Over the past couple months, I’ve steadily been accumulating questions from readers with food allergies and food restrictions looking for assistance. They are all interested in giving the Primal Blueprint lifestyle an honest shot, but because they can’t eat certain foods, many of which enjoy an (real or imagined) exalted place in our community, they need help. Can it be done without eating red meat? Can it be done as a vegetarian? Can one eat Primal without eating land animals? Can a person succeed without tree nuts? Without coconut products? Are almonds essential? Can a vegan succeed on this eating plan? Are these nothing but minor speed bumps on the road to Primal, or something more serious? Let’s find out.
I’m allergic to tree nuts…and they are such a big part of the Primal Blueprint diet. Is it possible to still succeed on the plan in a healthy way without eating nuts?
Definitely. I actually wouldn’t say that tree nuts are “a big part” of the eating plan, but rather supplementary garnishes to be added as desired/tolerated. They aren’t essential. Many people who are just starting out with this stuff turn to nuts as their go-to snacks, because they’re low-carb, high-fat, and relatively convenient. This gives nuts the allure of essentiality. They are not. Nuts make a fine snack, sure, but they also tend to run pretty high in omega-6 fats. While there’s nothing wrong with some whole foods-based linoleic acid from time to time – eating a walnut is not the same as quaffing rancid seed oil, after all – making nuts a “big part” of your diet will likely result in a lopsided omega-3:omega-6 ratio. Over reliance on nuts is a common problem faced by many a Primal eater, and it’s one you’ll never have to worry about. Be happy!
Since you can’t tolerate them, you simply don’t add them to your routine. That’s fine, and you won’t be missing much. You certainly won’t be missing anything that you can’t get from other foods. In fact, I’d wager that you’ll be much better off than the tree nut-tolerant person who can’t seem to stop himself from tolerating five handfuls of nuts every single day. Because they’re so energy-dense, what begins as an innocent post-lunch snack of filberts can easily turn into a full-fledged meal rich in omega-6s.
My daughter is allergic to almonds. Is there another flour I can use in my recipes?
Absolutely. Coconut flour is probably going to be your best option, but it’s nothing like almond flour. Coconut flour is far drier, with far more fiber and far less fat than almond flour, so you can’t substitute coconut flour 1:1 for almond flour without getting a very different final product. Luckily, I did a post on coconut flour a couple years ago, and the comment section to that post contains several reader recipes. If you look around, you’ll find that the Primal recipe blogosphere is quite fond of coconut flour. Sure, you need to add a couple extra eggs to account for the drier texture (but more eggs are great!), but coconut flour doesn’t pack quite as a big of a caloric whop as almond flour. Baked goods made with almond flour can really add up fast, especially if they’re sweetened and delicious; using coconut flour in your pancakes instead of almond flour means you won’t be eating 1500+ calories in the form of a half pound of ground almonds, several eggs, a couple tablespoons of butter, a banana, and honey without really even realizing it.
Tapioca flour, rice flour, sweet potato flour, or potato flour are also options. They are higher in carbs than either almond or coconut flour, but they are largely free of possible irritants like gluten or other grain lectins. If you’re not worried about the carb load, these can be used.
I’m allergic to bananas and avocados. What are good substitutes for these in any recipes?
Well, it depends. If you’re talking replacements for guacamole or frozen bananas dipped in 85% cacao dark chocolate, I have some bad news for you. It ain’t gonna happen (they aren’t that good anyway).
But if you’re trying to replicate the textural enhancements provided by the aforementioned forbidden foods, you have options. In smoothies, a creamy texture can be achieved via yogurt, frozen fruit, and/or coconut milk (use the cream and omit the water, if possible) infusion. And this may sound odd, but frozen macadamia nuts tossed in a smoothie provide a buttery texture that, while not perfectly analogous to that of a frozen banana or avocado, stands up well on its own merits. In a Primal baked good, unsweetened applesauce can replace mashed bananas. If you’re missing the fat content of the avocado, both olive oil and macadamia oil contain similar amounts of monounsaturated fats.
