by Laura Tobias, MS, RD, CD & CrossFit Level 1 Trainer
Proper nutrition is an indispensable part of living a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, one of the most common pitfalls people make is that they put so much time and effort into working out and exercising that they slow – or even backtrack – their progress by not putting as much time and effort into their nutrition. No matter how many kale smoothies you consume, you cannot out train a bad diet.
While there are many theories and opinions out there as to what constitutes the “best” diet, the Paleo diet is one of the most popular diets on the market today. The Paleo diet is based off the diet of our ancient ancestors; it is a diet that is based around foods that were around before the advent of modern agriculture. In a nutshell (pun intended!), followers of the Paleo diet consume meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats, while eliminating grains, added sugars, dairy, legumes, alcohol, industrial seed oils (i.e., canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and peanut oils), and processed foods. Sound a little extreme? Curious, but not ready to make the jump into a full-blown Paleo diet? You can still reap some of the wonderful benefits of a Paleo template by adopting some of the following core principles of the diet and lifestyle into your daily routine.
Make half of your plate non-starchy vegetables
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Paleo diet is that it is a meat-focused diet. Sadly, the Paleo diet does not consist of having a plate of bacon at every meal. While meat does play a significant role in the Paleo diet, it is by no means the star of the show. Non-starchy vegetables (i.e., leafy greens, zucchini, peppers, onions, mushrooms, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.) contain a ton of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants and have been shown to protect against heart disease and certain types of cancer. At every meal, focus on making at least half of your plate non-starchy vegetables. Bonus points if you can fit in three different colored veggies!
Eliminate processed, refined foods, artificial sweeteners, and added sugars
Processed foods are often nutrient-poor and can contain trans-fats, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease. We should consume natural, whole foods that support our bodies’ natural biological and physiological processes, rather than foods that have been mechanically altered in a factory. If your grandmother or great-grandmother would not recognize a certain food or ingredient, it’s probably no good! When grocery shopping, keep to the perimeter of the store; fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood can be found in this area. The only foods to avoid in the perimeter of the store are those pesky bakery items, which always seem to be coming out of the oven as soon as I enter the store!
Focus on quality, sustainably raised meats and seafood
The chicken at your local grocery store has little in common, nutritionally, with the chicken our ancient ancestors were eating. Unfortunately, the majority of meat found in the supermarket has been raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”). In order to cheaply and quickly produce meat, CAFOs raise and feed animals in environments that vastly differ from the animals’ natural habitats. Instead of grazing on grass, cows are now fed corn, grains, and antibiotics in an attempt to quickly fatten them for slaughter. As a result, the nutrient profile of CAFO meat differs from the nutrient profile of properly raised, pastured animals. For example, grass-fed beef has a more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids compared to CAFO beef. When possible, choose local, pasture raised meats and wild caught seafood for their superior nutrient profile.
Fat is your friend!
Arguably one of the greatest nutritional mistakes of the past century was the recommendation of a “low-fat, fat-free” diet approach. When we remove naturally occurring fats in foods, we have to replace them with something else. More times than naught, fat is replaced with sugar, artificial sweeteners, or hydrogenated oils, none of which will help you achieve optimal health. Healthy fats – such as those found in coconut, avocado, well-raised meats, eggs, fish, nuts, and seeds – are satiating and nourishing! Furthermore, healthy fats are needed to support brain health, skin health, and cognitive function. A 2010 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that there is no significant evidence that intake of saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. It’s time we reclaim our health by embracing – rather than fearing – the healthy, natural fats found in foods such as eggs, nuts, avocados, coconut, meats, and fish!
Exercise – get out and move daily!
Exercise can help relieve stress, improve cardiovascular health, manage your weight, improve body composition, and improve your mood. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily. And don’t forget about the weights! Strength training can help build lean muscle, rev up your metabolism, and support healthy bones.
Manage and reduce stress
In this day and age, stress is pretty much an inevitable part of life. Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are released during stressful situations; they are the hormones responsible for the “fight or flight” response that our ancestors experienced when they were being chased by wild animals. However, in today’s stress-filled society, these stress hormones are constantly being released in our bodies. Chronically high levels of cortisol and adrenaline can lead to anxiety, fatigue, weight gain (especially in the mid-section), decreased libido, and difficulty sleeping. Reducing stress by even a small amount can have a positive impact on your health and lifestyle. Take 20-30 minutes out of your day and spend it on an activity you enjoy, whether it be curling up with a good book, taking an Epsom salt bath, going for a walk, completing a crossword, meditating, doing yoga, or whatever makes you truly happy.
Sleep, glorious sleep!
Sleep is a time for our bodies to rebuild, repair, and detoxify all of our cells, tissues, and muscles. Sleep deprivation has been linked to alterations in hormones that are associated with regulating our appetite (ex. leptin, insulin, and ghrelin). As a result, we are not only hungrier throughout the day, but we can also experience cravings for sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods in an attempt to quickly boost our energy levels. Aim to get around 8 hours of quality sleep per night!
Even if you are not ready to adopt a full-blown Paleo diet and lifestyle, try incorporating one of these habits into your lifestyle. Hope these tips are helpful in your journey to optimal health!