Paleo 101: The Ultimate Guide to the Paleolithic Diet

Paleo Diet 101 for Beginners

The Paleolithic Diet has been popular for over ten years, and with good reason: it’s simple, it’s healthy, and it works. Maybe you only heard about paleo recently, or maybe you’ve followed it for years. Either way, my hope is for you to learn how to best apply this ancestral perspective to all areas of your life.

In the first section, I explain what paleo is. We’ll take a look together at the theory and science behind it, and typical results people achieve following an ancestral/evolutionary diet.

The second section is a quick-start guide. It has everything you need to begin paleo with confidence!

In the third section, we’ll move past the basics as I share tips for optimizing your paleo diet and how to avoid common mistakes.

In the fourth section, I answer common questions, like how to troubleshoot problems you may encounter.

What is Paleo?

The Paleolithic Diet is any diet based on eating like our ancestors. After primates diverged from other mammals 85 million years ago, homo erectus began using stone tools 3.3 million years ago, and fire about a million years ago. Homo sapiens with “modern” behaviors started walking the planet a mere 50-80 thousand years ago.

With the industrial age beginning just 250 years ago, and the information age less half a century ago, it’s hard to dispute that our ancestors evolved and lived in a much different environment than ours. Our ancestors hunted, gathered, foraged, and scavenged for food, while most modern humans get their food prepared for them, whether from a grocery store or restaurant.

This known evolutionary gap in regards to food options, processing and handling, and human adaptation is the primary observation behind the paleo diet philosophy. Our bodies are optimized to exist in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors, not our rapidly changing modern environment. Evidence suggests that this gap is one reason why there is a surge in diabetes, obesity, and cancer rates today.

Eating paleo is a way of addressing this gap to achieve better health.

Key Questions

  1. Why should I care about the paleo diet, anyway?
  2. Is paleo right for me?
  3. What does science say about Paleo?
  4. What results can I expect?

Why Paleo?

Here are the biggest strengths of Paleo:

The reason people stick with paleo is that it makes them feel (and look) amazing.

If you hate keeping up with calories and macronutrients, you’ll love Paleo. If you have tried other ways of eating and had issues with self-control, paleo may be a good fit for you. If you enjoy cooking and exploring new foods, paleo offers a surprising amount of flexibility and variety.

Paleo Theory

The underlying theory of paleo is simple:

If someone didn’t eat it X years ago, don’t eat it now.

10,000 years ago is a good number for X. Back then, modern agriculture didn’t exist.

Paleo experts and advocates argue that modern agriculture and food production are at the root of modern or neolithic diseases. Here’s what we avoid by turning the clock back 10,000 years:

The reason paleo works so well is that we avoid what’s “bad,” and focus on what’s healthy. Here’s what you eat instead on a paleo diet:

Why Not Paleo?

Before you dive into Paleo, I want you to know it’s not for everyone. No diet is for everyone. Do any of the following apply to you?

You can’t eat many carbs or processed foods on Paleo. For some people, that’s a dealbreaker. And if you don’t get to choose what food items to eat, it may be impossible to eat Paleo. Most fixed menus just aren’t “Paleo friendly.”

If you are extremely detail-oriented and prefer to track all your calories and macros, following exact meal plans, you may find paleo too unstructured. Although some people do approach paleo by tracking calories and macros, it’s not true to the underlying philosophy. More on that later.

What About the Science?

There are two essential scientific questions about Paleo:

The answer to the first question is “it depends.” Our ancestors ate whatever was available to survive. But even with genetic testing available, it’s an uphill battle to track down the origin of your mitochondrial haplogroup and figure out what people in that region were eating 10,000 years ago or more.

You could go to all that trouble, only to find out they were starving and malnourished. That wouldn’t be very helpful in figuring out how to eat today. Some people get fixated on that level of detail and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here is what most people mean by “eating Paleo.”

The introduction of processed foods coincides with the beginning of the obesity epidemic. Whole foods are naturally occurring unprocessed foods. As a general rule, if a food has more than two or three ingredients, it’s probably not a whole food.

Peer-reviewed scientific literature does support this style of eating for health, wellness, and weight loss:

Some scientists want randomized, double-blind trials before they’ll admit paleo works. That’s overkill. A diet is not a new drug therapy. The bottom line: the paleo diet is a much better choice than an outdated low-fat high-carb diet, a “Standard American diet” (high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie), or the broken food pyramid.

