The Paleo diet is the original diet of mankind, meaning, it’s the foods that humans have been eating for the majority of our time here on earth. Our bodies evolved eating meats and vegetables, and it’s not surprising that these are the foods that optimize our health.
The Paleo diet includes and excludes specific foods for good reasons. The foods that are excluded on the diet are ones that tend to cause problems for people like weight gain, leaky gut syndrome, elevated blood glucose levels, and inflammatory and chronic illnesses. Paleo is actually the original anti-inflammatory diet of mankind, although humans really haven’t had to worry about inflammatory illnesses until recently in history. Paleo is also a quick, natural, and effective diet that allows people to reach their ideal weight in a safe and healthy way, without starving themselves.
6 Main Foods Excluded on a Paleo Diet:
- Grains (including gluten and non-gluten containing grains)
- Legumes (all beans, soy, peanuts, etc.)
- Dairy (milk, creamers, cheeses, yogurts, etc.)
- Most vegetable oils (canola oil, vegetable oil, etc.)
- Refined and artificial sweeteners (see list of allowed sweeteners below)
- Processed and refined foods (If you can’t pronounce or recognize an ingredient, it’s probably not Paleo.)
6 Main Foods Included on a Paleo Diet:
- Meats (any kind, ideally pasture-raised or grass-fed)
- Seafood (any kind, ideally wild caught)
- Vegetables (any kind, ideally organic and local)
- Eggs (any kind, ideally pasture-raised)
- Fruit (in moderation, ideally organic, berries are best)
- Nuts and seeds (all kinds, in moderation, ideally organic)
A lot of folks find it easier to transition onto the Paleo diet by incorporating one element of the diet at a time. Other people have more success with diving in headfirst and not looking back. If you’re still teetering on the edge, there are six easy categories that you can explore without taking the full Paleo plunge! In total, I offer 22 different swaps to take your meal from typical American to Paleo pro.
Ditch the Grains
Grains and pseudo-grains contain harmful anti-nutrients that can trigger chronic inflammation in the body via a leaky gut. Examples of grains that are excluded on the Paleo diet include: corn, rice, wheat, quinoa, oats, flour, etc. Luckily, Paleo people are pretty creative and have invented some tasty ways to replace the grains in your diet, so that you can still have your (grain-free) cake and eat it too!
- Noodle/Pasta Swap – The next time you’re craving a bowl of noodles, instead of traditional grain-based noodles, try making your own noodles from vegetables. It’s easy to make “zoodles” from zucchini using a vegetable spiralizer, a julienne peeler, or using a regular ol’ vegetable peeler to create long ribbons of zucchini. Even easier is to make Paleo pasta from spaghetti squash which when baked, creates long strands of delicious squash noodles akin to angel hair pasta.
- Rice Swap – Instead of regular rice (which is a no-go on Paleo because it’s a grain), try making cauliflower “rice” instead. Cauliflower rice can be used virtually anywhere that you would use regular rice, with the benefit of it being much lower in carbohydrates and higher in nutrients.
- Bread Swap – There’s a lot of wonderful grain-free bread recipes floating around the Paleosphere. Some of our favorites are our Grain-Free Focaccia Bread, our mouth-watering Paleo Yeast Bread, and our basic Paleo bread.
- Breading Swap – Typical breading uses wheat flour, but it’s easy and much healthier to “bread” things in almond, coconut, tapioca, cassava, or other grain-free flours. Simply dredge your meat or veggie through beaten eggs and then roll it in a grain-free flour to coat, and cook as usual on the stove-top or oven.
- Cereal/Granola/Muesli Swaps – Paleo even has some delicious grain-free alternatives for your beloved granola and breakfast cereal. Check out our recipes for Paleo Granola/Muesli and Blueberry Coconut Cereal.
- Dessert and Baked Goods Swaps – I wasn’t kidding about having your grain-free cake and eating it too! You can make virtually any type of baked good or dessert Paleo, just check out our arsenal of Paleo dessert recipes!
Spill the Beans
Similar to grains, legumes (beans) contain problematic anti-nutrients such as phytic acid that bind up the precious minerals contained in foods, making them unavailable for digestion and absorption into our bodies. Legumes that are disallowed on the Paleo diet include all beans, soy, lentils, peanuts, etc.
- Peanut Butter Swap – Many people are surprised to learn that peanuts are actually a legume (bean) and not a nut. But don’t despair, you can just as easily whip up a Paleo version of PB&J using almond butter instead of PB (I guess that would make it an AB&J). Same goes for ants on a log! There’s other types of nut and seed butters as well, such as cashew butter, pecan butter, walnut butter, pumpkin seed butter, and more. In general, it’s a good idea to rotate the type of nuts and seeds in your diet, so try them all and see if you find a new favorite!
- Hummus Swap – I know what you’re thinking…”but I love hummus, and that’s made out of chickpeas, which are a bean, right?” Yes you are correct, chickpeas (garbanzos beans) are a legume, and a hard to digest one at that! The good news is that you can still have hummus on the Paleo diet…that is, Paleo hummus! By replacing the chickpeas with either raw zucchini or raw or roasted cauliflower, and blending together with the other ingredients found in traditional hummus, you’ve got yourself an incredible hummus that tastes just like your beloved bean-based hummus, minus the leaky-gut causing anti-nutrients.
