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Paleo Baking: Oxymoron?

February 15, 2012

Photo by: Robert S. Donovan

Okay, before I get labeled as a hypocrite, full disclosure: I currently have 2 baked goods recipes on my site: crustless cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. I’ve made cheesecake twice since going paleo and the chocolate cake once. I do not, however, have a single recipe that calls for any type of flour. And yes, I do sometimes indulge in some gluten-free baked goods. But I don’t pretend what I’m doing is “paleo”. I’ve been itching to rant about this for a while. And it’ll undoubtedly piss some people off. Oh well.

I remember when I first started blogging a year ago, the “dessert” recipes were for the most part rather crude. They were a mishmash of “paleo” ingredients that you probably wouldn’t bring to a non-paleo dinner party. Delicious? Of course. But they hardly resembled conventional desserts. I personally really liked these paleo treats. There was a rustic, and, well, primal, charm about them. Now, the “paleo” desserts on dessertstalker could be mistaken for those from any other non-paleo recipe site. No offense to dessertstalker, which is a sweet site (pun intended). I think it’s more of a reflection of the paleo community. The site “Doesn’t Do Cupcakes.” And yet… Biscotti? Muffins? Crepes? Cookies? Banana Bread? I’d say that’s cutting it pretty close. Does that mean that our recipes are now more sophisticated? Is this something to be celebrated? I personally don’t think so.

The problem with Flour Substitutes

First, although the ingredients are technically paleo, to me they’re toeing the line. I especially take issue with flours. Less so with coconut flour, which is ground up coconut meat, and isn’t the best wheat flour substitute, so doesn’t get used as often in the recipes I speak of. But still, it’s mostly just fiber. You’re not eating the whole coconut and you’re not getting any of the beneficial fats. I guess my question is, what’s the point, since it’s not really nutritious… Are we eating for the sake of eating – isn’t that kind of anti-paleo?A couple of weeks ago was my first time ever buying coconut flour. I used it for fried chicken. I don’t foresee myself using it again any time soon. Nothing wrong with it, but I just don’t really have a use for it.

The flour I take more issue with is almond flour, which seems to be the flour replacement of choice, since it behaves more like wheat flour. Why would you want to eat so many ground up almonds? They’re packed with Omega 6. Plus, when you’re baking with almond flour, you’re basically subjecting almonds to high heat. I don’t see this being healthy. It’s never good to heat Omega 6 – think of all those seed oils that become rancid when heated. Walnuts are especially high in Omega 6’s, so I’ll pass on walnut meal as well. I generally try to stay away from nuts, other than macadamias, which are so pricey that I don’t really over-indulge in those, either.

Other Baking Ingredients

As if the “paleo” flours weren’t bad enough, the main ingredient that differentiates cooking from baking is, of course, sugar (in all its forms). The more you bake, the more sugar you consume. I have enough of a sweet tooth and don’t need help with coming up with ways to eat more of it. And I don’t remember the last time I used baking powder. At least the more rustic paleo-ish treats like custards for example were mostly made of the good stuff like eggs and cream.

The Slippery Slope of Baking

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no denying that I have a sweet tooth. In a way, going paleo was a huge relief for me. The majority of sugary treats contain flour – pastries, cookies, cakes, most things that line bakery shelves. I no longer have to try to resist these temptations. My decision-making has been simplified. They contain grain flour? Ok, that means I can’t have them. I have chosen to never again eat flour. This makes my decision making way simple. It’s got flour? Oh well, can’t have it. This has dramatically decreased my consumption of sugar. Sure, I still find other ways, but again, drastic decrease.

I totally get having the occasional treat with almond flour. I just had some macarons this past week for example. And those were packed with sugar. But I’m human. And more importantly, I recognize that such treats aren’t “paleo”. Also, I’m not going to recreate these treats at home, and they’re not very widely available, which means I’m unlikely to have them very often.

But I used to love baking, and I was rarely able to pass a bakery without buying a little somethin’ somethin’. So if I were to start baking with almond flour, and actively seeking out treats made with almond flour, well, for me it’d be a slippery slope. I could easily see it going from an occasional treat to a difficult to break habit.