Oh, and I lied. Guacamole and chocolate dipped bananas are definitely that good. Sorry.
I have been intermittently following a Primal lifestyle, but have had difficulty transitioning my household to it because my husband is allergic to coconut, in all it’s forms. As DH has recently (today, actually) been diagnosed as having high cholesterol and borderline high blood pressure, and he has difficulty regulating his blood sugar, finding a substitute that would allow for greater implementation of a Primal lifestyle has taken on a measure of urgency; he is only 34, and I would like to have him around and healthy for several more decades 🙂 I will be consulting the forums for information, and re-scouring the historical files on MDA – however, any direct assistance that can be provided would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.
Although coconuts are popular with this crowd, they are not essential. Yes, they taste good and provide healthy medium chain saturated fats, but so do palm oil and dairy fat. Both can be worthy replacements. If your husband wants the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) for which coconut is popular, he could always try MCT oil, made up of pure medium chain triglycerides extracted and refined from coconut oil. I had a funny experience with MCT oil, and I prefer coconut oil, but it’s a perfectly reasonable, completely refined alternative stripped of all vestiges of its coconut past that should be tolerated by those allergic to coconuts (but be careful and introduce very small amounts; I’m talking a quarter teaspoon at a time, just to be safe). As for palm oil and dairy fat, go with grass-fed dairy fat and unrefined red palm oil, and you get extra vitamins and nutrients along with your medium chain triglycerides.
Just don’t think “no coconut” is a deal breaker.
I am allergic and/or intolerant to eggs and dairy and coconut (in addition to wheat, soy, yeast, etc.). Do you think it is possible for me to go Primal in that circumstance?
Yes. You’ll likely be forced to go “strict” Primal, what with no dairy and no coconut flour baked goods bound together with eggs, but I think that’s actually a blessing in disguise. Sticking to meat, vegetables, fruit, and nuts will keep you honest, and it’ll keep you away from any potentially problematic foods (even the ones that most Primal eaters readily and happily accept) that can add up rather quickly. Check out Robb Wolf’s autoimmune protocol, which restricts dairy, eggs, nightshades, wheat, soy, and all the regular neolithic foods. Since plenty of people thrive on that way of eating, and you’re just avoiding eggs, dairy, and coconut, there’s no reason you won’t succeed.
I can’t stand red meat. I know grass-fed beef and lamb are the bee’s knees, but I just can’t do it. Am I making a huge mistake?
Honestly, you are making a huge mistake. A grass-fed bone-in ribeye eaten on the spot, over the grill, with only your hands and a glass of Cab smeared with CLA-enriched grease to accompany you? That’s something every person should experience at least once or a hundred times. But that’s sheer animalistic pleasure-seeking. As far as nutrition goes, you’ll largely be fine.
Incorporate grass-fed dairy fat and you’ll take care of the lack of conjugated linoleic acid. Eat oysters a couple times a week and you’ll take care of the missing zinc. Make sure the animal products you do eat come from quality sources. I’m talking grass-fed and -finished, pastured, and/or wild-caught. You may have trouble getting enough carnitine, an important amino acid found almost exclusively in red meat. While the body both conserves carnitine quite well (indicating, perhaps, its importance in the body) and manufactures it internally, more carnitine has been shown to be helpful, especially in athletes and the elderly. If you’re not eating red meat, you’re likely getting far less carnitine than most traditional Primal eaters.
If I could make one suggestion, it would be to eat a quarter pound of pastured ruminant liver every week. I know that’s a tall order, seeing as how you can’t stand the taste of red meat, but try to do it if you can. The benefits are many (it isn’t called “nature’s multivitamin” for nothing), and since carnitine is synthesized in the liver, a small weekly dose might make up for the overall lack of red meat. At the very least, include chicken, duck, or turkey livers.
