The premise of the Paleo diet seems simple enough: if the cavemen didn't eat it, you shouldn't either. Hello meat, fish, poultry, fruits, and veggies. Goodbye refined sugar, dairy, grains, and beans. It sounds so easy, you can't possibly screw it up. But you can and probably are. (See The Athlete's Plan for the Paleo Diet.)
What many Paleo followers fail to understand is that certain Paleo food categories include foods that aren't really "Paleo." These foods, when consumed in excess, may actually reverse any benefits derived from a grain-free, ancestral-type diet. (Oops. Should you even be eating Paleo? See The Paleo Diet Leaves Athletes Powerless.)
Paleo Diet Know-How
Before farming and organized agriculture, humans ate few grains and no sugar. They consumed only what they could hunt or gather. Their "Paleo foods" consisted mainly of wild vegetation, game, and fish, with very little fruit or sugar (save for the occasional berry, raw honey, or tree sap).
In a nutshell, a Paleo diet is one that abstains from all grains (wheat, rye, corn), processed foods and refined sugar—and most high-sugar fruits like bananas and melons.
Refined sugar, processed foods and restaurants did not exist during this time in human history. Perhaps not surprisingly, some vegetables that we eat today were not around in the Paleolithic era. In fact, if you look at a detailed Paleo diet food list, you will see that some of the most popular vegetables consumed in today's society are "forbidden," or at least dramatically restricted.
Surprising Foods That Aren't Considered "Paleo"
To get a better handle on a true Paleo food diet—what it is and what it isn't—let's take a detailed look at the Paleo food list. By examining all Paleo food categories, we can break them down to determine which ones contains foods that aren't considered Paleo and why.
Vegetables: Potatoes and Corn
Our ancestors were highly adept at eating large amounts of leafy greens, which provided bulk and sustenance when other foods became sparse. Many of the vegetables they consumed resemble the green, leafy, fibrous vegetables we eat today, like lettuce, spinach, kale and broccoli.
These are generally low-starch vegetables, which are also low on the glycemic index. Vegetables that were not consumed in amounts like they are today include potatoes and corn. These are high on the glycemic index (they raise blood sugar quickly) and actually are considered grains. They were relatively sparse during the Paleolithic era.
Meat: Processed Meats (Sausage) and Lunch Meats
Most meat is considered Paleo—as long as it is grass-fed beef, lamb, or free-range poultry. Processed meats, such as lunch meats and processed pork, are not true Paleo foods. They did not exist in the diets of our Paleo ancestors. These foods often contain sodium nitrates and other unnatural preservatives. Many Paleo enthusiasts find a way around this, especially when it comes to bacon, by finding nitrate-free varieties of their favorite processed meats.
Nuts and Seeds: Peanuts and Peanut Butter
Nuts and seeds were consumed sparingly during the Paleolithic era. Yet since they are low in carbohydrates and high in energy, they are often consumed by individuals following the Paleo diet. Nut and seed butters are not true Paleo foods, yet are often considered Paleo in our modern society. Peanuts and peanut butter are categorized as legumes, and are not considered Paleo.
Fruits: Banana and Melon
Low-sugar fruit, such as the fatty avocado, are considered Paleo. Again, the majority of fruit consumption during the Paleolithic era consisted of small berries, and only when they were in season. Berries are lower in sugar and higher in antioxidants than other sweet fruits. Bananas and melon are not considered true Paleo foods; however, many people who follow the Paleo lifestyle consume them in moderation. Paleo diets seem to vary based on each individual's needs and taste preferences.
Despite the limited number of categories in this Paleo diet food list, there really is an abundance of things you can eat! Simply put, to avoid confusion, the next time you are making out your Paleo shopping list, avoid processed foods and unpronounceable ingredients. Steer clear of sugar, grains, and high-sugar products. In other words, think like a caveman. (See also How to Customize A Diet Plan to Meet Your Specific Needs.)