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Paleo eating, out of the cave

Just say the word paleo, and watch the eyes roll. I've seen diet trends come and go, but I can't think of one that has been the target of so much irritation, indignation, and outright outrage as the Paleolithic diet.

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Just say the word paleo, and watch the eyes roll. I've seen diet trends come and go, but I can't think of one that has been the target of so much irritation, indignation, and outright outrage as the Paleolithic diet.

Last spring, when paleo was suggested as a possible remedy for my migraines, I'd never even heard of it. But the details horrified me: No grains, no sugar, no dairy? My three major food groups! Paleos also avoid legumes (including soy and peanuts), vegetable and canola oils, processing, and chemicals. Most convenience foods are out. Yet I agreed to try it, just for a week.

Paleo is based on the idea that the advent of agriculture started us on a long road to compromising our health; human bodies are meant for the plant-and-meat-based diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, who lived from about 21/2 million years ago till about 12,000 years ago.

Cookbook author George Bryant (The Paleo Kitchen) says he hears "almost daily" that the diet is inauthentic "because we don't live in caves and kill our meat by hand" and because "cavemen didn't have ovens."

But it isn't about historical reenactment and self-deprivation; it's about reducing inflammation and eating healthfully. If the basic ingredient existed in the Paleolithic era, you can eat any contemporary product made from that ingredient.

And yes, we know that "real paleos" died young. But unlike contemporary humans, they weren't killed by their atrocious diet.

Today's paleo people are also seen as insatiable carnivores - Fred Flintstone with his nightly mastodon rib rack. Perhaps paleo athletes and cross-fitters eat a lot of red meat, but it's not a requirement, despite a recent New Yorker story suggesting that paleos will cause a cowpocalypse. Many prefer chicken and fish; I buy beef only once a week.

Before paleo, I knew sugar was in many things. I hadn't realized it's in pretty much everything. Chicken broth, bacon, sausage - just three examples - are allowed on paleo, but most store-bought versions contain sugar. Organic versions use organic sugar. Reading ingredient labels is mandatory.

The paleo movement has been building since 1985, when S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner's "Paleolithic Nutrition" appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. Loren Cordain, a health sciences professor, later worked with Eaton; in 2002, Cordain published The Paleo Diet. His Web site,, includes a list of foods - and why they're included. It's a good place to start, but it's not sacrosanct. Cordain says "no coffee," for instance, but many paleos drink it in moderation.

Vicki Schwartz, assistant professor in Drexel's Department of Nutrition Sciences, says the diet supplies excellent sources of protein and micronutrients through lean proteins, fruits, and lower-carbohydrate vegetables. "Another plus of the paleo diet is the restriction of processed foods, which are generally high in simple sugars, salt, and fat." This change, Schwartz says, can lead to weight loss, lower blood pressure, and better cholesterol levels.

Paleo can be a weight-loss program, but keep calories in mind if you're relatively sedentary. They add up quickly in foods like nuts, seeds, and full-fat coconut milk.

A major concern for Schwartz is the lack of dairy. "It is extremely difficult to meet calcium needs with vegetables," she says, because oxalate, a naturally occurring substance in many vegetables, can decrease the absorption of calcium. "So a healthy vegetable like spinach would give you negligible quantities of calcium." On the other hand, "canned fish like sardines, anchovies, and salmon eaten with the bone, shrimp, and oysters are excellent contributors of calcium."

Before starting a new diet, Schwartz says, it's a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian or licensed nutritionist.

Paleo is trending mainstream, with cookbooks, blogs, and thousands of delicious online recipes. Even my husband, who's not following the diet, loves the dinners I cook from Paleo Leap, Nom Nom Paleo, Paleomg, and Bryant's Civilized Caveman Cooking, among many others.

It's often easy to paleo-fy your own favorite recipes, too. Substitute coconut milk for cow's milk or cream; dredge meat in two parts each coconut and almond flours, one part arrowroot starch (instead of in wheat flour). Cauliflower rice, a replacement for couscous, rice, or pasta, is among my favorite discoveries.

Now for the drawbacks.

