A few weeks into my adventures following the paleo diet, a friend asked me, “What made you decide on this diet over all of the others out there?” My response was a knee-jerk joke that stuck with her and got her interested in looking into this diet as well.
“The only unhealthy caveman I’ve ever heard of is Fred Flintstone,” I told her. We both laughed about this off-the-cuff response, but there is a lot of truth to that answer. The paleo diet is often called the caveman diet because its roots are in the hunter-gatherer ways of our ancestors.
The general idea of the diet is simple: eat foods that early humans could have hunted for or gathered from nature. These foods include meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and oils. You should avoid processed foods, most dairy products, artificial sweeteners, legumes, and grains.
Everything that we know about cave dwellers and ancient civilizations that relied on hunting and gathering tells us that they were strong, overall healthy people who didn’t have to deal with things like heart disease, obesity, or diabetes like modern humans do.
Of course, the life expectancy now is higher than back in the Paleolithic Period. The average US life expectancy was 79 years in 2016, while it was only somewhere in the fifty-year range for upper-Paleolithic humans. Still, during an age where shelter and medical care was nothing like it is today, living to your 50s is pretty inspiring.
The paleo diet gets a lot of credit because it’s relatively easy to follow. There is no calorie counting like in other diets, and it’s pretty simple to understand. Processed foods are out, so you can hit the fruits and veggies in the grocery store, run over and get yourself some grass-fed meat and fish, and walk out knowing your diet is intact.
In order to remain healthy enough to continue to hunt and gather, and to protect themselves from wild animals and other risks that we no longer have, Paleolithic people had to get a lot of nutrients from much less diverse food than is available on grocery shelves today.
They had no medicines or supplements to fall back on when they weren’t getting the right nutrients, so it was essential that they eat foods that would allow them to get all their necessary nutrients at once. Although they likely didn’t realize that was what they were trying to achieve, Paleolithic humans ate a vitamin-rich diet.
When you eat a paleo diet, you are getting the same vitamin-rich diet that our ancestors got, which should lead to less money down the road for supplements or prescription pills to compensate for missing nutrients.
It is important to remember, though, that the ancient humans on whom this diet is based did not necessarily eat meat at every meal. They were hunters, so there were times when meat was not available. In locations where water was present, fish may have been the only, or at least the main, source of meat.
The paleo diet is sometimes misconstrued as a diet where meat is the base, when in reality, veggies and fruits that are found in nature should be the things that dieters consume most, and meat should be a secondary portion of the meal. If not, you could risk missing out on some of the nutrients you need.
Many people claim taking on the paleo lifestyle can actually help to reduce your risk of developing food allergies or intolerances or even rid you of those that you already have. The reason for these claims lies in the health of the microbiome in your intestines that the paleo diet helps to balance.
The number of people with food allergies in the US is increasing almost daily. Between 1997 and 2007, the US saw an 18% increase in the rate of food allergies among children. Researchers continue to attribute this trend to decreasing diversity in the microorganisms within the gut.
The bacterial strain Clostridia was found in multiple studies to be higher in communities or animals in which food allergies were almost nonexistent. The research shows that Clostridia prevents allergens from entering the bloodstream, which is what would allow them to become a problem.
So how exactly does the paleo diet promote Clostridia and improve food sensitivities? The short answer is simply fiber. The fiber-rich veggies eaten in the paleo diet are good for the gut bacteria that protect you from all kinds of diseases and allergies.
Some veggies and fruits also ferment as they travel through your digestive system, which promotes diversity in your gut microbiome and can prevent the growth of bad bacteria that can cause issues like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s.
Many studies have shown that weight loss is a hallmark of the paleo diet, even for already healthy people. Some studies have seen significant decreases in liver fat, high levels of which can cause heart disease and other ailments. Still others saw a natural, spontaneous decrease in the number of calories participants consumed.
Overall, these studies have shown that there is a correlation between weight loss and the paleo diet. Along with that weight loss, there are other positive effects like lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Insulin sensitivity was even increased on the paleo diet, suggesting it may be a good solution for those with diabetes.
In addition to all of these health benefits, the paleo diet can also increase your energy levels so that you can live a more active lifestyle. Since those on the paleo diet are eating foods that digest slower and are high in fiber, their energy levels tend to remain more consistent.
Paleolithic hunters and gatherers were much more active than modern humans. Even modern humans who exercise daily at appropriate levels are often still sitting for too long, and much longer than our ancestors would have been able to. Eating a diet that promotes consistent energy is the first step toward getting active again.
