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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Paleo Starter Guide

I'm always up for trying new things.  How else do you think I wound up running a barefoot, kilted marathon in Hawaii this December?  I'm the type of guy that loves to learn about new things that people are trying, and give them a whirl.  This goes for a lot of things I've done very recently in life: barefoot running, Crossfit, kilts, country music (hey...I don't admit it readily, but it's got a nice sound...and Carrie Underwood is easy on the eyes) and most recently...the paleo diet. 

My first experience with paleo was like my first time watching The Big Lebowski.  I didn't get it, and I thought it was a little weird.  I first heard about the diet sitting around on the patio of Tuggs Bar in downtown Minneapolis with my friend Jenna after a 5K fun run.  There was a big group of us there, all of whom went to Jenna's Crossfit gym.  Wanting to be a good host, I planned to order the largest dispenser of beer available.  That would be the famous Tuggs Beer Rocket. 

Why did I include a picture of the Beer Rocket?  Because it's awesome.  Although I don't know if there's anything special about it except its capacity to hold many glasses of beer. 

What better gesture of friendship is there besides giving your new friend copious amounts of alcohol.  I suggested we order two, along with a couple of sides of fries.  Perfect after-race food right?

"I don't drink beer," said a few people down at the end of the table.  A few more chimed in with a similar refrain.  Had they not been friends of Jenna's, I probably would have got up and sat at another table.  I clearly didn't fit in here.  I tried to be friendly instead.  "Why not?"  I replied. 

"It's not paleo," they all replied, practically in unison. 

I said, "Oh, I thought you had a good reason."  That didn't seem amusing to them.  And I had no idea what they were talking about.  I also thought they had just invented a new word.

So I followed up, "Can you eat fries?" 

"Nope, it's not paleo."  they replied again. 

Okay...this paleo thing sounded a lot like when the Smurfs replaced all of their verbs and nouns with the word "smurf".  Except at least then I had some sense of what the Smurfs were talking about.  So I took the bait and asked them about the paleo diet.

So they told me...in two sentences.  No grains, processed foods, dairy products, or legumes.  All the lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts you can eat.

But wait...all the things in the first sentence are things I love to eat!  The second sentence...not so much.  This diet sounds like it sucks!  At least in terms of its restrictiveness.  What were they going to eat here at Tuggs?  It's a burger and fries joint! 

But what I think made me want to learn more was the diet's incredible simplicity.  I've been following various diets for several years.  Not because I need to lose weight.  Look at my profile picture.  I'm not exactly the VP of the Width Department.  Diets for me are the fuel for athletic performance.  I've tried the Adkins, the Warrior, the Zone, etc.  All of them require the same nitpicking BS.  You have to eat less.  You have to count calories.  Keep track of your points.  Watch your glycemic index.  Don't eat this color rice.  Only before 6 pm.  High in Omega this, low in Omega that.  No wonder people have trouble dieting.  It's like a full-time job.   

This diet's promise to me: eat all you want, whenever you want.  Finally, I could do what I'm already doing (i.e. eat massive amounts, all day long, of whatever I want), and still say I'm on a diet.  Thank you Grilled Cheesus! 

For those that don't know, the Paleo Diet is roughly the diet that our Paleolithic ancestors ate.  It doesn't mean that you eat only stegosaurus and grass.  Obviously you can't go hunt and kill a mammoth in downtown Minneapolis every couple of days.  You eat foods that are similar to those your ancestors ate that are available today.  That means you eat lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  Foods that didn't exist back then: grains, processed foods, dairy products, and legumes are out. 

Why?  The creators of the diet theorize that our bodies have adapted throughout history to effectively process certain foods; namely meats, fruits, veggies, and nuts.  Foods such as grains came along much later in our evolutionary history, and our bodies are ill equip to deal with them.  In fact, the diet points out that most people have at best a mild gluten allergy, and at worst a full-on gluten allergy.  So these foods wreck havoc on your system if consumed over time.  The foods allowed on the other hand are easily digestible; not to mention much more nutrient-rich.

Now I'm sure you have a lot of the same questions that I had.  For example, why are beans bad for you?  I thought they were good for you?  Why can't I eat dairy?  Isn't it unhealthy to skip a whole food group (i.e. grains)? 

