10 Surprising Foods That Aren't Paleo
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10 Surprising Foods That Aren't Paleo

By Megan Patiry, Contributor
March 5, 2021
10 Surprising Foods That Aren't Paleo image

The Paleo Diet® comprises a great community of health-conscious people. Like the indigenous tribes we aim to mimic, this is the hallmark of a well-knit hunter-gatherer society who feasts alongside its wide circle of family and friends.

Modern technology allows for this virtual community, providing easy communication online. But that also leads to one of the biggest drawbacks: the easy spread of misinformation.

Specifically, it allows for the widespread belief that certain foods are Paleo—when The Paleo Diet has never considered them part of our ancestral diet at all!

Most likely this was not done intentionally. Nevertheless, rumors and misinterpretations of scientific studies can harm the integrity of The Paleo Diet. When people try a distorted version of The Paleo Diet and don’t see results, they may falsely blame Paleo for their shortcomings.

So, with that being said, we’re here to set the record straight. Here are the top ingredients that we commonly see inaccurately labeled as “Paleo”—and why our science-driven team believes otherwise.

1. Bacon

I know. Many of our hearts just fell into our stomachs. Bacon? Not Paleo? How?

Bacon is one of the top non-Paleo items listed as Paleo across the Web. But what makes it not Paleo?

It mostly comes down to how bacon is processed. When you grab a package of bacon at the grocery store, it’s filled with nitrates, added curing salts, preservatives, and even chemicals from “natural smoke” to add flavoring. By the end of the “bacon” creation process, it has effectively been turned into a processed meat—one of the biggest culprits on the Paleo “do not eat” list.

What to eat instead: unprocessed pork bellies.

2. White Potatoes

Not long ago, white potatoes were almost universally recognized as being “not Paleo.” In recent years, however, they’ve crept their way back onto the “Paleo” list, likely because sweet potatoes are considered okay on the diet.

Why are regular potatoes not on the list? They’re excluded mainly because they have both a high glycemic index and low nutrient content. They also contain large amounts of saponins, which have been found in studies to contribute to gut permeability, or leaky gut. [2] Leaky gut can allow substances to pass through the digestive barrier and into the blood stream, potentially causing an immune reaction.

What to eat instead: sweet potatoes or yams.

Air Fryer Sweet Potato Fries (5 Ingredients!)
By Jess Case

3. Added Salt

That’s right, salt—even sea salt (in all forms)—is off the menu. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it Paleo. The idea here is to eat as hunter-gatherers would have eaten, which means recognizing they likely didn’t have a salt shaker lying around.

And, even if they lived near a salt bed or salt lick, that would have been the exception not the rule. Further, the art of gathering salt and making it fine enough to salt food would have been an isolated occurrence and not a regular enough occurrence to drive our evolutionary preference.

Healthwise, added salt is harmful. Research shows that too much salt (and any salt that we aren’t getting from natural sources is “too much”) can lead to a host of health issues. Many Paleo bloggers started to promote added salt because of research that showed too little sodium also hurt our health. However, that research has since been proved to have several flaws.

The truth is that added salt can contribute to cancer, autoimmune disease, insulin resistance, poor sleep, and, of course, hypertension and cardiovascular disease including stroke. [3]

One of the most important ratios in our diet is the sodium-to-potassium ratio and the modern diet is far from the ratio of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, especially when salt is added to our food.

What to use instead: Season foods with garlic powder, black pepper, or other salt-free spices. Or make your own spice blends like the Cordains do!

4. Natural Sweeteners

The idea of consuming stevia, honey, sugar, coconut sugar, and maple syrup is very similar to the salt idea: access to it would have been limited, and consuming it daily would have been next to impossible for hunter-gatherers.

After all, when was the last time you stumbled across a honeybee hive filled with honey? And even if you did, think of the effort it would take to knock it out of the tree, avoid getting stung, then break apart the hive and consume the honey.

In other words, while tribes like the Hadza consume honey as part of their natural diet, they also burn a ton of calories as part of the hunt. Similarly, if athletes wanted to consume a small amount of natural honey, that would be permissible under The Paleo Diet.