Speaking of the food pyramid, mainstream science endorsed it for decades, and no one was calling for randomized controlled dietary trials back then.

Takeaways

According to studies and also real-world observation, you can achieve the following results with a paleo diet:

Here’s why it works so well:

Quick Start Guide

So you’re ready to start a paleo diet? Great! I recommend you print this list if possible. Set aside a few hours, or better yet half a day. Grab a pen and paper to make a shopping list, too.

If you don’t have time today, you can still plan ahead. I want you to get started the right way. No need to rush!

Step one is to finish reading this guide. Make up your mind about what you want to do.

Step two is to go to the grocery store, farmer’s market, or co-op and stock up on the correct foods. Make sure you have enough time.

Step three is to throw away, or at least set aside, all the food you will no longer be eating. Don’t skip this step!

Step four is to commit to building new habits for three weeks. That’s about how long it takes to ingrain a new pattern and make it permanent.

Key Questions

  1. What’s the easiest way to plan meals?
  2. What foods do I buy for Paleo?
  3. What do I avoid?
  4. How strict must I be?

Meal Planning

Some people get obsessive about planning meals ahead when they start a new diet or lifestyle. They want to know what they’re eating today, tomorrow, and the day after that.

I recommend you don’t plan out your meals extensively. Instead, here’s what’s important:

The rest will take care of itself. That’s meal planning made simple. Here’s what goes into a paleo meal:

Eat all three components at every meal. That’s paleo in a nutshell.

How Many Meals Should You Eat?

You can eat one, two, or three meals per day. Skip a meal if you aren’t hungry. You can mix it up and find what works best for you. (More on this later when we cover fasting.)

I recommend you avoid snacking. Snacking makes it easier to overeat. If you’re slightly hungry, wait until you are hungry enough to eat a full meal. Commit to eating meals when you’re hungry, and it will be much easier to eat the right amount of food for your body.

You will develop an instinct for when and how much to eat, as your ancestors did. That’s why counting calories and macronutrients on paleo is usually a waste of time.

You may decide to prepare meals ahead of time for convenience. If so, set aside time on “prep day” (two to three times each week, the same day you shop) and pack some portable food containers for later.

The Shopping List

Here’s a helpful motto for any diet, including Paleo:

“We make our most important choices at the grocery store.”

If you make a great shopping list and buy the right foods, you can’t go wrong. If you don’t have the right foods at home, you’ll be tempted to eat out. If you have tempting, addictive, or problematic foods at home (or staring you in the face at work), you’ll have a hard time sticking to your chosen diet.

You need to get comfortable shopping at least two or three times per week for Paleo. That way you can stock up on fresh food without wasting any.

During each grocery store visit, buy approximately six or seven servings each of proteins, fats, and vegetables for yourself, or per person (if your family is also eating Paleo). Buy a few different types of each item. paleo is not about eating the same thing at every meal.

The list I made you below isn’t comprehensive, but it’s an excellent starting point. Start here and branch out.

Protein Examples

Fat Examples

Vegetable Examples

What About Fruits?

You may choose to eat any fruit as an occasional treat – that’s fine. Don’t include it at every meal. The healthiest fruits are high in phytonutrients and fiber, and have less fructose:

I recommend you eat fruits that are in season locally, but that is not a strict paleo rule – it’s just a good idea. If in doubt, check your local farmer’s market. If it’s in season locally, eat as much as you want! Lemons and limes are fine any time.

More Tips

If you don’t have much experience shopping for healthy food yet, spend most of your time walking around the outside of the grocery store. You don’t need to visit the shelves or frozen section often (frozen veggies are okay, though).

Simple seasonings like sea salt, fresh black pepper, and fresh or dried herbs are perfect for Paleo. With simple ingredients like butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs, meats, and vegetables, you can cook incredible meals.

The “Avoid” List

This part may be difficult, but I believe in you. You need to clear out the food you’ll no longer be eating. Pro tip: before you do this, discuss your intentions with your spouse and family.

If you live alone or your spouse is on board and doing paleo too, the trash can is the best option. Donate non-perishable items and canned goods to a food pantry.

If the trash can is a no-go, you need to store your paleo stash as far away as possible from any “foods to avoid.” Reserve a fridge shelf and cabinet for yourself, or better yet, put all the junk food in a cabinet where you don’t have to look at it. Speaking of junk food, here’s the “avoid” list:

If it has an expiration date five or ten years away or more than two or three ingredients, it’s likely processed food. If it contains preservatives, flavoring agents, dyes, or other chemical additives, it’s processed food.

