How to Go Paleo: Diet Guide
This guide is for general information purposes only. We are providing what we hope will be a helpful resource, not a guaranty of success. We are not providing medical advice. Please consult with a doctor if you need such advice.
How to Go Paleo: Diet Guide
The popular paleo diet (also known as the caveman, Stone Age, or hunter-gatherer diet) is based on the idea that eating like our Paleolithic ancestors is more harmonious with our genes. Paleo gets us closer to our roots, proponents argue, making it a diet optimal for good health. The diet is heavy on fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, and nuts. This guide will give you a complete summary of the paleo diet, from your first shopping list to actual recipes you can start using today.
What is Paleo?
Paleo is a return to a way of eating that’s more like what early humans ate about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. The Paleo diet typically consists of lean meats, fish, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and seeds—foods that could realistically be hunted or gathered by our early ancestors. Foods that are common today—dairy products, legumes, and grains—came about when farming emerged around 10,000 years ago. Paleo advocates argue that consumption of those foods should be limited.
The main idea behind paleo is the discordance hypothesis, which proposes that the human body is genetically mismatched to the modern diet that arose with farming practices. Dairy, grains, and legumes were added too rapidly for the human body to adapt. This mismatch is believed to be a factor in the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease today. While there are a limited amount of studies on the paleo diet, the fact is that most Paleolithic humans likely consumed about three times more produce than the typical American does today. Their diet was rich in proteins, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, unsaturated fat, vitamins, and minerals. They also largely avoided saturated fat and sodium.
What to Eat and Not Eat on Paleo
The following foods are okay to eat on the paleo diet:
- Lean meat such as lean cuts of beef, lamb, pork, poultry and wild game (bison, venison, goat)
- Fish and seafood
- Fresh fruit
- Non-starchy vegetables like green beans, asparagus, brussel sprouts, lettuce and spinach
- Nuts (but not peanuts which are technically a legume)
- Seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower
- Plant-based oil such as olive, walnut, grapeseed, and coconut oils
Avoid these foods on the paleo diet:
- Grains (wheat, oats, barley, and rice) and products made with them (bread, cookies, pizza, pasta, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn and products made with them (French fries, popcorn, etc.)
- Legumes and dried beans like lentils, black beans, chickpeas, green peas, soy, peanuts, and products made with them (hummus, tofu, peanut butter, etc.)
- Dairy products including milk, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, and butter
- High-fat meats like ribs, bacon, rib roast, and ground beef
- Processed meat like salami, bologna, pepperoni, and hot dogs
- Sugars like those in baked goods, soda, jam or jelly, honey, maple syrup, etc.
- Processed foods like doughnuts, pasta, dried fruit
- Foods with added salt like crackers, chips, and soy sauce
Although paleo is touted as a lifestyle primarily for health reasons, it can also result in weight loss. Unlike many other weight-loss regimens, there is no portion control or calorie counting with paleo.
Different Versions of Paleo
It is important to note that there are many variations in the paleo diet. When you start looking online at paleo blogs and for paleo recipes, you may find different versions of paleo. Processed food is never allowed, but some people eat starchy vegetables, and some eat full-fat dairy. Some versions of paleo even encourage eating high-fat meat and saturated fat like coconut oil, butter, and lard (these have been linked to heart disease, so eat with caution, if at all).
If you are going to do the paleo diet, you can see how you feel when you eat one of the restricted food groups (try adding back one at a time). Do you feel more sluggish or energetic? Does it make you feel better or worse? You may also want to modify paleo for nutritional reasons. For example, it is challenging to get enough calcium without eating dairy so you may want to eat limited amounts of dairy. Or you may want to eat the recommended amount of carbohydrates by eating starchy vegetables. This way, you can find the version of paleo that works for you.
What Does the Research Say?
Today, a few remaining hunter-gatherer societies are living off a wide variety of diets, from the nut and seed-based diet of the African Kung to the root vegetable-eating Kitavans near Papua, New Guinea, as well as the meat- and fat-loving Inuit of the Arctic. These hunter-gatherers are much healthier than modern Americans. The Kitavans, for instance, are particularly healthy—free of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and acne—even though most of them smoke. In a study of hunter-gatherer societies published in the journal Obesity, scientists analyzed diseases and causes of death; fewer than 10% of deaths even among those over 60 years old were from chronic non-communicable diseases (cancer, diabetes, and heart disease). Cognitive decline and dementia are also rare.
One study of the paleo diet found a reduction in markers for chronic disease including waist circumference and fasting blood sugar. An article published in Australian Family Physician saw correlations between eating paleo and weight loss, lower blood pressure, and improved blood lipid levels (cholesterol). Both of these studies were limited to a small group of participants and further study was recommended.
Some scientists are skeptical, however, at the claims of the paleo diet. They are particularly doubtful about the claim that certain foods are “unnatural” and shouldn’t be eaten at all. There is evidence that suggests that cereal grains were staples, at least for some early humans, long before domestication and farming. Starch granules have been found in the teeth of a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal, for instance. Humans have evolved since the paleolithic era to develop more genes related to processing starches. The diet among hunter-gatherers varies by geography and what food is available. Some hunter-gatherer populations eat a diet higher in carbohydrates (tubers, rice, and plantains) than the paleo diet recommends, yet still have the same positive health markers as those who eat more meat and/or vegetables and fruit.
Nevertheless, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is recommended by dieticians as is cutting out processed food, adding sugar and salt. Read on to discover the pros and cons of this dietary phenomenon.
Pros of Going Paleo
The paleo diet has become popular in recent years, and some people swear by its focus on clean eating. After all, the top six calorie sources in the U.S. diet today are grain-based desserts, yeast breads, chicken-based dishes, sweetened beverages, pizza, and alcoholic drinks. Paleo all of these unhealthy food options (lean chicken is generally considered to be healthy). So is it worth trying this diet plan? Read the below benefits and find out.
- Healthy eating. Despite its questionable origins, the paleo diet gets a lot right when it comes to eating. The diet emphasizes whole foods, lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats, which is a big improvement over the traditional American diet.
- More diversity of gut bacteria. According to Forbes, several early studies are showing that the bacteria in our guts affect brain function. High bacterial diversity in the gut is associated with a low risk of obesity and many other diseases. Diets high in saturated fat tend to reduce the gut’s biodiversity. After a few days on a hunter-gatherer diet in Tanzania, CNN reporter Tim Spector found that his gut bacteria were 20 percent more diverse.
- Less diabetes risk. An article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that nine obese adults improved their blood pressure, glucose tolerance, and lipid profiles—all indicators of diabetes risk—in just 10 days on a paleo-style diet.
- Improved satiety. People on calorie-restricted diets often feel hungry, which makes it difficult to sustain. The combination of lean protein with plenty of fiber in paleo helps you feel full and satisfied.
- Awareness of food content. Following the paleo diet will help you realize that much of our modern diet consists of processed foods that are not great for maintaining healthy bodies. Examples include white bread and other refined flour products, artificial cheese, cold cuts, and packaged meats, potato chips, and sugary cereals. Some of these foods are packed with sodium and preservatives that may increase the risk of heart disease and other serious health issues.
- Community. You’ll find plenty of people who eat paleo, primarily through online communities. If you’re just starting, these groups are an invaluable resource for advice and support.
- Tons of recipes. Because of paleo’s recent popularity, there are quite a few books and recipes on the subject.
- Includes exercise recommendation. Unlike some other diets, paleo includes a recommendation to get a certain amount of exercise, which is associated with several health benefits including less heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, better sleep, and better mental health.
Cons of Going Paleo
Is paleo more than a fad? There are quite a few reasons paleo might work for you, but there are also plenty of reasons why it might not. Consider the following points in your decision.
- Lack of research. If your goal is to follow a diet plan that has been subject to rigorous scientific study, you won’t find it with paleo. Proponents are essentially guesstimating what our ancestors ate, but there’s no definite proof.
- Pricey. Buying only fresh organic produce and pasture-raised animal products can get expensive. Filling up on the fresh stuff rather than the occasional bowl of pasta might scare away the budget-conscious.
- Hard to find. The paleo diet calls for grass-fed meat and wild game, which may not be available to the average person.
- Fewer carbs than recommended. By shunning dairy and whole grains, you’re at risk of missing out on a lot of nutrients. The government recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your daily food intake consist of carbohydrates, while the paleo diet recommends 23 percent.
