The Paleo diet is all about enjoying natural foods, simple thing to do unless you’ve been ‘thriving’ on the standard American diet for ages. So which foods should you banish from your kitchen and more importantly, which ones can you eat? To make things easier, this article breaks down the Paleo diet into a green, yellow and red light system – keep in mind that this is only a guide, not a complete list of foods you can eat.
Green light light foods are “GO”! These are the foods that form the heart of your diet.
Most veggies are paleo. However, there are two notable exceptions. The first being starchy tubers (e.g. sweet potatoes) which should be consumed in moderation, if at all – depending on how strict you’re following the diet. The second vegetable exception are legumes (e.g. peas, lentils, peanuts), which we’ll cover under yellow light foods later.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals and various antioxidants. Studies show that these nutrient powerhouses can strengthen your immune system by helping your body get rid of harmful bacteria,1 boost your number of immune cells 2 and render your gut flora healthier.2
Research also suggests that green leafy vegetables can boost your heart’s health – green veggies are loaded with vitamin K and potassium, two nutrients known to prevent calcification of arteries 3 and maintain optimal blood pressure and lipid profiles.4
Green leafy vegetables include:
- Beet greens
- Mustard greens
- Dandelion greens
Cruciferous vegetables are super healthy, and research shows that they can help delay skin aging. When you consume cruciferous veggies, two compounds naturally present in these veggies combine (glucoraphanin and myrosinase) to form sulforaphane, which is known to shield the skin against sun damage.5
Cruciferous vegetables may also protect against cancer. Research shows that regular consumption of these veggies can help keep cancers of the skin 6, prostate, breast and colon 7 at bay.
Cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bok choy
- Swiss chard
Yellow-orange cucurbitaceous veggies such as squash and pumpkin are jam-packed with carotenoids, potent antioxidants that offer protection against cancer, macular degeneration and atherosclerosis.9
Gourds have been extensively used in the management of diabetes,as they help to regulate the release of insulin while preventing surges in blood glucose levels 8.
Cucurbitaceous veggies include:
- Bitter melon/ bitter gourd
Root vegetables are terrific sources of a plethora of antioxidants with potent health benefits. For example, veggies with a purple hue contain anthocyanins known to reduce pain caused by inflammation 10 and improve the body’s utilization of glucose 11. These antioxidants may also significantly decrease your risks of certain cancers 12.
Root veggies include:
Nightshade vegetables include:
- Ground cherries
Starchy vegetables (consume in moderation if trying to lose weight):
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
- Acorn squash
All fruits are allowed on the Paleo diet. However, while all fruits are green light foods, here are tips for choosing the best fruit. Moderate your intake of high sugar fruits (e.g. banana, pineapple, watermelon, mango), especially if weight loss is one of your goals. The same goes for dried fruits, which are best used to sprinkle on salads or mixed with a handful of nuts as a snack.
Yellow-green fruits like kiwifruits, honeydew, grapes, green apples and limes and orange fruits like papaya, apricots, grapefruits, mangoes, oranges and cantaloupes contain the same carotenoids found in yellow-orange veggies.
Plus, you’re probably aware that they’re loaded with vitamin C, a nutrient that does much more than simply enhance your immune system – research suggests that this vitamin can also improve the heart’s health by improving blood pressure and increasing good HDL cholesterol levels 13. This vitamin is also essential for strong collagen, the skin’s structural protein.
Red fruits like watermelon, cranberries, pink guavas, strawberries, blood oranges and red apples are loaded with lycopene, a popular antioxidant known to protect the skin against sun damage and cancer 14. They also contain ellagic acid, another compound needed to maintain a youthful complexion and healthy hair and nails 15.
Blue & Purple Fruits
Bluish and purple fruits such as blueberries, concord grapes, plums and blackberries get their incredible hues from the antioxidant anthocyanin.
Note: Turn to fruits to satisfy your sweet tooth not as a substitute for veggies.
When should you buy organic produce?
Check out the EWG’s dirty dozen and clean 15 lists here to know more about produce the most and least polluted with pesticides.
