At first glance, it might seem that the paleo diet is a list of many restrictions. Asking someone to give up grains, soy, dairy, legumes, refined sugar and even alcohol can seem unrealistic. It’s often what puts people off from testing out the waters, especially if they’re accustomed to these food groups as part of a daily diet. Here at Eat Drink Paleo, we always encourage a more practical and human approach to the paleo diet, and in today’s post we’re going to have a look at some specific paleo diet boundaries you shouldn’t be afraid to cross, and how to do it the right way.
The truth is that paleo is actually very close to a standard elimination diet. You are encouraged to eliminate a series of foods to find out how you react to them, and because some of them are actually not good for anyone. While some people will benefit from following a squeaky clean paleo protocol for an extended period of time (sometimes forever), others might find that they can tolerate certain ‘grey area’ foods, once reintroduced after 30 days of elimination. This allows for a more modified, flexible and personalised version of paleo, or as I like to call it 80/20 paleo.
This is the approach I take during my 8-weeks paleo program, and some of these reintroductions include soaked and sprouted pseudograins and legumes, fermented and full-fat dairy products such as kefir, yoghurt and butter, and even white rice for some.
Before we dive into the world of ‘but it’s not paleo’ foods, let’s agree that at the end of the day what you eat is your personal choice. We all come from different backgrounds, with our unique biological makeup, lifestyle requirements and budgets. These factors often determine and shape our diet choices – all of which we respect here at Eat Drink Paleo.
Fermented & full-fat dairy
- Good gut bacteria. Fermented dairy products like yoghurt and kefir contain beneficial probiotics which aid in optimal gut health and digestion. Gut health is linked to everything from our immune system to mental health and metabolism. If tolerated, a little kefir and yoghurt can be a good thing!
- Better for lactose intolerance. The fermentation process eats up the lactose (a.k.a. the sugars) found in the milk. These sugars are generally what causes indigestion in individuals who find they don’t tolerate dairy well. Thus, it’s worth reintroducing fermented dairy on its own to see if you have a reaction; you may be surprised!
- More nutritious. Fermentation often boosts the B vitamins and amino acids found in dairy, actually increasing their nutritional value. Aged cheeses, such as cheddar and Parmesan, are an excellent source of K2 vitamin (great for your bones!), which is also the result of fermentation.
- More fat=less problems. Dairy products like butter and ghee have a much higher fat content than regular milk. This is due to the way butter and ghee are made, which eliminates the majority of the milk solids. The more fat percentage, the less you have to worry about the lactose (sugars) and casein (protein).
- Best options: ghee (almost 99% fat content), butter (90-95% fat content), kefir, full-fat yoghurt, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, aged cheeses, full-fat cream, sour cream. Raw fermented and full-fat dairy is even better as it contains more nutrients and enzymes, which help with the digestion of this food. More about raw milk benefits here.
- Casein caveat: Some people may have reactions to the protein found in milk, called casein. This is especially true for those with coeliac disease. Safer options include ghee, butter and cream, which due to higher fat content, contain only traces of casein.
Soaked and sprouted legumes
- Less phytic acid. The act of soaking and/or sprouting legumes such as navy beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lentils and even peanuts can help break down the phytates in these foods. Phytic acid binds minerals in these foods, which means that absorption of iron, zinc, and manganese amongst other minerals is compromised. For optimal nutrition (and there is plenty to be had with legumes!), it’s important to soak ’em.
- Make them easier to digest. Soaking and sprouting legumes and grains are highly beneficial. If you don’t have time for both, a good soak (6-12 hours) in slightly salted water does wonders. It increases the nutritional value and the live enzymes in legumes – in a way, this process awakens them – and thus breaks down some of the anti-nutrients, and increases digestibility significantly.
- Buy fresh and organic. Legumes are easily sourced from a can, but this makes the food product more likely to contain BPA and other additives. Buying fresh, dried, organic legumes and preparing them from scratch ensures that you can maximise nutrition and easily avoid less-than-ideal ingredients sneaking in.