It’s also important to take a look at the natural state of the sweetener. For example, stevia exists naturally in the form of a leaf, so indulging in the powdered form that is available on grocery shelves today is a bit of a stretch.

Overall, the same rule that applies to sea salt applies here—just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s Paleo or healthy. Natural sugars also spike our blood sugar and can lead to problems like insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease just as quickly as the blue, pink, and yellow packages of sweeteners found at the local coffee shop.

In sum, any naturally occurring sugar aside from fruit just isn’t found in abundance in nature, and should be eaten only sparingly as part of your 85-15 rule.

What to use instead: Get your sugar fix by snacking on apple slices smeared with almond butter.

5. Green Beans

Although green beans are on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to non-Paleo foods, they are still a legume.

One of the reasons some Paleo bloggers have given them some grace is due to their lower levels of lectins and agglutinins compared to other legumes such as kidney and adzuki beans. This is especially true when they are in their young, non-dried state (aka: fresh green beans).

Regardless, they still contain many anti-nutrients such as saponins and are much lower in healthy micronutrients than vegetables and fruits. [4]

What to eat instead: Have a healthy side of crunchy Brussels sprouts.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic Balsamic Glaze
By The Paleo Diet® Team

6. Coffee

This one hurts, but the fact remains: Due to some of coffee’s negative effects, it should remain on the “not Paleo” list.

Several analyses of coffee have shown that it can reduce insulin sensitivity, while also worsening glycemic response. [5,6] Furthermore, the constant stimulatory effect on the nervous system could over-stimulate the adrenal glands, potentially resulting in a cascade of negative effects.

Coffee also requires a bit of processing in order to go from a “bean” to a black liquid in our cups, meaning it would have been consumed very sparingly in hunter-gatherer days, if at all. However, it is worth pointing out that while we call it a “bean,” coffee beans are not actually beans.

That said, research suggests coffee has its fair share of benefits particularly in regards to its various antioxidants. However, this doesn’t necessarily outweigh the idea that it is, in reality, a modern drink that undergoes heavy processing to get where it is, and acts as a strong stimulant.

What to drink instead: Try ground chicory and dandelion root, or perhaps even switch to green tea.

7. Butter and Ghee

The idea that ghee and butter are Paleo likely came from years of crossover between the Paleo Diet and other “Primal” diets, or even the Bulletproof Diet, which became popular in some Paleo-spheres.

Ghee might also have become attractive to Paleo dieters because it is considered an ancient, sacred food in India. However, ghee is still a dairy product. This also goes for butter, regardless of the heathy fats it contains. Alongside it, casein and other irritating milk proteins are still present, putting it on the no-go list.

A few other reasons to avoid all forms of dairy include:

  • No other mammalian species consumes milk after weaning, except for humans and domestic cats.
  • 65 percent of people experience gas, bloating, and digestive distress after consuming cow’s milk, due to lactose sensitivity or intolerance.
  • Research shows that milk consumption is significantly correlated to cardiovascular death rates.

The bottom line here: Dairy is a nutritional lightweight when compared to lean meats, vegetables, seafood, and fresh fruits, and isn’t the nutritional powerhouse advertisements claim it to be.

What to use instead: olive oil or coconut oil

8. Kimchi

Kimchi is firmly on the Paleo fence, simply due to how it is made.

To make kimchi, cabbage is soaked in a brine with large amounts of salt. (Remember, added salt is not Paleo.) This is why we recommend you consume it in limited quantities. If you do eat it, focus on consuming high-potassium foods like broccoli and mushrooms afterward to offset the excess salt.

What to eat instead: If you want a safe kimchi to try, check out this Paleo-approved salt-free recipe.

9. Kombucha

While kombucha may contain beneficial bacteria and yeasts that could benefit gut health, the way it is brewed today—with added cane sugar—is not considered Paleo.

Sugar in any form, but most especially cane sugar, is not a part of The Paleo Diet, and thus the sugars used to feed the SCOBY (the yeast present in kombucha) are not Paleo.