A significant part of the paleo diet is activity. Although some daily exercise is recommended, the paleo lifestyle is more concerned with consistent movement than high-intensity exercise. Getting at least 10,000 steps in every day, for instance, is recommended to help increase positive effects from the paleo diet.
Check out this video for more information on diet, weight, and movement.
We’ve talked about the basics of the paleo menu already, but let’s go into detail, so you have a better understanding of precisely what is and is not off limits for the paleo lifestyle.
For starters, there are some core components that you need to understand in order to get the maximum benefit from paleo and ensure you are getting all the key nutrients your body needs. Like we said before, eating this way should focus on plants with a side of meat and healthy fats.
Let’s look at some of the core components to follow:
Like the hunter-gatherer name suggests, meat was the primary source of protein and healthy fats for our Paleolithic ancestors, so it’s an important part of this diet.
If you aren’t excited about the idea of hunting your meat as they did, not to worry. These days there is plenty available in the grocery store. Just remember that the meat that we are going for here is grass-fed and naturally raised. Steer clear of the grain-fed or hormone-injected stuff.
Just because we call them hunters and not fishers, doesn’t mean that fish shouldn’t be a part of your diet as well. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are especially great to add to your paleo lifestyle because of the energy they will give you as they digest. Shellfish and other sea creatures are allowed as well.
Right about now you’re probably thinking, “That’s way too much fat! All the commercials say fat is bad.”
That thought process is widespread in the Western world, so some critics claim the paleo diet isn’t good for you because you’re getting too much saturated fat. But paleo experts say you’re simply going back to relying on fats instead of carbs for energy, and it’s perfectly healthy to do so.
Back in the days of our Paleolithic ancestors, grains weren’t something that was grown or often found in nature. When those same ancestors started to learn about grains and how to farm and “process” them (to the extent an early human could), that’s when all the trouble started.
Paleo experts claim that grains are chock full of things that are hard for your body to digest and prevent proper nutrient absorption, like gluten and lectin. These so-called anti-nutrients can do terrible things to our digestive systems and throw off the microbiome we discussed earlier.
Don’t take our mention of gluten as an assurance that you can eat gluten-free grains like quinoa or rice on this diet. It’s best to stay away from all of those grains and replace them with more fruits, veggies, and meat. Although some experts say using almond or coconut flour may be okay if done sparingly.
This diet encourages you to eat your weight in produce, but you do have to watch out to ensure you’re eating the right kind. Legumes, for instance, are not something the paleo diet promotes because they are high in anti-nutrients and carbs.
Beans, peas, chickpeas, and even peanuts are all outta here for paleo dieters. However, big leafy greens, berries, and other in-season produce are all still in. Head to your local farmers market to make sure you’re eating for the season. You’ll support your local economy and your health simultaneously!
Here’s the thing: it’s doubtful that our ancestors had domesticated cows hanging around their doors to milk. It’s even more unlikely that they were able to process that milk in a way that would create yogurts or cheeses, so most paleo experts advise staying away from dairy products altogether.
There is some debate in the paleo world, though. Some experts say that if you have access to raw sources of milk or yogurt, and your system can handle them, then you’re free to go for it. Just remember that paleo is about staying close to nature, so whole milk is better than 2% or skim.
It’s also important to remember that most of the milk in the US today is full of hormones and is stripped of some of the most important nutrients and fats. For this reason, try to buy organic.
More complicated solutions include finding a milk share at a local farm where raw milk is available or moving to California where residents can simply buy raw milk since it is the only state where selling raw milk is legal.
If you don’t want to use dairy, or you can’t, but you still want to be able to have cream in your coffee, paleo experts suggest unsweetened almond or coconut milk as an alternative. Again, the less processed, the better.
Fats keep you full, focused, and energized on the paleo diet. The elimination of carbs means that your body is retraining itself to use fat as energy, so the more you consume, the higher your energy levels and the more active your lifestyle can be. Remember, activity is essential to paleo.
Monounsaturated fats are what we are looking for here, not the fats that you get in processed foods or excess saturated fats found in processed meat. Monounsaturated fats are available primarily in things like olive oil, avocados or avocado oil, and nuts.
The polyunsaturated omega-3 fats found in fish oils are also highly recommended on the paleo diet. Coconuts are a staple in paleo recipes because their milk, meat, and oil are healthy saturated fats, so you’re in luck if you are a coconut oil fanatic like me!