My answer: don't ask me man.  I didn't invent the diet, and I certainly don't have those answers.  I just know it works for me, and it will probably work for you once you try it.  I also know that it's a pretty hard thing to start to do without help. 

I don't want you to be like me.  I learned everything the hard way.  So this blog is more about how to start the diet rather than answer those questions. 

Step 1: Learn more...if you want to

If you've read this far in this post, for one, congratulations.  That's more Maple Grove Barefoot Guy than most people can tolerate.  But also, you already know everything you need to know to begin the diet.  It's really as simple as those two little sentences:

No grains, processed foods, dairy products, or legumes.  All the lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts you can eat.

Whatever you do, DON'T BUY A BOOK!  When I was first started, I bought the most popular Paleo book on the market: "The Paleo Diet", by Loren Cordain.  I proceeded to waste my time reading 257 pages of, "Hey, look at how smart I am!"  This is not a book about why the paleo diet is the shit.  This is a book about how smart Cordain thinks he is for thinking the diet up.  It's a 257 page resume.  This book is also one of those that takes 7 chapters to explain how great Chapter 8 will be.  After the first chapter, I should have just read Chapter 8. 

There are more than enough great blogs and other information out there on the paleo diet.  Here are some of my favorites:

Mark's Daily Apple: Mark has articles about every aspect of living a healthy, primal lifestyle.  He, and the rest of the people on this list, is a premier expert in the area of paleo diet and lifestyle. 

Tim Ferriss: How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream (or Lose 10 lbs in 14 days): for a funny, and informative, introduction to the diet

Paleo Hacks: Not very well organized, but this is probably the most comprehensive forum on the diet

The Paleo Diet: This is Loren Cordain's website.  It's not as comprehensive as other sites, but the FAQ gives you most the information that is in his book, free of charge.  Take advantage!

Robb Wolf: The Paleo Solution: Another one of the premier experts today in the area of the paleo diet.

Step 2: Commit to going cold turkey

This isn't like quitting smoking people.  You don't need a grain patch that gradually steps you down off of gluten.  Have that one last goodbye pizza and then tell yourself that you won't be seeing any more of each other.  At least for now.  Commit to the diet for a particular period of time.  This website recommends that you do it for 30 days.  I think that's just about right.   

Why go cold turkey?  Not every paleo expert recommends you do this.  Some plans allow for cheats a couple of times a week.  I think going cold turkey shows you best how good you'll feel on the diet.  Plus, 30 days isn't exactly a big commitment.  That's how long most New Year's resolutions last.   

Once you're done with the 30 days, go ahead and cheat.  Have a pizza.  Have a hamburger.  Eat some rice.  I guarantee you'll feel like crap afterwards.  That, more than anything, has kept me on the plan.

A lot of people tell me that they don't think they can do the diet because they can't give up <insert crappy food here>.  My response is simple.  Don't be such a dumbass.  It's patently ridiculous to not take a step towards better health because of a particular food.  One food!  You'd think I was trying to steal your security blanket. 

I also tell people to look at it like this: Do you practice the Lenten tradition of giving something up for 40 days?  Why can't this be your Lent? 

If you don't do that sort of thing, think about how often you actually eat that particular food.  For example, my wife doesn't want to go paleo because (for one) you have to give up potatoes.  I explained to her that she rarely eats potatoes more than once a month.  If that's the only thing holding you back, you'd already be successful on the diet!  Eat as many potatoes as you want after 30 days.  Who cares!  The point is, the road block you've created to better health isn't actually an issue at all.  It's entirely in your mind. 

Step 3: Get some recipes

You just decided to go paleo, and now you're hungry.  I guarantee that you have almost nothing in your kitchen that you can actually eat now.  When I went to my kitchen for the first time, I just stood there and looked at my pantry.  I had 4 shelves that were completely full, and no actual paleo food.  Just a bunch of boxes and bags full of processed crap.  I couldn't cook anything.

But you can't just go to the store and start buying stuff yet.  If there's one thing I've learned about paleo, it's that you need a plan.  Now even if you have been cooking for a while, I bet there's only a handful of ways you know how to put together a meal of meats, veggies, fruit, and nuts.  When I sat down to do it the first few weeks, I came out with a bunch of meals that looked and tasted exactly the same.  Day 1: Beef with vegetables.  Day 2: Chicken with vegetables.  Day 3: Pork with vegetables.  Sound like an interesting and fun meal plan to you?  It's not...

