Take your Paleo Diet to the next level with the Paleovedic approach
The Paleo diet has become massively popular and almost mainstream – and yet, many of us eating Paleo still don’t feel well, or are inadvertently doing harm by following the diet incorrectly. The Paleovedic Diet – a nutrient-dense, customized paleo diet – helps you tailor the diet to your unique needs and has helped thousands of my patients to improve energy, lose weight, and reverse disease.
As a Harvard-trained M.D., I integrate a strong scientific background in biochemistry and Western medicine with training in Ayurveda and study of ancestral societies around the globe. This unique background enables me to seamlessly blend Paleo and Ayurvedic principles with the latest research in nutrition, food science, and medicine. The result is The Paleovedic Diet – a simple, practical way to integrate ancient wisdom and modern science to create a personalized nutrition plan for optimal health.
In this article, I will present the key concepts of this diet in a practical, actionable format. We will do a deep dive into the topics of nutrient density, discussing how you can maximize the critically important phytochemicals in your foods, and customization, presenting a framework to help you determine the optimal paleo diet for you as an individual.
Paleo Must Be Personalized
In my experience, most people eating Paleo don’t usually know that they need to customize this diet for themselves. They are always shocked to find out that the way they have been following Paleo could actually be detrimental to their health in some way. This may be due to consuming fewer carbohydrates than they need, not adapting their diet to changing medical conditions or life circumstances, or following a diet that is not ideal for their body type. For example, eating too much raw food or eating foods that are considered heating energetically may be harmful depending on your Ayurvedic body type (which we will discuss later).
Nutrient Density – The Unknown Superfoods
Studies clearly show that the more phytonutrients you get over the years, the lower your risks of all modern chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables are our primary defense against disease. Unfortunately, today’s fruits and vegetables, like the rest of our modern processed foods, are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor – they have limited disease-fighting capacity. The first step in maximizing nutrient density through the Paleovedic approach is choosing to consume “The Unknown Superfoods”, the most nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables on the planet.
In fact, our modern fruits and vegetables were originally derived from wild ancestors that were much more nutrient dense but also smaller, less attractive and less sweet. Agricultural modifications over the years have led to a dramatic loss of nutrients such as antioxidants and phytochemicals and a huge increase in sugar. Many of the most beneficial bionutrients have been lost – the degree of nutrient loss is actually astounding.
Let’s examine the nutrient difference between wild and contemporary apples as an example. What do you think would be the percentage difference in phytochemicals between one ounce of wild apples and one ounce of modern apples? You know by now that the wild fruit has more nutrients, but what percent more? 20? 50? 100? 1,000? In fact, wild apples from Nepal were found to have 475 times more nutrients ounce for ounce than one of our modern apples (a staggering difference of 47,500 percent)!
A striking 2009 study found that eating one Golden Delicious apple a day for a month led to increased levels of triglycerides and a subtype of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. The adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” no longer holds true, especially with our modern-day apples. This is because the Golden Delicious apple, which happens to be the world’s top-selling apple, is so high in sugar and low in phytonutrients that it may in fact be harmful to health.
Clearly the old advice to “eat more fruits and vegetables” is outdated. You need to know which fruits and vegetables to purchase in today’s world, and how to maximize the nutritional “bang for your buck.” For example, intensely colored vegetables have more phytochemicals. Red cabbage has 6 times the antioxidants of green cabbage, while purple cauliflower has 3 times the phytochemicals of white cauliflower. There are exceptions. For example, when it comes to onions, green onions (not red onions) actually have the most phytonutrients, 140 times more than white onions. Also, most of a plant’s antioxidants are in the skin and just below the surface, because antioxidants are how a plant protects itself. This is true for potatoes, carrots, oranges, avocados, etc. – i.e. the visibly darker green layer of avocado flesh that is just below the peel is the most nutrient-dense part of the fruit.
In addition, some vegetables are better consumed raw while others are better consumed cooked. For example, raw broccoli has twenty-five times more cancer-fighting antioxidants than cooked. In contrast, carrots and tomatoes are actually better consumed cooked because the nutrients are much more bioavailable. This is a fascinating topic that I am passionate about, and there’s so much more info than what I can cover here. I have devoted an entire chapter in my book The Paleovedic Diet to explaining how to shop for and select the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and also how to optimally cook and prepare these foods.
