Gray Area Foods

December 16, 2011 in Categories: , , , by

Print Friendly

The idea behind a paleolithic diet is that you avoid foods that cause gut irritation and foods that cause hormone imbalances and insulin sensitivity issues.  This means avoiding all grains, legumes and dairy products as well as refined sugar, processed food chemicals and modern vegetable oils.  But there are some foods are not clearly safe or unsafe.  You may choose to include or to avoid these foods in your implementation of paleolithic nutrition.  Many advocates of paleolithic nutrition suggest cutting out all gray area foods for a month or two, then adding them back in one at a time and see how they make you feel.  They become especially important factors if you are suffering an auto-immune disease or a history of poor gut health.

Here are the main culprits (although there are others, so look for future posts):

Nuts and Seeds:  Nuts and seeds do still contain small amounts of gut irritants (in this case, saponins) and anti-nutrients (in this case, phytates, which inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals).  The phytate content can be minimized by soaking nuts and seeds overnight (then drying them in the oven at low temperature or in a food dehydrator) before eating them.  Most nuts and seeds also contain more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids (ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:10), which isn’t helpful as we strive for a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our diets.
Goat Dairy and Dairy from Pasture-fed Cows:  Dairy products are blacklisted for two reasons.  They can irritate the gut in some people and they also cause a spike in your insulin disproportional to the amount of sugar in milk (even cheese, which is mostly protein and fat, spikes your insulin).  Both of these are reduced in goat dairy and in dairy from pasture-fed cows, many people can tolerate these quite well.  Another bonus to dairy from pasture-fed cows is that they contain Conjugated Linoleic Acid and more omega-3 fatty acids.
Nightshades (Peppers, Eggplants, Tomatoes and Potatoes):  Vegetables in this family contain small amount of poisonous glycoalkaloids (like tomatine, solanine and chaconine).  Depending on your lineage, you may or may not be sensitive to these chemicals (if you have any native american ancestry, you are probably okay).  A way to minimize your exposure is eat the ripest version of the vegetable (ripe tomatoes, red bell peppers, etc.).  Also, potatoes seem to be especially problematic, so many paleo dieters avoid potatoes even if they include the other nightshades in their diet.  If you do want to eat potatoes, peeling them gets rid of most of the glycoalkaloids.
Eggs:  Yes, eggs can be a problem for some people too.  A chemical called lysozyme in the egg white can form globs of molecules in the gut and sneak things across the gut lining that shouldn’t be able to get into your blood stream.  Isn’t it strange to realize that egg yolks are the healthy part of the egg? (Especially when you eat omega-3 or free-range eggs).  Paleo dieters hate to give up eggs, so I suggest only doing this if you have a diagnosed autoimmune disease. 
Caffeine:  This is a touchy subject for me because I know that I should give up coffee (at least for a month or two to see how I do), but I just don’t want to.  The issue with coffee and other caffeinated beverages is that it increases your cortisol (stress hormone) levels.  Most of us are trying to reduce stress, not increase it, so large amounts of caffeine are just not useful.  In a perfect world, we would all get enough sleep that we would wake up refreshed and the thought of a double americano with heavy cream would never cross our minds.  If you can stomach the idea of giving this up, I suggest doing it.  Otherwise, do what you can to minimize your caffeine intake.  You could try decaf (which has about a quarter the caffeine of regular coffee) or stick with tea.  It also helps to drink coffee black or with a lower-fat creamer (like coconut creamer or almond milk) because the fat in heavy cream can increase how quickly the caffeine gets into your blood stream.
Alcohol:  After watching my childhood dog get completely drunk from eating rotting plums left on the ground after dropping from our plum tree, I feel confident that our paleolithic ancestors probably consumed some alcohol in the form of fermented fruit.  The issue with alcohol is always dose.  Ethanol is a toxin and it increases your blood triglycerides (increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease).  You don’t need to cut alcohol out, but do try and stick to one or two drinks at a time, no more than a couple of times per week… or less.  Also, be aware that most beer contains gluten.  Spirits generally don’t and wine (especially red) has some great antioxidants in it (reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease!).  If you are having issues with sleep quality though, I suggest cutting alcoholic beverages out completely, at least for a while.

With all of these gray area foods, I suggest considering them as possible culprits for continued health issues as you experiment with paleolithic nutrition.  Maybe it’s too overwhelming to cut them out at first.  Maybe you feel great even when you eat them.  Maybe you want to consider a one month trial of omitting them from your diet to see how you feel.  I personally do better without nuts.  And I have a strong suspicion that I should give up caffeine.  This is one of the many aspects of paleolithic nutrition that is completely individual.


I recently had to give up drinking coffee and felt like my best friend had died. then I read about dandy blend. it tastes like coffee so I don’t miss it anymore. helped me kick caffeine entirely. now I am curious, is it paleo?