Even natural sugars should be used in moderation, if not for the blood sugar spike they can give you, because they just weren’t that commonly used by the ancestors whose diet we are trying to mimic.
Processing stevia, getting sap from maple trees, and even contending with bees to get some of that sweet honey from the comb wasn’t something our ancestors were likely too focused on. Most of the sweetness in their diets came from fruits.
All this to say, you are welcome to use natural sweeteners like stevia, raw honey, fruit, and coconut milk, but don’t overindulge. Your blood sugar and energy levels will still be affected by the consumption of these products.
When we say “packaged foods” we don’t just mean the stuff you know isn’t going to work on this diet like breads, cereals, and frozen dinners. We also mean things you would think are paleo-friendly like nut butter and condiments.
Many packaged foods have been processed with preservatives, added sugars (most of which go by sneaky names like fructose or dextrose), wheat-based ingredients, or even excess sodium. All of these ingredients can negatively affect your diet, so shopping for whole foods is your best bet.
If you can, buy at local butcher shops or farmers markets rather than a grocery store. If that’s asking a lot, stay on the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s the area where meat, whole fruits, and veggies are often kept.
The paleo diet means you will be doing more cooking and more prepping, but there are plenty of great recipes and meal planning tips and tricks out there to make it easier on you, don’t fret! The results will have you too excited to worry about your extra time in the kitchen.
Just like with sweeteners, indulgences are occasionally allowed on this diet with other things that could have been found and indulged upon by Paleolithic people. For instance, coffee, wine, and tea are high in antioxidants, and it’s possible that early humans could have created and consumed them.
Dark chocolate, specifically with a cocoa content that is at least 70% (the higher, the better) is also okay if eaten sparingly. Some paleo recipes call for pure cacao, which is an even better option.
The difference between types of fats was lost on me when I started researching the paleo diet. This is difficult when your diet so heavily relies on consuming the right fats and avoiding the bad ones. To make your life simpler, I’m going to give you the straight facts about fats.
Short answer: no.
Contrary to popular belief, eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Our bodies have used fat for energy since the dawn of humankind. Only more recent Western diets have tried to eliminate fats and replace them with carbohydrates and grains, and those diets often disagree on how much or what kinds are suitable replacements.
There are different types of fats out there. Some are good, while others are best eaten in moderation or not at all. It really comes down to how “real” the fat is. By that, I mean some fats are manufactured and others occur naturally. Those that occur naturally are perfectly healthy and recommended on the paleo diet.
When it comes down to it, there are three main types of fats out there: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. The chemical structures within these fats are what makes them different, but let’s just look at each from the paleo perspective.
Saturated fat is approved on a paleo diet. It’s actually encouraged. This type of fat is common in good-for-you meats.
Also paleo approved, monounsaturated fat is found in avocados and other natural foods.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fat: omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. You may hear these fats talked about in fish oil pills or other supplements, and you may have confused one for the other at least once. I know I have.
There are a lot of differences between these two polyunsaturated fats. But all you need to know for the paleo diet is we want to limit omega-6s and get plenty of omega-3s.
Since your main source of energy in paleo is fat, you won’t have to worry about it making your body bloat. In actuality, eating good fats is a great way to get and stay thin because it’s satisfying and keeps you feeling full longer while giving you energy.
In order to get these benefits, though, you need to know where the good fats come from in your food. Below we will give you a list of each type of fat and what foods provide them to your body. Note that some foods provide a mixture of fats so you may see repeated items on these lists.
As we learned earlier, omega-6 polyunsaturated fats aren’t the best for you. We think it’s important that you see a list of foods that might put too much of those omega-6 fats into your body, so you know what to avoid.
It’s scary to move into a high-fat diet when almost everyone has made fat seem evil over the last twenty years or so. But we promise, eating fat is a good thing!
When you switch to paleo, you take away the grains that have more than likely been your main calorie source until this point. You need to make up those calories somewhere, and fat is where you can do it.
You should be eating fat with every meal. This can come in several forms, like a naturally fatty animal, using cooking oils like avocado or coconut oil, or throwing an avocado on a salad or having some coconut milk to drink with breakfast. There are plenty of ways to mix up how you get fats.
Now our caution to you is don’t go overboard! You don’t need to cook every food in lard or do shots of olive oil to get your fats in. Get your fats naturally, based on the foods you are eating in the paleo lifestyle. You shouldn’t even be hungry enough to want extra fat on this diet.
