Five Years Paleo – 10 Lessons Learned

2015 really flew by, huh? I had quite a crazy ride over this past year: I released an eBook, a New York Times-bestselling cookbook, a smartphone/tablet app, embarked on a 12-week book tour, and welcomed our second son into the world. At the same time, this little website reached over 2.5 million readers, and a Yahoo news article about my health journey went viral.

More so than in previous years, I’ve caught myself reflecting on that fateful day in December 2010, when I first stumbled upon the ideas behind the Paleo diet. A lot has changed since then, and the movement has greatly expanded from the few forums that existed when I first changed my diet and restored my health. Here are 10 ideas on food and nutrition I’d like to share.


Taco Bowls – “Paleo” or not? Does it matter?

1. In order for the Paleo diet to survive beyond its fad status, we will need to approach foods beyond a “eat / do not eat” list.

When first approaching the diet, I appreciated the strict list of foods that were and weren’t allowed within the confines of Paleo, because they gave me clear guidance in a time when I needed it. I’m thankful for the path to health that Paleo first set me on, but over the years I found that while the diet provides an excellent initial framework, it’s not always a complete solution. Rather, it requires a bit of self-tweaking to find out what works for you individually; and in addition, there’s a bit of “gray area” amongst the black-and-white Paleo template.

Grains and legumes are not necessarily evil, nor irredeemable. I’ve been talking about the merits of white rice for nearly five years, and my stance hasn’t changed; it may indeed be a grain, and like all plants it contains some level of toxic anti-nutrients. But its most prominent anti-nutrient, phytic acid, is significantly less prominent than in many common foods, like almonds, coconut, and spinach. Moreover, it can be cooked in broth and with other seasonings, like in the Mexican Rice pictured above, to significantly increase its nutritional profile. Also, incorporating it into your eating routine may make your meals more satisfying, making you less likely to give in to food temptations (see #2 below). Lastly, it’s very affordable (see #4 below). Other grains that we eat from time to time include corn (usually in the form of homemade popcorn or corn tortillas), and gluten-free oats.

In terms of legumes, I have found that certain beans – green beans, peas, and fermented soy products like miso and tamari – aren’t quite as detrimental as some of their cousins. Green beans and peas have been cultivated to the point where they’re edible when eaten raw, unlike other legumes; and the fermentation process destroys most of the toxic components of soy, rendering it more safe to eat.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is what works for you. No food is infallible – some folks cannot eat rice, while others cannot eat tomatoes – and it’s potentially dangerous to dismiss a whole, nutritious food from your diet simply because it’s labeled as “not Paleo” based on an “eat / do not eat” list. As Mark Sisson so elegantly put it in 2011, “To malign an entire category of food with impunity and without regard for the subtleties that exist between individual foods within that category is foolish.”

The way I see it, while eating from a list of approved foods makes for excellent marketing and a catchy tagline, a more nuanced, mature approach to nutrition is our best bet for sustained health.

2. Capitalize on naturally flavorful foods and your innate taste preferences.

One of the tenets of ancestral nutrition is that humans evolved in a particular way to prefer a specific diet – based on the foods available to us from the birth of humans some 3+ million years ago to the advent of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. And while the debate on what foods we ate (and what foods we should eat) continues, one thing remains certain – humans crave certain tastes and textures. Why is it that sometimes there’s nothing better than crisp chips, flavorful sauces, or sweet and rich ice cream? My take is that our innate food preferences are a result of evolutionary cues.

Paul Jaminet explains this idea the best, but I’ll paraphrase: humans need certain nutrients in order to survive, and in general ratios of macronutrients (fats, carbs, and proteins). For example, how could we be compelled to spend all day digging for a few hundred calories’ worth of tubers (carbs), when there were millions of calories to be found by taking down one large animal (fat and protein)? The logical explanation is that we developed an innate preference for carbs, which then encouraged us to make an effort to dig up those scarce tubers. But in today’s environment, no food is scarce, which has led to a disbalance in our eating – our cravings encourage us to overeat certain foods that were previously hard to find.

In other words, we should seek those tastes we crave, but from natural sources. That’s the basis I use for building my meals and writing my recipes; by eating flavorful meals that are nutritious, delicious, and satisfying, I’m able to maintain my diet without feeling like it’s a compromise. I also try and eat my meals with a certain macronutrient ratio and balance of components (step #3).

