The spike in the traffic through this blog over the past month shows that interest in Paleo is continuing, despite the best efforts of the media, NHS and vegans. Having done a blog post on how to Whole30, I thought it would be sensible to go a little more basic and write about what Paleo actually is. But I am going to start with what it isn’t.
Paleo is not (necessarily):
- Low carb
- High fat and meat
These are the first assumptions people who have limited knowledge of Paleo make. I don’t really blame them – the main source of their knowledge is from mass media, which has largely given a fairly negatively biased view on Paleo, focusing on what seems to be an obvious assumption of how ‘cavemen’ ate and the fact that Paleo does not allow grains. Yes, it’s true that some eat a diet very high in fat and meat and very low in carb because it works for them. Others eat a diet moderate in carbs because it works for them. Others still eat a diet moderate in meat because it works for them. Etc. For me and many others, Paleo is a continuous journey in which we regularly reassess, reset, reevaluate. Because things change, and what worked six months ago, one year ago, may not work now. Low carb and high fat may work well if you’re looking to lose a load of weight. Once that weight’s shifted and you’ve become more active, you may find yourself becoming run down on such a low carb approach. Paleo allows you to become a lot more intuitive and instinctive with your food and how it affects your body and overall wellbeing.
On a general note, though, it is likely that overall eating Paleo may be lower in carbs and higher in fat than the general guidelines. It is true that once you stop eating grains, stop worrying about fat contents of food and start eating lots of high quality vegetables and meat, your overall carb count will go down and fat consumption will go up. The reason for this is that the standard Western diet is Very High in Carbohydrates and Very Low in Fat.
To demonstrate the point, I’ve listed a typical day of meals for me.
- Breakfast: Leftover stir fried veg with two poached eggs
- Lunch: Fishcakes with coleslaw
- Dinner: Pan-fried rainbow trout with celeriac puree and warm kale and red pepper salad
- Snack: Bone broth and an apple spread with nut butter
- Drinks: Coffee with full fat raw milk, raw milk kefir, coconut water
Unless you’re trying really hard, you are unlikely to go into ketosis or bingeing on fat (there are tools you can use to do this – fat in your coffee, spoonfuls of coconut oil for snacks, but I wouldn’t suggest you start off with that!). My carbs are there in the form of starchy veg and fruit (mashed potato in the fishcakes, celeriac puree, apple), especially at this time of year.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is looking at the menu above you can see that I have vegetables as the main focus – in fact it usually fills three quarters of my plate, and I try and have as big a range of colours as I can.
The thing that many people focus on to start with is what they can’t have. And it is quite a dispiriting list:
- Vegetable oil
- Dairy (depending on your interpretation; see below section ‘The Maybes’.)
- Processed food and refined sugars
In fact, one of the most common questions I get from friends, once I’ve explained what I can’t eat is ‘But what CAN you eat?!’ I find this the most baffling question because the answer is so simple – everything else! Think of all the other things that grow from the ground or has a face, and there you have it. All the vegetables, seafood, meat and fruit in the world. And there’s a lot! It’s so crazy that faced with the idea of no bread, cereal or pasta (which are the main things I imagine people are thrown by!), people somehow manage to completely forget about all the other food they eat on top, alongside or with their bread, cereal and pasta!
One thing I love about being part of the Paleo world is how things are evolving. When I started, it seemed very black and white. Eat these things, avoid those things. Some of them made sense (processed food, vegetable oils, grains) but many others didn’t (legumes, dairy). Now, there are more variants in Paleo, as we come to realise that we are not all identical and do not deal with food in the same way. Chris Kresser has a fantastic article about going beyond Paleo to find you own personal Paleo template; I especially love this quote: “Are we asking what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, or are we asking what an optimal diet for modern humans is? While hard-core Paleo adherents will argue that there’s no difference, others (including me) would suggest that the absence of a food during the Paleolithic era does not necessarily mean that it’s not nutritious or beneficial. Dairy products are a good example.”
Here’s a list of food that have found their way back into my diet over the past year or so:
- Dairy: Originally considered more Primal than Paleo, many now consider a little high quality, full fat dairy to be acceptable in the diet. I have a little – kefir in the mornings, occasionally cheese, sometimes a flat white or a splash of milk in my coffee, but it’s always whole milk and raw if I can get it! I don’t do amazingly well on dairy but I like it and it doesn’t have too terrible effect on me. So I thoughtfully have it regularly, knowing what my limits are.
- Rice: Technically, this should be a Definitely Not, seeing as it’s a grain. But in general it doesn’t seem to cause too many problems for people and is a good source of carbs post workout. I eat rice occasionally, probably around once a week.