Nutrient Density – Spices
Spices offer another pathway to increase the beneficial nutrients in your diet. Ayurveda considers spices to comprise an entire category of medicine. You may associate them with meat rubs for barbecue or the occasional curry but you may not realize what a profoundly positive effect they could have on your health. While not emphasized much within the Paleo community, spices are some of the most nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich foods on the planet. This is the second key way that The Paleovedic Diet maximizes the nutrient density of your diet.
Scientific research has confirmed profound healing effects from spices. The biochemistry and physiology behind these effects is now understood to be mediated by 4 main mechanisms – antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood sugar regulation and digestive enhancement.
First, spices have unparalleled abilities to protect your body from oxidative stress through their rich array of antioxidants, unmatched by any food except organ meats. The second key property of spices is their anti-inflammatory effect. One of the key mechanisms by which many spices exert their inflammation-lowering effect is by blocking a compound known as Nuclear Factor-kappa B (NF-kB), which stimulates many inflammatory genes and is linked to multiple diseases including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
Third, there is promising research suggesting that spices can help to maintain healthy blood sugar. Finally, spices are used in Ayurveda to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Ayurveda believes that all disease starts in the gut. Therefore, spices can be used as incredibly powerful tools for maintaining health and preventing illness. There are a number of key studies which prove the remarkable therapeutic effects of spices.
Turmeric is one of the most famous and well-studied spices, which has been analyzed in thousands of research studies. Turmeric is one of the most potent antioxidants in the world. It has so many different positive physiological effects that it might be hard to believe, but turmeric is the real deal.
One of the key ingredients in turmeric, curcumin, has been shown to be effective at reducing inflammation through multiple mechanisms. One randomized controlled trial (RCT) that compared turmeric against ibuprofen in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee found that 1500 mg of a turmeric extract per day was as effective as 1200 mg of ibuprofen in alleviating knee pain and stiffness and improving knee function, with fewer side effects such as abdominal discomfort. A small study involving patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) found that curcumin was as effective as the prescription anti-inflammatory diclofenac at reducing pain and disease activity in RA. In addition to reducing inflammation, turmeric can help protect the heart, preserve brain function, support detoxification, and fight cancer.
RECIPE – Golden Milk
So-called “Golden Milk” is a delicious beverage that incorporates turmeric and ginger. Traditionally made with regular milk, you can substitute any non-dairy milk like almond milk or coconut milk.
Warm up 8 ounces of milk in a pan over medium heat. Add ¼ teaspoon each of turmeric and ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper. Stir well to mix the spices. Let the milk begin to simmer — small bubbles will form on the sides of the saucepan. Stir. Allow to heat for another minute or two. Then remove from heat and serve.
Ginger is used extensively in Ayurveda for its digestive benefits, anti-inflammatory properties and energizing effects. Like most spices, it is an outstanding source of antioxidants; its key phytochemicals include gingerols, paradols, shogaols and gingerones. Ginger is used traditionally in Ayurveda for digestive disorders such as indigestion, heartburn and constipation.
One of the most well-established properties of ginger is its ability to reduce nausea and vomiting. Studies have proven that ginger is effective for treating nausea from almost any cause. Ginger also has a powerful capacity to reduce inflammation and joint pain. One RCT found that ginger powder was as effective as the prescription anti-inflammatory diclofenac at reducing pain and improving symptoms in patients with knee osteoarthritis over a 12 week period. Another RCT found that ginger extract was better than placebo at reducing pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.
Cinnamon is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. A study comparing the antioxidant activity of 26 common spices found that cinnamon ranked 2nd in antioxidant potency (behind only clove). Some of the beneficial phytochemicals in cinnamon include cinnamaldehydes, flavonoids and volatile oils. Cinnamon shows exceptional promise for treating metabolic issues like elevated blood sugar and abnormal lipids. One recent meta-analysis of 10 RCTs found that consumption of cinnamon is associated with a significant decrease fasting blood sugar and triglyceride levels, and improvement in cholesterol parameters.