3. Sectioning your meals into components helps to create balance.

When building my meal plans for the week, I found that when I broke down my meals in terms of the four categories above, it became easy to come up with ideas for each dinner. Moreover, it seems that this ratio – equal weights of protein, carbs, and other vegetables – is ideally aligned with traditional practices.

These amounts sound obscene at first glance: an entire pound of meat? An entire pound of starches? I thought the same thing initially, but I was surprised to see how little 1 lb of starchy foods actually are, since they are generally heavy in terms of weight. 1 lb of boiled potato is 91g of carbs, while other veggies are much lower (beets are 45g, squash is 48g, peas are 65g). Less than 50g of carbs a day is considered very low carb, and can often induce ketosis. Rice (130g) and sweet potatoes (110g) are the highest, but they’re still below the 150g usually associated with weight gain. Alternatively, when you divide the intake into two 8oz portions, it sounds much more reasonable.

Proteins: seafood, fish, beef, lamb, bison, wild game, pork, duck, chicken, turkey, eggs
Starchy foods: rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, peas, parsnips, plantains, yuca, taro, winter squash
Hardy vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, radish, turnip, cucumber, green beans, eggplant, summer squash
Leafy vegetables: lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach, greens, herbs (side salad or braised/sautéed greens)

I treat fruits, berries, chocolate, and nuts as treats (first articulated as “pleasure foods” in the Perfect Health Diet), to be eaten seasonally and sparingly, and not factored into meal building. Healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, butter, and ghee) and acids (citrus fruits, vinegars, alcohol, and acidic vegetables like tomatoes) are added naturally during the cooking process – like fats to keep food from sticking, and acids to add brightness to the final dish.

For the past year or so I’ve been using this template when calculating portions for the recipes on this site, as well as the dishes that appear in Paleo Takeout. Eating this way is also very economical (step #4).

Macronutrient ratios are very individualized, as there are many factors involved: activity level, genetics, metabolic history, sleep, and gut flora. For example, my wife naturally eats a bit less than I do, and our son Oliver rarely eats leafy vegetables (although I often sneak them into his taco bowls).

4. Consider the economical benefit of safe starches.

The following is an excerpt from my eBook, The Safe Starch Cookbook, which I think is fitting for this post. The two charts below are based on average online grassfed/pastured meat prices and organic co-op produce prices as of December 2014. I kept it simple, with common, frequently-eaten foods. There was a bit of fun math involved in these calculations; for example, a dozen eggs usually weigh 1.5 lbs, so I multiplied a $3 avg price for eggs by 2/3 to get the per-pound cost. Okay, enough nerdery, let’s move on to why this matters.

By eating one pound a day each of protein, starches, and veggies, that equals about 90 pounds a month of meat and produce, as charted below (you might eat more beef or eggs than that, but again, this is just an example). When factoring in average costs for these items, it appears that a diet that includes safe starches is about $293 per person (not factoring in pantry items since those are of similar cost across the board).

Low-carb diets tend to result in a higher protein intake, since our bodies naturally consume more protein during an absence of carbs, in order to convert some of that protein to glucose for energy. I made an assumption that low-carbers still eat some carbs (4oz/day), and maintain a one-pound vegetable intake (and likely a higher fat intake to even out an overall caloric deficit).

This example highlights that incorporating safe starches into your diet could save you something like $68 per person, per month – over $4,000 a year for a family of five! There’s a reason that starchy foods have been staple and survival foods for millennia. Think of it this way: if your current grocery budget cannot support grassfed and pastured meats for your family, incorporating safe starches into your family’s eating habits might allow you to afford these items. Or you could use the extra money to go to Disney World. I won’t judge.

5. Owning, and regularly using, pantry staples can seriously up your cooking game.

A quick and easy way to boost the flavor in your meals is to stock your pantry with some ingredients. Many of these items are prominent in my recipes, and adding a drop here or there to dishes can excite the tastebuds and bring out the flavor in the other ingredients. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I consider essentials:

Acids: apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, red & white wine vinegars, limes, lemons, cooking wines (rice, white, red)
Fats: ghee, butter, coconut oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil
Flavor boosters: fish sauce, shrimp paste, Tabasco or other hot sauce, anchovy paste, tomato paste, worcestershire sauce, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, mustard
Dried goods: dried chiles, spices, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, dried shrimp

6. Take advantage of modern gadgets.

While eating like our great-grandparents is likely a helpful frame of mind, it’s not necessary to cook like them. It can take over 12 hours to make a flavorful, nutrient-dense broth over a stovetop, but does it need to? Modern gadgets like the Instant Pot, convection microwaves, or a smartphone-enabled remote thermometer save valuable time in the kitchen and help produce excellent results.