Meats, seafood and eggs contain protein sources of high biological value. In other words, the body can easily utilize the amino acids from these foods to build and repair cells, increase your muscle mass and synthesize various essential biochemical substances like hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, enzymes and hemoglobin. These foods also contain a variety of essential minerals such as zinc, selenium or iron as well as essential fatty acids.
The bulk of the diet of our Stone Age ancestors was still plants. Therefore, your diet should be based around plants – fibrous vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – not meat or protein.
Buy meat fresh and – whenever possible – free of hormones and antibiotics, and naturally raised. When it comes to fish go for wild-caught fish instead of farmed, and keep canned fish such as canned tuna and salmon to a minimum.
Wild game is the closest thing you can get to eating like a caveman in a modern world. What’s so special with wild rabbit, bear and venison? Well, eating on the wild side will ensure that you get meats free from the antibiotic and growth hormone regime fed to farmed animals and fish.
Furthermore, unlike farmed animals and fish which are fed omega-6 laden grains, wild animals can eat their natural foods and, as such, contain:
- Two to five times more omega-3s 16.
- Two to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid with potent antioxidant activity which could protect against heart disease 17, cancer 18 and diabetes 19.
Wild game include:
Remember that happy animals are healthy animals so, if your budget permits; choose grass-fed products. However, if you decide to go for conventional produce, just remember to discard the skin and trim as much fat as you can – that’s where antibiotics and hormones tend to accumulate.
Lean meats include:
Organ meats are allowed on the Paleo diet and are definitely an acquired taste. But they are also naturally loaded with iron, zinc, choline, vitamin B12, other B vitamins, vitamin D and trace minerals.
What’s more, the heart is one of the best sources of coenzyme Q10 which is an essential component of energy production and for the prevention of oxidative stress.
Organ meats include:
Fish & Seafoods
Fish and seafood should be included at least three times a week in your daily diet. To get the most omega-3s and vitamin D, select wild fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring and sardines.
When buying seafood like clams, scallops, lobster, crab, mussels or shrimps, make sure that the seller has a known record of safe handling practices.
- Mahi Mahi
- Red snapper
Worried about mercury contamination? Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch for recommendations.
Make sure to eat the whole thing, even the yolks – these are rich in choline, a forgotten B-vitamin that is essential for brain health. Choline is involved in the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and is needed for effective communication between cells. Egg yolks also contain arachidonic acid, DHA, vitamins A, B-complex and D.
To get the most of these nutrients, make sure to buy organic, pastured eggs – they may be more expensive than conventional eggs but they’re the cheapest source of high quality protein.
The Paleo diet includes healthy, unprocessed fats that are low on unhealthy polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids (linked to inflammation in the body – bad!) and high in omega-3’s (reduce inflammation).
TIP! When buying oils look for words like “extra virgin” or “unrefined” on the label.
Fats for Cooking
- Ghee (clarified butter) and high-quality grass-fed butter are good sources of omega-3s and CLA. These two fats can withstand high temperatures and can be used for cooking. However, do not let ghee and butter burn or reach their smoking point – that’s when they become carcinogenic.
- Coconut oil has long been demonized due to its high levels of saturated fats. Research now shows that this oil possesses heart-healthy 20, antimicrobial and antibacterial properties 21 and may even improve cognitive function in diabetics 22 and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease 23.
- Rendered fat from wild duck, lamb or beef.
- Unrefined almond and macadamia oils are naturally rich in vitamin E and oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid renowned for its ability to reduce cancer risks 24 and soothe arthritic pain 25.
Fats for Salads
Fats that shouldn’t be exposed to heat – these are best used in salads or vinaigrettes due to their lower smoking point.
- Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is rich in oleic acid.
- Hemp seed oil contains omega-3s and tocopherols that could delay the onset of atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease 26.
- Avocado oil
Raw Fats (Foods rich in healthy fats)
Heat destroys the delicate natural fatty acids they contain.
Avocados are great sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, antioxidant vitamin E, carotenoids and potassium, a mineral known to regulate blood pressure. Avocadoes taste great in salads and smoothies.
Nuts and seeds are rich in various antioxidants and essential minerals but they also come with some omega-6 so enjoy them in moderation. Choose the unsalted and unsweetened versions to reap the most health benefits.