Purpose of Eating

We eat to nourish our bodies, and our souls. Food should be delicious and enjoyable. But it should also serve a purpose. At best, most baked goods are empty calories. At worst, they are sugar-laden and excessive in Omega 6, and often replace more nutritious whole foods that we could be eating. What is their purpose? To feed our sugar addiction and cure our boredom? Isn’t that one of the main virtues of the paleo diet – we don’t mindlessly consume for the sake of consumption, unlike the Standard American Diet? Are our desserts really more superior just because their ingredients are technically “paleo”? It’s like we’re so focused on the substitute ingredients we’re using that we miss the bigger picture. Perhaps the ingredients are “paleo”, but what about the end product?

So What?

I get it. There are lots of reasons to eat baked paleo treats made with alternative flours. For starters:

  • They’re delicious
  • At least they don’t contain gluten
  • You gotta live a little
  • Maybe having the occasional “paleo” cookie will help people stick with the paleo diet rather than deciding it’s too restrictive

Not everyone feels the need to approach 90%+ paleo, and they’re fine with 80/20 or even slightly less. And isn’t that better than nothing? Sure. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is entitled to their own approach and opinion. And now you know mine – no matter how you sugar coat it, baking, for the most part, isn’t paleo.

I myself am far from perfect when it comes to snacking and sugar. But perhaps that’s my point. I think we should be encouraging each other stay on track, eating as healthy as possible, rather than acting as enablers of unhealthy eating habits, under the guise of “paleo”.

What’s your take on paleo baking?

Shared with Food Renegade and Real Food Wednesdays.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan's Sushi Bar February 17, 2012 at 7:55 AM

As someone who posted not one but two “desserts” this week (well, one was more a brunch dish), I have to plead “guilty as charged” to the whole baking thing, even if I don’t define myself as “paleo” – more of a “real foods” blogger who doesn’t do grains or dairy, simply because I don’t tolerate them well, if at all. Frankly, if I could, I’d probably make the occasional “traditional” dessert, but I can’t so I don’t. Now having said that, I have hundreds of recipes on my site, and very few are desserts, nor are all baked goods. (My Chowstalker gallery runs 4 pages; my Dessertstalker gallery is less than one.) This was true even before we changed the way we eat (I’ve been a food blogger for a looooong time).

I think one of the things most people have forgotten is that sweets and desserts are treats – they’re not something you eat every meal, or even every day – and they’re certainly not something to graze on constantly, the way so many people do. I really think it’s a shame that the industrialization of our food supply has made cheap baked goods so readily available, so much so that many people seem to feel they’re a dietary staple when they should be no such thing. But once in awhile? Well, why not? It’s not as if we’re giving up liver and onions (dinner tonight) in favor of almond flour blueberry muffins in our house.

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admin@primalist February 17, 2012 at 10:21 AM

Thanks for your comment Jan, you’ve made some great points! I especially agree with you that a lot of people have forgotten that dessert shouldn’t be considered a dietary staple. As I said above, I’m fine with the occasional treat (grain-free baked good or otherwise). If you’re going to indulge, quality-wise, baking is probably your best bet. But quantity-wise it can be tricky. People tend to bake more than just one serving of something, and then they end up eating more than they would’ve needed to satisfy that occasional treat craving. I guess as always, it comes down to being mindful of your food choices.

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laura west kong April 9, 2012 at 10:44 PM

I’ve wondered many of those same things about paleo baking myself. Haven’t actually done any baking since going paleo (end of January in case you’re curious), unless you count some custards that I baked up last week.

If I were to bake something right now, I can guarantee that I would eat it all, practically in one setting, so it’s a good thing that I’m not baking these days. Although I’m not baking only because getting 3 paleo meals a day that I can actually eat takes up all my food preparation time and energy. I guess that’s one way to avoid temptation. :)

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admin@primalist April 11, 2012 at 8:41 PM

Not that I want to free up time for temptation for you, but have you considered batch cooking?

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Marcus July 5, 2012 at 1:50 PM

Hey, this is exactly the point and whilst much of the paleo baking recipes are using paleo ingredients, so much honey or nut flour takes things way out of proportion and it is certainly not a diligent paleo diet if you are eating sweet baked treats every day, paleo flour or not.

