the concept that the Paleo Diet (or any sound approach to nutrition) is just something to do for the next 30 days. In reality, it’s a way that you can eat for the rest of your life in order to achieve optimum health.
Benefits of the Paleo Diet
The benefits of the Paleo diet are numerous. At Four Barrel I’ve coached hundreds of people through Paleo Challenges and continuing Paleo eating (something we call 80/20 Paleo) and have had the opportunity to see the results first hand.
Going Strict for 30 Days
Diet is 10% knowledge and 90% behavior. Meaning, we all have a general idea of what we should and shouldn’t eat, but the hardest part is engraining the needed habits in order to eat healthy. That’s why I suggest going strict for 30 days for a couple reasons: (1) Such a big shift in behavior can help engrain new habits, and (2) it’s going to take 30 days to reverse old habits and see results. Think of it this way. If you’ve been eating the wrong way for 10, 20, or 30 years, it’s going to take a few weeks to reverse some of that damage that has been accumulated over time.
What Can I Eat on the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet includes eating nutrient dense foods like vegetables, meat, fruit, nuts, seeds, and fats, and cutting out foods that cause us to store excess fat or that have other adverse effects on our bodies.
There are certain foods and supplements to avoid that are not as obvious as others. On top of that, certain sugary foods like honey and maple syrup are technically Paleo (and you’ll find them in many Paleo recipes), but should be avoided when starting the Paleo diet or completing a 30 day challenge. Reason being, is that one of the huge benefits of switching to the Paleo diet is ridding the body of its dependency on sugar and reversing the fat storing effects of sugar.
Okay in a pinch
There are some protein and/or snack bars that are okay in a pinch, though it’s almost always better to eat whole foods when you have access. The problem with most “Paleo approved” bars/snacks is that most are still loaded with a high level of simple carbohydrates. Beyond that, it’s better to get in the habit of prepping and eating whole foods versus always reaching for a convenient prepackaged option. You’re much more likely to go back to your old ways of unhealthy eating if you remain dependent on packaged foods. That said, check out this list of Paleo approved packeged foods from our friends at Whole 30.
When Should I Eat on the Paleo Diet?
This is a topic surrounded by some controversy. Paleo purists often say that once you’ve gone strict for 30 days, that your body will start sending the proper hunger signals, thus you should eat only when hungry. So the question is, “When should I eat before my body is reset?” The easiest answer here is to eat within 30 minutes of waking, and then eat every 3-4 hours throughout the remainder of the day. This should keep a pretty regular pattern and will help space your nutritional intake. Once you’ve gone strict for 30 days, if you want to play around with keying off your bodies hunger signals… Go for it!
But What if I Get Hungry Between Meals?
A few potential explanations and solutions here. (1) You should have eaten more of a specific macronutrient at your previous meal, so adjust during your next meal. To oversimplify things, when I’m talking about macronutrients, I’m talking about proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Think of your meats, fish, fowl, and eggs as your proteins, your veggies and fruits as your carbohydrates, and your nuts, seeds, and oils as your fats. Fat is typically the best place to start when trying to identify which macronutrient you may be lacking and thus are constantly hungry, so try adding in a few more nuts, seeds, or more avocado at your next meal. (2) Eat a small snack. A handful of nuts can be easy solution. (3) Hydrate! Often when we feel hungry, it’s actually because we’re thirsty. So drink some water and wait for the next meal.
What Should I Eat Around My Workouts?
Pre and post workout nutrition is still important. Pre workout nutrition is very person-specific. Some people like to train in a fasted state, while others feel they need some nutrition 1-2hours before their workout. The timing is up to you. Test out different scenarios, but a good general rule is to eat a balanced snack-sized meal 1-2hours before your workout. For post workout, try to eat within 3o minutes of completing your training session. Eat a plate of food that consists of half veggies/fruit and half protein. We cut out the fat for this meal, because fat acts as a nutrient uptake regulator. Since our body is essentially broken down after a workout, we want nutrients to uptake as fast as possible.
How Much Should I Eat on the Reg’?
It’s important to eat balanced at every meal. This means eating some protein, some carbohydrate, and some fat. Specific ratios can be calculated based on a person’s body type and activity level; however, for purposes of getting started, it’s useful to use the Anytime Meal Plate example below. This concept comes from Dr. Jon Berardi at Precision Nutrition and is a great and easy way to estimate how much food to eat at each meal. The Anytime Meal Plate applies to snacks as well. Just take your normal size plate or bowl, and imagine reducing to about half its original size.
Limit Fruits & Sweet Potatoes
Although natural a loaded with nutrients, fruits still pack a pretty heavy simple carbohydrate load. I suggest sticking with one serving of fruit per day, and trying to consume fruit before lunch. Berries are always a good option when selecting fruit, as they carry a lower glycemic load than most fruits. On the flip side, it’s best to avoid fruits like bananas because of their high glycemic load. The same applies for sweet potatoes. If fat loss is your goal, I suggest limiting sweet potatoes as much as possible. If you are going to consume sweet potatoes, the best time to eat them is immediately following your workout.