Clove is a simple, unassuming spice that is an antioxidant superpower. In a study that measured antioxidant capacity of 24 common spices, clove was the compound that was ranked number one. Cloves are also rich sources of vitamin K, fiber and minerals including magnesium, iron, calcium and manganese.
Clove has powerful anti-inflammatory properties; in one study, it was able to reduce blood levels of inflammatory markers after just 7 days in volunteers who consumed a small amount of clove daily. This study attempted to replicate typical daily consumption of spices and not what one would get from taking a supplement; this supports the idea that regular consumption of small quantities of spices in culinary qualities has measurable therapeutic effects. It also demonstrated benefit after only 7 days of consumption, suggesting that spices can effect measurable changes rather quickly.
Allspice, also known as Jamaican pepper, is the dry unripe fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree. Allspice is rich in antioxidants, containing at least 25 antioxidant compounds including quercetin, eugenol and ellagic acid; it also has antiviral and antibacterial qualities to fight infections and analgesic properties that can help with pain relief. Researchers studying traditional remedies for menopause found that allspice had the capacity to modulate genes involved in estrogen, thus providing a plausible mechanism and explanation for why allspice is used to treat menopausal symptoms in South America.
Other spices that I discuss in my book “The Paleovedic Diet” are cumin, fenugreek, fennel, coriander, black cumin, curry leaf, ajwain, and saffron. For more details about their healing properties and ideas about how to incorporate them in over 50 recipes, please refer to my book. Spices are essential for people on a Paleo diet who value nutrient density and are seeking to prevent disease through natural means. There antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and digestion enhancing properties qualify them as true superfoods – and they make your food taste better as well!
Customizing your Paleo Diet Using Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a holistic system of medicine that has a sophisticated approach to understanding the body and mind. It is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world, dating back over 5000 years. The word Ayurveda, comes from the Sanskrit words “Ayu” meaning “life” and “Veda” meaning “science”—i.e., “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic medicine offers valuable insights that can help you individualize your Paleo diet and lifestyle.
Understanding the Doshas
The foundation of Ayurveda is the concept of doshas, or physiological principles. You can think of the doshas as forces within the body that are responsible for all the physiological and psychological processes in your body and mind. There are three main doshas—vata (which you can think of as wind), pitta (equivalent to fire), and kapha (earth). The doshas are shifting constantly, due to diet, lifestyle, and environment. As long as they are balanced and working harmoniously together, good health is possible. When the doshas are imbalanced, disease results. Let us look at each of the doshas in more detail:
- Vata is the subtle energy that governs all movement in the body, including respiration, heartbeat, nerve impulses, blood flow, etc.
- Like “wind,” vata’s qualities are light, cold, dry, and mobile
- Associated with creativity and rapid thinking, but also fear, anxiety, and restlessness
- The bodily heat-energy of metabolism, manifesting in digestion, absorption, temperature regulation
- Like “fire,” pitta is hot, sharp, penetrating, and intense
- Linked with Agni, digestive capacity
- Associated with intelligence and insight, but also anger, irritability, and frustration
- The force that forms body structure and provides biological “strength,” associated with bones, joints and ligaments, skin moisture, and joint lubrication
- Like “mud,” it is heavy, cool, slow, and damp
- Associated with love and calmness, but also attachment, depression, and inertia
Here are a couple of cases from my practice (names have been changed) to illustrate how people suffered adverse health effects from following the Paleo diet incorrectly, and how the Paleovedic approach helped turn things around for them.
Jessica was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two who came to see me for chronic constipation, fatigue, and anxiety. She was having small, hard bowel movements every three to four days, and disabling anxiety that made it hard for her to function at work. She had switched to a Paleo-type diet a year before seeing me, and initially felt more energy, but then did not notice any improvement in symptoms. Her diet consisted of large salads daily for lunch and cold cuts or smoked salmon with vegetables for dinner. Her doctors had told her that drinking more water would help with her bowel movements, so she was drinking large quantities of ice water every day. She did not know why she was not feeling better despite avoiding all grains, eliminating gluten, and following a Paleo diet.