Many have argued that if kombucha were made with honey or coconut sugar (as these sugars would have existed during the Paleolithic time, unlike the cane sugar we use today) it would be Paleo, and there are brands that do utilize honey for this reason.

However, sugar is sugar, and unless our activity levels are as intensive as the Hadza or an athlete, it can spell trouble for our insulin response, blood sugar levels, and brain health.

What to drink instead: iced green tea.

10. Pseudo Grains

Pseudo grains, such as chia seeds, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat, are often touted as Paleo. However, like other grains, pseudo grains contain toxic lectins, saponins, and protease inhibitors that can cause gastrointestinal distress like leaky gut, and inflammation. [7,8]

Most seed foods (a.k.a. grains) contain these compounds as a defense to ward off predators so that the seed can survive. So, when we consume them, we consume these harmful mechanisms. A little-known fact: Quinoa contains the highest concentration of saponins of any grain (5,000 mg/kg).

In addition, chia seeds have been touted as a great plant alternative for protein; however, the mucilaginous gel that surrounds the seed (if you’ve ever made chia pudding, you’ve seen this sticky substance) actually forms a barrier that can disrupt digestion, causing low protein digestibility.

What to eat instead: Wild meat or fish, which are a healthier source of complete amino acids.

Are Ancient Grains Paleo?
By Bill Manci

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to see why some of these ingredients were wrongly categorized as Paleo. The takeaway here is to remember that just because an ingredient is natural, that doesn’t make it healthy.

It’s important to consider how items are processed as well. If the source was Paleo but the production is different today than it would have been during hunter-gatherer times, we need to look at modern research to decide whether or not it’s truly Paleo. Finally, how much we can eat relative to our daily calorie expenditure should be factored in as well.

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  1. E. Giuffra, J. M. H. Kijas, V. Amarger, Ö. Carlborg, J.-T. Jeon and L. Andersson. The Origin of the Domestic Pig: Independent Domestication and Subsequent Introgression. Genetics. April 1, 2000 vol. 154 no. 4 1785-1791. <https://www.genetics.org/content/154/4/1785.full>
  2. IT Johnson, JM Gee, K Price, C Curl, GR Fenwick. Influence of saponins on gut permeability and active nutrient transport in vitro. Oxford Academic. DOI: 10.1093/jn/116.11.2270 <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3794833/>
  3. Santisteban, M.M., et al., Abstract 104: Cerebrovascular and Cognitive Dysfunction in DOCA-Salt Hypertension is Mediated by Perivascular Macrophages. Hypertension, 2017. 70(suppl_1): p. A104-A104. <https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/hyp.70.suppl_1.104>
  4. Edwin H W Leung, Jack H Wong, T B Ng. Concurrent purification of two defense proteins from French bean seeds: a defensin-like antifungal peptide and a hemagglutinin. J Pept Sci. 2008 Mar;14(3):349-53. doi: 10.1002/psc.946. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17994641/>
  5. Shi X, Xue W, Liang S, Zhao J, Zhang X. Acute caffeine ingestion reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy subjects: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr J. 2016 Dec 28;15(1):103. doi: 10.1186/s12937-016-0220-7. Review. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28031026/>
  6. Robertson TM1, Clifford MN1, Penson S2, Chope G2, Robertson MD1. A single serving of caffeinated coffee impairs postprandial glucose metabolism in overweight men. Br J Nutr. 2015 Oct 28;114(8):1218-25. doi: 10.1017/S0007114515002640. Epub 2015 Aug 28. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26316273/>
  7. Vidueiros SM, Fernandez I, Bertero D, Roux ME, Pallaro A. Effect of a quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa W) based diet on the intestinal mucosa of growing Wistar rats. P Nutr Soc 2013;72:E67. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0029665113000694.
  8. Johnson IT, Gee JM, Price K, Curl C, Fenwick GR. Influence of Saponins on Gut Permeability and Active Nutrient Transport in Vitro. J Nutrition 1986;116:2270–7. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/116...;

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