The 10 Biggest Paleo Food Mistakes

With the growing popularity of the Paleolithic diet in recent years, there has been an abundance of information out there about the diet. Along the way, we’ve strayed from the original definition of paleo. In fact, I see a lot of people eating what they think are paleo foods and also trying to make non-paleo foods fit into the paleo lifestyle. While it’s great to have creativity and diversity in your diet, it’s important to not lose track of the reason you are making these dietary changes in the first place: for the benefit of your health.

Paleo is considered an elimination diet, meaning you need to avoid certain food groups and specific foods. What can happen with this approach, is not all dieters have the same understanding about these food groups or some of the nuances of a diet. This is especially true if you are someone following the diet through a friend or family member, and you only have a “general” understanding of the diet. And over time, a food that is not technically paleo becomes a staple food.

My goal with this article is to (1) help you identify these foods that are often mistakenly thought to be paleo, when in fact they are not, and (2) educate you about some specifics you might not know about the original, more strict version of the paleo diet.

So get strapped in, buckle up, and get ready for the ride!

Table of Contents

Paleo Origins and Guidelines
Food Groups Not Allowed On Paleo
10 Biggest Paleo Food Mistakes
Are Manufactured “Paleo Foods” Actually Paleo?
Highly Debatable Paleo Foods
Paleo, Keto, and Gluten-Free – Keeping It All Straight
Your Personal Paleo Lifestyle

Paleo Origins and Guidelines

The Paleolithic time period is characterized by the first tools ever reported in modern history. At this time of the Stone Age, humans were beginning to evolve from nomadic hunters to settled villagers but they still relied heavily on hunting and gathering for food. The tools from this time period were likely used to help with their quest for nourishment although depending on the region, our ancestors had limited food sources available to them.

While it’s important to understand the types of foods our ancestors were eating 10,000 years ago, we must also remember that all food, even our fruit and vegetable choices of today, have changed immensely since that time. Our Paleolithic ancestors are used as inspiration for the paleo diet and serve as a guiding principle for what to eat, rather than a literal food plan. Today’s version of a carrot is not at all the same carrot our ancestors ate, but because it grew from the earth in that era still qualifies it as paleo.

Keeping this in mind, these are the general principles for determining if a food is “paleo” or not, based on the eating habits of the Paleolithic Era:

When answering ‘yes’ to these three questions, we can see that we are left with the following main food groups on the paleo diet: meat/seafood, fruits/vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Food Groups Not Allowed On Paleo

Since the early 1900’s, advances in agricultural and manufacturing technologies lead by huge corporations have caused the addition of many new foods into the American diet, and have subsequently spread across the globe. From a paleo perspective, this means more foods to keep track of and watch out for when preparing for meals and shopping for food.

Cheeses, yogurts, cereals, and baking flours have become everyday staples in many American kitchens. And due to the popularity of these foods (and convenience foods in general), similar foods have been invented like cheese sticks, drinkable yogurts, instant breakfast cereal, and potato chips – and they have been flooding the shelves at local stores for many decades.

But these foods are not paleo, because they fall within food groups or contain ingredients that did not exist during the Paleolithic era.

These food groups are not permitted on the paleo diet:

Foods that contain these ingredients are also not allowed:

More than that, processed foods of any kind are not considered paleo and should be avoided. This means sweets, and most gluten-free and so-called “paleo-friendly” packaged goods readily found at the store.

10 Biggest Paleo Food Mistakes

There are many foods within the grain, legume, and dairy food groups that often get confused with being paleo – but they are not. Even if you follow the paleo diet already, you may be unaware that some of these foods are on the “do not eat” list.

1. Oats and Oatmeal

When we say that grains are forbidden on the paleo diet, that means all grains. Too many people forget that oats and oat products fall in the same family as rice and wheat, meaning they are not allowed on the paleo diet. Certain agricultural advances did not begin until the Neolithic Era, which began after the Stone Age – in other words, the farming of modern-day grains was not available to our Paleolithic ancestors. All types of oats including rolled oats, steel-cut oats, and old-fashioned oats are off limits. The only real difference between these different types of oats is how they are processed, so even minimally processed steel-cut oats should not be eaten on a paleo diet.

