The Paleo diet rules are simple:
Eat This: Grass-fed meats. Seafood and fish. Eggs. Nuts and seeds. Lots of veggies. Healthy oils and animal fats. Some fruit. Little starch. No sugar. Lots of water.
Not That: Grains (cereals, breads, pastas). Dairy. Legumes (beans and peanuts). Potatoes. Refined sugar. Processed foods. Vegetable & hydrogenated oils. Candy or “junk food.”
In spite of these straightforward guidelines, there are several “gray areas” and roadblocks that many people end up running into.
Enter common complaints like:
“Help! I’m gaining weight on Paleo!”
“Paleo didn’t work for me!”
“I don’t get why I’m still bloated, or my energy is low.”
The biggest reason why these complaints or “roadblocks” happen?
Getting caught up in all the rules.
Here is the ONLY “paleo” rule (that actually matters), PLUS the top 8 Paleo Rules Gone Wrong—(and how to prevent yourself from making the same mistakes).
The #1 Paleo Diet Rule that Matters
Choosing to follow a Paleo diet can feel like a big lifestyle change (especially if you’ve been used to eating bagels for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and takeout for dinner, or if your old version of “healthy eating” looked like fat free yogurt, diet soda and pretzel sticks).
Paleo “rules” are a whole new ball game, with some of the most commonly accepted “rules” and beliefs including:
- Conventional dairy and grains cause inflammation
- Sugar and soda (even diet soda) are leading causes of chronic disease
- Replace breakfast cereal with eggs and bacon, and sandwiches with salads
- Ditch the wheat, in place of veggies
Paleo can be confusing…
In addition, in recent years, some of these rules have gotten a bit confusing, with various books, programs, blogs and paleo die-hards often times claiming similar (but different) things. For instance:
- One paleo recipe blogger uses goat cheese in her zucchini lasagna; another swears against it.
- One book says beans and soaked Jasmine white rice is “ok,” another book warns not to eat these at all.
- You see a box of cookies or crackers, labeled “Paleo” in Whole Foods Market but wonder, “Did Grok really eat that?”
Enter the Dilemma: What IS “Paleo” and what is NOT “Paleo?!”
Although most Paleo rules and beliefs are centered on eating like our ancestors ate, keeping track of all the (changing) and diverse rules can also be overwhelming and confusing.
Pause right there. Take a deep breath and get back to the basics: The ONLY (number one) rule that matters when following a paleo diet is this:
“Eat real food.”
In fact, did you know that the latin word of “diet” (dieta) actually means “way of life?”
Hence, the “Paleo diet” is really the “way of life” humans ate for years (BEFORE the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions happened).
During the vast majority of human existence (dating back 200,000 years at most), people lived off naturally occurring resources, by hunting animals and gathering plant foods. However, as Wonder Bread, Twinkies, Cheerios, Diet Coke and Stouffer’s Lasagna became “norms” in the modern human diet, humans quality of life and healthy “way of life” equally began to decrease. (1 , 2).
Now that we’ve defined “paleo” in the most simple of terms, here are the Top 8 Paleo Rules (Gone Wrong)–and how to avoid them.
8 Paleo Rules Gone Wrong: The Top Mistakes People Make When Going Paleo
(1) Rule: “Eat Real Food—Including Nuts & Seeds.”
Mistake: Eating Too Many Nuts
Nuts and seeds ARE delicious and nutritious, but a roadblock many folks run into on the paleo diet are over-doing the nuts and seeds. From almond flour pancakes, crackers and tortillas; to cashews and walnuts for snacks, almond meal-crusted chicken tenders; almond and cashew milk; sunflower seed butter on celery sticks and almond butter straight out of the jar, nuts are EVERYWHERE (in abundance).
The thing is, the human gut can only handle so many nuts–especially non-raw, soaked or sprouted nuts.
Like beans and grains, nuts and seeds contain lectins and phytates on their outer shell–chemical compounds meant to protect the nut, seed, bean or grain from harsh weather or predators in the wild.
Phytic Acid, in particular, is a “binding” compound–meant to prevent a nut or seed from sprouting before the ideal sprouting conditions are present.
Additionally, phytic acid and lectins are “enzyme” inhibitors and “anti-nutrients”–they prevent absorption of some nutrients in the gut.
Ever wonder why they say “birds stomachs explode” if they eat rice thrown (at a wedding)? These compounds are difficult to digest.
While the whole “lectin-phytate claim” has been touted as the anti-grain debate, the same thing applies to nuts and seeds.
In short: Too much of a good thing, is not a good thing, and a common reason why people end up feeling bloated, constipated, or like they “keep gaining weight” on a paleo diet is simply because they may not be varying up their consumption (and including a lot of nuts).
(2) Rule: Cut Out the Grains & Carbs.
Mistake: Accidental Dieting.
Many people that “go paleo” and cut out the former foods that were once staples in their diet, find themselves with fewer options than they ate before. Sometimes this turns into an accidental diet–not eating enough (especially carbs).
They go from eating oatmeal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch and chicken and rice for dinner, to little to no carbs (maybe some fruit with breakfast and a small sweet potato, carrots or squash with lunch and dinner).
Not eating enough results in increased stress (on the body), a wonky metabolism or feelings of deprivation (often matched by feeling restricted).
(3) Rule: Bring on the Bacon, Eggs & Steak.
Mistake: Forgetting about the carbs (especially veggies).
Speaking of carbs, with a heavy emphasis on eating all the (good) things–like bacon–a commonly neglected food genre as a whole is veggies.
