The fundamental key to success with any lifestyle modification is removal, elimination, and avoidance of the agents of opposition to your desired lifestyle. If you’re trying to read more books and stop watching reality television, you’re going to want to cancel your scheduled recordings of Jersey Shore. If you’re trying not to drink alcohol for a month, you’ll want to get rid of the beer, booze, and wine in your house. Heck, if you’re going vegan, you’ll want to toss all the animal products from your fridge, pantry, and freezer. And if you’re going Primal, whether if it’s for a 21-Day Challenge or just to get healthier in general, you need to eliminate the Standard American Diet foods that promise to thwart you at every twist and turn. It’s a pretty simple concept to understand, right?
It can be tough to put into practice, though, since these foods are staples for many. Some are even health darlings of Conventional Wisdom. Others are obviously junk, but junk often tastes good and lures you in to its sweet, salty, crispy embrace. Best to get rid of it altogether.
So, how do we do it? What are the foods we’re eliminating and why are we getting rid of them? You want the specific foods within the various categories to eliminate, and I’ve got ’em for you:
Most drinks are just sugar water masquerading as health beverages. They represent a massive, highly-dense source of insulin-spiking sugar without the vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that normally come with the sugar found in nature (fruits and vegetables). Plus, sweet drinks don’t satiate as much as solid food, leading to overeating and weight gain without you even knowing it or feeling “full.” Anyone who’s ever had a large Coke disappear throughout their meal without its gradually developing absence impacting their ability to finish the meal knows this.
When you pulverize a grain to make flour, you are creating an acellular carbohydrate. How this differs from a cellular carbohydrate is primarily its digestibility and the rate by which our bodies absorb its carbohydrate load. Whereas with a cellular carbohydrate, as found in fruits and tubers, we must break down the cellular walls to access the glucose, with an acellular carbohydrate that work has already been done. This sudden bolus of dense carbohydrate overwhelms our digestive tract, promoting an inflammatory gut flora and an impaired metabolism. That issue, plus all the other downsides that come along with grains (which I’ll be discussing later), make baking ingredients some of the first things you should be discarding. Besides, just what are you going to be baking?
Common baking ingredients to avoid:
Corn meal, starch, and syrup
All other starches and syrups
Flours (primarily wheat flour)
Certain edible powders – gluten, maltodextrin, powdered milk
Most condiments and salad dressings are simply another way to make bad food taste good by heaping sugar and/or bad fat all over it. If you get a low-fat dressing or condiment, it’s undoubtedly loaded with sugar to make up for the missing fat. If you get a store-bought full-fat dressing or condiment, it’s undoubtedly loaded with rancid omega-6 PUFAs that contribute to systemic inflammation. You can’t win, so it’s best to just get rid of the stuff altogether.
Common condiments to avoid:
Mayo, lite mayo
Low-fat salad dressings
Salad dressings made from soybean, corn, canola, sunflower, or safflower oil
Anything containing lots of sugar, HFCS, and/or PUFA oils
Not all dairy is off-limits, and, for those who tolerate it, certain types of dairy can actually be an incredibly healthy component of a Primal eater’s arsenal. But many others are intolerant of lactose and/or casein without even knowing it, and removing dairy from a diet previously rich in it can often reveal hidden intolerances. And I wouldn’t advise anyone to make a habit of using low-fat and non-fat dairy products, which are missing the vital fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin K2, that make dairy such a nutrient-dense food. Going low- or no-fat also eliminates the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy, natural trans-fat that’s been linked to good health. Most studies have found that only full-fat dairy is associated with improved health outcomes, not low-fat or non-fat dairy.
Common dairy to avoid:
Processed cheese – Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, nacho cheese, American cheese
Both trans-fats and added omega-6 PUFA-rich oils are unhealthy. Trans-fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils cause fat gain, particularly in the dangerous abdominal area, even when calories are held constant. Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary in the diet, but only in small amounts. Ideally, the dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be around 2:1, which is the evolutionary norm. The SAD tends to promote a ratio closer to 20:1, leading to increased systemic inflammation. Another danger lies in the inherent instability of PUFAs; when exposed to heat (like in a deep fryer or on a skillet), omega-6 PUFAs quickly oxidize, making them even unhealthier and more inflammatory.