Jambalaya, easy to make in large batches

7. Consider cooking only once a day.

At our house, I only cook once a day – for dinner. I fast through breakfast or put together a simple meal of protein (a bit of jerky, dried fish, canned fish) and fruit (banana, apple, berries), and then enjoy leftovers for lunch. When making dinner, I prepare extra portions to eat for the following day’s lunch. This gives me the flexibility to focus on preparing only one meal a day, while keeping the fridge fully stocked with delicious prepared food. Other folks have found utility in batch-cooking on the weekend, which I think is a great idea, too. In the end, what matters is finding a solution that works for you and your family.

8. Branch out to world cuisines. There are times when you may crave familiar tastes (the underlying reason why I wrote Paleo Takeout), but sometimes cooking at home all the time can get a bit boring. I’ve found that experimenting with new flavor combinations, often using spices already in your pantry, can broaden your cooking skills and bring some variety into your home. Some of my favorite examples include Sukuma Wiki and this week’s recipe, Bobotie.

9. Despite what the media may say, Paleo is not a meat-focused diet.

I’ll be honest – when preparing a meal, I usually build it based on the meat first. If I have chicken on hand, I’ll come up with a meal that uses it, and put together the rest of the meal based on how I prepare the chicken. But all the same, the amount of protein pales in size compared to the rest of the meal (see #3 above). If popular media articles were any indication, Paleo eaters dine solely on meat (while wearing loincloths, naturally). But luckily, actual eating trends are swinging the other way – for example, the most-visited recipe on this site in 2015 was the Ital Stew dish you see above.

10. When it comes to optimal health, diet does not exist in a vacuum. You’re probably heard the old adage, “you cannot outrun a bad diet”, implying that exercise will not provide you with health on its own. Similarly, I have found that my own inflammatory markers (measured via periodic bloodwork) is lowest when I am regularly getting at least eight hours of sleep.

Other indicators have a large impact on overall health, besides sleep: exposure to sunlight, low stress, time spent in nature, regular exercise, and an active lifestyle are all important. Incorporating each of these elements into my life has has just as profound an impact on the way I feel as eating right.


Thanks to everyone for making 2015 a year to remember. I have a feeling 2016 will be pretty great, too!

83 thoughts on “Five Years Paleo – 10 Lessons Learned

  1. Awesome lessons! I’ve learned that for me adding back rice, fermented soy, AND quinoa has been great for my nutritional well-being. I may often cook twice a day (if you count quickly boiling up a couple breakfast eggs), but otherwise…

    International cooking and flavors is why I’ve really enjoyed your books and blog. Have a happy 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post… thank you. One question…. Your “categories” differ slightly from The Perfect Health Diet “apple” categories. For instance, you have beets in with Starchy vegs and carrots in with Hardy Vegs, whereas in PHD they are together in the “sugary plants” categories. Would you care to comment on the differences? Also, in your categories… am I correct in thinking that if a vegetable is not a Leafy Green and is not in the Starchy veg category, then it would be in the Hardy veg category? I am thinking of vegetables like artichokes….. TIA

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    1. Susan, good questions! Yes, any vegetable that’s not starch or leafy, like artichokes, would fall under the hardy category.

      In terms of my meal-planning plate and the PHD apple, there is a bit of difference between the two (I built mine based on the previous PHD apple, which was replaced in 2015 with this new one), but I think they serve the same function in two different ways. My plate is designed to help build meals and to be used as a reminder to put one of each category on your plate. I’ve always found it easiest to break my meals down by starch, vegetable, and protein.

      The new PHD apple, by contrast, is designed to ensure you are eating the right amounts of micro and macronutrients. I would say that in the end, eating from either guide will end up with a very similar amount of food on your plate – the PHD apple counts sugary plants, whereas our family doesn’t count them but still eats them. I think of the two graphics as two paths to the same goal. Hope that makes sense!

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      1. It does make sense… thank you. As a senior citizen who is somewhat overweight (25 lbs), I have been searching for a way to get back to being my “ideal” weight and having more energy. I started my search about 2 years ago and first found some general discussions of paleo, then found Mark Sisson and Mark’s Daily Apple (a huge help to get me started), then found Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet which seemed almost perfect for me and that led me to you. Your “plate” divided into the 4 categories makes the most sense to me. And I thank Paul Jaminet and you for leading the “white rice can be good” brigade. I find that it helps keep the cravings at bay.