Skip the Milk
Human beings didn’t eat dairy products before animals became domesticated. Dairy products are not bad in themselves, but then again, not all dairy is created equal. Most commercial dairy is unhealthy because it comes from cows that were raised in unhealthy conditions, confined to small spaces that stress them, and fed foods full of antibiotics and hormones. It’s not hard to see why the milk from a cow that lives under these conditions is not healthy. Moreover, most dairy products you find in the supermarket are highly processed which destroys the product’s proteins and kills any good enzymes and bacteria. To make matters worse, products like yogurt are also usually packed with sugar.
The main difference between the Primal diet and the Paleo diet is that Primal allows the consumption of good quality, full-fat dairy products, whereas the Paleo diet excludes all dairy. It’s hard to know whether or not your body does better with or without dairy, until you remove it from your diet for an extended period of time and then re-introduce it back into your diet (this is called an elimination-provocation challenge). Considering that 65% of all humans are thought to be lactose intolerant, it makes sense to ditch the dairy from your diet (for at least a month or two) to figure out if it works for you.
- Milk Swaps – I’ll be honest, it’s difficult to replace the flavor of milk and cream. But if you’re willing to make your own nut milk, you can get pretty dang close. I soak almonds (or other raw nuts) overnight on the counter in a bowl of water. The next day, discard the soaking water and then blend the nuts with fresh water and a pinch of sea salt. Then strain the blended liquid through cheesecloth and voilà….nut milk! I also like adding a splash of alcohol-free vanilla extract before blending, which makes the nut milk taste even more amazing in coffee. You can buy almond milk and other types of nut milk in the grocery store, but they aren’t nearly as tasty as homemade, and they often include sugar, additives, or other non-Paleo ingredients(so be sure to read labels!).
- Coffee Swaps –If you’re looking for some fantastic ideas for making your coffee Paleo, here are 10 great Paleo coffee swaps!
- Creamer Swaps – The classic Paleo swap for creamer is full-fat coconut milk in the can or in a cream form, which both work well in creamy recipes that call for half & half, milk, or heavy whipping cream.
- Whipped Cream Swap – Coconut milk also makes a great whipped cream that I actually find tastier than whipped cream from dairy.
- Yogurt Swap – Have you ever tried yogurt that’s been made from coconut milk? It’s delicious! You can buy it in health food stores, but it’s usually loaded with sugar. Making your own yogurt is pretty easy, and definitely worth the effort. Here’s a great coconut yogurt recipe to try.
- Ice Cream Swap – Yep, you can even make ice cream on Paleo! Here’s a recipe for Paleo Ice Cream, or try our Baked Banana and Coconut Ice Cream recipe!
- Cheese Swap – I’m not gonna lie…Paleo cheese is nothing like the real deal. Sure you can find nut cheeses for sale at the health food store, and yes many of them would be considered Paleo (always read the labels to be sure). But they just aren’t the same – they don’t melt right, and to experience a really good dairy-free cheese, your best bet is to find a raw food vegan who has devoted their life to mimicking the flavor of dairy with cashews and Irish moss. I’ve had some raw food vegan cheese cakes that are difficult to discern the difference, but for the most part, I’ve decided that it’s easier to just miss cheese rather than trying to replace it with a sub-par impostor.Having said all that, check out these simple recipes for Cashew Cream Cheese and Cashew Cheese Burgers.
- Butter Product Swap – Please – never eat margarine or any artificial butter products, ever again! Choose grass-fed (pastured) butter and/or ghee (clarified butter) which contain wonderful fats and vital cholesterol that your body can recognize and utilize, compared to artificial margarine products which are basically fake fats that hurt, rather than help the body. While not technically Paleo, many people tolerate grass-fed butter and ghee on their Paleo and Primal diets. Some folks with dairy intolerance can even tolerate ghee, though others may need to fully exclude all dairy products (including butter and ghee) to feel their best.
Solidify Your Fats
A good place to start out is by swapping the vegetable oils in your life for animal fats. I understand that this contradicts everything we’ve been told growing up. We’ve long been spoon-fed advice to eat “low fat” and that saturated fats are “bad”, but the reality is that our bodies needs fat to function and thrive. The war on saturated fat is finally coming to an end and Paleo peeps are celebrating with an extra dollop of lard, tallow, and coconut oil!
Liquid (polyunsaturated) vegetable and seed oils (i.e. canola, safflower, sunflower, etc.) are much more prone to becoming rancid (and morphing into cancer-causing free radicals) compared to solid saturated fats from animals like lard and tallow which are much more stable at room temperature. Most liquid vegetable oils are also much higher in the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, compared to grass-fed/pastured animal fats and other Paleo-approved oils, which have a more balanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
- Liquid oil swaps – If you have vegetable or canola oil in your cupboard, throw it out! Also to be pitched into the garbage are any fats that smell rancid or expired. Animals fats such as lard, tallow and schmaltz are much more stable (and less likely to turn rancid and carcinogenic) at higher temperatures, making them ideal options for high temp cooking. Coconut oil is another good option for higher heat cooking, as its saturated fats give it a higher smoke point as well. Go ahead and save your (nitrate-free) bacon grease, and feel great about cooking with it too!
