Should You Follow a Paleo Diet For Gut Healing?

Should you follow a paleo diet for gut healing?  Maybe or maybe not, you decide.

If you search the internet for “gut healing diet” you will find many recommendations for following a paleo-type or autoimmune protocol diet.  These diets eliminate grains, beans, soy, dairy and sugar.  The autoimmune protocol goes further and eliminates nuts, seeds, nightshades and eggs.

The most pervasive theories behind a paleo diet is that grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and even dairy contain lectins and phytic acid (dairy contains lectins, not phytic acid) which damage the body, most notably the gut.

The paleo diet also eliminates processed foods and sugar and the reason behind this speaks for itself.  We all know by now that these foods don’t contribute beneficial nutrients, and possibly even contribute to disease as in the case of sugar.  As for nightshades, such as potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, they may indeed contribute to inflammatory joint pain or rheumatoid arthritis.

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these theories.


Lectins, or proteins, can be harmful when digested.  It is true that lectins resist human digestion, can damage the digestive tract and stimulate the immune system, but what is usually not mentioned is:

  1. Lectins are found in many other foods such as berries, coffee, chocolate, bananas, seafood and potatoes, to name a few.
  2. Lectins can be reduced to negligible amounts with proper cooking, soaking or sprouting.
  3. Lectins may be helpful in preventing bacterial infections and cancer.

For example when soybeans were cooked for 10 minutes lectins were reduced to almost zero and when beans were soaked and cooked there was a 93% reduction in lectins.  Some of the “world’s healthiest” people consume and thrive on diets containing beans, grains, and nuts.

Phytic Acid

Phytic acid or phytates are a naturally occurring storage compound of phosphorus found in fiber rich foods such as whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.  One side of the debate calls them anti-nutrients and the other side side calls them antioxidants.

They are anti-nutrients because phosphorous binds to zinc, magnesium, manganese, iron and calcium and can inhibit absorption.  Phytic acid only reduces the absorption of the minerals in the meal you are eating, it does not bind to minerals in your body and doesn’t inhibit absorption in your next meal.  One study states phytic acid;

“Would not be expected to have any adverse effect on mineral absorption if we increase not only the intake of fiber, but also the dietary intake of other food components such as protein (both vegetable and animal protein) and ascorbic, citric, and oxalic acids (in fruits and vegetables).”

Basically this means if you are eating a well balanced diet you likely don’t have to worry.

Phytic acid has an important role in regulating cell activity.  Some positive effects are on bone density, on regulating blood sugar and diabetes, on treating and preventing cancer and possibly binding to heavy metals and escorting them out of the body.

Like lectins, cooking, soaking and sprouting all reduce phytic acid.  If you have ever heard of the “traditional foods” movement then you are familiar with the various ways to soak, sprout, ferment and cook grains, beans and nuts.  I definitely recommend soaking and/or sprouting grains, sprouting increases nutrients and makes grains easier to digest.  Honestly, I almost never sprout or soak grains, not because I don’t believe in the benefits I just don’t have time.  I do always soak beans for 24 hours before cooking though.

Benefits of the Paleo Diet

The greatest benefit of a paleo diet is that it encourages whole foods in their natural state and eliminates processed foods and sugar.  Although, the paleo diet hasn’t been thoroughly researched no one can argue when someone’s rheumatoid arthritis, or Crohn’s disease drastically improves while following a paleo-type of diet.

There may be other benefits to a paleo diet, such as increased satiety from protein rich foods and increased antioxidant intake from fruits and vegetables, one assumes is replacing grains and processed food.  Of course if meat, especially processed meat, is replacing grains and legumes then the antioxidant theory isn’t valid.

The downfall is the sweeping generalization that all people should avoid grains, legumes and diary.  If you have IBS but are otherwise healthy, meaning you don’t have SIBO or an autoimmune disease (like IBD, Rheumatoid Arthritis or Hashimoto Thyroiditis), then a paleo diet may not be the first approach to take.  When whole food groups are eliminated nutrient deficiencies can develop.  Paleo proponents argue that the nutrients in grains, legumes and dairy can be found in paleo approved foods, I do agree with this as long as the focus is on loads of plant foods.

Low-FODMAP and Elimination Diet

Before jumping on the band wagon of any new diet,  I recommend taking a step back from the hype, see what research says as it relates to your health issues as well as asking yourself “does this way of eating resonate with me?  Does it make sense?  If I follow it for a short time am I feeling better or worse?”.

There are two well studied diets that can help with gut healing and identifying food sensitivities.  They are the low-FODMAP diet and the classic elimination diet, which excludes wheat, gluten, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts, eggs, nightshades, nuts, seeds, alcohol and sugar.

The low-FODMAP diet is a type of elimination diet that eliminates certain carbohydrates that readily ferments in the gut and contributes to IBS, SIBO, pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.

A classic elimination diet doesn’t exclude FODMAP’s but instead eliminates common foods that many people are sensitive too and may be contributing to inflammation and digestive distress, headaches, allergies, skin irritations and joint pain.

Both the low-FODMAP diet and classic elimination diet are only followed for a set amount of time, usually 2-12 weeks, and helps identify bothersome foods.  Often time, after removing the irritating food for awhile your body can tolerate it in small amounts.

On a side note, following a Whole30 may also help you identify food that could be irritating you.  I only recommend following the Whole30 if it doesn’t cause you to spiral into diet restriction mentality and don’t continue past 30 days.  The most important point of an elimination diet is to reintroduce the eliminated foods to assess what, if anything, is a trigger.

We are Biologically Unique

Although I recommend the low-FODMAP diet and classic elimination diet for IBS both still need to be individually tweaked.

I fully believe that there is not one single diet for the 7.5 billion people living today.  We are all biologically unique and other than the basic tenets of a healthy diet (eat a lot of plant food, drink filtered water, limit sugar and eat food in their natural state) there is a lot of wiggle room.

Be Your Own Guru

Instead of following the latest diet hype, even a low-FODMAP diet for that matter, start listening to how your body feels after eating.  Often times when we start paying attention, we gain insight as to which direction to take.

Make your own rules and be your own guru.  Only you know what feels good in your body.  Take the the role of investigator and weigh different eating plans against your symptoms and lifestyle.

For example, if you don’t eat many high-FODMAP foods then likely a low-FODMAP diet won’t help but maybe a classic elimination diet will.  If you find that after eating a small portion of garbanzo or edamame beans you experience gut distress then your body is telling you to stop eating them.  If you can’t digest grains then trying soaking and sprouting them and if that doesn’t work eliminate them.  If you have an autoimmune disease then consider the Autoimmune Protocol or AIP.

It Isn’t About Diet

Diet is never the whole picture.  There are many other factors as to why we are not digesting our food or why we are experiencing gut pain.

  • Are you eating while relaxed (or what is called the parasympathetic state)?
  • Are you chewing your food well (try chewing to liquid before swallowing)?
  • Are you cooking your food to make it more digestible or are you eating raw salads and vegetables which can be hard on a weak gut?
  • Are you taking medications that are harming your gut (such as NSAIDs or antibiotics)?
  • Do you have SIBO?

When we sort out our non-diet issues first we heal faster, feel more positive and obtain more clarity.

Wishing you a healthy gut!


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