7 Ways to Upgrade Your Paleo Diet

7 Ways to Upgrade your Paleo Diet

Unlike many “new” diet plans, this one has been around for thousands of years.

Once a mainstay among health gurus and hardcore fitness devotees, the Paleolithic diet – more commonly called a Paleo diet – has today become a household term as people become more cognizant about detrimental health consequences of sugar, gluten, and other modern-day foods.

While no one true definition exists, most followers agree a Paleo diet entails a variety of meats and vegetables with small amounts of fruits and nuts but no grains or processed sugars.

“The Paleolithic diet is also referred to as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet, and hunter–gatherer diet,” writes Dr. David C. Klonoff. “The principal components of this diet are wild-animal source and uncultivated-plant source foods, such as lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, eggs, and nuts. The diet excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils, all of which were unavailable before humans began cultivating plants and domesticating animals.” (1)

In other words, a Paleo diet consists of foods that mimic what your pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors ate that you might hunt, gather, pluck, or otherwise forage in the wild (even if that modern-day “wild” means Whole Foods and your local farmers market).

The Paleo movement emerged in the mid-1970s when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegltin wrote The Stone Age Diet, which argued our hunter-gatherer ancestors sustained vitality and optimal health better than we do today because they didn’t eat processed foods.

Voegltin’s plan included grass-fed pasture-raised meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Refined sugars, refined salts, processed oils, dairy products, and grains were off limits. (2)

Dr. Loren Cordain carried forward that movement. Among his “caveman diet” principles included avoiding grains, which are ancestors didn’t have because of their lack of agricultural technology. (3)

Grains (which contain the inflammatory protein gluten) and sugar, ubiquitous in modern-day processed foods, are forbidden on Paleo diets for good reason: Both create or exacerbate inflammation, which creates a detrimental impact on overall health, chronic disease, and fat loss.

Today, we’ve become more cognizant about sugar’s detrimental consequences, particularly from processed foods. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, the average American eats 152 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour that converts to sugar yearly. (4) That’s almost a pound of sugar daily!

Those repercussions have landed around our waistline and crashed our health. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stats show almost 35 percent of American adults are obese, paving the way for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. (5)

Sugar isn’t the only modern-day culprit. Gluten, ubiquitous in even so-called healthy wheat bread and whole grain cereals, can trigger numerous problems including inflammation and weight gain. Studies show a gluten-free diet can reduce inflammation and insulin resistance while helping you lose weight. (6)

Even milk, heavily promoted by the dairy industry, can create problems like acne. (7) One study found children who drank skim and one-percent milk actually gained weight. (8)

When you eliminate these and the gazillion ubiquitous convenience foods for a whole food, unprocessed, nutrient-dense, low-sugar diet, you boost health and lose weight. You’re hungry less often, increase vitality, feel more mentally stable, and reduce your risk for chronic illness.

That’s because a Paleo diet – naturally low in sugar and other blood sugar-spiking ingredients – helps stabilize insulin and other hormones, which reduces hunger, cravings, mood swings, and other problems a higher-sugar, processed-heavy diet can create.

Experts like Cordain believe we’re genetically adapted to a Paleolithic diet and not our modern diet, which experts believe increase chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. (9)

One study found for folks with Type 2 diabetes, even a short-term Paleo diet improved glucose control and lipid profiles better than the American Diabetes Association (ADA) plan that contains Paleo no-no’s like low-fat dairy, whole grains, and legumes. (10)

And a systematic review found a Paleo diet improved metabolic syndrome better than guideline-based diets that often contain gluten, dairy, and other non-Paleo foods. (11)

While these and other studies make Paleo diets seem like a no-brainer, some controversy exists about this way of eating.

“The Palaeolithic diet remains controversial because of exaggerated claims for it by wellness bloggers and celebrity chefs, and the contentious evolutionary discordance hypothesis on which it is based,” writes Christopher E Pitt. “However, a number of underpowered trials have suggested there may be some benefit to the Palaeolithic diet, especially in weight loss and the correction of metabolic dysfunction.” (12)

In other words, even though critics note its many benefits, Paleo controversy lingers. Among the many reasons:

  1. We’re not absolutely sure what our ancestors ate. It varied dramatically based on geographic location and available foods. (13)
  2. Some followers can be dogmatic in their approach, expressing intolerance and even hostility towards anyone who doesn’t follow their specific plan. (This proves true for almost any eating plan.)
  3. Manufacturers have capitalized on the movement, creating all sorts of “Paleo-legal” cookies, bread, and other decidedly un-Paleo junk foods.
  4. Eating Paleo in our modern-day, junk-food-everywhere society can become a challenge, although as the movement gains momentum more Paleo-friendly options exist.
  5. The body requires time to adapt to a Paleo diet, which is typically higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate. Shifting from a sugar burner to a fat burner can take several weeks, and during that transition low energy and other temporary problems can occur.