- Legumes: This is a very recent introduction for me. I was pretty strict about avoiding these as it was so strongly argued against! However, after listening to Dr Tommy Wood discuss the research on which these rules were based, I changed my mind – they seemed a bit flimsy! As he said in one of his talks: why do we so rigidly refuse to eat nutrient-dense hummus made from scratch with good wholesome ingredients but happily eat a load of ‘Paleo’ brownie made with honey (high in sugar) and ground almonds (high in Omega 6) and generally fairly nutrient-poor. So, while I don’t eat them every day (never did anyway!), I would not refuse lentils, chickpeas or peas in my food. I don’t cook with them very often – I didn’t cook them very often before, but I have made hummus recently. I soaked and sprouted the chickpeas first to reduce the phytates and increase the nutritional profile, so it’s a bit of a palaver, but those are the conditions under which I’m happy to prepare it at home.
- Quinoa and buckwheat: Both gluten free pseudo grains are a good source of protein and offer plenty of nutrients. I rarely, if ever, cook them at home (I’ve never bought buckwheat, I have a jar of quinoa flakes that I used once and a bag of unopened quinoa that’s been at the back of the cupboard for about a year), I’m quite happy to eat them out. I especially like quinoa as part of a vegetarian salad grabbed for lunch.
- Sweeteners: I used to refuse to add honey or dates to my food, although that was partly because I was so hung up on the Whole30 principles without really looking beyond to a normal life. So I do use honey or even sugar now and then to bring out flavours and add a little sweetness, but it’s not every day, and I very rarely do Paleo baking (I’ve ranted about it before so here’s not the space for it!)
For me, the most important thing I’ve learnt from Paleo is to massively diversify my everyday plate, for every meal. There’s hardly anything that I eat automatically, unthinkingly every day. I might eat hummus today and then not again for another month; I might eat eggs every day this week and then not at all next week. The vegetables and colours that fill my plate are different every day. So while I do allow ‘Maybe’ items into my Paleo diet, by no means do I eat them every single meal, every single day (as I might have done five years ago with wheat or dairy). I have covered my evolving version of Paleo here and here, and fully expect to continue evolving as times change.
I’ve sort of already covered this – but essentially, if you can pull it out of the ground or pick it off a tree, it’s a vegetable, you can eat it. If it had a face, it’s an animal, you can eat it. There’s a handy diagram on the original ‘How Do I Start‘ page on this website.
Well, yes, the principle really is very simple. Eat real, whole food that has gone through no or minimal processing. Single ingredient foods, not lists of ingredients. Cook for yourself.
But that’s where it gets tricky. To be sure that everything is compliant, you start having to cook for yourself. You start having to take snacks out and about with you. You might even start carrying coconut milk around with you to have with your coffee instead of milk! And it’s tricky being that organised. So I’ve written a list of resources for cheats and get arounds for these problems.
You’ll do a lot of cooking when you eat Paleo. That’s fine, you just need to be way more prepared. No more can you dump a load of spaghetti in a saucepan, fry up some minced beef and open a jar of pasta sauce and heat it up. There are two ways you can be more prepared:
- Plan a week’s worth of meals on Saturday, shop on Sunday morning, and do as much prep on Sunday afternoon:
- Frittata: breakfast for three days
- Marinades: two sorts, one for fish, one for chicken; dinner for two nights
- Slow cook: dump a pork shoulder, leg of lamb or brisket in a slow cooker with a bunch of herbs and spices and a tin of tomatoes; dinner one night, two packed lunches, one breakfast
- Chilli, stew or curry: two dinners, two lunches
- Roast a tray of vegetables (carrots, parsnips, peppers, mushrooms)
- Wash a load of salad leaves
- Make a load of basic ingredients to be turned into other things in the week (ala Melissa Joulwan)
- Roast a chicken, oven bake some sausages
- Brown some minced beef
- Boil some eggs
- Steam some vegetables (broccoli, beans)
- Roast some sweet potatoes and squash
- Mix up some spice or seasoning mixes
Try both methods and find which one works best for you. I find I do a mixture of the two. I loosely plan my week ahead, making enough at dinner time for leftovers the next day. I roast a huge tray of vegetables and eat it over several meals. If I’m having steamed broccoli with one meal I’ll usually do at least double what we need for another meal. I LOVE leftovers! I do recommend at least loosely planning your week ahead. You’ll feel more relaxed knowing what you’ve got coming, knowing you’ve got the ingredients in, and it’ll make it easier when shopping or when tempted to grab something quickly – you’ll know you’ve got everything you need waiting for you.
Keeping Costs Down
I’m not going to pretend eating Paleo is not going to look more expensive. Especially if you go for grass-fed meats and organic vegetables, eggs and dairy. However, you will eat out less (because it’s harder to!) and you may find yourself drinking less often too, knowing it’s harder to stay on track, so you may find that it’s not as expensive as you thought. Apparently Londoners spend £2500 a year on lunches; or £6.60 a day. If you consider that I try and spend around £2 per person per meal, you can see how much you can save! Here are a few more tips for keeping costs down:
- Learn to joint a chicken and only buy whole chickens. That way you can get 5 meals out of one chicken (2 breasts, 2 leg portions, 2 wings) PLUS the carcass to make stock with (winner!). Don’t even think about buying chicken breasts – they’re so overpriced and definitely the least tasty part of the animal.
