Let’s be realistic: There’s no way to eat a Stone Age diet these days unless you live off the land, hunting, fishing, and gathering from what’s naturally available in the wild. Few can do that, although it’s not impossible. I’m going to specify my version of the paleo diet because I’m starting a paleo diet trial soon—a first for me.
How long has man had fire? Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham estimates hominins tamed fire and started cooking with it 1.8 million years ago. So I’m cooking my paleo foods if I wish.
As with my beloved Mediterranean diet, definitions of the paleo diet vary. The following guidelines are influenced by my review of blogs or websites by Loren Cordain, Julianne Taylor, Robb Wolf, and Kurt Harris. The first three are closely affiliated with each other, so expect lots of overlap. It’s simplest to define paleo by what’s not allowed.
What’s NOT Paleo?
Industrial vegetable oils (e.g., soybean, corn,safflower), legumes, dairy, refined sugars, grains, alcohol, and high salt consumption.
What Is Paleo?
The focus is on minimally processed, in-season, locally available foods. Many favor pastured, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, “organic,” and the like. I guess that’s fine if you can afford it; I choose to spend my money elsewhere.
Meat, fish/seafood, eggs, poultry, and wild game. Most paleo proponents favor lean meats over fatty ones; it’s debatable. Undoubtedly, our domesticated feedlot animals are fattier than wild game, generally. Processed meats such as bacon would not be pure paleo, but many paleo advocates allow it.
Nuts and Seeds
Favor those with the best omega-6/omega-3 ratio (2 or 3:1), such as walnuts, almonds, macadamia, and cashews. Modern humans eat way more omega-6 fatty acids compared to ancient hunter-gatherers.
Fruits and Vegetables
It’s probably best to favor those with lower glycemic index. Examples are berries, melons, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, and broccoli. Most modern fruits and veggies have been bred for large size and good looks. Ancient fruits and veggies were smaller and had much more fiber per serving.
Tubers, Roots, Bulbs
These are OK per Cordain, and I agree. Examples include potatoes, cassava, taro root, onions. Some paleo proponents exclude potatoes.
Cordain favors oils such as canola, flax, olive. Others mention avocado oil. Aim for a good omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Lard is probably OK although obviously processed.
Herbs and Spices
Many of our favorites should be OK. Wolf says balsamic vinegar is allowed, although processed, like all vinegars. Vinegar is “natural,” as you might have noticed if you ever walked through an apple orchard with rotting fruit on the ground; you can smell the vinegar.
Undecided. Note that you can make mayonnaise from olive oil and egg yolk.
Olives? They’re processed, but I’m inclined to keep them in the mix. Coffee? Not paleo, but I ain’t givin’ it up. Consider limiting nuts to one ounce daily since most of them are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Fresh foods are more purely paleo than canned or frozen, but I’ll not exclude canned and frozen. Limit fruit? Probably: in most environments, they’re available only seasonally. Diet sodas? Clearly not paleo, but I enjoy one now and then and don’t see any drawbacks to low consumption.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Update October 8, 2012
I learned today that my version of paleo, by coincidence, is similar to the Hartwigs’s Whole30 plan. But they allow clarified butter or ghee, green beans, and snow peas. I include potatoes, but Whole30 doesn’t.