Thinking of going paleo? There are so many fad diets out there that it can be really confusing to sort through them all. And while we all have different dietary needs (and goals), the paleo diet lends a solid foundation for a healthy omnivorous diet. If you're not yet familiar, the diet aims for us to eat like our cave man ancestors did—including fish, meat, nuts, leafy greens, regional vegetables and seeds, and excluding all dairy, cereal grains, legumes, refined fats, salt, and sugar.
I often recommend a modified paleo diet to my clients because it's a clean way of eating. Research has found that paleo diets can improve blood pressure and cholesterol among individuals with metabolic syndrome, support weight loss in overweight adults, and some studies have found it equivalent to the Mediterranean diet for reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in adults.
The research is promising, and going paleo sets a healthy foundation, but it also has its caveats. I've seen people who have gone paleo completely forget about the existence of vegetables, instead using it as an excuse to load up on bacon. So read on for some of the drawbacks of the diet and how you can be mindful of them if you decide (or have already decided) that paleo is right for you:
1. Consider your digestive health.
The paleo diet is loaded with animal proteins, which may be hard for certain people to digest. Both stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes are needed for digesting and then absorbing proteins and their amino acids. Digestive factors work in a symphony to support the assimilation of essential amino acids that help to optimize our health.
We have a different metabolism than our ancestors did because the use of medications changes our physiological needs. Heartburn medications, like Zantac and Prilosec, inhibit stomach acid secretion and slow digestion. In addition, stomach acid naturally decreases as we age. Incomplete digestion is not only uncomfortable, but it can also increase your susceptibility to developing food allergies.
Expert tip 1: Replace missing digestive factors. Consider working with a nutritional therapist if you struggle with digestion, reflux, post-meal bloating, are over 50 years old, or are on heartburn medications. The approach can be tailored to you but may include a combination of dietary modifications and functional supplements, such as digestive enzymes, betaine HCl, and herbal bitters.
2. Care for your microbiome.
We have about 100 trillion bacteria living in our gut that create our microbiome. These bacteria help to optimize our health by reducing anxiety, boosting mood, and improving our immunity and mental clarity. Unfortunately, the pervasive use of antibiotics is responsible for eliminating both the good and bad bacteria that live in the gut. Low microbial diversity is more common than you might think—not only are prescription antibiotics on the rise, but we are more stressed, are using more antibacterial soaps, and eating more animal proteins that are treated with antibiotics and fed corn (which changes their microbiome). All these add up to the perfect storm of a not-so-happy gut.
Expert tip 2: Watch the quality of your proteins. A paleo diet that contains low-quality animal proteins or few pre- and probiotic vegetables is counterproductive. Food is not the same as it used to be. We are now faced with a mass of decisions at the grocery store: Should we buy organic or conventional? Grass-fed or grass-finished? Yes or no to GMO? So many questions! A good rule when going paleo is to simply buy the cleanest animal proteins that you can. Embrace technology but notice if you get stuck in a food rut of buying organic chicken sausages, which are highly processed (organic or not). Remember that a true paleo diet focuses on food that was raised in the wild, so channel this when deciding what to eat. It might come with a higher price tag but will certainly save you money in health care bills later in life.
Tip 3: Incorporate both prebiotic and probiotic vegetables. Prebiotic foods support digestive health by feeding beneficial bacteria in the gut. Paleo-friendly prebiotic foods include sunchokes, flaxseeds, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, apple, jicama, and seaweed. Probiotic foods provide a direct source of these beneficial bacteria and include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and coconut kefir.
3. A note on thyroid health
Load up on veggies, but exercise some caution with cruciferous vegetables for those with hypothyroidism or autoimmune thyroid disease. I often see people loading up on big raw salads that seem harmless, but raw cruciferous vegetables found in cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts contain goitrogens that can interfere with thyroid function.
Tip 4: Cook your cruciferous vegetables. This will activate these compounds and render them harmless. Enjoy your big kale salads, but steam them first if you fall into the above categories. Here's a complete list of cruciferous vegetables.
A few more thoughts on paleo
There's no diet that works for everyone; we all have different bodies, imbalances, emotions, and relationships with food. What works for one person might not work for their partner, friend, or colleague. In addition, two people eating a paleo-style diet could have completely different food diaries. Take an honest look at what you're currently doing and look for areas where you can make your diet more vibrant and energizing. This might mean taking a less structured approach to eating or opting for a modified paleo diet instead, which lends a little more flexibility to include some whole grains and legumes. Some research has found that an 80:20 paleo diet (80 percent on paleo and 20 percent including whole grains, legumes, or organic dairy) is easier to follow long term.
Our body changes every day, so give yourself permission to shift with it. Figure out what works for your life, your body, and your goals, and choose to nourish and uplift yourself with food.