I’ve had a number of questions lately from people who are considering following the Paleo diet, but feel that they can’t “do Paleo” because they have barriers to obtaining the high quality foods that are the pinnacle of Paleo perfection. Some people face financial barriers and simply can’t afford to buy all (or any!) grass-fed or pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy, wild-caught fish and game, or all organic, locally-grown in-season produce. Some people live in an area where they can not easily source this high quality food or can only source it for part of the year. Does that mean you can’t do Paleo?! Of course you can! And you can still see tremendous improvements in your health!
It is a surprisingly common misconception that Paleo means only eating grass-fed meat and locally-grown organic produce. Clearly, this is superior if it’s accessible for you (both in terms of the nutrient density of your foods and in terms of supporting small scale farms, the environment and your local economy). But, it is not a necessity. Whether sourcing exclusively the best quality foods available or buying your groceries at your local superstore, a Paleo diet is still a nutrient-dense diet that reduces inflammation, helps regulate hormones, encourages a healthy gut and generally promotes good health.
The Paleo diet is really a fairly broad spectrum and there are many aspects of this way of eating that are far from set in stone. An obvious example is how many carbs you consume, and whether those carbs mainly come from fruit or starchy vegetables or even white rice and potatoes. How much fat and protein you consume is also a matter for individual experimentation. Another example of the Paleo spectrum is whether or not you follow an 80/20 rule or if you believe the only way to legitimately call yourself Paleo is if you never stray even for a second (in which case almost none of us can legitimately call ourselves Paleo and I will refer you to this post by Diane Sanfilippo). Another example is how you feel about Paleo-friendly baked goods (this is how I feel). Coffee, alcohol, nightshades, nuts… there are varying opinions on the role that all of these should have in our diets. And this means, that there are lots of variables to experiment with. Different people do well with or without these foods, which is why one of the key tenets of a Paleo diet is to respect the individual and how your body reacts to different foods. And, just as there are so many other aspects of a Paleo diet that can vary from person to person, the quality of the food that you eat can vary depending on your circumstances. And it’s still Paleo.
I did already say that being limited to conventionally-produced foods is not ideal. I noticed a big difference in my health when I was able to start buying more grass-fed and pasture-raised meats and started buying the bulk of my produce at my local Farmer’s Market. But if you can’t, you can’t. There are lots of tips and tricks to getting better quality food on a tight budget (see Budget Paleo: Priorities and Strategies and “If I Can’t Always Afford Grass-Fed Beef, What Should I Buy?”). And there are a growing list of online retailers of quality foods and online directories of local farms, Farmer’s Markets, produce stands, and CSAs to help those who live in areas where sourcing high quality food may be a challenge. This post isn’t so much about how to eat Paleo on a budget (or even about strategies for increasing your food budget, which I will write about in a future post) or about how to source better quality foods no matter where you live, but rather about what nutritional differences there are to keep in mind if you are stuck buying conventionally produced foods.
Conventional Paleo Food Challenge #1: Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
When buying conventionally produced meat and poultry, the biggest difference in terms of your health is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in those meats compared to their pasture-raised or wild equivalents. This is where the original recommendations to focus on lean meat presented in The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain come from–from the assumption that most people will be trying to follow a Paleo diet using conventionally produced foods.
It may be a challenge to achieve that optimal 1:1 to 1:4 omega-3 to omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio (see this post), but it is still possible with a little thought, planning and careful choices. You will need to put effort into both decreasing your omega-6 intake and increasing your omega-3 intake.
To decrease omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake:
- limit consumption of nuts and seeds which are much (and sometimes much, much) higher in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids (the exceptions are: coconut, which is high in the very healthful medium chain saturated fats; macadamia nuts, which have a very low polyunsaturated fatty acid content; and walnuts, which have a 1:3 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6)
- limit consumption of chicken and other poultry, which probably has the highest omega-6 fatty acid content of any of the conventionally produced meat and poultry.
- stick with lean cuts of meat. Fat is very healthful for you, so don’t think this is about avoiding fat. This is purely because the fats in conventionally-produced meats aren’t the good fats that your body needs.
