By Lisa D'Agrosa, M.S., R.D., EatingWell Digital Nutrition Editor
I’ve had countless friends ask me if they should “go Paleo” and while I don’t recommend the diet as a whole (read more about the pros and cons here), there are certainly some healthy principles that we all can borrow from the popular plan.
The Paleo Diet is based on eating like our ancestors ate, back when they were still hunting and gathering. It eliminates foods that weren’t around back then, which makes sense since we’ve certainly taken some steps in the wrong direction in the past many thousand years when it comes to the foods we eat. (I’m looking at you, neon-orange cheese powder and doughnut cheeseburgers.)
With that in mind, here are 5 Paleo Diet principles worth following to help you eat better in our modern world.
1. Cut Out Processed Foods
People eating a Paleo-style diet don’t eat many foods that come out of a package. Limit foods like pretzels, chips, ice cream, sugary cereals and other not-so-good-for-you foods. This will help you cut down on your intake of refined grains (which have been stripped of beneficial fiber), as well as added sugar and sodium. Plus, the more you make food at home, the more control you have over the ingredients that go into your body.
2. Eat Wild-Caught Seafood and Grass-Fed Meats
Our long-ago ancestors didn’t eat meats and seafood that came from an industrialized farming system. For that reason, the Paleo Diet emphasizes purchasing animal protein that has been raised sustainably. Not only is that better for the environment, but it may be better for you as well. Grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than beef from cows fed corn and soy feed. And wild-caught fish are typically more sustainable and have more omega-3s than their farm-raised counterparts. Why should you care about omega-3s? They’re good for your heart and brain health, skin (they help keep it firm) and may even boost your mood.
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3. Get Your Veggies and Fill Up on Fruits
Since the Paleo Diet cuts out grains and legumes, all carbohydrates on the plan come from fruits and veggies. Most of us aren’t getting the recommended servings of produce we need, which means we’re missing out on important vitamins and minerals and fiber. So while whole grains and beans are still a great source of fiber (and not something I would advise cutting out), we should all load up on produce as our Paleo friends do. Some easy ways to eat more: sub spaghetti squash for pasta, use greens as a “wrap” and add veggies to omelets.
4. Cut Down on Salt
Paleo eaters have put down their salt shakers and so should you. Cutting back on salt can help improve your blood pressure and minimize other risks of cardiovascular disease. But decreasing salt doesn’t mean you have to eat bland foods. Choose fresh ingredients over packaged ones and pump up the flavor with spices and herbs and you won’t miss the salt as much.
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5. Minimize Added Sugar
Minus the natural kind found in fruit, there’s virtually no sugar eaten on the Paleo Diet (which means no honey, maple syrup or other natural sweeteners either). Since most of us need help with our sweet tooth—the average American eats 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day, more than triple what’s recommended by the American Heart Association—take a page from the Paleo folks and cut down on your added sugar. One easy sugar swap: instead of flavored yogurts, buy plain and add fruit to naturally sweeten it.
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Paleo Diet Caveats
This diet is fairly restrictive and bans all whole grains, legumes and dairy. Most of us get needed calcium and vitamin D from milk and yogurt, as well as fiber and B vitamins from grains. The Paleo Diet is also low in carbohydrates, and limiting those may not be so great for your memory and mood.
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