Is a Paleo Treat Really Paleo?

July 30, 2013 in Categories: , by

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cheatsWhether or not there should be a place in our diets for paleofied baked goods is one of the most contentious issues in the paleo community.  Opinions differ from one vehement extreme to the other, some believing strongly that there should be no place for these SAD mimics in our diets while others rely on these types of foods as the only way they can “do paleo”.  Families looking to switch to paleo often thrive on paleo-friendly muffin and bread recipes and paleo mimics of pizza  and chicken fingers to ease the transition.  Being able to eat a paleo cookie or decadent paleo dessert might mean the difference for one person between sticking to a paleo diet or completely falling off the paleo wagon.  Certainly, I have noticed that my paleo baking recipes receive way more pageviews than most of my other recipes, but that’s not why I post them:

I believe that making paleo sustainable means making room for treats like these from time to time.

Making paleo sustainable is something I feel very passionately about. The word sustainable encompasses a wide variety of issues, like sustainable farming practices, economic sustainability, and everything you need to do in your life to make paleo a lifestyle and not a diet.  My argument for paleo treats is sustainability.  Not everyone needs them to make paleo sustainable for them.  And if you’re one of these people, that’s awesome.  But for the rest of us (yes, this includes me), a paleo treat is what makes this a lifestyle and not a diet.  It’s what makes paleo something that I can do for the rest of my life.  And that’s more important to me than whether or not the paleo label is actually appropriately used for a specific recipe.

I love food.  Always have.  Always will.   And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  There was a time when this love of food (and a lack of nutrition knowledge) led to some pretty bad choices.  But, that was a long time ago.  I no longer overeat and binge on junk.  I’m healthy.  And I have a healthy relationship with food.  For me, this means finding balance.  This means that I don’t use food as a crutch, as companionship, or as stress relief (well, I try not to anyway–that last one can still be a struggle sometimes).  But, I also don’t shy away from bonding with my family over the supper table, cooking up a special feast on holidays, showing off my cooking skills for company, or enjoying the occasional dessert… and not because I earned it or deserve it or need is, but because sometimes, it’s just nice to have dessert.  And that’s okay.

In my family, we only eat paleo treats occasionally.  Although, I do have to admit that paleo pancakes is a staple in our house and I make a triple batch for the freezer every weekend because my kids eat them with eggs every morning (of course, the pancake ingredients themselves amount to just eggs and fruit).  I did make more treat-like foods like chocolate date squares (which I now make with raw cocoa nibs instead of cocoa powder) last year to send to school as an energy-dense snack for my oldest daughter and will probably do so again when the school year starts in just eight short days.  I do admit that I love the challenge of paleo baking chemistry (especially nut-free baking and the AIP-friendly treats I’ve been creating for the book).  When I’m working on a recipe for the blog, I often halve the recipe, freeze leftovers, and/or share the baking with friends and neighbors).  And, I also always work on more treat recipes close to holidays and birthdays.  For example, my husband’s birthday is on Friday and I’ve been working on a new cake recipe which will hopefully be perfect Friday and blog-ready next week.  Oh, and I think I managed to volunteer to cook my brother’s wedding cake next summer, so I’ll be working on recipes for that too over then next year (pipe-able icing will be the biggest challenge).

But, are these treats really paleo?

I guess that depends on exactly how you define paleo.  If you define it as a nutrient-dense whole foods diet that avoids foods that cause inflammation, hinder digestion or damage the gut, then these treats can fit in as exactly that: treats.  If you define paleo as a grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free, refined sugar-free, processed food-free diet, then these treats completely qualify.  If you define paleo as a diet that mimics our best guess of what our paleolithic ancestors ate, then most of the foods we eat don’t qualify (I’m looking at you, bacon).  If you define paleo as being perfect all the time, then these treats are a resounding no.   If you think that the only way you can break your addiction to food is to be orthorexic, then clearly, paleo treats is not your solution.  If you define paleo as real life, sustainable,  balanced, we are human; it’s okay to enjoy food; it is a journey; it’s okay to not be perfect as long as we strive to improve; we just try to make the best choices we can recognizing what works for our individual bodies… then well, I think that question answered itself.

So, did I answer the question?

Maybe not, at least not definitely.  I don’t want to say  “absolutely these treats are not paleo and I only label them as such so search engines can find me”.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that there is a place for these foods in my chosen lifestyle.  I also don’t want to say “of course, these treats are paleo and it’s absolutely fine to eat them whenever you want to”.  That doesn’t recognize the fact that, most of the time, these treats are not the most nutrient-dense options, that they do tend to contain more sugar than is optimal for most of our health, and that consuming them on a daily basis makes it harder for our taste buds to adapt to natural sweetness, like fruit and even vegetables.