After getting her history and examining her, I determined that she had an excess of vata (wind energy) and a very weak Agni or digestive fire. Her daily salads and cold foods were in fact further increasing her vata and exacerbating her condition. A common symptom of elevated vata is anxiety, which was her most bothersome symptom. Her two water bottles per day filled with iced water were in fact depressing her Agni and further reducing her capacity to digest food effectively.
I had her change her diet to eliminate all raw foods such as salads and all cold foods. She began eating cooked vegetables, soups, and warm meat dishes instead of cold cuts. I told her to drink only warm water or room temperature water and avoid ice. I instructed her to incorporate more spices into her cooking such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and ginger to help stimulate her digestive fire and boost her metabolism.
Within two months, she reported that her chronic constipation had resolved. She was surprised to report that her anxiety had improved dramatically. Her energy, while not yet optimal, had increased to about 70 percent of normal. I reassured her that as she continued to balance her vata and strengthen her Agni, thereby improving her digestive capacity, her energy levels would return to normal.
Russell was a thirty-two-year-old male with severe ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacked the colon, leading to inflammation and loose stools. Despite being on the anti-inflammatory drug mesalamine, he still had elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker that indicated persistent inflammation. He was having eight to ten bowel movements per day with blood and mucus in his stools. He had been on a strict Paleo diet for six months, and his diet consisted of eggs, red meat, fermented dairy products, sauerkraut, and a limited number of vegetables.
After talking to him I realized that he had excess pitta, which was manifesting as inflammation in his colon, bloody diarrhea, and a frequent sour taste in his mouth. I realized that the foods that he was eating were all very hot in terms of their qualities and properties. While meat, eggs, and dairy products are wonderful nutrient-dense foods, in his case they were actually not beneficial because of their heating properties.
I had him start a modified Paleovedic Diet without meat, eggs, or dairy products. For three weeks he consumed bitter greens such as arugula, spinach, and kale, which have very cooling energetic properties. I encouraged him to liberally incorporate turmeric into his cooking. I suggested that he temporarily reduce consumption of sour foods such as sauerkraut because they can potentially aggravate pitta. Lastly, I suggested that he take a supplement containing Boswellia serrata, an herb that balances pitta and is often used to reduce inflammation.
At a three month follow-up visit, he reported that his symptoms had improved by 80 percent. He was having two to three bowel movements per day and there was no blood or mucus present in his stool. He was no longer experiencing the sour taste in his mouth. After continuing to work with me over the next year, we were able to wean him off the mesalamine and control his symptoms using diet and select supplements.
To help you determine your Ayurvedic body type, I have a detailed questionnaire in my book. This is followed by an entire chapter of recommendations for optimizing your paleo diet and lifestyle according to the wisdom of Ayurveda.
As I’ve explained, boosting nutrient density and customization can help you take your Paleo diet to the next level. The Paleovedic Diet can help you to maximize the health-promoting antioxidants and phytochemicals in your diet, and to create your own personalized diet and lifestyle plan for your unique physiology. I hope that this article has given you some tools to help you on the road to spectacular health and towards feeling better than you’ve ever felt before!
-Dr. Akil Palanisamy, MD
 Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side, 216-217.
 Mohammad R. Vafa et al., “Effects of Apple Consumption on Lipid Profile of Hyperlipidemic and Overweight Men” International Journal of Preventive Medicine 2(2) (2011): 94–100.
 B.B. Aggarwal and S. Shishodia, “Suppression of the Nuclear Factor-κB Activation Pathway by Spice-Derived Phytochemicals: Reasoning for Seasoning,” Ann NY Acad Sci 1030 (2004): 434-441.
 V. Kuptniratsaikul et al., “Efficacy and Safety of Curcuma Domestica Extracts Compared with Ibuprofen in Patients with Knee Osteoarthritis: A Multicenter Study,” Clin Interv Aging 9 (2014): 451-458.
 P. Karna et al., “Benefits of Whole Ginger Extract in Prostate Cancer,” Br J Nutr 107(4) (2012): 473-484.
 The World’s Healthiest Foods “Clove” http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspiceanddbid=69
 Aggarwal with Yost, Healing Spices, 18-19.
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