- really, really avoid refined vegetable oils. Your best cooking fats are lard from pasture-raised pigs, tallow from grass-fed cows, coconut oil, palm oil, palm shortening, butter, ghee and avocado oil (figure out what best fits your budget and accessibility challenges). Your best oils for dressings or very low temperature cooking are olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and walnut oil (again, figure out what you can afford and source). See this post for more info.
To increase omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake:
- eat more fish. Even farmed fish has at worst a 1:2 omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid content (and farmed tilapia and hake can be quite inexpensive) and some fish have almost no omega-6 content whatsoever (and high omega-3!). Canned salmon, tuna or sardines is an inexpensive way to include wild-caught seafood in your diet (see The Importance of Fish in Our Diets and The Mercury Content of Seafood: Should you worry?). You get the best omega-3 bank for your buck with oily cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel, but all seafood are good options.
- eat some sea vegetables. Kelp noddles, Sea Snax, Nori, are all good options for boosting your omega-3s (especially DHA!).
- buy omega-3 eggs. While completely pasture-raised eggs will provide a great ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats along with a higher density of other nutrients, if you can’t afford or source them, standard omega-3 eggs are still a good option (this higher quantity of omega-3 is typically achieved by feeding the chickens flax seed in addition to the other feed ingredients). You will likely still pay a bit more than conventional eggs, but these are still very cheap protein.
Conventional Paleo Food Challenge #2: Nutrient-Density
Whether you’re talking about meat or produce, conventionally-produced has fewer vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than the pasture-raised and locally-grown equivalents. There are a variety of reasons for this. When it comes to produce, it’s partly a result of ever decreasing soil quality that the fruits and vegetables are grown in, a result of the specific cultivars used (selected for ability to transport and long shelf life rather than flavor or nutritional value), and a result of the amount of time between when that food is harvested and when it is consumed by you.
- Eat vegetables as soon as you buy them whenever possible. Check out the book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health for a tremendous amount of hints on how to optimize the nutrient-density of conventionally produced foods.
- Buy frozen veggies. These are typically picked ripe (as opposed to ripening during storage) and flash frozen which preserves many of the nutrients. They also tend to be cheaper (even organic!).
- Eat organ meat. Organ meat has the advantage of being the most nutrient -dense foods available and also being quite inexpensive. You can often find pasture-raised and grass-fed organ meat for cheaper than you can buy conventional ground beef! Even if you can’t afford pasture-raised, conventional organ meat is a great choice (check out Why Everyone Should Be Eating Organ Meat and listen to this The Paleo View episode for more info on why even conventional organ meat is very safe to eat). Seafood is also extremely nutrient dense.
- If you’re going to eat nuts and seeds, Brazil nuts, Sunflower Seeds, and Pumpkin Seeds are very nutrient-dense.
- Mix up eating vegetables raw and cooked. See Vegetables: To Cook or Not To Cook for more details.
- Ferment your own fruits and vegetables. Fermenting fruits and vegetables, increases the digestibility, increases the bio-availability of nutrients, and makes these foods great sources of probiotics. It’s also a great alternative to freezing when good quality produce goes on sale. My favorite How To book is Fermented by Jill Ciciarelli.
- Grow some of your own vegetables or gather wild edibles that grow around you (make sure you are identifying wild berries and mushrooms accurately!).
Conventional Paleo Food Challenge #3: Variety
I can find way more different varieties of unusual produce at my local Farmer’s Market than I can even get at my local Whole Foods. And because I tend to buy half a pig at a time from my local farmer and like to order the “weird stuff” when I buy meat online, I am pretty accustomed to eating every part of the animal as well as a variety of types of seafood.
Variety is really important in a healthy diet quite simply because different foods contain different nutrients. Variety is the easiest way to ensure that you aren’t overdoing a particular nutrient or missing out on something else your body needs to be healthy. The challenge when buying all of your food at a typical grocery store? It’s pretty usual for grocery stores to contain the same ol’ standard fare, which limits the variety of meats, seafood, vegetables and fruit compared to what you can typically find at a good Farmer’s Market.