- Brazil nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Pine nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
PALEO HERBS & SPICES
Herbs and spices are all Paleo-approved provided that they do not come with added sugars and chemicals. Besides adding some zing to your dishes, these condiments come with a host of health benefits ranging from improving insulin function and blood pressure to reducing arthritic pain and risks of cancer.
Tips to spice up your food
- Cinnamon – Use to slightly sweeten up smoothies or when making curries.
- Cloves – Use wherever you’d add cinnamon or ginger (such as in applesauce, stewed pears, baked products and Paleo pancakes.
- Ginger – Use in stir-fries, smoothies, sautéed veggies, vinaigrettes and when making coconut bread for gingerbread-Paleo-style.
- Oregano – Use in casseroles, salad dressings and scrambled eggs.
- Paprika – Can be used in chilis, casseroles or on baked chicken and fish instead of salt.
- Turmeric – For a nice curry flavor, marinate your fish or chicken with a teaspoon of turmeric powder and some lemon juice.
Note: To get the most out of spices, buy them whole and ground them just before using – this will help preserve their essential oils and antioxidants.
Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha can do wonders for your health if consumed regularly.
Studies suggest that fermented foods:
- Are heart-healthy: they can help maintain optimal lipid levels 27, 28
- Have gut-healing properties and can ameliorate lactose tolerance as well as overall digestion 29
- Are rich in several nutrients essential for bone health 30
- Can reduce the incidence of allergies and inflammation 31
- Are cancer-protective 27
Yellow light foods are to be approached with caution. Slow down and think before you eat these foods.
Legumes such as beans, lentils and peanuts are considered by many as non-Paleo foods. However, evidence suggests that some of our Stone Age ancestors did eat legumes 32. So, if you can tolerate legumes, decide for yourself whether you want to omit or include them in your diet.
Legumes are terrific sources of protein that also contain various types of fibers, vitamins such as folate and minerals. And research has shown that a meal containing legumes increased levels of cholecystokinin – a digestive hormone that helps suppress appetite – twice as much as a legume-free meal 33.
Tips for cooking legumes: Soak them overnight, discard the water and boil them thoroughly.
Caution: If you suffer from inflammatory bowel conditions, you may want to go easy on legumes especially during the acute phase. You can then proceed to eliminate all legumes from your diet for 30 days and then re-introduce one type of legume at a time to determine your level of tolerance.
Milk and dairy products are on the no-no Paleo list because our ancestors didn’t consume these products. But Paleo re-enactment isn’t the goal of the Paleo diet – the aim of this lifestyle is all about improving health and keeping diseases at bay by encouraging the consumption of minimally processed foods.
Dairy is an important source of calcium. Therefore, be sure to replace it with alternative calcium sources such as dark leafy greens, calcium fortified almond milk, or soy products. Getting insufficient calcium is associated with a greater risk of osteoporosis, rickets and bone fractures.
Not considering including dairy because of lactose intolerance?
Dairy needn’t be off the table. Depending of your level of lactose intolerance, you can try eating yogurt or other probiotic-rich foods that contain lactose-digesting bacteria, which tend be much easier to digest and can alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance.47,48,49 Another option is lactose-free or reduced-lactose dairy foods.
Red means “STOP!”. So before you eat red light foods stop and think. As a rule they are to be avoided like the plague.
Avoid processed foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, trans fats, fake fats or chemical sweeteners. In short, avoid anything your grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food.
Processed meats include most lunchmeats at deli counters, anything that comes with a casing or in sausage form as well as any smoked or cured products. Consumption of this type of meat has been linked to an increased risk of:
- Cancer – Sodium nitrate and nitrites are added to processed meat to preserve its color. These chemicals react with stomach acid to produce carcinogenic nitrosamines 35.
- Diabetes – Consumption of processed meats favors the production of AGEs, compounds that promote inflammation and can impair insulin sensitivity 36.
Plus these meats often contain lots of salt, sugar, monosodium glutamate and fillers such as breadcrumbs, maltodextrine, cheaper cuts of meats or extenders which consist of a cereal mixture combined with meat, fat, blood and internal organs.