We do eat some baked goods, we have kids, three kids, and they want treats, so whilst we are steering the ship towards fruit they exist in a world where there friends eat cakes, cookies, chocolate and we don’t want them to be freaks so we make them some paleo style pancakes, muffins and the like.

I do try to keep it as healthy as possible though and use coconut milk, coconut flour and even make chocolate mouse with avocado so they are getting as much whole food as possible.

We also have to follow the autoimmune protocol as my wife has MS so nut flours and all that omega 6 is a big no no. After some painful research and experimentation we now use a few ‘safe starches’ like plantain flour and tapioca flour when baking and usually mixed in with 50% coconut flour so… it’s damage limitation but… it’s kind of the best of a bad situation.

I blogged about the flours we use here: http://www.primod.co.uk/food/better-paleo-flours/

You are right though, there are too many paleo recipe sites springing up that are using paleo style ingredients to make food that should be in the once a week category at best and it is all too easy to be eating an unhealthy paleo diet unless you stick to the meat, fish and veggies as the foundation.

Damn, I just try to eat so much meat and fat that I don’t want anything else afterwards! ;)

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admin@primalist July 12, 2012 at 5:46 PM

If I were to bake, like you I would definitely opt for coconut flour over almond flour.. sometimes when I’m out I’ll buy myself a grain and gluten-free treat, typically made of almond or coconut flour, but I find that helps limit how much of it I eat.. I’d definitely over-indulge if I baked it myself, but if I have to go all the way to the store, and then pay for it, then it’s a less frequent occurrence (although the store-bought stuff does typically contain sugar, so I try to limit it even further).

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sheena July 27, 2012 at 1:12 AM

I’m about to start on the paleo diet and have been on atkins for a couple of weeks. I’ve done every diet in the world and have decided to a “me diet,” a mixture of both. But it is so difficult to not eat sweets everyday, I crave it. I even made a blueberry coffe -cake with cream chz, carb free, and very filling, but in the end it’s not the same. I felt somewhat ill after eating it.
I have to commend your writing, as it is both honest and educational. We are human, we will crave, and it’s not cheating, its letting go sometimes, because we live stressful hectic lives and it’s ok to eat a slice every now and then. I too love baking and am excited to use these recipes. thank you.

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admin@primalist July 28, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Thanks for the comment :) Everyone should do a “me diet” – i.e. experiment and figure out what works best of them. For sugar cravings, try to up your fat intake – a lot of people find that helpful.

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Erin October 14, 2012 at 6:04 PM

I completely agree. I recently started eating “primal” and discovered the world of “primal” baked goods only a couple weeks ago. I attempted a GF, dairy free, pumpkin bread, and it was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I think I’ll just stick with real food from now on.

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admin@primalist October 14, 2012 at 9:31 PM

I’ve been doing good with the simple rule I created for myself – I can make “desserts”, so long as there’s no flour involved… I can only eat “flour” treats occasionally, when I’m out and about.. it’s been over 2 years and I haven’t been sucked into “paleo baking” yet, so fingers crossed I don’t cross over to the “dark side” anytime soon :P

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Anna March 22, 2014 at 9:04 AM

Hmmm …. In February you said: “I have chosen to never again eat flour.” But in October (above) you said “I can only eat flour treats occasionally, when I’m out and about.”
This is, to me, the problem with all these super-restrictive diets. People (often bloggers) make pronouncements that make others feel inadequate … then backpedal.
How about “want to eat as healthfully as possible? here’s how!” Wouldn’t that make everybody feel better instead of “I have chosen never again to eat flour”?
By the way, you also used the phrase “toeing the line” incorrectly.

Joanna November 5, 2012 at 9:35 PM

Thanks–I’ve just started eating Paleo for health reasons and have been doing a lot of research and finding all of these paleo baking recipes. I never ate sweets when I was eating a more traditional diet because I considered them to be recreational foods that had no nutritional purpose– I feel the same way about these paleo treats….not so healthy.