These and other limitations shouldn’t detract you from trying a Paleo diet if you need to lose weight, gain better health, or otherwise get the benefits of this way of eating. Be patient and give your body time to adapt.

At the same time, I’ve seen patients vastly misinterpret a Paleo diet. Eating massive quantities of meat (especially from conventional sources) or avoiding plant foods are not tenants of a well-designed Paleo diet.

For patients who adopt a Paleo diet, I find these seven strategies can help upgrade their benefits and get the most of out of their plan.

  1. Get wild. The meat our ancestors ate contained a superior nutrient profile without the hormones, antibiotics, and other problems commonly found in modern meat. Studies show grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of nutrients like vitamin A as well as a superior anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid and fat-fighting conjugated-lineleic cid (CLA) profile compared with grain-fed beef. (14) Likewise, studies show farm-raised fish contains fewer nutrients like vitamin D compared with wild fish. (15)
  2. Go organic. Pesticides and other chemicals didn’t exist thousands of years ago. Studies show organic foods, which aren’t treated with these potential toxins, contain more nutrients like vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus compared with their non-organic versions. (16) They might cost a bit more, but they’re usually worth it. For a list must-buy organic foods (and ones you can get away buying conventionally), see the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) most pesticide-ridden produce chart. (17)
  3. Don’t be afraid to deviate. You can marry the benefits of Paleo foods with a few nutrient-rich sources our ancestors didn’t have, including legumes and dairy (if you can tolerate). Get dairy (raw, if you can find it) from organic, naturally raised sources with minimal processing. Keep in mind these are suggestions to give your diet a little more variety. They aren’t mandatory, and some people will do better without dairy, legumes, and other staples.
  4. Use “Paleo” processed foods wisely. Even the most diehard follower occasionally wants satisfying comfort food. That doesn’t give you permission to devour a whole box of “Paleo” chocolate chip cookies. Always scrutinize labels for artificial sweeteners, excessive amounts of sugar alcohols, and other decidedly un-Paleo ingredients. You can find plenty of delicious, satisfying Paleo recipes here on my website.
  5. Increase your fiber intake. Studies show Americans get less than half recommended fiber levels, and that folks who do low-carbohydrate diets fare even lower. (18) When you incorporate tons of leafy and cruciferous veggies, low-sugar fruit, nuts and seeds, and other nutrient-dense plant foods, you should have no problem meeting your daily 35+-gram fiber quota.
  6. Get more sleep. Your ancestors didn’t have smartphones, TVs, and other modern distractions that cut into solid slumber. Studies reveal most of us get less than six hours of sleep every night. (19) Among its detrimental consequences, too little sleep can increase your death risk. (20) You’re shortchanging your health efforts if you aren’t getting at least eight hours of quality sleep nightly.
  7. Supplement smartly. Vitamin stores didn’t exist thousands of years ago, but food’s nutrient profile proved superior to what we eat today thanks to topsoil erosion, farm-to-table transit times, and other modern-day problems. Studies show calcium becomes the big missing nutrient in Paleo diets (21), but I’ve seen other deficiencies in my practice that any diet can create. At the very least, I suggest a professional-quality multivitamin with optimal amounts of vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium along with a purified fish oil.

If you’ve ever done a Paleo diet, did you find it hard to stick with it in the beginning? What benefits did you see over time? Are you still maintaining it today? Share your story below or on my Facebook page.

7 Ways to Upgrade your Paleo Diet

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Dr. B.J. Hardick is a Doctor of Chiropractic and internationally-recognized natural health author and speaker. His health journey began as a child — alternative medicine is the only medicine he has ever known. In 2009, he authored his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans. In 2018, he authored his second book, Align Your Health. An energizing and passionate speaker, Dr. Hardick shares his lifestyle methods to numerous professional and public audiences every year in the United States and Canada. His teachings encompass the principles of ancestral nutrition, detoxification, functional fitness, mindfulness, and green living. Learn More