First, it's labor-intensive. I spend an awful lot of time procuring food, rinsing, chopping, cooking, and cleaning up. Of course, paleo is not alone in dietary trends that focus on using fresh ingredients and eschewing processed food; what sets paleo apart here is mainly the absence of easily prepared grains and legumes.

Expense is another downside. Paleo requires organic and grass-fed products, which are considerably pricier than the standard variety. In addition, you're removing low-cost starches and beans from your grocery cart.

Finally, it's nearly impossible to dine out. I did it just once in my first six strict weeks, ordering a salad. But I love restaurants far too much, and I don't want to be that woman in the New Yorker cartoon, telling her companion: "I've only been gluten-free for a week, and I'm already annoying." Instead, I try to stick to Cordain's "85-15 rule" of three non-paleo meals per week.

My migraines haven't improved, but I'm enjoying more healthful eating and finding grain substitutes (favorite: mofongo). I don't miss the SAD - Standard American Diet - but I'm not paleoer-than-thou, either. If I feel like eating something non-paleo, I do.

So don't knock paleo, try it. See what you think - at least for a week.

Thai Chicken Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Makes 3 servings


3 medium round sweet potatoes or yams

½ cup canned full-fat coconut milk

¼ cup smooth almond butter

1 tablespoon gluten-free soy sauce

1 tablespoon sriracha

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon honey

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 minced garlic clove

Pinch of salt

Couple of tablespoons of oil, to grease the pan (coconut oil, etc.)

2 cups chopped cooked chicken

1 red bell pepper, chopped

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

Salt, pepper to taste

3 green onions, chopped

Small handful cilantro, roughly chopped

Handful chopped roasted cashews

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Poke a couple of holes with a knife in each sweet potato. Wrap potatoes in foil and place in oven and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, until soft.

3. When sweet potatoes have about 15 minutes left to cook, begin to make the rest. Place coconut milk, almond butter, soy sauce, sriracha, sesame oil, honey, red pepper flakes, garlic clove, and salt in a blender and puree until well mixed.

4. Place a small amount of oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add chopped chicken and red bell pepper and sprinkle with garlic powder and a bit of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, then add green onions and the sauce and mix well with the chicken.

5. Cut all 3 sweet potatoes down the middle and fill with the chicken mixture, topped with cilantro and cashews.


Per serving: 1,033 calories; 43 grams protein; 126 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 42 grams fat; 72 milligrams cholesterol; 521 milligrams sodium; 19 grams dietary fiber.

Paleo Caramel Date Bars

Makes 16 servingsEndTextStartText

4 1/2 ounces ghee (see note)

1/2 cup coconut sugar (see note)

1 egg

1 cup chopped dates

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 cups almond meal (see note)


1. Preheat oven to 350. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with parchment.

2. In a large saucepan, melt the ghee on the stovetop at medium heat.

3. Stir in the sugar; allow to cool slightly. (Note: The sugar will not dissolve as refined sugar does.)

4. Add the egg, dates, walnuts, and almond meal; combine well.

5. Press into prepared pan and bake 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting.

Note: Available at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and in the health foods or ethnic foods (for the ghee) sections of some supermarkets.

Per serving: 242 calories; 5 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 19 grams fat; 31 milligrams cholesterol; 17 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Roasted Cabbage Slices

Makes 4 servings


1 head cabbage

3 tablespoons (or more) of oil (coconut oil, tallow, etc.)

Salt and pepper to taste (I used about a tablespoon of each)

Optional: 1 teaspoon of favorite herbs such as basil, caraway seeds, dill, etc.


1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Slice the cabbage perpendicular to the stem end so that the inner pieces form circles within the slices. Aim for slices 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.

3. Oil a baking sheet with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Place the cabbage on the baking sheet and drizzle with the remaining oil. You may need to melt it if using a solid oil like coconut oil or tallow.

4. Sprinkle with desired spices (it is even delicious with just Himalayan salt!) and place in the oven.

5. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender in the middle and sides are just starting to turn golden brown. Remove and serve.

6. I enjoy this plain or topped with an over-easy egg for breakfast.

7. Enjoy!

- From

Per serving: 134 calories; 2 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 10 grams fat; no cholesterol; 614 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.