Instead of focusing on whether or not a treat is paleo, how about focusing on the part where it’s a treat.

A treat is defined as an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.  So, I’m not just talking about Molten Lava Chocolate Cake.  What makes it a treat is that you love it and that it isn’t something you would normally choose.  Really, paleo treats include anything that is a suboptimal choice from a purely nutrition standpoint.  Maybe your treat is going out for Mexican food or sushi or getting popcorn at the movie theater.  Maybe your treat is making some crackers to dip in your guacamole instead of carrot sticks. Maybe it is eating half a jar of almond butter for a snack or bringing larabars and peanut-free trail mix on an airplane to eat during a travel day.   What constitutes a treat for you will depend on where your line is… you know, that line that you know if you cross it, you’ll feel really terrible.  And what constitutes a treat will depend on what you enjoy that you wouldn’t normally indulge in.   For many of us, that’s keeping a treat gluten-free or gluten-free and dairy-free.  For some of us, it’s stricter than that and the treat needs to be grain-free, dairy-free, and legume-free.   For me, it means strict paleo, absolutely no nightshades, and no almonds, but other nuts are okay as long as my portion is controlled and I don’t indulge too often.  Which brings me to the last point.

Treats should be enjoyed occasionally.

 How frequently you indulge in paleo treat is an individual choice (and hopefully a conscious one).  Your own health issues, your goals (and how far away from them you are), and what you need to make paleo sustainable for you are all important factors to help you gauge how often is right for you.  What’s appropriate for kids, for athletes, for pregnant women, for those overcoming obesity, for the stay-at-home mom, for the shift worker, for the business exec who works eighty-hour weeks, will all differ from each other.  If you aren’t seeing the success you’re expecting or aren’t sleep great or feeling great, evaluate whether the frequency of your treats might be contributing.  Maybe you don’t need to decrease treat frequency so much as work on sleep or stress management (and then you won’t feel like you want a treat as often as a result).   Maybe you would actually do better with more treats, or different kinds of treats.  You are allowed to experiment and adjust.  We each need to find our own individual balance, what keeps us healthy and what makes paleo sustainable for us.  That’s kinda the whole point.

Where’s your balance?



I think people need to lighten up a bit! Having some dates or maple syrup or honey in a treat from time to time isn’t going to ruin anyone. I think people get so caught up in the Paleo label that the overlook that cavemen might not have been eating a lot of what we eat (and how we eat it–cooked). This is not a race to see who can be the most perfect Paleo person–it’s life and it needs to be lived and not obsessed over 24/7.

I’m not paleo, but I consult several paleo websites – including yours – for recipe ideas to help me cope with my diabetes. (Thank you, by the way.) From an outsider perspective, as I’m sure you are already aware, paleo adherents can come across as somewhat dogmatic. This is the reason I have stayed away from labeling myself “paleo”, although by some definitions I could largely be considered as such. I find the “paleo” label/brand/name/what have you a useful way of collecting and distributing information and forming communities with like-minded people. However, the difficulty defining paleo and conflicting opinions about this sometimes make the movement seem like many splinter groups that branch out of religions, for example.

In any case, as a middle-aged person, treats such as the ones you describe have been useful as I transition out of a way of eating I was used to my whole life. As my child is still very young, I prefer to remove the focus from the prevalent junk food and start right away with a real food-based approach. Hopefully she will form good habits and have a totally different perspective of what food is than someone of my generation. I am also transitioning away from the old processed-food standbys and accepting that, although they won’t kill us right away, they are not meant for human consumption.

What a great post. I have been wondering a lot, lately, about this very issue. For me, I need to be pretty low-sugar (in all its forms) and pretty strict about that if I want to keep sugar addiction at bay. And I can’t do Stevia because it causes gut issues. Sometimes I think I’m just crazy: Am I orthorexic? Kind of, yeah. I think about food a lot. Paleo, at least for me, is a chance to enjoy tasty food and still be sure I’m looking after my health. And my understanding of what works for me is definitely different in different seasons, in different hormonal times, and in different states of health.

I’ve wondered how it is that Paleo folks can make treats at all and not fall into addiction. I can’t make a batch of cookies of any kind without eating them all and waking up in a sugar haze. I just can’t. But I need to remember that that’s me, and maybe that’s just my thing. You’re right: everyone needs to find where that line is, and everyone’s a little different.

That is really my favorite thing about the Paleo community: We’re all experimenting. Everyone’s doing trial and error. Criticism and one-upmanship have no place.