Generally speaking, if you follow the paleo diet and eat what you’re supposed to be eating, your appetite will guide you toward the correct amount of fat. Your body knows what it needs. All you need to do is get past the “fat makes me fat” fears and get started on a lifestyle change.
We don’t know everything about what cave people ate back in the Paleolithic Period, so there are some foods that are up for debate in the world of paleo. Then there are those that should be completely nixed from your diet, no question about it. Let’s go over a general list of the items to get rid of and what’s up for debate and why.
The reality of paleo is there’s no one way to do things. Plenty of bloggers and experts do paleo differently than one another. The real trick is to find the program that works for you.
I was terrified of losing my occasional burrito bowl with black beans and quinoa when I first started paleo, so I didn’t give them up. I don’t eat them as often, and I only buy those items when I put that “cheat” day on my meal plan, but they didn’t disappear from my diet completely.
Some paleo lifers go for the 80/20 rule to help them with the restrictive paleo diet. The rule is simple: 80% of the time you rock your high fat, no grain, no dairy lifestyle, and you feel awesome. But 20% of the time you eat cookies and pizza on the couch with friends. It’s about balance.
The great thing about paleo is you don’t necessarily have to give up the foods you love. I found paleo pancake mix at the store the other day, and I made an unfortunate out-loud squealing sound of pure delight. The ingredients were solid, so it came home with me, and my family enjoyed pancakes free of guilt.
Paleo recipes exist for chicken tenders, chocolate, even pies, so don’t feel like your world is being turned upside down by this diet. It’s a great way to feel better without restricting yourself to the point of breaking.
Finally, if you like to indulge in alcohol from time to time, don’t sweat it. Wine, gluten-free beer, and hard ciders are all fine to have on occasion. Don’t over do it, but one here or there won’t kill your diet goals. Some liquor is even acceptable, especially with just soda water and fresh lemon or lime juice.
There are so many myths and misconceptions out there about the paleo lifestyle, it’s hard to keep them all straight. So before you get bombarded with them, let’s set the record straight on a few things.
A lot of foods that you wouldn’t expect have carbs in them. Broccoli, for instance, has a carb or two hiding inside. Rice and quinoa, which are quite often pegged as health foods, clearly have carbs. So what’s the difference between foods like these that are seen as healthy, and the bread and pastas that aren’t so great?
Basically, it’s all about what kind of carb you’re eating. You’ve probably heard the term complex carbohydrate, which is one that takes time to break down into sugar once it enters your body. These carbs are okay because they don’t spike blood sugar levels.
Simple carbs, however, are the things you need to avoid altogether. These are carbs that quickly break down into sugar in your body. When they break down, they send a surge of sugar that your body uses as energy, and in doing so, they block fats from being used for energy as they should be.
On paleo, the occasional complex carb is okay. Like we said earlier, sometimes some quinoa or rice is a nice addition to a meal, just put those on the sometimes list rather than making them a dietary staple.
Some critics of the paleo diet have made the lifestyle overly complicated by telling us that we can’t possibly do this lifestyle right because we no longer live in caves or hunt and gather our food. That may be true, although I’m sure some paleo followers still hunt for some of their meat.
That doesn’t mean this diet isn’t effective. We talked earlier about all of the studies surrounding the paleo lifestyle and its positive effects on heart disease, body fat, and insulin levels. This diet works, even if we get our meat at the deli counter.
Paleo isn’t about moving to a remote place, throwing on your loincloth, and gathering local berries. It’s about doing the best you can to eat like your body was designed to using the best products available today.
There are some people who will claim that diets, paleo or not, don’t work because it isn’t what we are eating, it’s how little we move. The paleo lifestyle does address movement by suggesting that our ancestors were a lot more active than we are, and we should get daily exercise on top of our diets. But they go together.
Most studies I’ve read suggest that our food is, in fact, the most important part of our health. Sure, a sedentary lifestyle is not going to help you feel good, but food is the key. If you eat the right foods, you have the energy to do more. If you do more, you need to eat more of the right foods to keep your nutrient levels up. It’s a cycle.
If you want more information on health and the paleo lifestyle, check out this article from Healthline. It gives great insight into five scholarly studies done on the paleo diet and how it affects health.