Depends on what is in the blend. Dandelion root and chicory root are the usual herbal coffee herbs and they are completely Paleo. If it has barley in it though, it’s not.

So black tea is alright? I’m not worried about the caffeine content as I have read that it has alot less than coffee (which I can’t stand) but I use homemade almond milk in it with almost each meal. It doesn’t seem to affect my sleep or anything, I’ve had a cup of tea within a couple of hours before bed and it doesn’t keep me up or anything. Plus I think it has antioxidants? If I’m supposed to be on the Autoimmune method what should I use instead of almond milk? (I’ve tried drinking it black but it just makes my teeth cringe!)

Yes, in moderation. There are lots of benefits to black tea, the only concerns are the caffeine and the tannins, which are great antioxidants but can also inhibit protein digestion. So, if you are sleeping well and handling stress well and your digestion is good, you are probably at a good level. You could try coconut milk in place of almond milk, or you could try making weaker tea or a different brand.

My quest for better health has been a journey of eliminating foods. I have hypothyroidism, Hashimotos’s (an autoimmune disease), asthma, and IBS. about 5 years ago I started with lots of coconut products, recommended for thyroid issues, then went gluten free for thyroid as well. Research on stomach issues lead me to the book Wheat Belly and the possibility of a leaky gut.Then I did the Paleo Autoimmune Fast for a month. As I reintroduced foods I found I was sensitive to some Paleo foods and many non Paleo. My choice is to remain 95/5 Paleo, my health and negative symptoms keep me fairly pure. However, I know people at different percentages, some that have cheat days that include anything! I feel any commitment to healthier food choices is a step in the right direction. I’m not a purest in that sense, I prefer not to make judgements on others. For me, healthier includes less pain and a stricter autoimmune protocol makes me feel the best.

Coconut in any form makes me feel like I’ve got a cold and gives me brain fog. It seems as if I’m the only one with a reaction to coconut. Are there any alternatives to coconut?

Actually, judging from comments on this blog, reactions to coconut seem pretty common. I myself am fine with coconut oil, and okay with coconut milk if I don’t have too much, and have very obvious reactions to coconut flakes, butter or flour. If you are nut-free and seed-free, its hard to substitute coconut products, but not impossible. Check out my Art and Science of Paleofying series for ideas.

What kind of reactions? I just read that coconut products don’t help your gallbladder produce bile so they can be difficult to digest and you should always eat it with animal fat. Sometimes (not always) I get terrible gas and bloating from coconut. is that the kind of reaction you’re talking about? thanks! 🙂

The fats in coconut don’t actually require bile to be digested, which is why they’re so great for people with gallbladder disease or who have had their gallbladders removed. Coconut is high in inulin fiber, which is a highly fermentable soluble fiber and does produce gas in most people. If you have even mild FODMAP sensitivity or mild bacterial overgrowth, the effects of whole coconut products (and even worse with coconut flour and butter) are typically exaggerated. I myself do great with coconut oil, and okay with coconut milk, and avoid all other coconut products.

I think possibly if people have brain fog , ect. on coconut..could there be a possibly that it is causing “die off ” it kills candida and virus’s , bacteria .

You are not the only one! I get a stomach ache from anything more than very small quantities of coconut, except flakes, haven’t tested my limit on those. And almonds, fermented foods, and winter squash are not so great to me either. Very few paleo recipes do me much good.

My husband reacts to coconut in all shape & forms. Especially bad for his skin is the cocomide etc in body washes & handsoaps.

” If you do want to eat potatoes, peeling them gets rid of most of the glycoalkaloids.” Yesterday, on Chris Kresser’s AMA on reddit, in response to a question about potatoes, he indicated that eating potato skins would be okay, citing the nutrients in the skins. What’s your take on that, particularly with respect to the AIP. BTW, participants in the AMA mentioned you and it, of course, was with great respect!

Re coconut oil – applied topically – I’d been using a lot of this on the areas of my skin affected by psoriasis at it was like everything my doctor prescribed – completely useless. I happened to come across information that coconut oil is considered astringent, and olive oil was recommended, among others. I slathered some on and experienced an instant and lasting change in my skin! Since I always have evoo on hand, I’m so happy! So happy I’m going to make your Lamb Stew today.

I have been Paleo for about 6 weeks and then I found your AIP—I have MS & Hashimotos–but my diet is full of eggs, nuts and seeds! I am overwhelmed about what to replace them with–eggs and nuts are such quick go-to sources of protein, and ground flax seed and chia seeds help my chronic constipation SOOOO much. I used to eat a lot of Greek yogurt but that got axed along with dairy but now I have a raging yeast infection! Yes, I take probiotics, eat sauerkraut every day, and my dried MK grains should be here any day now! Does any advice come to mind? Thank you so much, Robin in CT

I started making homemade breakfast sausage patties, precooking them and then freezing them for quick breakfasts. I also often eat leftovers for breakfast. I think it would be reasonable to take the transition from paleo to AIP in steps, and you can also stick with paleo for a bit longer and see how far that gets you before you decide whether to tackle the AIP.