There are plenty of good paleo recipe collections on the internet.  I get my recipes from a couple of different places.  First, I have a couple of really good paleo cookbooks.  The books I have are the Paleo Cookbooks website by Nikki Young. 

I also get a ton of recipes off of people's blogs.  There are a ton of paleo bloggers out there that share recipes.  Here are a few good ones.

Everyday Paleo: A hot mom shares her recipes and stories about raising a family on the paleo diet

Health Bent: A very large, and well organized collection of paleo recipes that don't suck

What if you're a cheap-ass, and you don't want to buy new cookbooks?  Well on this point, I think you need to buck up.  Now I've been cooking for several years, and I have a lot of cookbooks.  I've been pretty successful in making standard recipes into paleo ones.  But it's hit or miss.  If you're still a beginner (and I largely still am), the problem with standard recipes is that you don't know what to substitute for non-paleo ingredients.  If a sauce calls for flour to thicken, what do you use?  What's the substitute for soy sauce?  I don't necessarily know the answer to those questions, and you won't either.  And sometimes the substitute you choose will throw off the taste of the food substantially.

These paleo recipes also open your eyes to a whole new world of creative cooking.  Did you know that you can make paleo milkshakes?  Paleo pizza?  How about paleo pasta (with spaghetti squash...it's pretty tasty)?  As a beginner you won't know all the tricks you need to keep an interesting variety of foods in your diet.

Step 4: Get a meal plan and shopping list

Do you plan what you're going to eat earlier than the day you're going to eat it?  I didn't.  Now I plan every meal for the whole week.  Until you get good at this whole paleo thing, it's going to be tough to just throw a quick meal together.  You're going to need a plan.

It's really easier than you think, and requires only one step: find 5-7 recipes to make for dinner.  Then I write my shopping list to include at least 2 full servings of each.  I do this for two reasons.  First, on the paleo diet you're going to eat more.  Don't worry, you're going to lose weight, not gain it.  You can't eat as much grain as you can paleo foods.  Grains are way more caloric.  So you have to eat more paleo food to get you full. 

Second, leftovers are key to your success on the diet.  I use my leftovers for lunches.  A few of my friends use them for breakfast, or snacks.  There's not a lot of variety in the market when it comes to paleo snack food.  If you get hungry and it's not mealtime, you're going to want some extra food lying around.  I make the mistake of not having leftovers around all the time.  It usually ends badly, like the time I downed a family-sized container of raisins.  I won't elaborate on how that came out...literally. 

That's it...you're done.  If you want to plan breakfasts or lunches, you can.  But with all the food you'll be making for dinner, you probably won't need to. 

One common concern that comes up all the time: I don't want to eat dinner for breakfast!  Well then don't.  Let me know how long it takes before eggs and fruit every morning gets old.  Your choice. 

Actually, what you'll probably find is that you're not very hungry in the mornings.  I know I'm not.  I could actually go until dinnertime without eating much of anything at all.  In fact, I find that if I force myself to eat when I'm not hungry, I get ravenous, and start devouring everything in the fridge.

There's a theory behind this as well.  Several of my friends have been very successful combining the paleo diet with The Warrior Diet.  I followed this diet back in the day as well with very good success.  I am pondering doing it again.  But that's another show...
Step 5: Shopping basics

After deciding to go paleo, I went to the local grocery store and spent the next couple hours walking around and reading labels.  I had a clerk come up and ask me if I needed help.  No one every gets asked if they need help in a grocery store.  I looked either lost, or like I was about to steal something.  I politely turned her down and proceeded to collect what I thought I would need.  It wasn't nearly enough, and I ended up living off of carrots and condiments for a few days. 

Not only did I not know what to buy, but I didn't know where to go.  You're not going to find most paleo ingredients at your local dumpy supermarket.  You need to start shopping at one of those supermarkets that carry 30 different kinds of lettuce, and everyone drives a Beamer. 

I'm talking about stores like Whole Foods.  You see, paleo foods have labels with words like "Free Range", "Organic", and "Vegan" on them.  They cost more.  And only the hoity-toity food stores carry them.  You need to go there to do a lot of your shopping.

