I like the idea behind the paleo diet.
It seems sensible to try to emulate the diet our ancestors ate while we were evolving. However, even though I like the idea, I don’t like the way the diet is prescribed in many cases.
It seems to have gone beyond just science and started becoming more about ideology. There are many modern foods that are healthy, but actively discouraged on the paleo diet. I think this is a mistake.
Nutrition should be about science and doing what works best for the individual, NOT ideology or “nutriligion” as someone has called it.
Humans evolved eating a variety of foods and our genes have changed (not much, but some) since the paleolithic period. I think the idea of a paleo “template” is more reasonable. That is, eat the foods humans evolved eating, then add the modern foods that you like, tolerate and science has shown to be healthy.
Here are 4 foods that technically aren’t paleo, but are still super healthy.
1. Full-Fat Dairy Products From Grass-Fed Cows
One of the pillars of a strict paleo diet is the elimination of all dairy products.
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I think this is a mistake, because plenty of people tolerate dairy just fine. Although a large part of the world is lactose intolerant, many populations have acquired an enzyme to break down and make full use of lactose, the main carbohydrate found in milk.
Full-fat dairy products are particularly healthy, as long as they come from grass-fed cows. This includes foods like butter, cheese and full-fat yogurt. Full-fat dairy contains bioactive fatty acids like butyrate, which is potently anti-inflammatory.
Best of all, full-fat dairy products are loaded with Vitamin K2, a powerful but often ignored nutrient that regulates calcium metabolism in the body. Most importantly, Vitamin K2 helps to keep calcium inside our bones and outside of our arteries.
Studies have shown that Vitamin K2 is highly protective against fractures (lowering the risk by 60-81 percent) and cardiovascular disease. The Rotterdam study showed that people who had the highest K2 intake had a 57 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 26 percent lower risk of death from all causes, over a 7-10 year period.
In countries where cows are largely grass-fed, consuming full-fat dairy products is linked to major reductions in the risk of heart disease. One study from Australia showed that those who ate the most full-fat dairy had a 69 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who ate the least.
A lot people are concerned that because full-fat dairy is high in fat and calories, that it can cause weight gain. However, the evidence disagrees. In fact, eating dairy fat is linked to a reduced risk of obesity in numerous studies.
That being said, there are some people who can’t tolerate dairy. If you get some sort of negative reaction from eating dairy products, then by all means avoid them. But for people who do tolerate and enjoy them, then there is absolutely no scientifically valid reason to avoid quality dairy products from grass-fed cows.
Bottom Line: Unprocessed, full-fat dairy products from grass-fed cows are incredibly healthy. They are high in important vitamins like Vitamin K2, as well as beneficial fatty acids like butyrate.
2. Dark Chocolate
There are also studies showing that dark chocolate can reduce insulin resistance, a major risk factor for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Dark chocolate is one of those rare indulgent foods that happen to be incredibly healthy and nutritious.
One problem with chocolate in general is that it often contains some sugar. However, if you choose dark chocolate with 70-85 percent (or higher) cocoa content, then the sugar amount will be minimal and the benefits will far outweigh the negatives.
There have actually been numerous studies on the health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa, especially for heart and brain function. Dark chocolate and cocoa can lower blood pressure, raise HDL cholesterol and protect LDL particles from oxidative damage.
There are also studies showing that dark chocolate can reduce insulin resistance, a major risk factor for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In some studies, people who eat the most cocoa and dark chocolate have a 50-57 percent lower risk of heart disease, which is an insanely high number.
Of course, these types of studies are observational in nature and can not prove that the chocolate caused the reduction in risk. But given the confirmed effects on important risk factors like blood pressure, insulin resistance and LDL oxidation, I find it plausible that dark chocolate and cocoa could in fact reduce heart disease risk.
That being said, the benefits of dark chocolate don’t end with the heart. There are also studies showing that it can cause major improvements in brain function (at least in the elderly) and give the skin natural protection against sunburn.
Dark chocolate wasn’t available in the paleolithic period, but it’s still one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Just make sure to choose quality, organic dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, and don’t eat a lot of it, think of it more as a supplement.
One or two squares per day or a few times per week should be enough.
Bottom Line: Dark chocolate is a “modern” food, but numerous studies show that it has powerful health benefits, especially for heart health.
3. White Potatoes
The original paleo diet book took a hard stance against potatoes.
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I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, because potatoes are a root vegetable that was available in the paleolithic period. Some other versions of paleo, like the Perfect Health Diet, actively encourage foods like potatoes, which they refer to as “safe” starches.
Potatoes are actually incredibly nutritious. A single potato contains lots of Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron and various other nutrients. Really, potatoes contain almost every nutrient we need in some amount, including a decent amount of protein with all the essential amino acids.
There have even been accounts of people living on nothing but potatoes for long periods of time, without any apparent negative effects on health.
Another important feature of potatoes is that they may just be the most fulfilling food in existence. In fact, they score higher on a scale called the satiety index than any other food tested. What this means is that by eating potatoes, you will feel naturally full and end up eating less of other foods instead.
If you want to make your potatoes even healthier, you can allow them to cool after cooking them. This greatly increases the resistant starch content, which is a an indigestible type of starch that functions like soluble fiber.
The only problem with potatoes is the high carb content, so people who are on a very low-carb diet may want to avoid them. But for people who are active and metabolically healthy, potatoes are pretty close to being nature’s perfect food.
It makes absolutely no sense why they shouldn’t be allowed on a paleo diet. They’re as “real” as a food can get.
Bottom Line: White potatoes were discouraged in the original version of the paleo diet. However, they are incredibly healthy, highly nutritious and among the most fulfilling foods in existence.
Despite having been demonized in the past, studies have now shown that coffee is actually very healthy.
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Studies have consistently linked coffee consumption to a lower risk of many diseases, especially type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and liver diseases. Not only that, but numerous studies suggest that people who drink coffee live longer than people who don’t.
Coffee is actively discouraged in the original paleo diet book, although others like The Primal Blueprint (my favorite version) do allow for coffee.
Although some people are overly sensitive to caffeine, most people can tolerate coffee just fine. As long as you don’t drink too much and don’t drink it late in the day (which can have negative effects on sleep), then there is absolutely NO reason to avoid coffee if you enjoy it.
Coffee was probably not consumed in the paleolithic period (neither was tea, for that matter), but it’s still very healthy and incredibly enjoyable.
Just make sure to choose quality coffee and don’t put sugar in it.
Take Home Message
The truth is, we don’t even know exactly what our paleolithic ancestors ate and there is also no “one” type of paleo diet.
What people ate varied greatly between regions, depending on the food that was available at the time. Some ate a high-carb diet high in plants, others a low-carb diet high in animal foods.
The one thing we do know for certain is that paleolithic humans didn’t eat anything made in a factory.
This includes refined sugar, refined grains, trans fats, veggie oils and any sort of processed food that is impossible to make naturally.
Humans evolved eating real food, plain and simple. That’s what we should be focusing on.
It is a good idea to consider the foods humans evolved eating, because it is likely that these foods will be both safe and healthy for our bodies.
But there are plenty of “modern” foods that are healthy too. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s bad.
If you enjoy a food, get good results eating it and science has shown it to be healthy, then avoiding it just because it isn’t “paleo” according to some narrow definition of what that means, is ridiculous.