I’m wondering where your information of fat and caffeine assimilation came from, since I have and firmly believe the opposite…?
Here’s a video from the world renowned holistic educator, Paul Chek, explaining why to add fat to your espresso 🙂 Let me know your thoughts on this!

Interesting. My information came from Robb Wolf. I’ll have to look this up in the scientific literature (I suspect we’re both right, since adding MCTs in coconut oil would be more quickly absorbed, but a harder to digest fat would be more slowly absorbed, but this would be a fun one to look into more).

I have a problem with eggs that I’d like your opinion on; when I eat something eggy, like quiche or just a good old fried egg, I get a mildly painful swelling in my esophagus. It feels like someone just punched me in the throat. Originally I thought I had GERD but after almost a year of elimination dieting and two upper endoscopies which saw no evidence of reflux I discovered it was eggs which happened to be a breakfast staple of mine for a decade. My questions is what do you think it is that causes the irritations and why is it lessened or absent when I eat baked goods for example that only have a few eggs in the whole recipe? BTW thanks for your site.

Erik! This sounds like you are describing me! I have been diagnosed with GERD…but something about this diagnosis does not feel right. I also have this feeling in my throat. I eat a LOT of eggs. Thanks for putting it on my radar!

I just wanted to comment on the egg issue, I’ve been eating a lot of eggs the past three weeks for both breakfast and lunch. While my breakfast eggs (fried) go done easy, I have this same problem with my lunch eggs (hard boiled). I also thought it had to do with the eggs though I have never heard of this before.
Oddly enough, every morning my breakfast eggs slip easily down my throat, while at lunch I have to stop eating for awhile to let my esophogus relax again.

I’m new to your blog, loving it! A comment about wine. I was told that because some wine makers use barrels sealed with a wheat based glue wine is not gluten free. What do you know about this? I’m not a drinker, don’t like the taste, but cooking with it can be delicious. Thanks.

I find that I am sensitive to all these gray area foods. Sweet potato & tea also. I even tried toxin free Bulletproof coffee & can’t handle that – I agree that’s the toughest to eliminate

I am truly surprised that you have not cut out caffeine! I was always under the impression that caffeine was hard on the gut, and any caffeine (stimulant) can aggravate the immune system so that would cause problems for us with autoimmune disease. Was I wrong all this time?

Interestingly, most folks with Hashimotos have mthfr mutation (via Dr. Ben Lynch). And of course there are nutrients that help methylation and overcome the cycle deficiencies. Of these are many of your AIP recommended foods– seafood (B12) leafy greens (active metholfolate, magnesium) , glycine (bone broth) liver (high vitamin load). However, coffee is full of Niacin which may help some with special versions of the mthfr and related defects. Small world!

How much of this should we be wary of if we have had food sensitivity testing performed? I have been told that if I don’t have any sensitivity to some of these items than they are ok for me. I have Hashimotos and new to gluten free dairy free lifestyle. Just starting the journey to heal my body after 16yrs of Hashi with no guidance.

False negatives are extremely common, so it is best to eliminate all gray area foods and then reintroduce them systematically to see if they cause any symptoms for you. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

Thank you. I had a rather large list of foods to eliminate and am now starting to reintroduce them into my diet. Good to know I have a solid plan!

In reponse to the people with problems to coconut, I have a diagnosed allergy to a preservative that is used duting the processing of coconut products. I can only buy coconut which is described as sulphite, or chemical free. Cocnut milk and cream are a no no but I can get oil and flakes thankfully. Sulphites are the reason I started eating paleo and im so much healthier.

I have sebhorreic dermatitus and have been trying everything from raw honey, tea tree oil, to tar shampoos to treat it. I have read that unbalanced chemistry in the body can produce or worsen things like sebhorreic dermatitus. Do you think that coffee could be an influence on that chemistry?

If you have an egg white intolerance, but can tolerate them in oven-baked goods, do you find that is okay? Or is it better to remove them completely in order to heal? No symptoms with the baked eggs, but I don’t want to prevent my chances of healing either. I know you have a lot of baked recipes with eggs, but I’m not sure of your tolerance level. Thanks so much for any insight!

Hi, great site! really helped me, thank you for that.
I would like to ask if I could eat certain amounts of tahini or avoid this as part of eliminating Seeds?
I’m from Israel and here Tahini is an integral part of the food and considered nutritious.

What about seed infused olive oil like… Cumin infused oil or mustard seed infused oil in annatto seed infused oil (or is annatto a fruit powder? Not sure what it is processed from)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *