I did not wake up one morning and decide I was going to follow a paleo diet and just suddenly know what to do. I read books. I tried recipes. I tried them again another way. I’ve actually spend the last 6 years working my way down the spectrum from “low carb” with no other restrictions, to “gluten free” carbs from November 2013 and now to “paleo” eating beginning in October 2014.
Let me start this my saying I am NOT a nutritionist. I am a self-taught food nerd. And this is how I have done things personally in the last few years. In the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes and take a few short cuts it took me awhile to figure out, I am sharing this “Low Carb to Paleo Spectrum” with you.
Until I figure out a pretty way to illustrate this spectrum with a chart or graphic, you will have to just handle this information in text form… please bear with me.
These are my categories on the spectrum: starting on the far left with “Low Carb”, the middle being “Gluten Free” and the right being “Paleo”.
What I mean when I say low carb in this sense is strictly in the Standard American Diet (“SAD”) sense. Think almost like Atkins or South Beach, where all you do is look at the carb count on the nutrition label and pay no mind to the ingredients or source of the carbs. The quick and dirty theory behind this manner of diet is that it doesn’t matter what the source of the carb is because your body basically converts it to sugar. So the carbs in a banana are equally offensive as the carbs in a Snicker’s Bar, because your body turns it all into sugar anyway. Same idea with the carbs in carrots are too high for a veggie so you should choose less carb-y veggies instead like greens.
NOTE: I do not subscribe to this way of thinking anymore, although I am a big proponent that sugar, specifically refined sugar, is garbage and should be eliminated whenever possible. Goodbye, soda.
The gluten free category will include carbs, but the carbs do not contain gluten (i.e. they are not made from wheat, but some other grain source like rice or corn or potato. P.S. whenever you see the word gluten just think wheat.
Gluten has been found to be a very polarizing ingredient in the body and many people, myself included, have a sensitivity to gluten even though that sensitivity does not rise to the level of a true allergy or Celiac disease.
NOTE: Start with the book Wheat Belly. Then move on to Grain Brain. Good stuff that explains the problems with gluten and the many ways it can affect your belly, brain and everything else in your body.
Most people’s definition of paleo is grain free, dairy free and legume free. That means no grains of any kind, not even gluten free grains such as rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, etc. Potato and Sweet potatoes are allowed. There is some debate about the source of the dairy (i.e. cow’s milk is bad and sheep’s milk is OK).
OK… So now that we know the definitions of the categories of food, we can start to break it down. I am going to include a list of common foods and provide you with examples of the low carb, gluten free and paleo versions, alternatives or substitutes for those foods that I have tried.
NOTE: Start with the book It Starts With Food which is from the creators of Whole 30. I also enjoyed reading the Maker’s Diet which explains why the paleo-ish diet from biblical times was so healthy.
Low Carb: I like the OLE brand low carb tortillas. This was my go-to sandwich wrap/bread alternative in my low carb days and my fiance still eats them. Use this instead of standard sandwich bread and make a wrap. Use this instead of standard corn or flour tortillas for your tacos and burritos to take out some of the excess carbs.
Gluten Free: These days you can find all types and brands of Gluten Free breads at the grocery story. I enjoyed a fair amount of Brown Rice Flour Bread from the gluten free section of Publix for awhile until I discovered Sami’s, a local Tampa bakery, that had several good millet, flax and sourdough options available at the local specialty health food store in St. Pete, Rollin’ Oats. You can find lots of similar options the more crunchy your grocery story (Whole Foods, Earth Fare, etc.)
Paleo: Bread that is totally grain free is hard to come by. You are basically left with breads made out of potato, nuts or seeds. So if you are a baker you could certainly make bread with potato starch, almond meal, coconut flour, flax meal or other similar “flour” replacements. That’s just not my bag, so I skip bread. If bread is “necessary” like for a sandwich or taco, I will typically use lettuce wraps. Check out Jimmy John’s “Unwich” for the only restaurant menu version of this I’ve ever come across (without a special request). I especially like radicchio as a purple, more sturdy and therefore crunchy wrap option with a bit more flavor (slightly bitter, think baby purple cabbage).
Low Carb: At your grocery store these days you can find lower carb pastas by reading nutrition labels, many times they will increase fiber or protein content by enriching the pasta and lowering the carb count by a few grams, but this is a negligible difference. One of the first low carb pasta alternatives we tried was Shirataki mushrooms. My fiance Robbie loved them. We found them at Whole Foods in the refrigerated section. They were made of of mushrooms and had that gummy udon noodle texture you would get at a nice Asian restaurant. To me, these were not a good substitute. They smell like feet. They had a slightly too wet texture. I was not a fan. But if you are a pasta lover these are worth trying. Word to the wise, make the sauce you are serving with these Shirataki noodles very strong because the weird and stinky mushroom flavor comes through strong unless there is an equally strong sauce to combat it.
Gluten Free: Just like the bread section above, depending on your grocery store you are going to be offered at least a few different types of gluten free noodles in the specialty food section. Rice noodles and quinoa noodles were my favorite, but they make gluten free noodles out of practically every gluten free flour source these days.
Paleo: Grain free noodles don’t exist from what I have found. Instead of trying to force this in an artificial or overly complicated direction, when I knew I had to cut out grains to go paleo I decided to turn to vegetables to serve as my noodle alternative.
There are more options for vegetable “noodles” or “pasta” than you would expect. I found the blog Inspiralized and got myself a spiralizer kitchen gadget. I also got myself a mandolin kitchen gadget. I already had a good set of knives. Basically, the idea for me was to get vegetables into the shape and texture of pasta through how you prepare and cook them. It’s easier than it sounds! Long spaghetti like ribbons come from zucchini, fat carrots and sweet potatoes. Thin angel hair texture comes from a fork-peeled spaghetti squash and pre-cut broccoli slaw. I have no idea what a green papaya looks like whole, but when you buy them pre-cut from your local Asian Market (Dong A if you live in St. Petersburg, FL) they are prepared for you into julienned strips.
And then there is my favorite: crinkle cut or dip chip carrots. After all that work and all that kitchen gadget-ery, I defaulted to the easiest, laziest choice. These carrots are already washed and prepared (get them in the produce section with the other pre-sliced veggies), they are round or oblong shape, so you won’t get that spaghetti effect but you get a nice ziti, rigatoni or gnocchi like shape and texture just by opening the bag and dropping the carrots into a pot of boiling water. Boil it just like you would with pasta, taste test it until you get your desired al dente texture. The “carrot pasta” thing is a HUGE staple for us. I’d say we eat it at least once every two weeks, so you can find it all over my blog and social media.
CRACKERS OR CHIPS
Low Carb: You need to read labels a bit for this, but they sell lower carb crackers and chips in the store. These are not low carb in and of themselves, but if you are going to go the chip route you need to be informed. A fun low carb cracker or chip option if you are up for some baking would be to make your own parmesan cheese crackers or chips. You shred the cheese or shave off bits, shape them into a thin cracker or chip shape, and bake them in the oven until crisp.
Gluten Free: Again, lots of gluten free items are in the grocery stores now. Rice cakes, corn tortilla chips, potato chips and “gluten free” snack food brands have lots to choose from. Read your labels to know what you’re getting, there is hidden wheat and gluten in processed foods, regardless of whether or not the base ingredients (rice, corn, potato) are gluten free!
Paleo: The same way you could bake a paleo bread, you could bake crackers with grain free flours made from nuts or seeds (almond meal, coconut flour, flax seed meal). I think this is more trouble than its worth. The only time I ate crackers or chips before was as a vessel to dip into something I wanted (like guacamole or salsa) or for mindless eating in groups which I had no business doing. Now if I want to dip something, I dip veggies. Carrots, celery and radishes are my favorites for dipping into guacamole and salsa. They provide a satisfying crunch. As do nuts. But watch the portions on nuts!
Low Carb: Carbs were not really on my radar back when I was drinking milk. It wasn’t the milk I had to worry about back then, it was the cookies/dessert or cereal I was having WITH the milk. That being said, don’t let milk and sugar go hand in hand if you drink milk. Chocolate milk, extras in coffee and dessert make milk a RIPE candidate for sugar overload. Extra sugar means extra carbs.
Gluten Free: Unless you are drinking some crazy not-really-milk Yoo Hoo like concoction, there should be no concern over gluten being in your milk. Read labels, as always. And see above.
Paleo: Dairy is not a part of the paleo diet. Dairy is one of the most inflammatory foods for me personally, so I saw crazy results when I eliminated dairy. As noted above, I didn’t drink a lot of milk on its own. It went with cereal or dessert or coffee, and for each of those uses it was a pretty easy substitute to switch over to Almond Milk, Cashew Milk or Coconut Milk. I love all three. I can buy all three at Publix. Watch out for Soy Milk. Soy milk is a popular non-dairy alternative at coffee houses and restaurants, but soy is a legume and thus not part of a paleo diet either.
Low Carb: You will see some cream in low carb recipes. It’s got a lot of fat and a good texture so that lends itself well for replacing sugar while still adding flavor. Cream and ice cream in particular is one of the most painful things to my personal constitution so I won’t spend a lot of time here.
Gluten Free: Unless you are drinking some crazy not-really-cream whipped concoction, there should be no concern over gluten being in your cream. Read labels, as always. And see above.
Paleo: Short of making your own, I have not seen any paleo cream. For cooking where you would use heavy cream you can probably get away with coconut milk or coconut cream which is very thick and dreamy, but there is the flavor component to consider. I’ve only delved into this briefly with coconut cream in cocktails (it tastes like the inside of a Mounds Bar but melted). Not great. There are plenty of recipes online for non-dairy creamers made with almond milk or coconut oil or coconut milk, so if you have to have cream in your coffee I would go check these out. Also check out “Bullet Proof” coffee, which is basically coffee, coconut oil and butter and sweetener (honey or maple syrup) whipped up in a blender. It gives a latte like creamy texture and you’re not using actual cream.
Low Carb: Butter is pretty prominent in low carb diets. The basic idea is you increase fat/flavor with butter and you don’t miss the loss of sugar. Carb content is not really the concern with butter, in my opinion. Quality and natural ingredients are. Once upon a time I ate all that made in a test tube crap like smart-balance-olean-i-can’t-believe-it’s-not-killing me butter, but no more. I don’t even like to think about those days.
Gluten Free: Again, unless you are using some crazy not-real-food concoction, there should be no concern over gluten being in your butter. Read labels, as always. And see above.
Paleo: When you clarify butter, you cook out the milk proteins and basically vaporize all the tough-to-digest-lactosey-dairy badness of butter. This is called Ghee. You can make your own if you’re feeling French, of you can buy it at Publix like me. It comes in jars usually and is right there next to the butter. It tastes just like real butter because it pretty much is real butter. You use this for cooking and baking exactly as you would use regular old butter. This was pretty much the most delightful switcheroo I experienced with my transition to paleo (other than carrot pasta).
Low Carb: Cheese is also pretty prominent in low carb diets. Carb content is not really the concern with cheese, in my opinion. Just like with butter and dairy in general, the concern is over quality and natural ingredients. You’re probably eating a lot of cheese on a low carb diet. Cheese on a burger? I don’t even miss the lack of bun. Want to approximate some pizza? Pound out a chicken cutlet as thin as your pizza dough and smother it with cheese and sauce! You’re not missing the “crust”. Cheese covers a plethora of carb omissions.
Gluten Free: Again, unless you are using some crazy Whiz concoction, there should be no concern over gluten being in your cheese. Read labels, as always. And see above.
Paleo: No dairy means no cheese. There is some debate in the paleo world about whether this is limited to cow’s milk cheeses or if other types of cheeses (sheep, goat) are permissible. That depends on what your body can tolerate. Cheese doesn’t hurt me as bad as milk and cream, I think this is partially due to the fact that cheese has a little fermentation going on. It’s already part digested when it goes into your mouth so it’s easier on your system thank milk or cream. Personally, cow’s milk cheese hurts nearly every time but small amounts of sheep’s milk cheese have been snuck in as part of charceuterie platter a few times with no negative effects. I haven’t gotten into this myself, but some paleo folks make cheese out of nut milks, specifically cashew creams up nicely into cream and cheese I’m told. That seems like too much work for me so I haven’t experimented with it yet and they don’t sell it at any of my local specialty stores. I have found some paleo friendly cream cheese options from Rollin Oats in St. Petersburg, Florida after much label reading. Don’t be tempted by the “veggie shreds” they sell as shredded cheese alternatives, most of those are soy based or have lots of preservatives.
The bottom line is this: some things just don’t have substitutes. Cheese is one of them. Don’t kill the messenger.
Low Carb: Pre-made salad dressing that you can buy at the store that will tend to be low in carbs are going to be the creamier dressings like blue cheese or ranch. As always, read labels to know what you’re getting yourself into. Regardless of whether you are taking the Low Carb, Gluten Free or Paleo Approach, there is definitely going to be more salad in your life so you need to get on top of the salad dressing situation.
Gluten Free: In the gluten free or health food sections there are several brands that have gluten free salad dressing that are pretty good. You really have to read labels closely, but once you find a few you like you can keep coming back to those and not have to research it every time. I found a few of the Annie’s dressings I really liked back in my Gluten Free days.
Paleo: It is pretty much impossible to find a paleo salad dressing that is pre-made. I got so frustrated reading labels and seeing gluten, dairy and soy in everything so I just started making my own. The oil & vinegar dressings where usually carb bombs and I had taught myself to steer clear of them back in my low carb days, but now they are the only kind of dressing I use. I like to have a few high quality olive oils and vinegars on hand. Feel free to experiment with other oils besides olive (just read labels). Find flavors you like. Mix them with mustard, citrus juices, honey, spices, tahini… the possibilities are endless! My salad dressing supply closet always has dijon, EVOO, balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, lemon juice and honey in it.