- Buy cheaper cuts of meat – brisket, oxtail, shin, leg, bavette or skirt for beef; shoulder, leg, ribs, cheek, belly for pork; shoulder, leg, neck, breast for lamb. These have the added bonus of being larger cuts so you make several meals each time. Get a slow cooker or pressure cooker (or both – I have the Instant Pot which can be programmed for either. Indispensable!)
- Explore offal. It took me a while but I have finally started to warm to them. Lamb’s heart is ridiculous – I’ve paid anywhere between 75p and £1 per heart, and you only need one heart per portion. Liver is also very cheap and very, very nutritious.
- Find a butcher. Most supermarkets don’t carry these cuts of meat, or they may not be the best quality. Talk to your butcher and find out where the meat comes from so you know what his or her values are. Your butcher can also give you suggestions on the best way to cook the meat you are buying, or suggest appropriate cuts of meat. Your supermarket shelf can’t do that!
- Learn to fillet your own fish. The best fish are the small, oily ones, and the best thing is that these tend to be the cheaper options. Mackerel and sardines are good options.
- Make soup reguarly. Use the carcass from the chicken you jointed, or get some bones and trotters from your butcher and make stock. I usually get 2 litres of stock per batch, 1 litre of which goes to make soup (3 meals) and then I’ve got another litre to play with – either to make another soup for the freezer or to drink as a bone broth snack.
Abel and Cole or Riverford, simply so you support somewhere smaller and more local to you. Here are some recommendations:
Get a veg box. The quality of the veg is much better and it’s much cheaper than buying organic vegetables from a supermarket. Plus they tend to be more locally grown so you are getting more nutrition per mouthful too. I would suggest going for smaller, local places rather than straight for
- Kent Veg Box. They only sell vegetables grown in Kent so everything is insanely local and insanely seasonal (so I have a preponderance of celeriac at the moment!).
- Greener Greens. They send a list of their vegetables each week so you can see where the veg are from. You can add on vegetables.
- Growing Communities. This operates from Hackney and is pick up only; salad is grown near Hackney and other veg is sourced form Kent, Essex and East Anglia.
- Go to your local farmer’s market. You can usually find some amazing sellers here, selling incredible vegetables and meat, all bang in season. It’s also the only place you’re likely to find raw milk! You’ll have a chance to talk to the sellers, who are often farmers themselves, to find out how their meat is raised or how their veg are grown.
- Explore meat box options. There are some amazing grass/pasture fed options out there; here are some I’ve used in the past:
There’s a whole page on this website dedicated to eating out which I update regularly so I won’t go into too much detail here. In essence, you’re generally fine in central London because there are so many Prets, EATs, Leon’s, Crussh, etc. to go to for quick and easy lunches. Supermarkets usually have some sort of relatively compliant cold meat and salad you can buy if you’re in a real pinch. The area around Goodge Street is a haven for Paleo eaters as there are any number of healthy eating cafes. Many of them are vegetarian or vegan, so check ingredients carefully for things like tofu but otherwise the quality is fantastic. Some particular shout outs are Maple+Fitz, Gitane, ScandiKitchen and Kin. For a special occasion, generally the more you pay the easier it will be. You can contact restaurants in advance to check for ingredients. Otherwise, places like Wahaca, GBK and Nandos do good Paleo staples.
It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with drinking less around people – the societal pressure here is immense! I do go out less these days, so that helps – I have people round for dinner instead so it’s on my terms. But I don’t sweat it too much. I love prosecco and I like red wine so on the occasions I do meet friends out, I’ll have a drink. I tend not to drink wine when I’m out for dinner, simply because I forget to drink it! So rather I’ll have a glass before or after and enjoy it. Or I might have a glass with dinner. I try not to create rules, I’m instinctive.
My best suggestion is to have a soda water with fresh lime. It’s tasty, you’re getting vitamin C and hydration. It looks like a vodka and tonic. Another suggestion is to decide before you arrive how many glasses of wine you’re going to have. I might still go over by one glass but I find it helpful to start with a rule like that so I know how long to make my glasses last for. Or if you’re sharing a bottle with others you could have a half glass for every glass the other is having. Whichever approach you do, always, always pair your alcohol with a glass of water.
Join a community. There are plenty of Facebook support groups you can join. I used to be a member of all but I’ve limited it now to the Fitter Food one – it’s a wonderfully supportive group full of people aiming for optimum health via living a full life. It’s a paid membership, but at the price of three and a half flat whites a month it’s more than worth it for me as they upload new content to their members-only website every month.
Relax. Know that things will become instinctive and easier as time goes on. Do a few Whole30s or 30 day challenges – these will help reset things every so often and let you understand how your body works and what is good and isn’t good, what is worth it and what isn’t.
Once you’ve got a month or two of Paleo under your belt, explore the other important aspects of Paleo lifestyle – movement, sleeping, avoid poison and trauma, nature, socialise, intellectual wellbeing and play. There’s so much more to Paleo than the food you eat so get learning!