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Jules January 7, 2013 at 7:50 AM

I think Paleo baking is simply the lesser of two evils. If you have a craving for bread or muffins you can bake a healthier option as opposed to a cheat with wheat flour. I can’t see myself living without an occasional Banana bread and even before I switched to paleo I had reduced the sugar in my recipe to make it taste more natural and nutritious anyways so I know I don’t need to toss cups of sugar into my baked goods anymore. Now that I’m grain free I’d like to be able to treat myself once in awhile and I think baking with alternative flours is the best way to do that without consuming grains. I also found some really exciting pumpkin recipes.. and I think pumpkin is really good for you. It’s just using a vegetable and cooking it in another way. I think due to the high cost of almond flour I’ll be limiting it as much as I can but it’s nice to know I can treat myself once in awhile without the guilt associated with grains.

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admin@primalist January 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM

I totally get it – and if paleo baking is what keeps you away from grains, then that’s great, especially if it’s just the occasional treat. It seems though that people who bake paleo goodies tend to do it as often as they used to bake with flours. And then it become a question of, if you’re consuming all these alternative flours all the time, how paleo is that, really? But again, to each his own. We’re all trying to do the best we can.

Oh and when I was reading your comment about the banana bread, I wondered if you have tried banana pancakes? I just had these for breakfast this morning, and if I had sprinkled some walnuts over them, they would’ve scratched that banana bread craving itch for me.

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Jada January 7, 2013 at 2:50 PM

Thank you for this. I totally agree! I’m going paleo for the month of January, mostly as a challenge from my husband, but also to detox and lose a few holiday-induced lbs. Being that I’m having carb cravings, I started experimenting with different paleo-approved flours. The more I experiment (resulting so far in mediocre meals that leave me feeling a little sick to my stomach) and read, the more I’m convinced you’re right. I’m still determined to attempt a paleo pizza crust just once on this journey, but it will be against my better judgement :)

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admin@primalist January 9, 2013 at 6:02 PM

The closest thing to a paleo pizza crust is meatza ;) http://www.theprimalist.com/fig-prosciutto-and-pear-bison-meatza/

Good luck with the paleo challenge, I’m sure you’ll do great :)

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sarah August 27, 2013 at 4:42 AM

I seen a recipe for “paleo pizza” that uses cauliflour for the crust. Check that out. I also love to make paleo “rice” from cauliflour. It’s tasty if you make it kind of spanish style to eat with those lettuce leaf tacos. Mmmmm I’m hungry!

Janis January 15, 2013 at 12:58 PM

Thank you for this article. I am terrible for trying to find wiggle room in my diet, and I often try to make exceptions and am always telling myself,” Oh, just a little won’t hurt” but it’s important for me to be reminded that cheating is cheating, and baking is pretty much not ever going to be “good for me”. Even though the occasional treat, like you and Jan’s Sushi Bar have said, won’t make that much of an impact on my health and well-being.

I have strong sugar cravings, and I’ve developed sensitivities to dairy and wheat products, after making very little effort to control my eating in the past. It’s very hard for me and I’ve fallen off the wagon more times than I can count but I’m grateful for people like you who make me remember that just because I can’t eat cookies anymore, it’s not the end of the world and provide a great role model to follow.

So thank you, again. :)

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cyla May 23, 2013 at 11:47 AM

people aren’t looking to be a true caveman. they are looking for a better way to eat and not miss out on taste. I think your rant was a waste of breath because no one will care as much as you. no one wants to go their entire like without a cookie or other sweet treats. they wasn’t a way to make them healthier and safer for their bodies. you’ve taken the “Paleolithic” diet too seriously. And if you really wanted to follow it, say goodbye to veggie oil, every dairy, and lots of veggies. Cavemen had no knowledge on fire till the middle of the paleolithic era, and I can guarantee you it took a while after that for them to start cooking with it. same with gardening. they only ate what they could see hanging from a tree or on a bush…. paleo diet in the literal sense is something you could never follow.

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cyla May 23, 2013 at 11:53 AM

as for the sugar issue… use stevia a no calorie all natural sweet leaf or agave a cactus nectar… problem solved. sweet treats don’t have to be bad for you. educate yourselves. do some research and life is easier…

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LeannaC May 31, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Agave is also processed and NOT healthy for you, that is a marketing ploy. No sugar, even “natural” sweeteners is Good for you per se. The occasional local, raw organic honey or grade b (unrefined, straight from the tree ) organic maple syrup are the only “paleo” sweeteners and should be used only in moderation. Packaged stevia is very often cut with other synthetic sweeteners as well, so be careful.