What to Expect when Starting Strict Paleo or a 30 Day Challenge
When you start the Paleo diet, especially if you go strict, the first couple days (and sometimes the first couple weeks) can be tough. First, you’re engraining new habits and behaviors, and second, it will take your body a few days to switch over from using simple carbohydrates as its fuel source. Simply put, most of us have to get over our addiction to sugar. And just like a drug, there is an initial period of withdraw. Stick with it! Once you can overcome your sugar withdraw, you’ll start to see the positive results of the Paleo diet (see the “Benefits of Paleo image above for these).
This is a term we got from the book It Starts With Food (which is a great informational and motivational resource on the Paleo diet). So, what is S.W.Y.P.O.?…. “Sex With Your Pants On”… Meaning you’ll find a million recipes for Paleo brownies, Paleo lasagna, and Paleo-fied versions of every other junk food out there. Avoid these as much as possible, especially if you are just starting Paleo or doing a 30 day challenge. Many Paleo-fied junk food recipes still pack a pretty high carbohydrate punch, plus we’re trying to change our behavior toward eating fresh/whole foods. S.W.Y.P.O. is essentially taking your old diet and trying to repackage it with a Paleo bow.
Grocery Shopping & Food Prep
One of the most important things you can do when starting any healthy diet is to schedule time each week to do grocery shopping and food prep. Make this a priority and literally put it on your calendar – This is your health and potentially the health of your family we’re talking about. Two to three hours on a weekend will suffice for most people. Make a list of what to buy at the store to make the process much easier. It sounds simple, but once you’re at the store buying lots of new items, the experience can become overwhelming. We suggest shopping at local farmers markets when you have the opportunity. Here in the Louisville, KY area, Lucky’s, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods have lots of healthy options. If you can’t make it to one of these stores, your typical grocery store will do. As soon as you return from the store, prep as much food as possible before putting it away. You’ve already spent an hour or two at the grocery, now spend another hour prepping, and it will pay huge dividends throughout the week.
80/20 Paleo & Cheat Days
We mentioned the concept of 80/20 Paleo above, which means eating Paleo 80% of the time and branching out or having cheat items 20% of the time. I suggest going 80/20 Paleo only after completing a period of 30 days strict because you need to cut out anything that could potentially be harmful to your health before reintroducing non-Paleo foods. Plus, you’re more likely to fall off the wagon if you try to implement 80/20 Paleo from the get go. That said, after you initial 30 day period, I do suggest scheduling a guilt-free cheat day each week. This will help you keep your sanity, and it can increase your likelihood of success during the week. It’s much easier to skip beers and pizza with coworkers on Thursday, when you know you have a cheat day on Saturday. However, try to keep it confined within a day. If you start having random little cheats here and there throughout the week, you’ll soon find yourself back at square one.
The Paleo Diet for Performance Athletes & Hard Gainers
The foundation of the Paleo diet is great for almost anyone. Two specific groups that may need to add in some non-Paleo items for the sake of consuming enough calories throughout the day are performance athletes and hard gainers. These are athletes who are training 2+ hours a day, 5-6days a week, and/or athletes who need to gain weight. For these groups I suggest adding in non-Paleo, yet still healthy items, such as quinoa, rice, oats, and protein powder. Even so, I suggest doing a 30 day challenge for these athletes in the off-season just to get their body back to baseline and to make them more efficient fuel burners. Once again, this is really only for athletes training at a very high volume and for those looking to gain weight.
If your starting the Paleo diet or taking another run at it, we suggest diving in with 30 days strict and/or doing a 30 day challenge. This is a great way to engrain new/healthy behaviors and jumpstart positive results. To start your 30 days strict, you need to trash and/or donate all non-Paleo food in your home. This can be tough, especially if your a frugal person or if you have a family. The fact is though – if it’s in your house you will eat it. Even if you put it in a box and pack it away high on a shelf, there will be a time when you have a craving and/or you didn’t have a chance to make dinner, so you’ll reach for that box of Cap-n-Crunch that you stashed away. If it’s family that is your concern, have them start eating healthier too. There is normally some kicking and screaming for the first few days, but soon after, everyone adapts. Lastly, immediately go out and buy new healthy Paleo foods. Then take a couple hours to do some food prep.
A few FAQs
Will my grocery bill go up?
If you’re restocking your pantry/fridge, then yes. So expect your first couple bills to be higher. After that, most people’s grocery bills normalize, and in the long run a lot of people spend less because they eat out less. Lastly, even if your grocery bill is higher, you’re going to save in the long run with a better bill of health and fewer medical bills.
Should I eat organic / grass fed?
If you have the opportunity, yes. If not, it’s not the end the world when getting started. Focus on eating lots of veggies and meats. Once you’ve honed you skills, then start working finding organic/grass fed options.
What restaurants can I eat at?
As the popularity of Paleo grows, many restaurants are now offering Paleo options. If not, most restaurants have a grilled meat and veggies dish which is always a good option. For fast food options we suggest going somewhere like QDoba or Chipotle and simply picking out what you want. For instance, an order of chicken, fajita veggies, pico, guacamole, and lettuce makes a pretty solid meal. In all reality it’s probably not 100%, but it’s pretty close.
I recommend reading Robb Wolf’s book The Paleo Solution for anyone getting started on the Paleo diet. Robb is the “godfather” of the modern Paleo movement and his book is a fun/easy read. Additionally, it will give you more science and more explanation behind the Paleo diet, plus it’s a great piece of motivation to keep you committed during your first 30 days. In addition to Robb’s book, I’ve provided a list of recipe sites and other Paleo resources to help you get started.