Let’s face it: no diet is perfect, and Paleo is no exception, especially regarding nutrition. So what nutrients does the paleo diet lack? What do I eat to get all my required nutrients? Which nutrients are essential? Am I eating enough of this or enough of that?
We’re here to give you some guidance on the essential nutrients you should be consuming on the paleo diet.
And here’s one crucial piece of advice you need to remember: It’s incredibly important to vary your diet and use good quality ingredients. Incorporating high-quality proteins (grass-fed, pastured, and organic if possible), fats and oils (unprocessed and pure), and as many colored fruits and vegetables as you can get at every meal is key to optimal health and body function.
What nutrients do we need?
You’ve probably heard that it’s important to replenish electrolytes after exercise of intense bouts of sweating, but why is that the case? Ever had a serious muscle cramp in the middle of a run? Here’s why: When there is an imbalance of electrolytes, the muscles can’t contract and relax properly. Instead, they sometimes stay contracted – hence the cramp.
But electrolytes are needed for much more than just muscle contraction. Inflammation in the body is also a culprit of hoarding electrolytes, so when we improve our lifestyle and food choices, we reduce the amount of inflammation in the body. Decreased inflammation equates to a reduction in water weight and a decrease in electrolytes.
Calcium — When it comes to sources of calcium, nothing tops off the myth that dairy sources are the number one source. And it is just a myth. We know it’s important for building strong teeth and bones, but calcium also plays a vital role in cell function, heartbeat, and blood clotting. It can be found in many paleo-approved sources like leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens, turnip greens), dried fruit and nuts, sesame seeds (and tahini), and beans/legumes.
Sodium — Low sodium this, low sodium that — everywhere you look, people focus on their salt intake. But it’s not all bogus, and too much sodium can wreak havoc on the body. Sodium restriction isn’t the answer, though. The body needs salt for key functions like maintaining fluid volume in and out of the cell, controlling the volume of plasma in the blood, maintaining the pH of the body (acid-base balance), and proper nerve and muscle function. The paleo diet doesn’t propose limiting salt intake but rather focusing on taking in the right type of salt — Himalayan pink salt or Celtic sea salt are your best options. Where can it be found, otherwise? Pretty much every food in its natural form contains a bit of sodium, but not enough to get sufficient amounts. We recommend consuming 1/2 tsp. of sea salt in water first thing in the morning (common table salt is highly inflammatory so it’s best to avoid it).
Potassium is one of the most abundant minerals found in cells, with 80% found in muscle cells and the remaining 20% found in bones, the liver, and red blood cells. Along with sodium, potassium maintains pH and water balances in the body, and calcium helps to regulate nerve and muscle function (contraction of the muscles and heart) in the body. But you often don’t see potassium supplements, so how are you supposed to get enough? Beet and beet greens, yams and sweet potatoes, beans, mushrooms, avocado, leafy greens (spinach, kale), and salmon are all paleo-approved sources of potassium. Aim for 7-10 cups of fruit and vegetables daily to ensure sufficient amounts.
Magnesium — Magnesium is involved in over 600 chemical reactions in the body, including energy production, gene maintenance, muscle contraction, nervous system regulation, and protein formation. It plays a significant role, and we’re often deficient in it. While magnesium supplements are great to take prior to going to sleep for their muscle relaxant capabilities, magnesium can also be found in many food sources, such as nuts and seeds, leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard), beans, avocado, and even dark chocolate. Magnesium can also be absorbed through the skin. Epson salts and magnesium spray are good ways to boost your levels, so go ahead and treat yourself to a hot Epsom salt bath and a square of pure dark chocolate in the evening!
Note: Chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphates are also electrolytes, but they generally will not be obtained through food.
The 8 vitamins found in a B-complex are often obtained through the food in sufficient amounts but are incredibly important to the body’s optimal function. Since they are water-soluble (meaning they are excreted in the urine if the body has enough), supplementing never hurts. Here’s why:
- B1 (thiamine): Energy formation (nutrient assimilation), and immune system support.
- B2 (riboflavin): Energy formation (nutrient assimilation), red blood cell production, oxygen transport, and acts as an antioxidant.
- B3 (niacin): Cell signalling, metabolism, and DNA production and repair.
- B5 (pantothenic acid): Energy formation (nutrient assimilation), hormone production, cholesterol formation.
- B6 (pyridoxine): Amino acid metabolism, red blood cell production, formation of neurotransmitters, and homocysteine regulation (along with B12 and folate).
- B7 (biotin): Carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and regulation of gene expression.
- B9 (folate): Cell growth, amino acid metabolism, formation of red and white blood cells, and proper cell division.
- B12 (cobalamin): Neurological function, DNA production, and red blood cell formation (along with folate).
The sunshine vitamin. Everyone wants to be able to lounge in the sun and get that daily dose of vitamin D. The body will naturally produce it when exposed to direct sunlight, but we often don’t get nearly enough and require supplementation. Why? Vitamin D plays a role in several important functions, like regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, facilitating normal immune function, ensuring normal bone growth, and maintaining the nervous system, heart function, and normal blood clotting. D3, the more biologically active vitamin, can be found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and egg yolks. D2 is found in plant sources like mushrooms and leafy greens; however, it competes with D3 for absorption in the body.
Choline is needed for functions like neurotransmitter synthesis, cell membrane signaling, and lipid transport, and as an important component of cell membranes, liver support, and detoxification. It also plays a role in preventing heart disease, reducing inflammation, and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer – but it’s often overlooked when supplementing. The highest amounts of choline are found in liver, though choline can also be obtained through salmon, eggs, poultry (chicken and turkey), nuts and seeds (almonds, pecans, flax), and some vegetables like cauliflower, peas, and broccoli.
Essential fatty acids (especially omega-3)
Do you take your fish oils daily? If not, you probably should be. EFAs cannot be produced by the body and, therefore must be obtained through food or supplements. However, the problem arises with the disproportionate and excessive intake of omega-6 vs. omega-3 fatty acids. This can cause disturbances to cell structure and function and increases inflammation, which becomes problematic in the long run. How do we prevent this? With paleo, we eliminate the intake of vegetable oils, which contain an unfavorable ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids. While both 3 and 6 are important precursors to hormones, cell membrane composition, and the production of pro- and anti-inflammatory compounds, omega-3 fatty acids, namely in the form of EPA and DHA, have a slew of other functions. These include: reducing oxidative stress (free-radical damage), suppressing the production of pro-inflammatory compounds, regulating blood pressure, blood clotting, and immune response, and helping with weight and fat loss. So where can you get these amazing fats? Supplementing is probably your best source, but there are also small amounts of fatty cold-water fish, eggs, flaxseeds, and walnuts.
Let’s face it, ensuring you get all the nutrients you need isn’t the easiest job out there. We know counting nutrients isn’t as easy as counting calories, but when you’re following a paleo diet and consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, you’re probably getting close to what you need. We’ve given you these 5 essential nutrients because we think they’re key to health and longevity. So next time you’re trying to plan a meal, keep these in mind and load your plate up with foods rich in these nutrients!