What if you had to spend all day chasing after your dinner or foraging for it in the forest? Proponents of the Paleolithic Diet say you'd be a lot more healthy. Also called the Paleo diet, followers of this eating plan believe that our digestive systems are best adapted to that ancient era when humans ate natural, non-packaged foods, like meats, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
In modern times, we eat more dairy, grain, and legumes than our early ancestors. We also consume more sugary, heavily processed, deep-fried, and fast food, which is not good for our health. Some of these dietary changes occurred as agriculture began in earnest, around 10,000 years ago. While that sounds like a long time ago, it's considered the "blink of an eye" in the long history of humankind. As a result, Paleo proponents say, our bodies and genetics haven't yet adjusted. Combine unhealthy food choices with a sedentary lifestyle and it's no wonder that we're seeing an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in the modern world.
Quick Tips to Start a Paleo Diet
- Decide which type of Paleo diet you want: strict, basic, or primal.
- Remove forbidden foods from your kitchen. Start with grains, legumes, dairy, foods with added sugar, and processed foods.
- Decide what you'll eat at each meal for a week; make a grocery list and purchase needed items.
- For each meal, choose your protein and vegetables, then add healthy fats such as avocados, nut butter, or olive oil.
- If you're going to eat meat, make sure it's lean, organic, pasture-raised, or wild-harvested varieties that are sustainably harvested.
- Select a wide array of vegetables (except starchy vegetables — more on that later), fruits, nuts, and seeds.
- You can only eat desserts you make yourself; sweeten with agave, maple syrup, dates, or Stevia leaf.
- Enlist the support of trusted friends and family members.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleolithic or Paleo diet is a return to a style of eating that resembles what early humans ate. During the Paleolithic Period — approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago — humans subsisted mainly on food that came from hunting or gathering: meat, fish, and insects, plus seasonal vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
The paleo diet is a low-carbohydrate diet that shuns all cultivated foods such as cereal, grains, legumes, potatoes, milk, and sugar. It was initially created by Loren Cordain, whose research into the health benefits of ancestral, stone-age diets for modern people has appeared in some of the world's top scientific journals.
As more and more people experiment with the diet, they have separated into different groups such as strict Paleo followers, basic Paleo followers and primal Paleo followers.
Strict Paleo: Avoids all cultivated foods including vegetables in the nightshade family such as tomatoes and peppers, as well as cocoa and all sweeteners.
Basic Paleo: Allows sweeteners such as maple syrup and raw honey, most nightshade plants (except for potatoes), and 70 percent dark chocolate or higher.
Primal Paleo: Adds a few more foods onto the basic Paleo diet plan such as white potatoes and white rice in moderation plus fermented dairy. Primal Paleo comes from Mark Sisson's book Primal Blueprint.
What Can You Eat on a Paleo Diet?
Strict, Basic, and Primal are the most well-known Paleo variations, but there are others. One version exists for people with autoimmune diseases, as well as an 80/20 Paleo where 80 percent of your diet is Paleo and 20 percent is not. Those who adhere to the strictest Paleo regimen eat these foods:
Paleo proponents strongly advocate for organic, free-range, or pasture-raised animals, since that is how our Paleo cousins would have eaten. That means you can eat a variety of grass-fed, pasture-raised lean meats including beef, bison, lamb, chicken, turkey, and pork.
The Paleo diet also allows for hunted game and many Paleo advocates like to hunt. Whether you hunt yourself or buy from a store, you can add venison, elk, quail, duck, rabbit, pheasant, or wild boar to a Paleo Diet.
Fish and Seafood
Paleo followers chose wild-caught fish and seafood over farmed varieties because they have more nutrients. Be sure, however, to choose sustainably-harvested fish and shellfish. The Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium Seafood Watch program has developed printable guidebooks that show you which choices are best not only for the environment, but also for your health — since mercury contamination occurs in many fish.
Our ancestors ate large quantities of leafy greens, especially when other foods were hard to find. Many of the vegetables our ancestors ate are similar to the high-fiber, green veggies we consume today, such as lettuce, spinach, kale, and broccoli. These low-starch vegetables are also low on the glycemic index (GI) — an index that tells you how carbohydrate-based foods affect your blood sugar. Some other veggies that you can eat on a Paleo diet include asparagus, green beans, cabbage, and leeks.
The Paleo Diet allows all types of fruit. Fruits are full of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. It's smart to eat a variety of fruits so you tap into the nutrients and health benefits that different fruits offer. Berries, for example are high in antioxidants, while bananas are high in potassium. While Paleo is a low-carb diet, the glycemic index can help you determine which fruits are best for your specific dietary needs. People looking to lose a lot of weight might avoid fruits altogether, but if you are looking for other health benefits, some high-GI fruits, like watermelon, do not cause spikes in your blood sugar because their glycemic load (GL) is low. Check out our article on the glycemic index and glycemic load to learn more.
Eggs, preferably organic and free-range, are a big part of the Paleo diet. Eggs are full of protein, fat, and important nutrients like B vitamins and choline, an essential nutrient. You can hard-boil them and use them as snacks, make them for breakfast in a scramble, or have "breakfast for dinner."
Nuts & Seeds
Our Paleo ancestors ate raw nuts and seeds and that's how you should enjoy them, too. Healthy nuts such as almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and macadamia nuts are great sources of protein, minerals, and other nutrients. A recent study showed that walnuts have the most heart-healthy antioxidants of any tree nut. Seeds are another great source of nutrients for the Paleo diet. Try chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds on salads or added to a homemade trail mix.
You can cook with many oils and fats on the Paleo diet, especially those derived from fruits and nuts: olive, avocado, coconut, walnut, flaxseed, and macadamia. While technically you can use unhealthy animal fats for cooking like lard, bacon grease, or goose fat, you will experience exponentially better health if you avoid them. Look for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), preferably organic. This will ensure you get the highest polyphenol content; polyphenols are antioxidants that protect against cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Paleo followers drink mostly water, but you can also have fruit- or vegetable-infused water, detox water, and occasional fruit juice — as long as there's no added sugar. You can also drink coffee and tea and a glass or two of red wine or low-sugar hard cider at night, if desired. While the Paleo diet also allows certain alcoholic spirits, they are not healthy for you.
Foods to Avoid on a Paleo Diet
There are also foods you should avoid on the Paleo diet, though this varies depending on which version you follow.
Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners
On a Paleo Diet, you will avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, xylitol, and acesulfame K. But you also must avoid processed white sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, and all foods with added sugars. Sugar can masquerade in products as high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, and maltose, among other names.
Avoid soda, energy drinks, sweetened powdered drinks, and sports drinks. Although you can have an occasional glass of fruit juice with no added sugar, most Paleo proponents believe you should opt for the whole fruit instead.
Avoid processed meats like ham, bacon, deli meats, sausage, and salamis. Most processed meat contains undesirable additives or comes from feed lot animals that consume grains. This makes the meat high in saturated fats and low in protein.
Grains — wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, brown rice — contain lectins, a type of plant protein, and phytic acid. Paleo advocates avoid grains because they may cause inflammation in the gut and prevent certain nutrients from being absorbed. Some Paleo advocates believe grains are acceptable to eat, but you can make that decision after doing your own research and choosing a particular version of the Paleo diet.
You need to avoid legumes on a Paleo diet, including kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, soybeans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans and pretty much all beans and lentils. That also includes foods made with beans, such as hummus or falafel. Many people do not realize that peanuts are legumes also, and they should be avoided. Like grains, legumes contain lectins and phytic acid.
Starchy vegetables — such as potatoes and corn (and potato and corn chips), tortillas, and popcorn — rank high on the glycemic index and therefore spike your blood sugar, which means you'll feel hungry again soon after eating them. They are also higher in calories. Avoid them on a Paleo diet.
Most Paleo advocates say no to dairy completely. On the other hand, some Paleo followers say grass-fed butter and clarified butter, or ghee, are acceptable. Others say full-fat dairy products are fine — and studies have shown they contain conjugated linoleic acid, which may prevent weight gain. Some Paleo followers consume fermented dairy products such as kefir, yogurt, or sour cream because manufacturers have removed the lactose and casein, a kind of protein that some people are allergic to.
Bad Fats & Oils
Many vegetable oils are highly processed and high in heart-damaging omega-6 fatty acids and low in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Disallowed oils include hydrogenated and partly-hydrogenated oils, margarine, soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil, canola oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil.
Brewers make beer from grains — wheat, barley, and hops — so it's not allowed. It also has gluten, which some people are allergic or sensitive to. Spirits are also made from grains but they undergo distillation that removes most of the gluten. If you drink, be aware that many mixers contain sugar.
Example Paleo Diet Meal Plan
The following is an example of what a Paleo diet plan may look like.
- Breakfast: Dairy-free smoothie with chia seeds, unsweetened nut milk, banana, and blueberries
- Lunch: Grilled organic, pasture-raised chicken with greens and balsamic vinaigrette
- Dinner: Wild-caught salmon with asparagus
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs cooked in coconut oil with sliced avocado
- Lunch: Niçoise salad with wild-caught salmon and vinaigrette
- Dinner: Frittata with vegetables
- Breakfast: Banana with almond butter, honey, and pecans
- Lunch: Stuffed portobello mushrooms
- Dinner: Baked organic quail with rosemary, green salad and roasted sweet potato
Paleo-friendly snacking options include hardboiled eggs, a handful of raw nuts, or a banana with almond butter.
Health Benefits of a Paleo Diet
When you chose to eat Paleo, you end up consuming many more whole foods and eliminating unhealthy processed foods. This removes many harmful additives, preservatives, and chemicals from your diet. You also reap the anti-inflammatory benefits of eating more plants and improve your gut microflora by consuming more fiber. Scientific studies have found a range of benefits, including the ones below.
Studies have shown that followers of the Paleo diet lose weight, lower their Body Mass Index (BMI), and shrink their waistlines. The Paleo diet generally requires eating large amounts of protein. Protein has a greater thermic effect — the energy your body uses to digest food — than fats or carbohydrates. This means just by eating more protein, you'll increase the calories you burn each day. Protein also has a greater satiety value than fats or carbohydrates, meaning you feel full faster and stay full longer.
Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease
Paleo followers may lower their risk of heart disease. One study found that high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good" cholesterol," went up while triglycerides went down in people who followed the Paleo diet for 12 weeks. You'll see even better results if you minimize saturated fats.
Better Control Your Blood Sugar
Followers of the Paleo diet may end up with better-balanced blood sugar. Your carbs will come from fruits and vegetables, most of which have a low-glycemic index (GI). Since your body digests low-glycemic foods more slowly, they do not raise your blood sugar levels as much as higher GI foods do. Even people with type 2 diabetes who followed the Paleo diet ended up with more balanced blood sugar levels. It's important that everyone, not just those with diabetes, control blood sugar; otherwise you could become “prediabetic," a condition where your blood glucose levels are elevated but not quite high enough to be considered diabetes. According to the CDC, about one-third of American are “prediabetic" and thus are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Better Gut Health
The Paleo diet may diversify your gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that reside in the lining of your intestines. These tiny creatures contribute to everything from our immune response to our metabolic rate to our anxiety levels. Research has shown that modern hunter-gatherer tribes have greater diversity in their gut microflora than Western populations because they consume greater amounts of fiber. Fiber acts as a prebiotic, feeding the probiotic microbes. When Westerners adopt a hunter-gatherer type diet, they may also increase the diversity of microflora in their gut.
Can a Vegetarian or Vegan Eat Paleo?
It would be very hard for a vegetarian or a vegan to follow a strict Paleo diet. Vegetarians and vegans rely on legumes such as beans, as well as pseudo-grains like quinoa as their protein sources. One answer for vegetarians who want to follow a Paleo diet is to eat plenty of eggs. Some Paleo followers believe it's okay to consume legumes and pseudo-grains if you first soak them or sprout them before cooking, which helps remove the lectin and phytic acid. If you follow a basic or primal Paleo diet, you may be able to follow it as a vegetarian.
Cons of a Paleo Diet
Following a Paleo diet is not necessarily easy. Here are the top disadvantages of following a Paleo diet.
Caution: Eating Meat & Seafood
The Paleo diet encourages the consumption of meat. At Global Healing Center, we believe meat is not part of a healthy diet. Instead, we encourage an organic, plant-based diet. There is a strong, well-documented relationship between the consumption of animal products and many types of cancer, heart disease, and other ailments. In addition, raising animals for consumption harms the environment in numerous ways.
Paleo followers should also be careful with their fish consumption. Some fish species — especially predator species that are higher on the food chain such as tuna — can have high amounts of toxic metals such as mercury, which are especially harmful to developing fetuses and young children.
No Portion Control
One criticism of the Paleo diet is that it does not specify the portions of allowed food, so you may overeat high-calorie foods such as nuts, possibly making it harder to lose weight. Counting calories is one way to avoid this pitfall. However, others consider not counting calories as a benefit, since many people do not like "dieting" in the stricter sense, but prefer the freedom of this eating plan — which usually leads to weight loss.
The Paleo diet is expensive to follow because it relies heavily on animal protein sources that are organic, grass-fed, and humanely raised. Shopping for sustainable sources of seafood can also be pricey. Vegetable and fruit prices may vary, but if you look for strictly organic fruits and vegetables, your grocery costs may be high.
Difficult to Stick To
A recent study of 35 women who followed the Paleo diet for two years revealed that the dieters found it difficult to avoid certain foods such as bread and alcohol, struggled to understand what they were allowed to eat and found it more expensive than eating out. On the plus side, the women following this diet lost an average of 14 pounds.
Too Few Carbs
Some experts say restricting carbohydrates may not work for people who exercise frequently. Athletes, for instance, need carbohydrates to sufficiently fuel intense workouts and to recover from them.
The Paleo Diet is Time-Consuming
Expect to spend more time than usual planning your meals and cooking. You will have to make most meals from scratch. To save time, you may find yourself eating the same things again and again. We are all creatures of habit, but this can get tedious.
What to Expect & Possible Side Effects
Practice patience if you decide to follow the Paleo diet. You will need more time for shopping and cooking and you may not feel good at first as your body adjusts to this new regimen. The Paleo diet is a form of detoxing, especially if you strictly eliminate sugar, dairy, and processed foods. You are also dramatically reducing your carbohydrate intake, and as a result, you're likely to get a headache, your brain may feel foggy, and you may not have much energy. We call this the healing crisis, but some call it the low-carb flu. Paleo experts say this goes away after about a week or two when you should start to feel better.
Adding Supplements to Your Paleo Diet
If you follow the strictest version of the Paleo Diet, which allows no dairy products, you will need to make sure you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D from other sources, which are important to bone health. Other recommended supplements are omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics to encourage healthy bacteria in your gut, and magnesium.
Points to Remember
The Paleo diet follows the lifestyle of ancient humans who spent much of their time hunting and gathering their food. This diet calls for consuming large amounts of protein, moderate amounts of healthy fats, and restricting carbohydrates to fruits and vegetables.
There are many variations of the diet including strict, basic, and primal Paleo; some call for no dairy, grain or legume consumption and others are more lenient. Research has shown there are weight loss benefits to following the diet and it may help people who struggle with diabetes get their blood sugar under control and reduce their risk of contracting heart disease.
Let us know if you try the Paleo diet, and how it works for you! We would love to hear how it went for you or if you have any questions about it. Leave a comment below!