Common bad fats and oils to avoid:
Anything containing partially hydrogenated oils
Butter spreads and sprays – Country Crock, Smart Balance, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Promise
Fast food is the perfect encapsulation of the Standard American Diet at its most alluring and unhealthy: omega-6 PUFAs, lots of carbs, sugary sauces, crispy salty deep fried (in the aforementioned oxidized PUFAs) breading on everything, low quality meat, high calories, low nutrient density. It’s the SAD wrapped up into a delicious, disgusting package.
Common fast food items to avoid:
Burgers, chicken sandwiches, fish filets, hot dogs
French fries, onion rings, jalapeno poppers, tater tots
When compared to wild-caught fish, farmed fish tends to fall short in several important categories. For one, farmed fish are lower in omega-3s and higher in omega-6s, especially predatory fish like salmon whose natural diet is harder to emulate in aquaculture. At least in the case of salmon, farmed is higher in contaminants than wild, including PCBs and dioxins. Plus, fish farming as it’s currently practiced in many areas harms the environment (PDF), causing run off into and pollution of adjacent bodies of water. That said, some wild caught fish high up on the food chain are too high in mercury for regular consumption, especially for pregnant women and children.
Common fish to avoid:
Most farmed fish, especially predatory fish like salmon
Breaded fish – fish sticks, fish filets, popcorn shrimp, fried calamari, fried oysters/clams/mussels
Large predatory fish high in mercury – shark, swordfish, king mackerel
Grains and legumes contain significant amounts of antinutrients, including phytic acid and lectins, which impair digestion, reduce mineral absorption, and damage the intestinal lining. They’re also high in carbohydrates and, if you’re talking about grain or legume flours or flour products, those acellular carbohydrates which are particularly damaging. Overall, grains and legumes are simply unnecessary. They don’t offer anything you can’t get elsewhere.
Though animals are often the centerpiece of the Primal Blueprint eating plan, not all meat is created equal. Processed meats and meat products, imbued with preservatives and sweeteners and binders, are not nearly as beneficial as fresh animal flesh, bones, and offal. Nitrates, which aren’t dangerous in and of themselves (and even appear naturally in vegetables), can form potentially unhealthy, carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines when subjected to heat, especially without the presence of antioxidants (which nitrate-containing plants have plenty of). Limited amounts of high-quality cured meats can be a welcome addition, but fresh meats should comprise the bulk of your meat intake. Factory farmed meat intake should also be limited, as access and finances allow, while grass-fed/pastured animal products should be strongly favored for their beneficial nutrient content and fatty acid composition.
Common meat to avoid:
Pre-packaged meat products processed with chemicals and sweeteners – sausages, dinner roasts, frozen meals, sliced lunch meats
Low quality deli/cured/smoked meats with preservatives and nitrates – pepperoni, bologna, ham, hot dogs, salami, bacon, Slim Jims, jerky
In several ways, processed food takes too little effort to eat when compared with whole food. It’s instantly available, which means you can rip open a bag of something resembling food and mindlessly eat it while watching TV, whereas whole food must be prepared by hand. It’s also way too easy to digest. One recent study compared the energy expended by the body after eating whole food to the energy expended after eating processed food; energy expenditure required to simply break down and digest the whole food was twice that of the processed food. Processed food is also usually made with the usual suspects (PUFAs, sugar, grains) we try to avoid.
Well, folks, what do you think? When you lay it all out like that, it can look a little daunting. That’s an awful lot of foods, including pretty much everything many people have grown up eating. And yes, it might be difficult at first, but it gets better. It gets easier. Heck, once you have everything dialed in and you’re humming along on all the amazing whole foods you can eat, you probably won’t even miss all that other stuff.
Let me know if you have any questions and stay tuned next week for Action Items 2-5! Grok on!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.