Industrial Seed Oils
Industrial seed oils such as sunflower oil are obtained through a series of unnatural processes including chemical extraction (usually with hexane), heating, bleaching and deodorizing.
Furthermore, these oils are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids – regular consumption of industrial oils have been linked to a disturbed omega-6 to omega-3 ratio which could predispose you to a host of inflammatory conditions such as diabetes and heart disease 37.
Industrial seed oils include:
Alcohol consumption (even as little as 1 drink a day) has been linked to:
- A reduction in brain volume – this hampers brain health and cognitive function 38.
- An increased risk of cancer 39.
- A higher risk of congestive heart failure 40.
- Accumulation of body fat 41.
Grains are off the Paleo diet for several reasons:
- Wheat, barley, rye and many other grains contain gluten, a protein that damages the gut’s lining even in people who are not gluten intolerant 42.
- Grains contain phytic acid, an “antinutrient” that binds to and prevents absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. In the long run, this may lead to mineral deficiencies that have been linked to chronic fatigue, fertility issues, increased susceptibility to infections, bone disorders, skin problems and anemia 43. However, these mineral deficiencies are rarely a problem for those who follow a well-balanced diet, especially if that includes eating meat regularly. Phytic acid is also present in nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Grains also contain lectins, another type of antinutrient known to affect intestinal permeability and increase the risk of leaky gut 44.
- You can reduce antinutrients in grains.
Wondering what to use in lieu of wheat flour? Try coconut or almond flour – they’ll add a nutty touch to your dish.
You can also make ‘pizza’ dough by combining (in a food processor) 3 cups of cauliflower florets with 1 tablespoon of chia seeds, 1 teaspoon of flaxseeds, a few garlic cloves, 1/4 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of virgin coconut oil. Flatten this ‘dough’ to make a pizza base and bake at 160C for 10 to 15 minutes on each side before adding the topping.
And coconut aminos can be used instead of soy sauce which typically contains wheat.
Research suggests that the blanket ban of grains in the Paleo diet may adversely affect gut health and the microbiome, and lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
Whole grains do boast certain healthy characteristics that other foods relatively lack. Whole grains are especially high in insoluble fiber. Although the Paleo diet is packed with fruit and veggies, those foods are particularly rich in soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber, commonly referred to as “roughage,” is not broken down in the gut and helps to add bulk to stool, keeping you regular and preventing constipation. Furthermore, whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.45
View the Paleo diet as a template that is to be adapted. If you don’t have digestive sensitivity to whole grains, think about including them in your diet.
Soy & Soy Protein Isolates
When soy is processed, many toxins are formed including synthetic nitrates which are considered as carcinogens 34.
Fermenting soy destroys the antinutrients and boosts the digestibility of soy, as well as increasing nutrient absorption. Unprocessed, fermented products like miso, tempeh, tamari and natto are healthier options. These traditional soy products have been consumed by people in Asia for thousands upon thousands of years.
Nearly all foods contain nutrients as well as anti-nutrients, especially plant foods.
Oxalate is an antinutrient found in spinach and a variety of berries. Glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Tannins in red wine and green tea.
Many antinutrients including lectins, phytates, and glucosinolates can be removed or deactivated by:
- Soaking – soak cereals and legumes in water
- Sprouting – sprout grains, seeds, and legumes (germination)
- Fermenting – for example the making of sourdough bread.
A combination of several of these processes can markedly reduce antinutrient content.
Almost all lectin activity is eliminated by soaking and boiling legumes in water. Now you know the reason for the old-fashioned method of the long-soak (often overnight), followed by a thorough rinsing and a long boil, when preparing grains and beans. As such, simmering raw beans at low heat (i.e. not boiling) will not remove all the lectins – slow cookers aren’t going to work here. However, pressure cookers seem to be particularly effective.
Generally the longer left to sprout, the more lectin activity is reduced (in some exceptions sprouting increases lectin acitivity e.g. alfalfa sprouts).
Switching to a Paleo lifestyle can appear to be a daunting task. But hop on the Paleo bandwagon making some of the above suggested modifications and customizing the diet to suit your needs, and you’ll no longer have to worry about counting calories. And you will also be able to bid farewell to cravings without ever depriving yourself.
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