2. Granola

Related to oats and oatmeal, granola is another non-paleo food item. Typically made from rolled oats, granola is a big paleo no-no. Especially if it contains processed oils that aren’t paleo-approved, such as vegetable oil and canola oils. Paleo-friendly oils include olive, avocado, walnut and flaxseed; and all should be used in moderation.

If granola is made with nuts and fruit, however, along with a paleo-approved oil and no sweetener, then it is paleo compliant. The challenge here is granola containing paleo-friendly ingredients is rarely – if ever – found in stores and would most likely have to be made at home.

3. Starchy Vegetables

Different types of squash are the only starchy vegetables allowed on the paleo diet. All others including potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yuca), yams, and other starchy tubers are high on the glycemic index and have a high concentration of carbohydrates that directly elevate your blood sugar. Not only is this increased blood sugar not good for your body on a regular basis, these types of vegetables were not readily available in the Paleolithic Era.

4. Green Beans, Peas, and Chickpeas

As a part of the legume family, green beans and peas are off-limits on a strict paleo diet despite their nutritional value. Some might argue that because green beans and peas are full of vitamins and minerals that other legumes don’t have, they are acceptable on the paleo diet. Maybe so if you’re following a flexible version of the diet, but when thinking in terms of true paleo foods, beans and peas are a no-no.

Unfortunately for hummus lovers, chickpeas are also a type legume that is not encouraged if you are following paleo. While they may be packed with protein and fiber, you’ll need to pass on hummus too if you want to be strict on the paleo diet.

5. Soy Products

Soybeans are also a legume, and because legumes are a paleo no-no then anything derived from soy is off-limits as well. For some, excluding soy from your diet could be challenging because soy derivatives often find their way into many processed foods, but by avoiding processed foods altogether the process becomes more simple. Ensure that you aren’t eating raw soybeans or soybean products such as tofu, soy milk, or bean sprouts.

6. Couscous

Popular in many Moroccan dishes, couscous is not considered paleo-friendly because it’s derived from wheat. It’s made from the high protein, low gluten part of the wheat plant but still cannot be considered paleo. When in doubt, it’s best to forgo all types of grains or products derived from grains on the paleo diet.

7. Rice and Quinoa

Other common grains that are not allowed on the paleo diet are rice and quinoa. For many communities, rice is used as a primary source of dietary carbohydrate because it is cheap to buy, easy to prepare, and contains few anti-nutrients. Unfortunately, it doesn’t qualify it as paleo.

Quinoa is becoming quite popular today and is often described as a “superfood” by many health experts. Containing a high amount of carbohydrate and protein (a whopping 8 grams per cup), quinoa’s unique nutritional profile proves its place as a great source of natural, plant-based energy. But from a paleo perspective, quinoa is still considered a grain and not permitted on the diet.

8. Bacon

Bacon is one of those foods that many of us could eat with every meal – fried for breakfast, BLT for lunch, bacon-wrapped chicken for dinner. It is widely believed that although bacon is fatty, buying organic, nitrate-free bacon makes it okay to eat on the paleo diet. Nitrate-free bacon (or any meat for that matter) is much healthier, but there is one key aspect of bacon that still creates an issue for the paleo diet – it’s salt content.

If you read the labels of processed food carefully, you’ll find the amount of salt in processed foods is astounding. There are differing theories as to why big food companies add so much more salt to these foods. One of those theories claims that salt is as addictive and may make consumers eat larger portions [1].

Organic, nitrate-free bacon – although ‘better for you’ – is still highly processed, and contains large quantities of salt. I am not saying that salt is unhealthy (on the contrary, our bodies require enough sodium to help absorb nutrients) but the problem is that we are consuming incredible amounts of salt every day, more than our bodies can use.

Excess salt can negatively impact our immune system, and expose our bodies to a wide range of health issues. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not consuming processed salt, so it’s best to cut back on high-salt foods on the paleo diet, and for your long-term health.

9. Olives

Like bacon, olives are full of added salt. Although they are grown on trees and have been around for centuries, olives are extremely bitter and hard to eat before to processing, so they must be brined in salt water to alleviate that bitterness. This process fills them with salt — which doesn’t necessarily make them unhealthy, but it does make them a food to avoid on the paleo diet.

