80% Paleo, 20% Paleo-friendly!

While I’ve been showing you what I eat, I don’t think I’ve blogged much on how I’ve interpreted the paleo diet to fit my life. After over a year of being paleo, I have a pretty good handle on my eating habits and I’ll share how I’ve made this lifestyle work for me.

As I’ve mentioned before, eating paleo is not about adhering to a strict diet full of exclusions and restrictions. To me, it’s about following the main principles as well as you personally can as a part of a health-promoting lifestyle. I find that the paleo diet is pretty flexible and customizable to individual needs. I believe eating good food (high in nutrients, low in antinutrients and toxins) is the most important and easiest way to better health. But you also want to eat GOOD food (delicious, emotionally satisfying, happiness-inducing) because overall good health isn’t just physical! Although I primarily view food as fuel and medicine for the body, it also embodies love, comfort, memories, culture, etc. and I think cutting out every “bad” GOOD food would be detrimental to my non-physical health and quality of life.

It appears that strict paleo opposes paleofying your favorite non-paleo foods because junk food is still junk food even if its ingredients fit the paleo mold. I personally see nothing wrong with making paleo-friendly versions of my favorite non-paleo foods, especially treats and desserts. Otherwise, I would never have been successful in making the lifestyle change and enjoying my current awesome state of health. It does not make you want to revert to an unhealthy diet or want the real thing; it satisfies cravings and usually tastes better to your changed palate than the non-paleo original! It makes lifelong paleo eating a realistic, possible, and easily attainable goal. I also have a lot of fun trying to paleofy non-paleo recipes.

The “80% paleo for 90% of the benefits” 80/20 ratio thing never made sense to me, because I’d feel sick all the time with 20% of my diet including glutenous non-paleo food full of refined sugars and bad fats. Instead, I eat 80% paleo, 20% paleo-friendly. Of course there are times I indulge in a non-paleo meal so incredibly amazing that the nausea and regret afterwards is worth it, like multi-course tasting menus at my favorite fine dining restaurants. But these instances are becoming rarer the longer I eat paleo and as more restaurants jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. Besides, “80% paleo, 20% paleo-friendly” sounds better than something like “80% paleo, 12.6% paleo-friendly, 4.9% non-paleo, 2.5% mystery/unknown.”

I follow my own personal guidelines for the 20% paleo-friendly part of my diet. I consider a dish to be “paleo-friendly” if it’s mostly paleo except for a few ingredients that I personally approve  of eating in moderation (based on my own preferences and research), but are restricted by strict paleo guidelines (e.g. Whole30). These ingredients include:

  • Dairy – Allowed in the primal diet, which is very similar to paleo. I don’t notice a difference when I eat a little butter or cheese, but I avoid milk, cream, and yogurt.
    • Butter – Pastured and/or clarified butter only
    • Cheese – Small servings of high quality, really good, artisan cheeses
  • Natural sugars – These unrefined or minimally processed sugars have low glycemic indices and loads while containing important micronutrients, as well as amino acids and antioxidants. Nutrient composition depends on quality and source.
    • Coconut palm sugar – My favorite white/brown sugar substitute for its versatility, taste, and nutrition!
    • Raw honey  – I think local raw honey is also helpful for seasonal allergies
    • Agave syrup – Not used at home, but is the sweetner in my two favorite store-bought treats, Merry’s Miracle Tarts and Coconut Bliss.
  • Alcohol – Many studies have strongly and consistently associated moderate alcohol consumption with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s also ridiculous how many social situations call for alcohol when you’re 20-something years old. I don’t use a mixer unless fresh squeezed citrus juice is available, or soda water with lime.
    • Wine – for drinking and cooking
    • Tequila
    • Ciroc – a brand of vodka distilled from grapes, either
  • Starches – Safe starches that are allowed in the Perfect Health Diet, which is similar to primal except the large recommended amount of starches. I previously considered adding starches to my diet to increase my caloric intake, but I didn’t like how I felt slow and tired. Besides butternut squash, I don’t consume very many starchy foods.
    • Sweet potato – I especially like the smaller Asian kind with the reddish/purplish skin and yellow flesh is a sweet cold weather snack when baked/roasted, eaten hot and plain (Korean-style).
    • White rice – Rice is gluten free and the antinutrients are in the hull (brown rice). I never liked rice much, so it was super easy to cut out for the most part. I love nigiri sushi (sometimes sashimi isn’t enough) and homemade Korean rice cakes made with sweet rice flour.
  • Fermented soy products – Soy is REALLY bad for you with its high levels of toxic phytochemical anti-nutrients linked to all sorts of diseases. But I grew up only hearing about the health benefits of soy as a part of all the ancient Korean wisdom passed down to me. As far as I know, traditional Korean cuisine, which I believe is one of the healthiest in the world, has included fermented soybean products for thousands of years, along with tofu and sprouted soybean. Researching, I found that fermentation (also extensive soaking and cooking to a lesser degree) removes the anti-nutrients and releases the nutrients to make moderate consumption safe and nutritious for humans. Ancient Korean/Chinese food wisdom is pretty fascinating to me because science is now starting to support what our ancestors figured out thousands of years ago.
    • Korean condiments: Soybean paste, hot pepper paste, and soy sauce – These are all derived from “meju”, which is made by boiling the soybeans, crushing them, forming into blocks, and letting them mold over and ferment. My grandma makes this every few years to make all the condiments and it smells AWFUL. You can find prepackaged condiments at Asian grocery stores, but they don’t taste as good and may contain additives. Consumption really is very moderate, e.g. a tablespoon of soybean paste is used to make a stew serving four people.
  • 85+% Extra dark chocolate – The darker the better, I love 90% cacao! Make sure the ingredients are cacao, cacao butter, sugar, and vanilla. Nothing else, watch out for soy lecithin! Theo Chocolates and Lindt both make great 90% bars, the former is also organic and fair trade.

Ultimately, eating non-paleo every once in a while doesn’t hurt when you look at the big picture. Following the paleo diet basically gives you a set of rules that keeps you from consuming processed foods, preservatives, anti-nutrients, toxins, allergens, etc. and leaves you very few unhealthy food options. I think the biggest difference in I feel now comes from being gluten-free because that was the biggest change to my diet – from a pre-paleo diet full of all the wheat flour-based carbs and whole grains we’re  conditioned to eat to a paleo diet with zero grains. I also only feel really sick after eating a lot of glutenous food, not from eating dairy, legumes, or refined sugar. So my #1 rule is don’t eat gluten, I can deal with everything else. #2 is everything in moderation!


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