        During my 2 year search for a better way to eat, what has really struck me was that as a kid growing up in the 1950s our dinner was ALWAYS protein, starch, vegetables and a small side salad. Almost always “real” food. Very few packaged/processed foods. And I was a healthy active kid and teenager.

        I continued to eat that way through the 1960s, 70s and 80s and then more and more “convenience” foods and fast foods and packaged foods started to creep into my way of eating. And that’s when I started feeling not as good as I had all of my life.

        And… as a side note… back in the 50s and 60s as you walked around town, most people were of an average normal weight (what most would call “thin” today.) Anyone who was very overweight was very noticeable. Not true today sadly…… If you look at high school and college yearbooks from the 60s and 70s, you will see what I mean.

        And that, to me, is a big reason why I believe that eating the paleo, Primal, Perfect Health Diet, Domestic Man way is the healthiest choice. I have been dabbling in this way of eating for the past 2 years, but keep falling back into the “easier” convenience food habits. 2016 is the year that I commit to this way of eating …… I will keep reminding myself about how I ate as a kid and young adult and how great I felt. Thank you for all that you do.

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  3. Thanks Russ for this well written, very informative article. I’ll be sure to share this with others as a good counter to the cost and safe starch debate with Paleo eating. Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy new year!

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  4. Happy New Year to you and your family! Thank you for all you do. This was a great post that I will read again and again. #7 seems key to me. I spend so much time cooking and planning / preparing food, I often feel burned out. I missed the original post for Ital Stew back in the summer when okra, my husband’s favorite vegetable, was in season. Is there another vegetable that’s readily available in winter that adds a good touch to a dish with plantain in soup form? (Putting plantain into broth will also be a first experience for me. Good idea!)

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    1. I would say this dish will still work fine if you omit the okra and cook the rest as-is; the combination of coconut milk and plantain add more than enough tropical notes to the stew – it’s one of my favorites!

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  5. Great article Russ, and Happy New Year to you and your family!
    I’ve followed PHD for nearly 2 years now and love your recipes and guidance. I like our food approach described as whole/natural food-based and traditional (vs. paleo) for the reasons you outlined. While paleo recipes are a great source for ideas and guidance, most recipes in the traditional culinary universe are already PHD (or nearly so and easily modifiable) because it’s ancestral/traditional, nutritious and balanced. Wonderful websites like yours help bring this to life for us with delicious and healthy preparations, ingredients and flavor combinations from around the globe. Thank you for this and also for sharing your health journey!

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    1. Peta, good question, and there’s some flexibility there; I personally would put avocado under the fruit/fat/acid category of foods that are added to meals but not to be calculated when building a meal, because I use it more as a condiment (a few slices on top of a salad, for example). If you’re eating a lot of it, like a whole avocado with your eggs in the morning, I would put it under the “hardy veg” category.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I was also wondering about avocado. I usually have 1/4 to 1/2 an avocado a day… and I do eat it with my eggs in the morning !!!

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  6. Great post! I don’t know a lot about the Paleo diet, however I am do think processed foods are the root of many of our collective health problems. Teaching others to eat better through cooking procedures and the use of pantry staples is a great way to help others improve their diet’s. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You are so helpful to me. Beyond the recipes, I mean. I appreciate all the insights you share, your common sense approach and your simple guides, like the meal template above. I try to pay you back by sharing the bejeebers out of your blog. :)

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  8. Russ, you say that you’ll eat dried fish for breakfast. I’ve been interested in dried fish but don’t know where to start. What types/styles do you like?

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    1. Hi Asa, I usually eat from a rotating cast of bacalau (soaked overnight), cold smoked salmon, and canned sardines, mackerel, or clams. My in-laws will occasionally send dried fish from Hawaii as well. Trader Joe’s sells king salmon jerky that is pretty good; it contains brown sugar but I consider that a minor compromise. There are online vendors that sell dried fish or fish jerky, the price is high but a little goes a long way – I usually only eat an ounce or two each morning (and I also fast many mornings), so it lasts a while.

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  9. Thank you for the great post. I am looking to post about the Paleo diet on my health and fitness website soon too (www.evidencebyanecdote.com). This gave me some good inspiration and insight…

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  10. Even though I’m not on a paleo diet, your paleo dishes looks so appetizing and healthy. They also looked very low in fat, which I personally like.