- Good source of MACs. Dr. Erica Sonnenburg, who is the co-author of The Good Gut book and one of the expert contributors to my paleo program, points out that our gut health highly depends on microbiota accessible carbohydrates or MACs. These are complex carbohydrates that our gut bacteria can ferment; we know it better as fibre (soluble and insoluble, including resistance starch). Regardless of the term used, the important point is that complex carbohydrates from plants provide food for the microbiota. In addition to maintaining a healthy and diverse microbial community, feeding the microbiota results in their production of chemicals, such as butyrate, that have a variety of beneficial effects on our health. Although we can get most of our daily fibre from vegetables and fruit, the humble legumes are especially high in these beneficial MACs. If prepared properly, introduced very slowly, and consumed in moderation, legumes could be a valuable addition to your otherwise paleo diet.
- Perfect for #MeatlessMonday. Let’s face it, some days you just don’t feel like eating meat or fish, or you feel like you want to consume less animal protein for environmental reasons. Whatever your standpoint is, it’s not a bad idea to enjoy a meatless meal on a regular basis. Legumes provide a decent amount of protein and B vitamins and can be a good alternative to a steak on a Monday night.
- Caveat: Those with digestive issues and autoimmune conditions might experience issues even with soaked and sprouted legumes. This also goes for those with gut bacteria imbalances. All that beneficial fibre mentioned earlier will feed both good and bad bacteria, so it would make sense to rebalance the gut flora before feeding the garden again. Seriously, if legumes trouble you, leave them alone!
- Less phytic acid. Like with other legumes, soy contains its fair share of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. Still, soy products are widely used in long-lived countries like Japan, so it can’t be all bad. Traditionally though, these cultures consumed small amounts of fermented soy foods such as natto, miso and tempeh (shown above), rather than heavily processed soy foods we are encouraged to eat today. Fermented soy products are much easier to digest, contain fewer anti-nutrients and are typically enjoyed in small amounts due to the stronger flavour. These soy foods have anti-cancer benefits and can lessen the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Avoid processed foods. Soy is one of the most common additives in foods. For example, refined soybean oil is an inflammatory food, but it’s cheap to use in preserved products, especially compared to olive oil. Take a look at your labels, and you’ll find soy hiding out in an alarming amount of packaged food products. This is what we want to avoid!
- Increased digestibility. Once again, the paleo diet is designed to optimise digestion. Non-fermented soy isn’t easily used up by the body, but fermented soy products contain more bioavailable nutrients and increase digestibility thanks to the fermentation process.
- Read more about fermented soy foods and how I include miso in my diet here. This is also why I include wheat-free tamari sauce (naturally brewed soy sauce) in some of my recipes.
- Quinoa is a great source of plant-based protein. Quinoa is inherently gluten-free; in fact, it’s not even a grain – it’s a seed! When soaked and/or sprouted, the problematic compounds (phytic acid, lectins) decrease significantly. You’re left with a glycemic, fibrous, complete plant protein containing all essential amino acids, making quinoa an easy addition to a nutrient-dense diet. Make sure to choose fair-trade, organic quinoa!!!
- Buckwheat has its benefits. This is another pseudograin that is inherently gluten-free, making it stand out above the rest. Reintroducing gluten isn’t an option for some, and white bread is pretty void of nutrients anyways. Buckwheat, on the other hand, can reduce cholesterol and blood glucose, which makes it beneficial to those who are watching their numbers. Moreover, it’s a great source of magnesium, B vitamins and insoluble fibre. And it’s very sustainable! Sourdough buckwheat bread anyone?
- Amazing amaranth. This lesser-known gluten-free grain is notoriously anti-inflammatory. Its protein is easily digested by the body, which is more than most grains can say (one of the many reasons the paleo diet favours animal-based protein sources). Finally, it’s a great source of peptides, which have anti-cancer benefits. Amaranth seeds make a great porridge!
The key to consuming all of these foods is to be mindful of your reactions. Some people will tolerate these ‘non-paleo’ foods better than others. This is especially true after a period of elimination. To accurately observe your tolerance to any of the aforementioned foods, it’s important to reintroduce one at a time. That way, if you do experience negative side effects, there is an easily identifiable culprit! Keep a food diary and write down any reactions following a meal, as well as 4-6 hours later, and even the next day or two. Some symptoms to look out for including digestive distress and belly pain, bloating, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea, headache, brain fog, fatigue and joint pain, skin breakouts and rashes.
What paleo diet rules do your break and why? Share with us below.