Many paleo die-hards talk a good talk, scrambling eggs and bacon for their morning meal, enjoying a half chicken or fish at lunch, jerky for snacks, and a nice, grass-fed fatty steak at dinner, but…leave out (enough) veggies.
Meat is NOT a bad thing (the human body thrives on meats and uses amino acids as the “building blocks” for life and growth).
However, when we leave out greens and veggies in the process, we miss out on essential fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to help us digest our meats and get the biggest bang from our real-food buck in the first place.
(4) Rule: Replace Sugar with Real Sugar (Like Honey and Maple Syrup).
Mistake: Overindulging in baked goods and sweets.
When you first heard about Paleo, you thought, “But I love my morning coffee with cream and sugar!” Or, “I need something sweet after dinner!”
But, then you discovered Paleo treats (brownies, cake, pie and cookies included), and you were sold!
“Eating real food” does not (necessarily) mean replacing old processed food or baked goods staples with paleo-friendly versions of sweets and treats. While Paleo baking does allow you to “have your cake and eat it too,” moderation still applies (at least if you are only concerned with our number one rule–eat real food).
(5) Rule: If the Label Says, “Paleo,” it’s “Paleo.”
Mistake: Eating lots of bars, shakes, jerky and packaged dry foods.
Similar to eating lots of nuts or lots of bacon and steak, other people fall into the trap of seeing a label on Paleo crackers, chips, tortillas, jerky, bars and shakes at the store and calling these “real food.” Yes, they do have real food ingredients, but did you get them from the outer aisle of the store, the garden or the Farmer’s Market? Build the base of your “paleo diet” on a balance of real whole foods (hydrating veggies and fruits included) and keep the processed and packaged foods within the “extras” after your base is met.
(6) Rule: Enjoy All the “Healthy” Foods You Want! (i.e. Eggs, Nuts, Coconut, Tomatoes, Avocados, Fruits, Broccoli, Seafood, etc.)
Mistake: Not recognizing an underlying food sensitivity or allergy.
Ever wonder why you still feel bloated, constipated, your skin breaks out or you have allergies–even though you are “eating healthy?!” Unknown or unaddressed food intolerances and sensitivities may be at play. Paleo is full of tons of healthy food options.
However, many people find if they have underlying gut issues (i.e. SIBO, fungal overgrowth, dysbiosis, leaky gut, etc.), they are sensitive to some common gut irritating foods, including: Eggs, nuts, FODMAPs, Nightshades and seafood. No matter if a food is “healthy” or not, it may not be the right food for you (right now).
(7) Rule: Eat Healthy Fats.
Mistake: Not varying their fats.
Pop question: What is a healthy fat?
Most people typically respond with what they’ve heard on Bodybuilding.com or from the media for a long time–avocados, nuts and olive oil.
However, get this: Butter, ghee, coconut oil, lard, tallow, fatty cuts of meat, pastured eggs and fatty fish are also healthy fats.
And just like your body needs a variety of veggies and fruits (not broccoli or apples every single day), your body needs a variety of healthy fats for all the different nutrients they provide your cells (and metabolism).
Remember: Fat burns fat and gives your body (lots of) energy!
(8) Rule: Drink Butter Coffee for Breakfast.
Mistake: Missing out on essential nutrients.
Butter coffee has become the “baby bottle” of paleo junkies for breakfast. Ah, nothing like a good cup of Joe with some grass-fed butter, MCT oil and occasionally some collagen or maple syrup to start the day.
However, there are two essential mistakes people make with this “rule”–
- Choosing poor quality coffee
- Not eating enough nutrient-rich foods
Coffee (instant coffee, Starbucks coffee, crappy coffee) is the number one cross-contaminating food with gluten. Meaning: It (typically) does not make the gut very happy.
In fact, many people who are not even sensitive to gluten, find they are more sensitive to gluten-cross contaminating foods (like coffee, soy, tapioca, casein and eggs).
Additionally, not to sound like a broken record, but when you drink a cup of coffee for breakfast, what are you not eating instead?
If you typically eat three square meals per day, you are essentially missing out on one-third of your opportunity to eat nutrient-rich whole foods for the day.
Summing it Up
Eat (enough) real food. And vary it up.
In a modern world where more than 80 percent of the products in our grocery stores are synthesized man-made foods (translation: not real), most of our society has gotten away from “being human.”
The paleo diet is the way to getting back to “being human” as humans always were, but it is not necessarily an “eat-all-the-nuts, paleo cookies, and butter coffee” way of life, either. Nor is it a “cut the carbs” and “eat lots of bacon” diet.
Once more: Build your diet on a base of nutrient-dense, real, Paleo, whole foods. Eat enough. And vary it up.
Keep an 80/20 balanced perspective with “food perfection,” and for the rest of that “20%” of not-totally-real-foods, let life happen (Paleo chocolate chip cookies included).
About the Author: Dr. Lauryn Lax
Dr. Lauryn Lax is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Functional Medicine Practitioner, author and speaker, with over 20 years of clinical and personal experience specializing in gut health, intuitive eating, disordered eating, anxiety, hormone balance and women’s health. She’s based in Austin, Texas, and operates a virtual Nutrition & Functional Medicine practice, Thrive Wellness & Recovery, LLC, working with clients and patients around the world. In addition, Dr. Lauryn is a published journalist and speaker, and her work has been featured in Oxygen Magazine, Women’s Health, Paleo Magazine, Breaking Muscle, CrossFit Inc, USA Today, ABC and CBS News, and loves nothing more than helping others “quiet the noise” in the health food and fitness world.