LeannaC May 31, 2013 at 8:07 AM

1000% agreed. We reserve paleo versions of treats as treats… Not frequent foods. Birthdays and holidays are the only times we may break out a treat or two.

My mother in law infuriates me because we limited their exposure to the kids until they adopted paleo, only she has learned nothing, all she does is constantly convert the old crap she ate into paleoified versions.

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Teresa - SassySuburbanite August 1, 2013 at 8:58 AM

Interestingly, I just decided to start the Paleo 30 day challenge tomorrow. Needless to say, I’ve been searching the internet for all things Paleo. The reason for my decision was that I’m just not feeling well. I have digestive health issues over the years and now that I’m technically “cured” I’m still having issues with inflammation, body aches, fatigue and now puffiness. I’m not overweight, 5’6″ and 125ish, but the weight has recently redistributed in a way that makes me uncomfortable, around my middle. This is due to lack of exercise, a bad diet and genetics. We’re a family of apples. I guess I’m lucky that I don’t have a weight problem, but the apple shape is still dangerous. Aaaaanyway……as I’ve been furiously searching and saving paleo recipes, I’ve been wondering to myself how a primal way of eating, (like the way olden days), would ever include brownies and banana bread. It doesn’t. However, society is different and food is pleasure now. I’ve decided to just make the baked goods a once in a while thing and not feel badly about that, although they will be grain free.
Loved your post. Starting Paleo challenge tomorrow. Wish me luck!!! I hope to be able to tell you that I’m feeling better than ever in just 30 days from now.
Teresa

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admin@primalist August 1, 2013 at 6:17 PM

Teresa, good luck with your paleo challenge! It’ll be a little tough, but very much worth it. There are tons of great paleo recipes out there, so I’m sure you’ll find more than your fill! As for paleo treats, everyone needs to find what works for them. I wrote this post about a year and a half ago, and I still haven’t really “baked” anything. Not with almond or coconut flours anyway. But that’s just me. (Although I’ll still buy a gluten-free baked treat every once in while when “out”). It’s all very individual, and being healthy and happy is all that matters. I’d love to hear back about how you did on Paleo!

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paleo diet cooking September 5, 2013 at 7:32 AM

You can never go wrong with eating lots of vegetables, whether cooked or raw.
Cooking foods reduces the nutritional value of food and kills foods
enzymes. Wheat happens to be quite abundant in both lectins and gluten,
and research has shown that there is a connection between arthritis and an intolerance
to both of these substances.

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katieb October 30, 2013 at 9:52 AM

I’m a little late making a comment here, but I actually found your page doing a search for anyone else irritated by all the ‘Paleo’ baked goods!!! I have all sorts of Paleo links Liked on my FB—and it seems like ALL they post are pictures and recipes for Paleo Cake Pops, Paleo chocolate caramel cake, Paleo choc chip cookies….AD NAUSEUM! Can you tell how much this irritates me? I can’t imagine cooking and eating that many baked goods and on top of it the expense! Glad to see I’m not the only one who finds it a bit irritating….and ridiculous.

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admin@primalist November 1, 2013 at 6:23 PM

I do have some treats on my page, but I try to keep it as natural as possible (I have yet to bake anything with any sort of flour). It’s funny though because I posted a pumpkin mousse recipe last week, and got tons of hits to my site, re-pins, etc. I posted a liver pate today, and it’s ghost town. So clearly there’s an audience for that stuff. But I can see it being frustrating if you’re trying to heal or eat clean and you’re constantly bombarded with paleo-fied treats.

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Maggie Jones February 1, 2014 at 10:47 AM

So glad to read this. Started Paleo 4 weeks ago and have been feeling great. I have “liked” tons of pages on Facebook to read recipes, sucess stories and just so I don’t feel so alone on this journey (I’m the only one in family doing Paleo). Have tried some of the recipe ideas for protein dishes but find myself getting angry at the Paleo-friendly baked goods that come up. So much so, I’ve unfriended a few pages already. I simply cannot do sugar in moderation which is why I initially chose to do this. So I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels this way: Paleo baking is not Paleo! Feel so much better now. :)

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admin@primalist February 1, 2014 at 3:10 PM

You’re definitely not the only one! :) I’ll enjoy the occasional baked almond flour treat when out, but if I were to start baking with it, I’d be in trouble. I’ve been paleo/primal for about 4 years now, and have yet to bake something with almond flour. Never say never, but I think that’s pretty telling. I think it’s especially important and challenging when you’re just starting out. Good luck with your journey, you’re doing great :)

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Promo Code Ghosts Season Pass February 26, 2014 at 12:04 AM

Being a better insulating material than glass, the acrylic tumblers keep the coffee hot and soda cold for much longer.