10. Butter and Heavy Whipping Cream

Whether you’re using butter as a cooking fat or putting cream in your coffee, you’ll need to forgo both if you’re committed to the paleo diet. All types of butter, including salted, unsalted, clarified, sweet cream, and whipped were unheard of in the Paleolithic era. These foods are also highly inflammatory. Our bodies are not meant to process large amounts of dairy past infancy, so many of us have developed an intolerance to dairy products. It’s good to eliminate all dairy on the paleo diet to help your body reduce inflammation and reset your digestive system.

Other milk products, such as whipping cream and half-and-half are also discouraged on the paleo diet. Despite their healthy fat content and nutritional benefits, paleo nutritional experts confirm coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil make great paleo-friendly alternatives to butter, and full-fat coconut milk can replace cream in most recipes.

Are Manufactured “Paleo Foods” Actually Paleo?

This is a big one. There are hundreds, if not thousands of products on the market that have jumped on the paleo bandwagon and claimed to be compliant with the paleo diet. Don’t believe me? Go to Amazon or Pinterest and enter ‘paleo snacks’ in the search bar to see how many products show up. There are paleo crackers, jerky, chips, granola, bread, bars, the list goes on and on.

When broken down into single ingredients, yes, most of these products could be paleo, but they are usually processed in a way that is not aligned with how our Paleolithic ancestors were eating. You should be especially careful with chips and crackers claiming to be paleo because many are made with palm oil, a type of refined oil that is not considered paleo. Sweeter products such as bars and cookies should also be approached with caution since many are made with non-compliant sweeteners.

Paleo breads, baking mixes, wraps, and pizza crusts are another popular category whose ingredients all seem to qualify but the end product is anything but paleo. Entire brands are dedicated to these paleo products now but when thinking back to those core principles of paleo, do the products actually meet the paleo requirements?

Let’s take paleo ‘bread’ made from almond and coconut flour as an example. Did our Paleolithic ancestors have bountiful access to almonds and coconuts? Doubtful. Did they have the means to create flour from these ingredients? Maybe. What about leavening agents required to help the bread rise, or an oven to cook it in? Probably not.

For a bread to be considered paleo-friendly, it has to be made with one of these flours:

Flours and grains used in baked goods that should be avoided on the paleo diet:

You can see how only a few ingredients are allowed for a baked good to technically considered paleo. I can promise you our Paleolithic ancestors were not eating sandwiches for lunch every day. If you mean to mimic the foods our ancestors ate, it’s probably not a good idea to go out of your way to find paleo-safe breads and bakery items.

Highly Debatable Paleo Foods

There are some foods that our Paleolithic ancestors did not eat but are very common in our modern diets. When deciding if these foods are allowed on the paleo diet, rather than asking ourselves if they were consumed by our ancestors, we must also weigh their health benefits. Any of the pre-packaged ‘paleo’ products I listed in the last section we can live without; there is truly no added health benefit to eating bread made of coconut flour or a granola bar made from dates and nuts.

Yet, studies have shown that the foods listed below have important health benefits when consumed in moderation so you do not necessarily need to exclude them from your paleo diet altogether.

1. Coffee

Coffee has become such a dominant part of our modern culture that many people claim they can’t function without it. For that reason alone, you don’t need to fret about cutting out your beloved morning caffeine fix if you want to start the paleo diet.

A few years ago experts revealed that drinking too much coffee could have negative side effects and even cause cancer. Those studies have since been debunked and new studies show that coffee consumption, particularly the caffeine found in coffee, may help prevent multiple diseases when consumed in moderation [2].

2. Dark Chocolate

Much like coffee, dark chocolate has hidden health benefits that are often overlooked due to the popular assumption that chocolate is unhealthy. Milk chocolate loaded with sugar is not good for you but a small piece of natural, dark cacao contains a flavanol called epicatechin which can help lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation [3]. This is not new science; the benefits of dark cacao date back thousands of years. Even though this healthy treat was not available to our paleolithic ancestors, it’s allowed in moderation on the paleo diet.

3. Hemp Seeds

Another questionable food that is allowed in moderation on the paleo diet are hemp seeds. These nutrient-packed seeds have a full amino acid profile, are high in healthy fats, and are a great source of plant-based protein. Although our Paleolithic ancestors weren’t farming hemp for a few more centuries, this superfood packs a healthy punch and is fine to add to salads or blend into smoothies on occasion when following the paleo diet.