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  11. Definitely food for thought in here! Thank you. Have you heard about the Whole30? It’s something I tried last year and am back in again this January. I’m hoping to maintain a paleo diet afterwards and will definitely be reading up on your jams. Thanks! {semi-documenting my 2nd W30 journey (and other fun stuffs) on journeyalongtherhodes.wordpress.com}

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, I’m intimately familiar with Whole30, my first was in 2010. I think it’s an excellent way to kickstart healthy eating, and a good way to help folks find the right sustainable eating program afterwards. Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Incredible article. I am making my own way to healthy eating. I am not on paleo, but I am quitting step by step to all the bad things I can quit faster (soda for example).

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  13. I was on Paleo diet for a few days myself. It was bit hard as I’m vegetarian. Plus, i love non-paleo stuff! lol.
    Being a Crossfitter it will be good to be on paleo again.
    Good luck with that and happy new year to you too!

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  14. Great post! I’m new to Paleo and feel like I have tried every diet under the sun, low-carb mainly. My boyfriend and I are trying to incorporate more paleo meals into our menu. I have a question about the rice though. Is this white rice? Is brown rice interchangeable?

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    1. We prefer white rice over brown rice because although brown rice has more nutrients that white rice, it is also significantly higher in phytic acid (which binds to minerals and disrupts digestion), and prevents the body from absorbing those nutrients anyway. Typically, I don’t think of rice as a source of nutrients, but as a source of calories and carbohydrates, and a vessel for nutrients when cooked in broth. Moreover, brown rice contains much higher levels of arsenic (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm) than in white rice. Hope that helps!

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  15. Wonderful write up. Being an Indian , I love Indian food but trying international cuisines is always a thumbs up for me. Have u every tried brown rice. It’s pretty high in terms of nutritional level. That’s a regular at our home :)

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    1. Hi Kiran, thanks for writing! We prefer white rice over brown rice because although brown rice has more nutrients that white rice, it is also significantly higher in phytic acid (which binds to minerals and disrupts digestion), which prevents the body from absorbing those nutrients anyway. Typically, I don’t think of rice as a source of nutrients, but as a source of calories and carbohydrates, and a vessel for nutrients when cooked in broth. Moreover, brown rice contains much higher levels of arsenic (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm) than in white rice. Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Wonderful! I began experimenting with a paleo diet ~ 8 months ago and I am definitely still trying to figure out what works best for me. It’s helpful to see what works well for other people to guide what I may try next. Thanks!

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  17. This was a great article! I have been toying with the idea of paleo for a while, and have done a bit of experimenting, but could never fully commit due to my love affair with carbs. This article has given me a new viewpoint and motivation to approach my diet from a more balanced perspective, rather than focusing solely on good food vs. bad food. Thanks very much :)

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  18. This post is absolutely wonderful and full of information. I have done research about the Paleo diet previously and attempted to follow it, but I found it to be overwhelming at first. After reading this and discoing your blog, I am definitely going to give it another shot.

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  19. I love the idea of only cooking once per day, we strive for that in our house, but aren’t always successful. I love the blog post overall. My fiancee is big on following a “keto diet” but I feel like paleo is much better for a variety of reasons. Will definitely be sharing! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Excellent article and very insightful. I’ve just started my own cooking blog called Savoring the Flavors. I’m not following any particular diet, but I’m more focused on building a healthy relationship with the food we eat. Would you mind if I referenced this particular article in one of my articles?

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  21. This is such an interesting and educational post. I appreciate hearing your story and what you’ve learned through the process of choosing a Paleo diet. I like what you said in point one, “they gave me clear guidance in a time when I needed it,” because it’s so true for when you’re making a life change. Especially when it’s for health as well.

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      1. That is great! Thank you for serving our country. Keep following me for more Cajun deliciousness. Thanks for the input

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  22. Great Read! For me beeing more relaxed and less demonizing about certain foods helped me a lot to worry less about food and implement healthy habits that make it pretty easy now to follow my kind of paleo diet. Adding back rice and potato and so dairy also made it way easier to eat outside without annoying everyone else on the table!

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  23. Thank you for this helpful article on Paleo Diet. I have used it as the reference to complete this infographic about What to eat on the Paleo Diet on my blog.
    Again, thank you for this informative article!

    Like

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