You are not interested in “book” catalogs, you want specialty catalogs.
Some could be considered samples while others more like trinkets.

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maria April 7, 2014 at 3:40 AM

Could not agree more. This is not about trying to imitate caveman either, but it defeates the purpose, and will prove to be harmful health wise, in different way. Particularly the use (abuse) of almond produce in the baking-paleo and foods-made-paleo community. You point out at the omega-6 issue, but yet another is the high amounts of — in almonds. Because I have fructose malabsortion I cannot eat them myself. But yet, fructose is difficult to digest for everyone, plus problems with the absortion of fructose (and indeed high amount of fructose consumption) is one of the main (may still turn to be considered THE main soon enough) problems of the Western diet. So all this paleo-baked goodies are not particularly helpfull.
And yet, I am looking for recipes to easy my kids transition to a paleo-based diet. For occassional treats, and hopefully without involving much almond or nut almonds and sugar.

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BC Rice May 13, 2014 at 7:46 AM

I kinda sorta disagree. You’re saying we eat only for nourishment. I also eat for energy. And that’s where flours come in.

You’re also inferring that baking equals sweet. Not for me. I’ll put a cup of tapioca flour in a bowl with some water, sea salt and an egg and cook that up in a non stick pan. I then go and lift heavy steel weights for two hours.

Nutrion is great, but never at the expense of energy. You can eat as healthy as you want, but if you don’t have the energy to be in top physical condition, you’re probably doing yourself a disservice.

Now, if you’re a 90 pound female and everything you do is *slight*, then you probably don’t need the extra carbs to rip it up at the gym. But for most people I think a big chunk of nutrient-void carbs is just fine, so long as they’re the right sort of carbs and so long as you’re using them.

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Debra Dharmer July 14, 2014 at 12:03 PM

Thank you for this honest and concise post. I am doing an 80/20 Paleo and the one area that I have found lacking is indeed the baking. Your point about Paleo being philosophically different from the mainstream mindless eating is a great one and reassures me that my Paleo baking results are not unsatisfactory because I’m doing something wrong or even that the recipes are faulty. It’s like trying to substitute seitan for beef and expecting a direct taste correlation. Not going to happen. Your open mindedness is also much appreciated. A personal ratio of Paleo to Other is legit. I think the Paleo path is a fantastic method for resetting our taste buds, promoting conscious eating, and exploring alternatives–especially in our age of food sensitivities. I’m quite satisfied from what I’m learning on this food and health journey but I can also enjoy a weekly pastry without guilt– and with a deeper appreciation. C’est la vie!

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Laurine October 29, 2014 at 6:35 PM

I realized more a new challenge on this fat loss issue. 1 issue is that good nutrition is extremely vital if dieting. A huge reduction in fast foods, sugary meals, fried foods, sugary foods, beef, and white flour products could be necessary. Keeping wastes organisms, and harmful toxins may prevent goals for losing weight. While a number of drugs momentarily solve the problem, the awful side effects are certainly not worth it, and in addition they never offer more than a short-lived solution. It can be a known incontrovertible fact that 95% of fad diets fail. Many thanks for sharing your notions on this blog.

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admin@primalist August 27, 2013 at 6:08 PM

Cauliflower rice is great! I haven’t yet tried a cauliflower pizza crust, but I plan to!

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admin@primalist March 22, 2014 at 11:02 AM

I have indeed chosen to never again eat flour. I chose that when I went Paleo/Primal in 2010. I have not touched flour since then.

The second quote, in the comment above has the word flour in quotation marks. This refers to almond flour or coconut flour, which are not considered actual flour, hence the quotation marks. Almonds and coconuts are not grains, and hence not actual flour. And even those, like I said above, I only eat when out and about, and I have still yet to bake anything with almond or coconut flour at home. So, no backpedaling here.

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