- Boosted risk for cancer. According to a report from the World Health Organization, eating red meat could put you at a higher risk for cancer. Some people think you can eat unlimited amounts of meat on paleo, but this is not the case.
- One-size-fits-all. The restrictive approach of the paleo diet may not work for people with special dietary needs.
- Whole grains aren’t bad for you. While the paleo diet forbids whole grains, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that those who ate three portions of whole-grain foods daily lowered their blood pressure and reduced their heart disease risk.
- Time-consuming. Paleo requires you to buy fresh food and prepare it (mostly) at home so it may not be suitable for people who are time-restricted or do not want to take the time to cook fresh food.
- Restrictive. Some people may get tired of avoiding large food groups for an extended period of time.
The most important part of any diet plan is making sure that you are getting all of the essential nutrients for your body. As with all restrictive diets, there are some nutritional concerns you will need to pay attention to be healthy.
Carbohydrates are needed for the body’s energy and to support organs like the heart, brain, and kidneys. The strict version of the paleo diet has fewer carbohydrates than are recommended by the federal government. This is because grains and starchy vegetables are not allowed and these are the primary sources of carbohydrates. Nutritionists counsel eating complex carbs, present in fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains, and avoiding simple carbs like those in white bread, most pasta, and sugar. Paleo does a good job of cutting out simple carbs but may be lacking in complex carbs. You can increase your intake of carbs by adding a limited amount of starchy vegetables and/or whole grains to your diet.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that contributes to feelings of satiety and has a host of health benefits including reducing the incidence of cancer, aiding in digestion, and helping to keep blood cholesterol levels healthy. Fiber is found in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. If you are not eating grains at all, you should make sure that you eat more vegetables and fruit to make up for the missing fiber.
Saturated fat is in red meat, fatty meat of all kinds, processed meat, butter, cream and cheese, baked goods, and lard. On the paleo diet, you do not eat processed meat, dairy, or baked goods so you have removed these sources of saturated fat. However, since there is no portion control with paleo, some people tend to go hog wild eating meat. If you eat too much meat or other foods with saturated fat such as coconut oil, you could end up with high cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends that you get no more than 6% of your calories from saturated fat.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium is a vital nutrient for bone health and vitamin D is important for bone health, muscles, and the immune system. Most people get these nutrients from dairy products, which are usually not part of a paleo diet plan. If you are substituting store-bought alternative milk (almond, rice, oat, etc.), most of these are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Some people on the paleo do not like to buy these alternative milks from the store because the additives and processing and calcium and vitamin D are not in the homemade version. In this case, you will probably want to take supplements to get these nutrients.
How to Go Paleo
Loren Cordain popularized paleo in his 2002 book The Paleo Diet. Since then, paleo has been touted by some as the ultimate healthy diet. There is some flexibility in your proportion of meat, produce, and fats, so you can experiment with a ratio that works for you. Generally speaking, it is high in protein with moderate amounts of fat, low in carbohydrates, and high in fiber.
If you do decide to go the paleo route, it’s fairly easy to get started. The first step is to clean out your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Get rid of packaged food, pasta, bread, crackers, dairy. If it is unopened, you can donate it to a local food bank. Opened food can be used up or thrown away. If you live with other people, it is best to try to get them to join you on your paleo journey because it will be easier if everyone is on the same page. Otherwise, you may have different meals being prepared at the same time and goodies on the restricted list tempting you off the program.
At first, you can make it easier for yourself and others in the household to remember what to eat and not by posting a list on the refrigerator. As mentioned, you may want to do a somewhat more relaxed version of paleo by eating starchy vegetables and/or dairy.
Essential Kitchen Tools
Since with paleo, you will be relying less on packaged and prepared meals and more on home-cooked meals, there are some kitchen tools that you should have. Here are some to consider buying if you don’t have them already:
- Good knives (chef, steak, and paring)
- Knife sharpener
- Kitchen shears
- Cutting boards
- Cast iron skillets
- Vegetable peeler
- Baking sheets
- Wire racks
- Pots (saucepan and stockpot)
- Meat thermometer
- Slow cooker and/or pressure cooker
- Immersion blender
Shop the perimeter – The healthiest way to do the paleo diet is to stick to eating whole foods as much as possible. This means minimally processed meats, fish, seafood, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. To do this, shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, not so much in the aisles. The only exception is that frozen fruits and vegetables are okay since freezing preserves much of their nutritional content.