If you don't drive a Beamer yourself, you also need to sign up for a membership at your local warehouse store, like CostCo or Sam's Club.  You wil be buying certain items like meats and produce in copious quantities.  And surprisingly, these places have excellent meat and produce sections.  Coincidentally, they also sell chest freezers...another item you will be purchasing to hold all of your fresh kill.   

Here's a comprehensive list of everything that I buy when I go grocery shopping.  Variety is key.  If you want the complete universe of everything you can eat on paleo, look at this link.

  • Raw Meat: The big daddy.  I buy at least 6 lbs of several different cuts of beef, chicken, pork, fish, and whatever other meat you fancy.  Other fun choices are elk, bison, venison, pheasant, and other game meats.  You'd be surprised what you can buy at a grocery store. 
  • Sausages: Sausage is a processed meat.  I get that.  But most paleo hacks ignore that because it's delicious, and if you play your cards right it is processed with all-paleo ingredients.  I am in the "it's delicious" group.  I generally buy chicken sausage.  There are a few brands that don't have added sugars or other non-paleo ingredients.  You have to read the label to learn what brands work.
  • Tuna: I buy this in bulk too.  Chicken and tuna salad will be your friends.   
  • Bacon: I always had a special place in my heart for bacon.  Now I realize it is my one true food love.  I buy this in mega-bulk.  Remember that bacon is brined and cured.  So again, it's off the list for a lot of paleo dieters.  I think that is sick and wrong.  I say just be careful and read the label.  A brine often has sugar in it...a paleo no-no.  I'm not terribly picky about this point, because a brine is just a liquid that the meat will sit in for a period of time, unlike a seasoning.  But to each his own.
  • Deli meats: Same problem as with bacon, they are usually brined and cured. 
  • Dried meats: I have friends that dry their own meat, so that's where I get it.  Most commercial jerky has added sugar or weird seasonings.  They also have entirely too much salt.  But that's just a personal objection.
Fruits and Veggies
  • Fresh Fruits and Veggies: I buy several kinds.  Whatever is on sale. 
  • Dried Fruits: Be careful what kind you choose.  For fruits like cranberries, cherries, and apricots, a lot of companies will add sugar.
  • Trail Mix: These are cool ways to get your snack on.  Like dried fruits, a lot of them add sugars and weird seasonings.  Look at the ingredients.
  • Nut butters: Much like the Star Wars v. Lord of the Rings battle, there is a hot feud between those in the Sun Butter camp and those in the Almond Butter camp.  I'm a Sun Butter person myself (sunflower seed butter).  Buy both and see which type you are.   
  • Guacamole: Your new favorite dip!  There are several companies that make guac without weird preservatives.  The problem with guac sans-preservatives though is that it goes bad really fast.  Therefore, I present to you the coolest invention ever: Wholly Guacamole Snack Pack
  • Dips: It's easier to make dips than it is to buy them.  I haven't found any that are paleo at the store.  If you go searching, be wary of dairy.  
Other ingredients
  • Eggs: I buy the big crate.  I don't know what the shelf-life is on eggs, but an informal study conducted in my fridge says several months.
  • Cooking oil: Big bottles of olive oil and canola oil for sure.  You may wish to invest in some of those fancy oil storage bottles.
  • Almond meal: Also known as "paleo flour".  You will need this for the same reasons you needed flour: as a binder, a thickener, and an essential ingredient in many dishes. 
  • Vinegar: Since most salad dressings have added sugar, I make my own salad dressing with vinegar and oil.
  • Salad dressing: I haven't found a salad dressing that doesn't have some added sugar. 
  • Mayonnaise: Buy a big container.  Mayo is essentially eggs and oil, so it's paleo.  Be sure to look out for what oil is used to make it.  Vegetable oil = bad.  A lot of companies make mayo with olive or canola oil now.  You will need it to make fun dips. 
  • Mustard: Mustard is essentially ground mustard seeds.  It's fine. 
  • Sauces: You can make your own sauces, but sauces that still work are tomato sauce, hot sauce, pesto sauce, soy sauce (it's made from wheat products, but it's in a lot of paleo recipes...it's okay...you'll live), etc.  Things to watch out for are funky preservatives and sugar.
  • Spices: Buy spices separately as most spice blends have preservatives or wheat products
Sometimes foods

These are the foods that I think were put on the diet list to make it palatable to the general public.  I buy them because they are my crutch.  Buy them if you must.  I know I'm not the only one addicted to coffee 
  • Diet soda
  • Coffee
  • Dark Chocolate (the darker the better)
  • Beer: HOOOOORAY!
  • Wine
  • Tea
  • Honey
Step 6: Enjoy!

