By: Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD
Removing processed foods, refined sugars and grains and eating more whole foods are among the most important changes a person can make to improve their overall health. This may be the reason that many who transform from eating a processed, standard American diet (SAD) to a paleo diet often report improved energy levels, bowel health, weight loss, cognition, endurance, complexion, and mood. There’s a long list of benefits that can be reaped as a direct result of following this caveman style of eating and if you haven’t experienced those then you may not be doing paleo as well as you think.
Despite that fact that the paleo community reports many benefits from going paleo, some experts remain skeptical of this way of eating. Their reasoning tends to be twofold. The first argument is that we need more long-term, well-conducted research supporting the paleo diet which is very much true. The second concern is that some people don’t approach paleo in the healthiest way, consuming too much animal-based saturated fat and too little fiber and plant-based nutrients. In order to get the most out of your paleo diet, avoid these five rookie mistakes:
- Removing more than replacing
A 2016 cross-sectional study showed that following both a paleo and mediterranean diet short-term was associated with reduced markers of inflammation. To significantly reduce inflammation and improve the overall quality of your diet, focus more on replacing empty calories with colorful nutrients from vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Cutting gluten and dairy doesn’t automatically make your diet nutritious. You may still be consuming crackers (labeled paleo) with almond butter for a meal. The key is replacing grains, dairy, gluten, etc. with nutrient dense foods like cabbage and broccoli. The research consistently demonstrates that a diet (paleo or not) that includes 7+ servings of vegetables and fruits per day can lower inflammation and reduce risk of stroke most dramatically.
- Filling up on protein and processed meats
The paleo diet is referred to by some as a ‘steak and potato’ diet. Technically a plate filled with a 16 oz steak and a side of sweet potato is considered paleo but that does not necessarily make it the most nutritious meal. Protein should not take center stage of your plate. Instead, make it 25% of your plate and surround it with plants. Think of protein more as a condiment than anything else and alternate between grass-fed red meat, organic chicken and turkey, wild salmon, herring, and other omega-3 rich fish. Limiting processed meats like bacon, sausage and hot dogs is also important.
- Lacking variety
When you have fewer groups of foods to choose from it makes it harder to incorporate variety into your diet. Variety on a paleo diet requires planning and creativity because there’s a narrower window of options. Without paying attention you may wind up eating almond butter with breakfast, almonds as a snack, almond milk in your post-workout smoothie, and almond flour in your paleo snack. It’s important to consider the basic ingredients of paleo food products and be sure that you aren’t consuming the same food in a number of different forms. Variety is key for improving gut health!
- Associating paleo cookies with healthy
Just because a cookie is labeled paleo does not give you the green light to eat the entire batch, guilt-free. Paleo treats can play games with the head because people tell themselves it’s a healthy, guilt-free choice. This way of thinking can lead to consuming more paleo cookies than you would have if they were regular old cookies. This is called the health halo effect. Research has shown that people eat more organic cookies, potato chips, etc. when labeled organic because organic is thought of as healthier. The same concept can be applied for paleo. While paleo cookies may not be as processed or refined, a cookie is still a cookie and should be eaten as a treat, not as a meal.
- Lacking fiber
Fiber plays a very important role in gut health and also helps lower risk of cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. One of the concerns that experts have with a paleo diet is that it makes it more challenging to consume enough fiber without beans and whole grains. About 50% of Americans fiber intake comes from breads, rolls, tortillas, cereals, beans, crackers and pizza. The average Americans eat approximately 16 grams of fiber per day which is much lower than the Institute of Medicine’s dietary reference intake (DRI) of 38 grams per day for men (14-50 years old) and 25 grams per day for women (19-50 years old). Ensure you are meeting at least the minimum level of fiber recommended by making a conscious effort to ramp up on fiber rich foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, almonds, cashews, sweet potatoes, parsnips, apples, pears etc.
Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, Beingbrigid.com. She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.