To say the paleo diet has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years would be an understatement. The trendy eating philosophy suggests we eat like our cavemen ancestors once did, loading up on grass-fed animal proteins, eggs, seafood, veggies, fruit, and nuts and seeds.
Anything the cavemen couldn’t or didn’t eat, though, is off the table. That includes grains, legumes, dairy, and processed snacks. (you can kiss Oreos goodbye.) And potatoes. Are sweet potatoes in or out, people?! It depends who you ask…
Fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins all contribute to a healthy diet—as does nixing refined foods like bagels and donuts—but that doesn’t mean a paleo diet is inherently healthy. The issue with eliminating types of whole foods is clear: If you don’t make up for the nutrients in the foods you cut out, you end up falling short of a nutritionally-balanced diet, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of Better Than Dieting and author of Read It Before You Eat It.
Whether paleo can be healthy and practical for you depends on how you do it (you might also want to talk to your doctor before making any major dietary changes). If you’re interested in trying the diet (or even if you’re already a full-blown caveman), watch out for the following mishaps to keep your daily eats as balanced and healthy as possible.
Mishap #1: Missing Out On Key Nutrients
Cutting out highly processed foods? Great. Nixing food groups like dairy and whole grains, though? More complicated. “These two food groups are important sources of calcium and vitamin D,” explains Taub-Dix.
Eight ounces of milk, for example, contains 299 milligrams of calcium. (The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 1,000 daily.) You’d need about 12 cups of loosely-packed raw kale or seven cups of chopped broccoli to get that
Vitamin D is pretty difficult to get from food as-is, says Taub-Dix. This is why many dairy and grain-based food products—like milk, yogurt, and cereal—are fortified with it. The NIH recommends 600 IU of vitamin D per day, and you’ll find about 115 IU in a glass of milk. That’s the same as roughly three servings of tuna or three large egg yolks. You can also find vitamin D in cod liver oil and organ meat, says Taub-Dix.
Make sure you’re eating a variety of paleo-approved foods that contain these key nutrients. You may even want to consider taking a supplement.
Mishap #2: Eating Too Few Carbs
This one is especially important for anyone who’s physically active: When you ditch everything from bread to rice to oatmeal, you’re slashing your carb consumption, big time.
“People who cut carbs often describe feeling tired, weak, and irritable,” says Taub-Dix. That’s because carbs act as our body’s main source of fuel. If you’re an intense exerciser or athlete, you may need upwards of three grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day, she says.
While you do have some higher-carb options on paleo (a half-cup of yams contains 18 grams and a medium banana contains 26), “you’d have to eat a tremendous amount of fruits and vegetables to fuel an active lifestyle,” says Taub-Dix. Be mindful of your energy levels throughout the day, especially during exercise, and make sure you’re incorporating higher-carb foods throughout your meals and before workouts.
Mishap #3: Pounding Way Too Much Trail Mix
Yeah, going paleo means picking the candy-coated chocolate pieces out of your trail mix. But even when you’re sticking to a mix of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, you shouldn’t be shoveling the stuff down in the name of your ancestors.
If your interest in paleo has anything to do with maintaining or losing weight (and for many it does), making trail mix its own food group can easily put you into calorie overload. An ounce serving of nuts (about 24 almonds) contains about 170 calories, says Taub-Dix. A quarter-cup of raisins brings another 125 calories to the party—plus 25 grams of sugar. Throw in a quarter-cup of walnuts and you’re looking at a 485-calorie ‘snaccident.’
Plus, according to Taub-Dix, dried fruit and nuts can be more difficult to digest and might lead to some stomach upset, especially if you’re eating a lot of them.
When it comes to nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, portion control is essential. Get out your measuring cups and make sure you’re sticking to a single serving of just one of these foods at snack time.
Mishap #4: Having Every Meal With A Side Of Bacon
Listen, we’re super happy that the cavemen apparently enjoyed the greasy, crispy goodness that is bacon. But that probably doesn’t justify us putting bacon in our Brussels sprouts or asparagus and all over the outside of our paleo meatloaf—right?
Paleo-approved or not, bacon shouldn’t be a go-to protein source. Two slices contain about six grams of protein and seven grams of fat for about 100 calories. Comparitivrly,100 calories-worth of chicken breast contains 19 grams of protein and just two grams of fat.
“Sometimes with diets like this we make excuses to overdo more decadent foods because there are so many foods we’re not eating,” says Taub-Dix. Remember, ‘paleo’ does not always equal ‘healthy.’ Practice moderation: Bacon makes a great Sunday morning treat, so leave it at that.
Mishap #5: Eating ALL The ‘Paleo-Approved’ Treats
Any human with a wicked sweet tooth interested in paleo has no doubt googled ‘paleo dessert’ or ‘paleo cookies’ at some point. We’ve seen the recipes—replace refined flour with almond or coconut flour, and table sugar with maple syrup or honey, and voila, you have a paleo-approved treat.
Before you bake yourself batch after batch of paleo maple-bacon cookies(we’re not sure cavemen had much time for baking anyway), keep in mind: “Syrup is no healthier than sugar from the sugar bowl, and dairy-free chocolate chips that still contain sugar are no better than the regular ones,” says Taub-Dix. Though a paleo-approved cookie uses different ingredients, it’s not necessarily lower in calories or sugar or fat than a regular cookie.
If you feel like indulging, go ahead and treat yo’self—just be realistic: A paleo treat is still a treat.