Nevertheless, because of the popularity of the paleo diet, there are plenty of packaged foods that are labeled “paleo.” The most important thing to remember while deciding whether to buy these foods is to read the nutritional labels. If what you’re looking at has an ingredient that you don’t immediately recognize, look it up. Always look for added sugars and preservatives.
Buy produce that is in season – When you buy fruits and vegetables when they are in season, it not only ensures that you are eating fresh but also saves you money.
Buy organic judiciously– Some paleo plans encourage you to only get organic fruits and vegetables. However, organic produce can be significantly more expensive than conventional. If you are going to buy organic, focus on the “dirty dozen,” the list of produce has the most pesticide residue even after washing (strawberries, spinach, kale/collard greens/mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, bell peppers and hot peppers, celery, and tomatoes).
There can be a large price differential on organic produce between grocery stores. Generally speaking, high-end markets like Whole Foods and Fresh Market have the highest prices, while you can find some of the lowest prices at Aldi. It is also a good idea to shop sales when possible.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables – When you want to produce that is not currently in season, buy frozen. It is less expensive and just about as nutritious as fresh. Just check the package to make sure there is no added salt, sauces, breading, or sugar.
Buy in bulk – You can buy large cuts of meat at Costco or directly from a local farmer and save a lot of money doing so. Use a website like EatWild.com to find farmers near you. As a bonus, you’ll be able to see the animals and what their living conditions are like. Once you get the meat, cut it into portion sizes and freeze it. You can also buy nuts in bulk and store them in air-tight containers to save money.
Buy less expensive cuts of meat to save money – Next, pick meat cuts like the shoulder, hocks, or shanks that are much cheaper, and slow cook them in a liquid for a delicious meal. You’ll have plenty of material for soups, stews, and sauces. And don’t forget to keep the bones, since they make a great supply for stocks. Stocks are full of nutrients and eating only muscle meat is not optimal anyway.
Find wild game meat online – Unless you are a hunter, it can be challenging to find fresh wild game meat. However, some websites specialize in grass-fed and pasture-raised meat and wild game meat including DArtagnan.com, FarmFoodsMarket.com, FossilFarms.com, and BrokenArrowRanch.com.
When you first start, you want to be sure that you have plenty of paleo-friendly foods and ingredients at hand. Here is a shopping list of things you will want in the house.
- Chicken and turkey (whole, pieces or made into sausage, not deli)
- Beef, pork, lamb, and other red meats
- Fish and seafood
- Vegetables (whatever you think you can/will eat)
- Broccoli, cauliflower
- Brussel sprouts, cabbage
- Lettuce (various)
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens
- Zucchini and summer squash
- Optional starchy veggies: butternut squash, sweet potatoes
- Fruit (any that you think you can/will eat)
- Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower)
- Almond butter
- Coconut water
- Sparkling water
- Coconut milk
- Coconut oil
- Ghee (clarified butter)
- Olive oil
- Seasonings and condiments
- Fresh herbs
- Dried herbs and spices
- Coconut aminos (taste like soy sauce)
- Hot sauce
Transitioning to Paleo
Making the transition to paleo isn’t always easy, but it’s not impossible. Consult your primary physician before making any major dietary changes. Then, do some research on nutrition and best practices of the paleo diet. The best way to do this is by buying one of the many paleo guidebooks that are on sale online or at your local bookstore. Some of these books double as cookbooks that feature tons of recipes you can try.
The best way to make the change is to take it slow. Here’s a handy guide for changing your meal plan gradually:
- Week 1: Eat a paleo dinner every night. Keep all other meals the same as usual.
- Week 2: In addition to your dinner, make all your snacks paleo.
- Week 3: Make all your weekend meals paleo, along with the previous changes.
- Week 4: Make all your lunches paleo.
- Week 5: Make all your breakfasts paleo.