This diet really is fun.  It's fun to make new dishes and explore the possibilities of your new food world.  It's fun to have a bunch of energy and feel like your body is clean and healthy.  It's fun to be able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever quantity you want.  It's fun to lose weight despite doing this. 

I hope this post has put you on the path towards a healthier way to eat and live.  If you have any questions, or have your own suggestions, I welcome your comments!  Happy eating!  Cheers!


  1. Dude, THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE!!! That is the simplest, most straight-forward, realistic explanation of Paleo I've ever read. By the way, do you read marksdailyapple.com? It's Paleo but easier to follow, much like what you describe.

  2. Thanks jake. It was my intention to make paleo simple, because at the end of the day I feel like it really is.

    I do read the blog you mention. I should add that to my list of useful links

  3. Christian! I am ashamed that it took me this long to check out your blog after you sent me the link! I didn't know I had a staring role :-)

    Awesome! It makes me smile so big my face could crack that you love Paleo as much as the rest of us. It's simple and natural. It makes you feel good. It improves performance. And, for me, it eliminates a whole bunch of "symptoms" I never knew I had from eating junk foods branded as "healthy" like whole grains and soy. The most amazing thing for me is that I lived the first near 3 decades of my life thinking it was normal to be tired after a meal and to have my stomach gurgle. Not so, fools!

    Here's another link I recently came across. My sister asked if it was secretly me...I wish, but no!

    I get a kick out of your assessment of Cordain's original book. To some degree, I hear you. However, I'm a nerdy type so I really wanted to hear the explanations. Also, he is amazing nice and humble...I met him in person when I was in CO this summer. He sat down in his office (where I simply showed up unannounced on a Wednesday in late August) and chatted about a host of interesting things and his latest research. He's nice. He's down to earth, he's fit, he looks an easy 15 yrs younger than his chronological age, and he tries to help people feel good. Props to him.

    Another thing that got me really converted to this eating lifestyle was a half day seminar by Melissa Urban and Dallas Hartwig. They talked a lot about diet and biology. I walked away with a few main points:
    1) There are foods that improve our health and foods that decrease our health. Nothing is health neutral.
    2) Veggies/Fruits are good for us because they are packed with nutrients. They also keep our bodies in balance concerning ph levels...I don't totally understand this, but I grasped enough to know that it is IMPORTANT! Meat is good because it gives us all that needed protein. Protein is the basic building block of our bodies and most importantly, it contributes to muscle development. Eat lots. Nuff said. We need healthy fats to support maintaining tissue, especially brain tissue. It also makes us feel full, satisfied, and happy. Yippe!
    3) Grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, processed foods are bad because they contain antinutrients, they affect our digestion negatively, they cause us to store unhealthy fat in our cells, we all are "allergic" to them in some way even mildly (don't believe that? Go off of them for a while and see how you feel. Drink milk and you'll get a little mucus reaction...that's an immune system defense...gross!), and they cause an insulin response which isn't good for a lot of reasons.
    4) Eat protein and fat pre-workout; eat protein and healthy sugars (potatoes, yams, squash, bananas) post workout.
    5) Food and agriculture lobbiests are powerful and have much to profit by perpetuating unhealthy foods in our culture. Don't be a pawn. Take care of your health.

    I love your blog! Keep it going. Nice photo, Maple Grove Barefoot Man.

  4. Hi MGBG,

    I read this and I am curious as to the reasoning on this one particular thing. Why no potatoes? I can understand no mashed potatoes, fries, twice baked potatoes, but our ancestors most assuredly did eat potatoes, look at the Native Americans of early America. They ate roots and that sort of thing. I can understand all the crap that people put on potatoes, but if you have a baked potato, what's the problem? I only ask because I have looked at other diets and this seems like the closest one for me.

  5. Nick, I have a follow-up post on topics like this coming up soon. The short answer is this: high glycemic index.

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