Great post. Human beings made up the name and the rules for “Paleo”. “Paleo” is not divinely inspired. I get the feeling that some people treat Paleo like it is their religion. I know I did when I was first getting the hang of it. The fundamentals of Paleo are the key to good health, but every human body is different and there is room for customization. My family of 5 has been paleo for 2 years. Some of them need the “treats”, some of us don’t. And, the most important tidbit is that those who are eating the treats are still reaping benefits. So, really, what is there to argue?

Great post!
I make very few Paleo treats – mostly because I never had a really sweet tooth even before going Paleo – my go-to treats were always savory (chips for the most part)… It is the umami/saltiness that I want. So when I want a treat, I go for the savory – hardboiled eggs dipped in sesame salt, kale chips or jerky. I rarely make desert, and if I do, it is usually just fruit. And cakes are only made for birthdays and other celebrations.
But I do agree that you need some balance – this is not a competition as to who can be the most Paleo of them all. There are no prizes for being perfectly Paleo. But equally, the treats should be just that – treats that you eat occasionally rather than every day.

Fantastic post! Thanks for being a real & relatable voice, especially for those of us in the paleo parenting trenches.

Ditto! Thank you Sarah for not being a paleo perfectionist. Despite what Sally Fallon seems to think, most of us in the paleo parenting trenches do not want to deprive our children and want them to have treats when their SAD friends do. I think I read on Elana Amsterdam’s blog once something along the lines of: if they are going to be eating less than perfect stuff, at least it’s my less than perfect stuff which is way healthier than the super horrendous for them stuff.

“I’m looking at you bacon!” Ahahha!! Careful there! I can see the horde of Paleo bacon lovers brandishing their torches and pitchforks! 🙂

Awesome post!! In my world “Paleo” and “Paleo Treats” are their own categories. “Paleo” is of course that plate with a slab of meat and organs, veggies, good fats, blah blah blah. Some theorized that cavemen did consume honey, going as far to climb trees and battle bees for that sweet treat. So a little dessert is part of human life 🙂

“Paleo Treats” are still treats, no matter what magical flour, sugar, fat, or egg are used. The caveman may have worked hard for a hives worth of honey, but how often did he suffer bee stings on the face to get them? He was forced to moderate his treat!

I do think the label “Paleo Treats” should encompass ‘grain free,’ ‘legume free,’ and ‘dairy free.’ But it’s such a pain to use all those labels!

With the sugar? Most consider that honey and coconut sugar are the ‘true Paleo’ sweeteners. Honestly, I think that natural sugars such as sucanat, maple, date sugar, muscovado, molasses, etc should be included under that “Paleo Treat” umbrella. Why is coconut sugar ‘Paleo’ and not sucanat?! Not fair.

My definition of “Paleo Treats” may be really loose. Pssh. I’ll even use granulated and powdered sugar. I regret nothing.

I believe that if you’re going to eat sugar, you should just eat it, enjoy it, and own it. Move on when you’re finished and don’t make a huge deal out of it. I am someone who enjoys the occasional treat, but it’s better for me if I don’t make it myself. With only 2 people in my household, I have to either make tiny batches or eat it outside the home (ice cream and custard come to mind) to control my portions.

For example, I went to the county fair a week ago and ate a lamb burger (no bun), baked sweet potato, and a small chocolate custard. Pretty high on the carbs/sugar by my standards, but they were delicious, and I ate 100% paleo for the next few days with no digestive issues.

I am an always gluten free person, but I do like my occasional Mexican food, custard, or sushi (I bring my own tamari).

This is such a great, sensible, real-world perspective. I also love to see so many of us OWNING our choices. Cheers!

I eat “paleo” for general good health, and it’s just me: no family to feed. Like Ashley W., I don’t bother with “Paleo Treats,” but that’s because I’m one of the lucky ones: no allergies or real sensitivities, can digest dairy without difficulty, blood sugar regulation is A-OK. And this was even the case when I was a low-fat, whole-grain, bean-eatin’ mostly veggie. Iron constitution here. So: I treat with homemade ice cream (hiya, Sally Fallon!) or homemade baked goods made with standard flour and and sugar and good butter. For me, the occasional ingestion of refined sugar and gluten leads to nothing more than a noticeable-only-to-me bit of puff and maybe a pimple along my hairline, both of which are gone in a day or two.