If you feel the need to go slower or faster than this guide suggests, feel free to do so. There’s no wrong way to adopt a new lifestyle, as long as you try. By taking it easy, you’ll avoid a lot of the occasional side effects of a low-carb diet. Side effects may include being lightheaded, having low energy, loss of appetite, bad breath, and diarrhea. These side effects are usually temporary, and go away after your body adjusts to your new diet. If they persist, you may want to add more carbohydrates and shift to eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables.
Paleo Eating Out
Unlike some diets, like being vegan, it is relatively easy to stick with a paleo diet when dining out. Get a meat, fish, or seafood entree or a vegetarian entree (as long as it is dairy-free and grain-free). Certain cuisines are more likely to use dairy like cheese and butter (Italian and French, for example) and others are legume/bean heavy like Mexican so to be safe, try to avoid those kinds of restaurants. You will likely be fine in an American, Indian, Chinese, Thai, or farm-to-table restaurant. Be sure to ask how dishes are prepared and special order them to your specifications if necessary. Skip the bread basket and ask for fresh berries for dessert.
A Day in the Life of the Paleo Diet Follower
If you’re wondering whether eating paleo means eating rabbit food all the time, fear not. There are plenty of delicious recipes that create dishes strikingly similar to non-paleo foods. Whether you’re in the mood for pancakes, mac, and cheese, or a crispy salad, we’ve got you covered.
Breakfast: Coconut flour pancakes
- ¼ cup coconut flour.
- ⅛ teaspoon baking soda.
- Pinch of salt.
- ⅓- ¼ cup coconut milk.
- 2 tablespoons organic, cold-pressed coconut oil.
- 3 eggs.
- 1-2 tablespoons honey.
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract.
- Maple syrup to taste.
- Grass-fed butter for cooking.
- Thoroughly mix the eggs, coconut oil, and honey.
- Add the coconut milk and vanilla extract.
- Throw in the coconut flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix, but remember, not too much!
- Melt a dab of butter in your skillet and then using a measuring cup, add a little batter to the pan. It’s a good idea to figure out how many pancakes you’d like to make beforehand so that you can use an appropriately sized cup or ladle.
- Remember that you aren’t likely to see many bubbles forming on the top, so carefully check the underside of your pancake before flipping. Extra kudos points for those of you who can flip without a spatula!
- For best results, serve your pancakes right away.
- Drown those bad boys in maple syrup, grab your fork, and have at ‘em!
Lunch: Cauliflower “mac and cheese”
- 1 head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets.
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk.
- 1 cup baby carrots.
- ½ cup raw cashews.
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast.
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard.
- 1 teaspoon paprika.
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder.
½ teaspoon onion powder.
- 1 tablespoon chopped scallions, plus more for garnish.
- 1 teaspoon sea salt.
- Begin by bringing two cups of water to a low boil in a medium-sized pot. Add cauliflower florets and boil for ten minutes, covered, to tenderize. Drain and set aside.
- While the cauliflower steams, combine cashews and carrots in a separate small pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes or until carrots are soft.
- Drain carrots and cashews. Place into a blender with almond milk, nutritional yeast, mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and sea salt. Blend until smooth and creamy.
Dinner: Spicy sesame almond zucchini noodles
For the salad:
- 2 medium zucchini (ends cut off).
- ½ cup cabbage (shredded).
- ½ cup carrots (shredded).
- 1 handful of cilantro (chopped).
- Spiralizer required.
For the dressing:
- ½ cup creamy almond butter (at room temperature).
- ⅓ cup toasted sesame oil.
- 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses.
- 2 tablespoons lime juice.
- 1 teaspoon ginger (grated).
- ½ teaspoon chili flakes.
- Using the 3mm blade of spiralizer, slice zucchini into a large bowl. Add cabbage and carrots. Set aside.
- Combine ingredients for the dressing. Stir until smooth and thick.
- Pour dressing over zucchini. Stir to coat. Garnish with cilantro. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Snack ideas: Fruit salad, a handful of nuts, smoked salmon, beef jerky, veggie chips, kale chips, guacamole, dark chocolate, and paleo cookies.
Drink suggestions: Tea, water, fruit juice, and any unsweetened drink made from fruits or veggies. Coffee is okay in moderation, but many paleo advocates advise against it.