The paleo diet, which you might’ve heard about from your CrossFitter friend or a disciple of barefoot running, has a shaky reputation. While its advocates praise its whole-food simplicity, its dissenters are (correctly) skeptical that Paleolithic men weren’t eating heaping bison burgers and that the diet is more of a tough-guy trend than something positive for your body. But when you trim away the hype, paleo can be a good way to increase energy, improve gut health, and even lose a few pounds—if you’re doing it right.
“Paleo maximizes the amount of nutrition you’re intaking from your diet,” says Kim Jordan, a nutritionist at Kettlebell Kitchen, the Brooklyn-based meal-delivery system that specializes in paleo. “You end up feeling more sustained and satiated, which translates to better energy levels and fewer cravings.”
Those overall health benefits make paleo an easy sell, but with so many versions out there, it can be tough to tell if you’re following the real deal. Jordan and fellow Kettlebell dietician Joanne Mumbey have some insider tips to share.
First: Get out of your head that the diet is supposed to mimic the gram-for-gram diet of some regionally ambiguous caveman. “If you look at research, there were hundreds of different ancient diets,” says Mumbey. “Where your ancestors came from might look a little bit different than where mine came from in terms of diet.”
Think about it: Early hunter-gatherers living in Mesopotamia would’ve had access to much different plants and animals than people living in, say, Siberia. Instead, the Kettlebell Kitchen staff advocates for avoiding processed foods above all else. So instead of dairy, legumes, grains, soy, and processed sugars, think grass-fed meats, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits, plus olive oil, honey, maple syrup, and flours made from paleo-friendly foods.
Paleo is actually a two-pronged approach to eating. First, it rids your grocery cart of sugars, dairy, and grains in an effort to soothe intestinal inflammation. Then, in lieu of all the fillers, you double down on protein and fats from meat, nuts, and seeds to keep you feeling full, and plenty of fruits and vegetables to get your carbs with a monster side of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Added bonus: A paleo diet can help you beat cravings. “A person may think they need ice cream every night, but once their body starts to regulate, their tastes change a little bit,” Jordan says. “They find that they don’t want it that often. I think that’s why people stick with it long term. It’s a lifestyle, not a short-term diet.”
The cost of paleo gets a little daunting when your grocery list is all grass-fed beef. But a little creativity can transform paleo from diet to feast without tripling your weekly costs. Spaghetti squash and zucchini noodles replace pasta, and a box grater turns cauliflower into the perfect rice substitute. Slice a sweet potato into quarter-inch-thick planks and “toast” them in a 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, then top with almond butter or a fried egg. On the sweet side, try blending a frozen banana with some coconut milk, honey, and cacao nibs for ice cream minus the guilt. If you can find it, the Kettlebell Kitchen staff swears by Otto’s yucca flour, which can be used in pizza crusts, cookies, and pasta.
At the end of the day, you’re looking for a diet that makes you feel good physically and mentally. Make dietary changes that will actually make you look forward to your food. It’ll make you stay on track without burning out. “We’ve worked with people of all different ages and with all different lifestyles,” Jordan says. “It’s adaptable to anybody. You can’t really go wrong with eating whole, nutrient-dense foods—and you can have a real life.”