I don’t eat fish. It’s not because I do not want to, but I simply cannot get over the taste after having a bad run-in with raw catfish in my less-than-primal-healthy eating days. Outside of the obvious (grassfed meets, free range eggs, supplementation), what are other steps I need to take to keep optimal and Primal?
Can you eat shellfish? Oysters and mussels would take care of all your sea-related needs, if you can tolerate them. Canned, smoked oysters are pretty mild, and I’m of the opinion that oysters are the most nutritious of the edible sea creatures. Hopefully you can keep them down.
If not, exclusively eating grass-fed meats, pastured eggs (which have a decent amount of omega-3s, believe it or not), and supplementing with a high quality fish oil will get you on your way. I would also try incorporating some seaweed a couple days a week, if only for the iodine (which can be tough to obtain if you’re abstaining from seafood). A good way to do it is to add pieces of kelp/kombu to soups or cooking bone broth. I don’t find it influences the flavor too much, but it definitely influences the nutritional content of the dish. Seaweed salad, the kind you find in Japanese or Korean cuisine, is also great.
I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons. Is it possible to go Primal and not eat meat?
Yes, though it wouldn’t be ideal. You’ll have to really like eggs and dairy, but it can certainly be done. Just make sure the dairy and eggs you eat are of the utmost quality. Get eggs with dark orange yolks from pastured hens who ate grass, weeds, and bugs. Get dairy from cows, goats, or sheep who ate grass; preferably, it’ll be raw. Include some fermented dairy in there as well. As long as you’re avoiding grains, refined sugar, and processed seed oils and liberally eating high quality animal products, it can be done. A quality whey protein may also help with protein needs.
If you’re the kind of vegetarian that eats fish this won’t be nearly as difficult. If you are not, I urge you to at least consider the oyster. As mentioned in the linked article, oysters have no central nervous system. If they feel “pain,” they don’t experience it like cows, pigs, and chickens experience pain. Oysters don’t have dreams or aspirations (beyond perhaps creating the prettiest pearl in the sea) that would be crushed by your eating them once or twice a week. I would also look into eating insects. Research shows that they experience “pain” differently than most other animals, and they’re a good source of protein, fat, and multiple micronutrients. They’re also extremely eco-friendly, sporting the largest biomass of all terrestrial animals. Most hunter-gatherer societies with steady access to bugs utilize them as a useful source of calories. Why not us?
Or you could hear how to do it straight from the source. Here’s one Paleohacker who manages to stay paleo and vegetarian without issues.
I’m a vegan. I don’t eat any animal products. Is there any way to be Primal and a vegan?
No, it can’t really be done very well without extensive supplementation. Where are you going to get creatine? Carnosine? Carnitine? DHA? Zinc? You’re going to have to supplement.
All that said, you can certainly be a far healthier vegan by implementing many Primal principles – grain, sugar, and vegetable oil avoidance, to name the main ones. You’ll probably have to include more starch, like yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and other roots and tubers, as well as fruit, simply for the calories, because you can’t live on leafy greens alone. You don’t have the enlarged intestines of a silverback gorilla. You’ll probably want to incorporate nuts, for fats and protein. Lentils are generally seen as the least-offensive legume, so there’s an option for protein. Quinoa is another high-protein pseudo-grain type thing worth considering. Though it contains saponins, which may have antinutrient qualities, they don’t appear to be on the same level as something like gluten. Whichever you eat, bone up on your traditional legume and grain preparation; if you’re gonna do it, do it right.
Focus on all the good Primal food that is vegan-friendly, like coconut, fruit, vegetables, tubers, nuts while making sure to pick the least-offensive grains and legumes when you eat from those categories. Avoid the garbage, the sugars, the gluten, the seed oils. And, once again, please, consider the lowly oyster.
Well, that’s it for today. Be sure to write in the comment section with any further questions about workarounds for restrictions and allergies, and I bet you’ll get some great feedback. If there’s enough interest, we can do another one of these down the line.
Thanks for reading!
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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.