- Paleo approved vegetable oils – Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a Paleo-approved oil option, and avocado oil has a higher smoke point and is thus a great option for high heat cooking with a liquid oil.
- Crisco Swap – If you’re using Crisco, go ahead and stop that madness and use the real food that it’s being modeled after – pure leaf lard. Oh yeah!
- Egg Replacement Swap – Gone are the days of ditching the yoke and thinking egg whites are superior. The healthiest part of an egg is actually its yoke! Here’s something else to get eggcited about…turns out cholesterol isn’t as bad as everyone thought. In fact, every single cell in the body requires it for survival. So go ahead and feel great about eating your eggs with runny yolks cooked in butter! And if you have any egg replacement products in your fridge, well, throw them out!
Be Sweet, Naturally
In the beginning, human beings consumed the majority of their sugar during the summer seasons, in the form of fruits like berries. The excess carbohydrate load helped our ancestors to gain weight necessary to survive through the winter. Not until very recently in our evolution have we consumed sweet flavors, year-round. Moreover, refined sugars are an invention of modern society.
Considering we’re all born and wired to seek out sweetness, it’s no wonder why sugar is so dang addictive. There are countless negative health effects related to sugar as it has no nutrients, and in fact is an anti-nutrient because it inhibits and drains nutrients from the body. Among the many illnesses related to excess sugar consumption are:
- Tooth decay
- Cardiovascular disease
- Immune dysfunction
To cut to the chase: not all sugar is created equal. The sweeteners allowed on the Paleo diet are less-refined and are more in their ‘natural form’ compared to heavily processed and refined sweeteners.
Depending on your body type and activity levels, your tolerance to sugar, even to natural sweeteners, will vary. As with many things in life…when used in moderation (some) sweeteners can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
But if you’re battling weight loss, an inflammatory condition, diabetes, or another blood sugar disorder, you should stay mindful of the amount and type of sugar you consume, as it can thwart your best efforts at recovery.
Nearly everyone would benefit from breaking up with sugar every now and then, to ensure that the relationship remains healthy. Sugar is unnecessary, addictive, inflammatory, high-calorie, nutrient-poor, and highly processed. Indeed, sugar is a ‘gateway’ food and it’s up to each of us to determine how much (if any) should be consumed regularly.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that our cells can only use so much sugar (glucose) at any one given moment in time. A ‘healthy relationship’ with sugar means not consuming too much at once because excess glucose sitting in the bloodstream does a doozy on our internal organs and arteries via the process of glycation. Keep in mind that fruit is sugar too, and likewise too much fruit can cause the same issues as too much “sugar” in general.
- Sugar Swaps – Having said all that, many folks do just fine incorporating modest amounts of natural sweeteners into their diets, such as raw honey, pure maple syrup, stevia, and coconut sugar. You’ll find that we call for these sweeteners in some of our baked goods and dessert recipes!
Get Real, Ditch the Artificial
To make the sugar issue even worse, now everyone is going crazy about calorie-free sugars like Aspartame, Equal, and Splenda. Consuming “fake” sugar is not going to improve your health; these have their own way of causing even more damage. These sugars are altered with chemicals like chlorine and phosgene gas, which function as an excitotoxin in your body, causing cell destruction. Moreover, your evolutionarily intelligent body deems that these man-made chemicals are foreign, and not knowing what to do with them, stores them away in adipose (fat) tissue where they accumulate and can contribute to chronic diseases and obesity.
- Artificial swaps = The moral of this (Paleo) story is to EAT REAL FOOD! Our bodies are engineered to utilize the nutrients found in whole foods, in their natural form. The same cannot be said for the man-made chemicals that are now abundantly found in our food supply. Our bodies do not know what to do with these foreign chemicals, and stated simply, they make our immune systems go haywire, and can trigger countless disease states.
Do You Need to Eat 100% Paleo?
You don’t even have to go 100% Paleo to get the benefits of eating real food, but if you’re looking for fast and dramatic results, your best bet is dive right in! If you need a helping hand, that’s exactly why we created our Paleo meal planning service, which can be customized to eat Paleo 100% or 80% of the time (which allows for a few ‘cheat’ days).
If you’re feeling like 10% would be a better place for you to start, then try making one or two of these swaps at your next meal. I think you’ll quickly realize that eating healthy, whole food is a lot easier (and tastier) than you think!
PaleoPlan has a ton of resources to guide you in eating Paleo whether you’re just starting out, or striving to live a full-on Paleo lifestyle. If you’re looking for more detailed info, check out our blog archives for answers to several FAQs.
Need help figuring out the diet? Our meal planning service is designed to help you get started with and stick to eating Paleo, without any headache or hassle. In fact, you don’t even have to think about it! We tell you what to buy and how to prepare it, so your mind and time are freed up to focus elsewhere in your life.
If you feel ready to take the Paleo plunge, that’s awesome! Here’s a free 2-week trial to our Paleo meal planning service to get you started!