50 Shades of Grey Area Foods

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There’s been a lot of chatter lately about what foods are and aren’t “Paleo”, with the latest issue being the appropriateness of legumes (see here, here, and here). While I use Paleo as a template for both my own diet and my clients’ diets, I don’t believe it’s necessary for most people to be strictly Paleo, particularly if they’re generally healthy. And in some cases, a strict Paleo diet might actually be harmful to a person’s overall health and wellness, especially their mental health.

I strongly discourage black and white rules when it comes to food and nutrition, and believe that flexibility and self-awareness is key to developing a healthy, sustainable diet. The better you understand your own personal tolerances and preferences, the more appropriate your diet will be for you.

What I find especially interesting, in light of the legumes discussion, is that many people determine what is and isn’t “Paleo” based on the propensity for intolerance of a food. A good example of this is dairy; even though humans have been eating dairy foods for 10,000 years or longer, there are many people who don’t tolerate dairy and thus can benefit from removing most or all dairy from their diet. But does this mean dairy is an unhealthy food, or that it’s not “Paleo”?

Personally, I believe that full fat, organic, grass-fed and/or raw dairy is a health food and is a great addition to a healthy diet if well tolerated. While some may argue it’s not “Paleo” based on various points of evidence, I would suggest that we try to pull our noses out of scientific journals once in a while and look at the cultures around the world who have thrived on dairy products. And there are plenty of people today who feel fine consuming dairy, or possibly even flourish on it. So simply because our ancestors may not have consumed certain foods (and these foods are thus “not Paleo”) that doesn’t mean we can’t consume those foods and still maintain good health across our lifetime.

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The same goes for white potatoes, legumes, coffee, chocolate, or any other food that would certainly not have been available to our distant Paleolithic ancestors, but that we can enjoy as part of a whole foods, ancestral diet. Defining one “Paleo” diet isn’t even possible, and creating a universal “do and don’t eat” list is an exercise in futility. And frankly, none of the food we eat today is food that would have been around for our Paleolithic ancestors anyway (thanks, Evolution!).

Another serious issue with basing your diet on what is or isn’t Paleo is that there are dozens of generally healthy, “Paleo” foods that can cause certain people a lot of distress and/or worsened health because of their personal intolerance to that food. Here is a short chart describing the various foods that may not be tolerated by certain conditions (your mileage may vary):

  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Watermelon
  • Apples
  • Cabbage
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • And other FODMAPS
Hypothyroidism (due to iodine deficiency)
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • And other goitrogenic foods
Autoimmune disease
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Eggplant
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Spices derived from seeds (Anise, Annatto, Caraway, Celery seed, Coriander, Cumin, Curry, Dill, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mustard, Nutmeg, Poppy, Sesame)
  • White Potatoes
  • Paprika
  • Chili Powder
  • Alcohol
  • Cocoa
  • Coffee
  • And other Autoimmune Protocol foods
IBD (Crohn’s, UC)
  • Okra
  • Jicama
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Parsnips
  • Plantains
  • White potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Canned pumpkin
  • Seaweed
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Taro
  • And other SCD “illegal” foods

Are all these foods “Paleo”? Maybe. Are they universally healthy for all people? As you can see, decidedly no!

There are more conditions than those listed that may be negatively impacted by other foods that are considered good to eat by “Paleo” standards. This is just a short list to give you an idea of the many Paleo-approved foods that are healthy for most people but could be harmful for someone with one of the conditions listed above. On the flip side, there are plenty of non-strict-Paleo foods that are perfectly well tolerated by many people, and can play a part in an overall healthy, nutrient dense, whole foods diet.

The point here is that most foods can actually be considered grey-area foods. Even if a food is “Paleo”, that doesn’t mean everyone should eat it, and even if a food is decidedly “non-Paleo”, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it as part of an overall healthy diet. Paleo is a great starting point, but I don’t think it’s necessary – or even healthy – for most people to follow a strict Paleo diet, especially if it causes them mental distress or daily anxiety related to eating.

As Amy Kubal bravely pointed out, black and white food rules can often be a cover up for disordered eating, and I’d rather see someone eating bread occasionally as opposed to developing a crippling version of orthorexia. It’s a slippery slope, and I know far too many people (myself included) who have experienced reduced quality of life due to unnecessary food restrictions. While a good diet can help you live life more fully, it’s important not to let your diet become a hinderance to living fully, either.

The Ancient Greeks used to say “Know Thyself” and this applies to nutrition as well.  Learn how to feed yourself in a way that is nourishing and health-promoting, but also enjoyable and as stress-free as possible. I understand there are many people out there who must restrict specific foods due to an illness or health condition, but I still believe these people can also find a diet that is as unrestricted as possible, and not get stuck in an overly restrictive diet simply because a website or book instructed you to eat a certain way. (This is where working with a savvy nutritionist can really help you out!)

As Brad Dieter eloquently stated, “continue to grow, evolve, learn, change, and do not be afraid to be wrong.” Don’t be afraid to test out new diet protocols, or introduce new foods into your previously restricted diet. Experimenting with nutrition and not being afraid to branch out to previously “off-limits” foods is the best way to free yourself from dietary dogma, and to learn how to trust your own body when it comes to the food you choose to eat.

If you find yourself needing guidance in your journey towards better health, don’t hesitate to contact me! I’m here to help you make the right choices for you and your health goals.

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

I help nutrition entrepreneurs grow their income and their impact by packaging their brilliance into transformative coaching and consulting programs, and get crystal clear on their marketing strategy.

I'm on a mission to help nutrition business owners drop the hustle and come into alignment with their ideal business goals, so they can work from a sense of ease and abundance, and build the online business of their dreams. 

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