Although I am a nutrient seeker who avoids processed junk altogether, I do not see the rare consumption of less-than-maximally-nutritious real foods to be any big deal. It’s not like they wipe out the good I’m doing myself with the bone broth and organ meats and pastured egg yolks and organic leafy greens and yummy root veggies and FLCO and good fats. I’ve been eating this way for 2 years now, and I’ve passed through my obsessive restriction phase. That way lay Disordered Eating. The wake-up was when I started limiting fruit (because SUGARS! Sugars = BAD!) and feeling crushing guilt for having both a banana AND an apple on the same day or for snacking on figs or eating “too much” watermelon. Now, I’m much more about eating in a way that makes me feel good both physically *and* mentally — strong, sharp, satisfied, and SHAME FREE.

May we all find a way of eating well that works for us and our families!

I have to admit that I am weak. I follow an AIP, so I know and am learning more about my limits with certain foods. I have to say I have a “Paleo Treat” every day. In the form of a “mug cake” It’s small – coconut milk, coconut flour and arrowroot flour with cinnamon – no sweeteners. My husband and I are both athletes, so I don’t think it’s hinder me in anyway and many times I include soy free dark chocolate with it too. I hear so many people in the paleo community saying it’s bad and it ends up making me feel horrible! I am paleo and even my treats I consider paleo – so what really is wrong with that? It is a normal thing I like to do. If I go to a restaurant with my family, I get to watch them eat treats in front of me, I should be able to go home and enjoy my version – right?! It’s a grey area, but I agree with you that it really depends on the person and what is right for them. Thanks for this great post!

Hello, everyone! First and foremost, your story about your struggle with weight loss really inspired me and confirmed that Paleo is right for me. I’ve gone full-on Paleo for three months and feel AWESOME! Although, I may not say no to the occasional beer or slice of pizza…or snickerdoodle. lol. Anyway, thank you!

I agree that occasional treats are OK, but some people do take it to the extreme and swap a “Paleo” baked goods for the old typical SAD baked good (bad, really) and that’s just not Paleo in my opinion. SO please don’t call it that as it only confuses people who are really trying to adhere to the lifestyle. It’s not about being perfect Paleo or anything like that: It can turn into an unhealthy habit that can cause harm. Dr. Cordain posted a blog about baked goods and here’s what he said…(I don’t know the blog etiquette, but I hope it’s OK to post this as I am truly just trying to be helpful).

“The two most common flours used in Paleo baking recipes are almond flour and coconut flour. Let’s break it down: Most recipes call for one or more cups of almond flour. One cup of almond flour is equivalent to roughly 90 almonds. Excessive nut consumption can cause a wide array of problems for people trying to achieve results following The Paleo Diet. The primary concern with almond flour is that it contains extremely high amounts of inflammatory PUFAs, or omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. The standard American diet already has a disproportionately large amount of PUFAs and consuming large amounts of almond flour could surely prevent your body from reaching a healthy equilibrium. A diet that is high in PUFAs can result in slowed metabolism, impaired thyroid function, and depletion of antioxidants in the body.
Cooking or baking almond flour results in a process known as oxidization. The PUFAs found in almond flour are not stable at high temperatures, but rather are the least stable of all the fats. Saturated fats are the most stable. When heat is applied to a PUFA, the double bond is easily broken and the PUFA becomes an oxidized fatty acid. In other words, oxidized fats are equal to free radicals and free radicals cause cell damage.
If you are going to be baking anything, coconut flour is your best bet. It is comprised mostly of medium chain saturated fatty acids, which are much more stable under high heat. Also, the majority of carbohydrates in coconut flour are fiber. People with digestive issues, like leaky gut, should avoid both coconut and almond flour altogether, as both flours can cause irritation in the gut.
The basic premise and goal of The Paleo Diet is to eat as close to nature as possible. In reality, a hunter gatherer would have not been able to cook up Paleo pancakes or bread, regardless of the type of flour used. Processed foods were completely out of the picture. The key here is moderation. A coconut flour based pastry on occasion is obviously better than eating the common alternative, which typically is loaded with gluten and vegetable oils. As long as you stick to consuming The Paleo Diet in the way that it was meant to be followed for the majority of your meals, a little dessert here and there should do you no harm.”

I agree with the concept of moderation (clearly, if you’ve read anything I’ve ever posted including this post). And I agree with most of Prof. Cordain’s points. But, I would like to point out that research shows that PUFAs in the whole food (like whole nuts and seeds but also ground into flour) are much, much more heat stable than isolated PUFAs (why I cook with almond flour but not flax oil). Plus, the internal temperature of most baking only gets to 160F, which is far far below the smoke point of even the most easily oxidized plant oils. So, the argument of oxidized fat when cooking with nut and seed flours is not accurate (although it might be if you were cooking with the isolated oils from those nuts and seeds).