To increase the variety in your diet:
- Try shopping in different stores. Even if you are still limited to conventional grocery stores, one chain may carry some different produce or meats that another chain. Ethnic and specialty markets are great places to find something different than what you usually get at your local grocery store.
- Don’t be afraid to buy the thing you’ve never tried. Buy that strange looking root vegetable or that new kind of fish you never heard of before. Try cooking that cut of meat that you haven’t eaten since you were a kid. See “But I’m Bored of Vegetables!” for more ideas. And the internet is a tremendous resource for recipes for those new foods.
- Make an effort to cycle through the foods in your local grocery store. Even if you’re stuck shopping at the same store every week and even if they don’t have anything unusual to challenge your culinary skills, make sure you cycle through the variety you do have access to and don’t get stuck in a “broccoli and carrots” rut.
- See if you can buy something different online. If you’ve exhausted the variety in your local stores, maybe see what you can buy off the good ol’ internet and have delivered to your door that will help add a little “new” to your diet.
- When you can’t vary the ingredients, vary the cooking method. Cooking foods in different ways can change the nutritional content (see Vegetables: To Cook or Not To Cook) and make some nutrients more available than others. Try cooking with different herbs, spices, and fats.
Best Bang for Your Buck:
If you do have a few extra dollars to spend on just a few high quality food items for your pantry, fridge, or freezer, it’s helpful to know which items will give you the most benefit for your dollar. Here are some great places to invest a little more money to see a big return in terms of nutrition:
- Switch to unrefined salt or sea vegetable salt. Yes, pink salt or gray salt are more expensive, but they also offer a ton of trace minerals that you may be deficient in.
- Buy grass-fed butter or ghee if you include dairy fat in your diet. These are great sources of fat soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, which many of us are deficient in, a great source of the healthful fat Conjugated Linoleic Acid, and a good ratio of omega-3 to omega 6s.
- Buy lard from pasture-raised pigs and tallow from grass-fed cows (or buy the fat and render it yourself!). Again, These are great sources of fat soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, which many of us are deficient in, a good source of the healthful fat Conjugated Linoleic Acid (tallow), and a good ratio of omega-3 to omega 6s. It’s also very inexpensive to render your own.
- Eat some shellfish. Shellfish and organ meat are a toss-up for nutrient density (although there’s no contest that shellfish is more expensive!). The occasional serving of oysters can do wonders for the nutrient-density of your overall diet.
- Buy fatty cuts of meat (like 75% lean ground meat or Boston Butt) grass-fed or pasture-raised. These also tend to be the cheapest cuts of meat available. Also check out “If I Can’t Always Afford Grass-Fed Beef, What Should I Buy?” for suggested priorities. A growing number of companies ship nationwide, so ordering online is a great option if you live in the US and don’t have a farmer near you to buy from. Some companies to check out are:
- Get familiar with the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists from the Environmental Working Group. Buy organic (or better yet, locally-grown and organic) off the Dirty Dozen list when possible. Click here to see the newly released 2013 list.
- Check out produce stands, Farmer’s Markets, U-pick Farms, Co-ops and CSAs (Community Sponsored Agriculture) for locally-grown in season produce. Depending on where you live, this can often be a less expensive option than you might think plus some CSAs deliver, which may address accessibility options for some people. My favorite directories for finding good produce near you:www.localharvest.org, www.eatwellguide.org and www.pickyourown.org
There’s no question that the better quality foods you can eat, the better. But don’t let barriers to accessing these high quality foods stop you from making positive changes to your diet. And hey, maybe switching to a Paleo diet will allow you to go off a medication or two (I went off six medications in my first two weeks of Paleo AND at the time I was only consuming conventionally-produced foods!). Maybe you’ll have to go to the doctor less frequently and cash in fewer sick days and maybe all of this will free up some money for a few more quality food items. It’s better to start with a less optimal version of the Paleo diet than never start at all.