This is a two-part misconception. Part 1: meat will NOT kill you. We’ve talked about this enough above. Part two: paleo doesn’t have to be meat-based. As a matter of fact, there are vegetarians and vegans who live a paleo lifestyle.
In the traditional diet, meat is the main source of fats in this diet. However, as we discussed in the fats section above, you can get fat from avocados, coconuts, plant oils, nuts, and seeds as well. You also don’t have to eat red meat if it freaks you out. Don’t let the meat part of this diet scare you away.
One more thing: paleo is not Atkins. People constantly say, “Oh, like Atkins?” when I’m describing my lifestyle to them. Atkins includes a lot of the processed stuff that paleo would never allow. Atkins is also more about meat and dairy with less of an emphasis on produce than paleo.
All this information might be getting a little overwhelming right about now. Maybe you’re starting to reconsider how difficult it will be to switch to this lifestyle. Maybe you’re not even sure where to start. Let’s alleviate some of that stress right now by talking about tips for taking on paleo today.
You don’t need to cut out every single food that comes in a can or box. What you do need is to become an expert in the sneaky words that mean processed sugar, added grains, or omega-6 fatty acids. Learning the lingo and paying attention to labels will get you everywhere on paleo.
You may be comfortable cooking with canola or vegetable oil. The fact is coconut oil works pretty much the same, and it adds huge flavor while maintaining your optimal health.
Lard is another great, easy-to-find option for cooking. It’s high in the saturated fats you need in your diet to create energy. Even butter, as long as it’s sourced from grass-fed cows, is a fine replacement to your corn or soybean oil. Avocado, olive, and walnut oils are all paleo-approved too.
Dessert is a common concept in the Western diet. The trick to starting paleo is to keep sweet fruits around for an after-dinner treat. It tastes sweet, so it will help trick your taste buds into thinking dessert has been served.
After a few weeks on paleo, you will notice your sugar cravings go down significantly. You may even find treats you liked, like candy bars and cakes, too sweet. Plus, there are paleo-friendly indulgent recipes available all over the internet when you need them.
McDonald’s doesn’t work with paleo, but most restaurants have something you can at least turn into a paleo-friendly dish. Out to brunch? Have a meat-filled omelet without the cheese and a side of fresh fruit. Dinner date? Have the salmon or steak with steamed veggies.
Don’t be shy about asking how things are prepared, either. Ingredients are important on paleo, as you know, and restaurants are used to these questions from people with food allergies or diet preferences. You won’t shock them in the least.
Similar to the 80/20 rule we talked about earlier, don’t let this lifestyle make you give up completely. You are allowed to have cheat days. Just make sure that 80–85% of the time you are following a strict paleo diet. The other 15–20% can be cocktails, rice, or whatever keeps you sane and on track.
One thing that makes paleo abundantly easier is learning to love cooking. There are plenty of meal prepping plans, quick weeknight dinners, and make-ahead meals you can freeze for a few days before cooking, so don’t worry about having a time crunch after work.
Pro tip: If you are married, living with someone, or have kids, make cooking a bonding activity. Long after our Paleo ancestors were gone, cooking was something families did together to spend time and appreciate their meals. Bring that lifestyle into modern times. It’s a great chance to talk, laugh, and of course eat!
Okay, you have all the information. You’re feeling ready to take on paleo and conquer it with ease. Now, where’s your grocery list? What about recipes? Well, we have some samples here to get you started.
Breakfast: Egg muffins with spinach and onion and half an avocado
Lunch: Tuna inside a romaine lettuce wrap with a handful of almonds
Snack: A few ounces of beef jerky or two hard-boiled eggs
Dinner: Lemon chicken and broccoli skillet
Dessert: Coconut milk ice cream with strawberry slices
The goal with paleo, as with all diets, is balance. We’ve come up with this sample plan to encourage maximum balance, but you’ll want to adjust it to your personal preferences as you move forward.
After a little time on the paleo diet, you’ll likely find you don’t need as many snacks as you did on a traditional Western diet. Still, having them on hand is great to ensure you don’t end up indulging in something bad for you, especially on a trip. Here are a few portable examples:
You can eat an awesome variety of food on the paleo diet, so a shopping list is almost difficult to create. Still, we have opted to give you the basics here so that you are prepped to begin your paleo journey.
We’ve given you about all of the information we can about paleo, but if you’re interested in learning more, there are some great resources out there to help you. Check out a few options we’ve put together below to help you learn, grow, and succeed in your new lifestyle.