And while almond flour does have more PUFAs than coconut flour (not to mention glucocyanides which Prof. Cordain doesn’t mention at all and which I think is a far more compelling reason for using almond flour in extreme moderation), coconut flour is predominantly inulin fiber, which we know can feed bacterial overgrowths and contribute to Irritable Bowel Syndrome type symptoms for many. Not that I want to staunchly defend the almond because I agree that it’s far from ideal, but I also don’t think pushing coconut flour as the better alternative is well justified.

What is a better alternative? I happen to be quite sensitive to both almond flour and coconut flour, so the majority of my new recipes don’t use either. I like sunflower seed flour better than almond flour, mostly for its vitamin and mineral content.I’ve been experimenting with ground pumpkin seeds as well. I am starting to play with chestnut flour. But, my favorite ingredients to play with as flour substitutes are pureed root vegetables or plantains, which in addition to avoiding the PUFA problem, also are much, much lower in phytates.

I do follow your blog and know that you always mention moderation. You do have great flour-less recipes, too (the blueberry “muffins” are awesome!), so bring on more please!!! 🙂

Anyway, thank you for further explaining this as I am still new to the Paleo diet and would like to fully understand why some things work and others don’t.

Great post. Some of us need a treat now and then, and a “paleo” version keeps some of us from running back to our old SAD versions. I have to say though I’m a bit wary of the various paleo sugar substitutes – is coconut sugar or honey really all that much different from refined sugar? It may have a bit of extra nutrition, but sugar is sugar is sugar. It gives us a sweet taste which gives us “pleasure”, that’s why we really want a treat after all.

Hello Sarah and Christina,
I am knew to Paleo and currently trying the AIP. I was diagnosed with Graves Disease 15 years ago and Sjorgen’s five. I really want to be successful with this way of life, but am wondering why raw nuts are a no no? I love almonds and walnuts and are suppose to be highly nutritious. Didn’t our ancestors eat these since they would have been easy to gather? Another question I have is I know I should never eat gluten due to my AI, but what if I find that eggs, nuts, seeds, grains do not bother me. Can I then eat them regularly or do I stick to avoiding them?
Thanks for such an informative website.

Today, Tuesday 1 July is my introduction to this website. I have intolerances to the following items and have been tested and need to stay off pepper for 1 month, eggs for 3 and gluten, wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt for 6 months. Due to continuous candida (which seems to finally be gone) I stay off sugar. I also don’t do dairy except for the odd treat like a decaf cappachino. I have to eat on rotation for next 6 months – meaning what I eat today I cannot eat for another 5 days and foods that were not tested I can only eat once every 7 days. This has thrown me for a loop searching the web for recipes that are QUICK and EASY as I’m not a Master Chef and don’t honestly have the time (although its therapeutic) to stand cooking for hours. I have found some recipes on a site called “against all grain” as well as “the rawatarian” – but honestly eating this way – is so costly and I am just struggling to get my head around this. I was referred to this site as I heard there is a community that all chat and give guidance as well as yourself or your assistant.

I was told you have different eating plans i.e people with IBS (which I’ve also been diagnosed with), people who can’t do grains etc – where do I find the right plan to follow.?

I just need to make up a menu plan for a week and then follow that for 3 months – the thought of eating the same meal each Monday doesn’t turn me on – so if for example its fish on a Monday – I need to find a few fish ideas so I have variety but am sticking to rotating.

P.S Ironically I am a Wellness Coach – I need to reclaim my health and my life back as I have been sick for 6 months and now they think I also have chronic fatigue. At least I know what the food itolerances are – we’ve got rid of helicobacter pylori and the months of candida – so now I just need to stop feeling nauseas, constant headaches, been hugely bloated, exhausted and oh my word – weight gain suddenly. I have begun this journey of correct eating but to date haven’t felt a change and realised because i actually don’t have a good understanding on words on labels so now am researching these so that I am not injesting things I shouldn’t be – this way – I may even be able to help clients going through this, now that I have gone through this.

I have signed up for your newsletter but just need a starting point.
Please can you assist.

Sarah does not have different plans for different conditions, but you may find that out-of-the-box Paleo is not the whole picture for you and that the autoimmune protocol, a low-histamine, or a low-FODMAP approach work best depending on your symptoms (if you have been diagnosed with candida/SIBO, then Sarah does recommend a low-FODMAP approach). Your current list of “foods to avoid” looks very similar to the autoimmune protocol’s, so AIP recipes should suit you. You can find info on all of that on this site using the search bar. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

tree nut flour recipe baked goods in theory is not paleo

Dr Cordain says Paleo is – nuts, meat, veggies, fruit (that’s it)

but having a gluten free baked goods that is called “paleo friendly” stops you from having packaged food – then it is a good thing

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