4. Chia Seeds and Flax Seeds

Both chia and flax seeds have steadily become a more popular source of plant-based fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and are believed to be an approved part of the paleo diet. While there are many nutritional benefits to eating these types of seeds, there are also risks with eating them, especially for people who experience gastrointestinal issues.

Chia and flax seeds are a kind of soluble fiber called mucilage that have beneficial medicinal purposes and can help reduce harmful bacteria in the gut. However, this fiber can also cause a hormonal imbalance in people who already suffer from an autoimmune disease or experience gut discomfort. While many of us should be able to tolerate flax and chia seeds in moderation, it may be best to avoid them altogether. One of the goals of the paleo diet is to simplify the foods we eat to mimic the diets of our ancestors, so although flax and chia are technically allowed on the paleo diet, they may be doing more harm than good.

5. Natural Sweeteners

Naturally occurring sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses, and dates are not necessarily forbidden on the paleo diet, but they are not encouraged either. Our ancestors did not sweeten their foods that we know of. Although a small amount of these sweeteners are okay, they are not something you should consume on a daily basis when eating a paleo diet.

6. Paleo Baking

Just the term “baking” raises some red flags as to whether it’s allowed on the paleo diet or not. We know that our paleolithic ancestors were not baking cookies and muffins, so these types of foods typically don’t qualify as paleo even if their separate ingredients are paleo-approved.

If you don’t know what I mean by “paleo baking”, go to Pinterest or Google and search for “paleo recipes.” You’ll find many lunch and dinner recipes that look delicious (and compliant!) but you will also find recipes for paleo muffins, brownies, cakes, and cookies that closely imitate their non-paleo counterparts. These baked goods are made with paleo-approved ingredients that you can buy at a grocery store but the end product is far from true paleo. Many of these recipes also call for added sweeteners that are not recommended on the paleo diet, which further removes them from true paleo eating.

Paleo, Keto, and Gluten-Free – Keeping It All Straight

A common trap a lot of people fall into is assuming that if a food is “keto” or gluten-free, then it must be paleo. Even so-called “nutrition experts” make this mistake. The ketogenic diet is purely a macros-based diet, requiring high-fat and low-carb dietary intakes. This can be achieved through non-paleo foods quite easily. For example, bacon is a huge deal for keto-dieters. I see keto foods that are wrapped in bacon, sprinkled in bacon bits, and include bacon as an entree by itself . Not one of these options is considered paleo. Other common keto foods that are not paleo are laid out above, including beans and dairy products like cream, cheese and butter.

Gluten-free and wheat-free foods are not automatically paleo either. In fact, a baked good can be labeled both and still be considered non-paleo. Buckwheat, barley, rye and some steel-cut oats, for example, are wheat-free but not gluten-free and can be harmful to people that are sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease. Just like quinoa – which is another food that is wheat-free but not gluten-free – they would also not be paleo.

“Just because something is gluten-free, does not mean it’s paleo.”

Your Personal Paleo Lifestyle

I am aware that when creating a lifestyle out of a diet, it’s important to have balance so you do not burn out on the same foods. Many foods I’ve listed that fall into the “up for debate” category are not only nutritious in different ways, but they are also enjoyable and offer diversity to your everyday meals. This is an important factor in choosing a diet to follow because if you do not enjoy the foods you are eating it’s less likely to be a sustainable lifestyle for you.

There are many versions of the paleo diet and different ways to approach it depending on your personal nutrition goals. Are you trying to lose weight? Improve your overall health? Introduce more whole foods to your family’s diet? These objectives would require minor adjustments to your calories and macros within the diet, and can easily be solved with a little paleo meal planning.

No matter your approach, following the general paleo guidelines is sure to improve your eating habits and ultimately your health. By eliminating certain food groups and fueling your body with nutritious, wholesome foods, you can give your body more energy, improve its digestion, and feel great. If you choose to go paleo, stick with it because as with all lifestyle changes, consistency is key.

Resources

  1. https://slate.com/technology/2013/05/salt-dietary-guidelines-why-do-food-manufacturers-use-so-much-salt.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28675917
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26456559

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