Desserts. You can occasionally indulge in desserts, but it’s best not to keep them around the house. If you keep something at home all the time, it can become a part of your routine diet quickly.

Dairy. Why is dairy on the “avoid” list? There’s a 65-90% chance you’re lactose intolerant to some degree, depending on your ethnicity. If you can digest lactose, dairy is not all bad; grass-fed heavy cream is a good fit for Paleo, but you should stay away from skim milk and 2% milk.

Cheese. Cheese isn’t Paleo, but you can still eat some cheese on paleo with minimal consequences. If you do, try to get cheese made with A2 milk, or goat or sheep’s milk. Kefir and other probiotic dairy products with no sugar added are fine in moderation.

Alcohol. Alcohol certainly isn’t a paleo staple, but you could argue that 10,000 years ago our ancestors were brewing some beer [6]. (It was probably the earliest usage of grains by humans, so if grains fit anywhere in Paleo, it’s in booze form.) Like desserts, it’s best to indulge in alcohol only occasionally. Remember: your ancestors were not drinking a six-pack every night or downing two or three Martinis before dinner!

Coffee. Coffee is the most difficult one for some people. After all, it’s addictive! I can tell you that your ancestors didn’t get jacked up on coffee every morning, but that may not stop you. As a compromise, you can also switch to black tea or better yet, yerba mate.

Caffeine affects sleep pressure and reduces delta waves during sleep[7][8]. In our high-stress modern environments, it helps us maintain excessive workloads. Unlike sugary desserts, you can have your daily coffee and still succeed on paleo for the most part, but I hope you reconsider your usage. Remember that paleo is about replacing our thoughtless modern habits with healthier alternatives, by drawing inspiration from ancestral wisdom.

Make It Stick

To get results from a diet, you need to strictly follow the diet 90% of the time or more. That’s the 90% rule. You don’t have to hurt grandma’s feelings by turning down a slice of cake on your birthday!

If you eat three meals each day, you can eat about two non-Paleo meals per week. You can take a whole day off from eating paleo once every ten days. Or you can even take an entire week off, once every few months.

Don’t let the occasional indulgence wreck you. Keep portions reasonable. If there’s any food item you associate with loss of control, steer clear. Some people aren’t built for moderation. If that’s you, go for 100% compliance rather than failing at Paleo.

Consider tracking your success with a simple food journal or app. You don’t need to record everything you eat for the rest of your life, but keeping track for several weeks is educational.

The common saying that it takes three weeks to build a new habit is accurate, in my experience. If you make paleo diet a habit, and then a way of life, it will work out long-term. Stay at least 90% paleo for three weeks, and you can make it stick.

Takeaways

Optimizing the paleo Diet

Once you make eating paleo a habit and a lifestyle, here’s how you can dial it in for optimal results.

Eat Seasonally

Seasonal eating is ancestral. Modern agriculture enables us to eat the same things year round. If you eat seasonally, your diet will vary, unless you live near the equator. Getting into a seasonal rhythm is easy. You can always check your farmer’s market for ideas. If nothing else is in, animal products are in season year-round.

You’ll eat more carbohydrates in the summer, more leafy greens and salads in fall and spring, and more animal products in the winter. Winter is the perfect time for soups, stews, and one-pot slow cooker or Instant Pot meals.

Buy the Best Food

The paleo diet is flexible, so you don’t always need to buy the top of the line. Eating the best you can afford is fine.

But if you can, try to buy local organic produce and local, farm-raised, free range, grass-fed, and pastured meats and animal products. The animals are happier and healthier. These foods offer more nutritional benefit.

Try Uncommon Foods

Most of what we can buy at the grocery store isn’t very ancestral. Here are the top foods to help you live a more evolutionary lifestyle.

Seafood

Omega-3 fatty acids played a crucial role in the evolution of the first animal brains, over 600 million years ago. Since then, Omega-3 fatty acids and especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have enabled tremendous developments in human brains.

As neurosurgeon Dr. Jack Kruse points out, DHA is necessary to convert photons into electrons[9]. Without it, our brains and nervous systems do not function properly. Dr. Kruse recommends eating seafood daily. That’s real seafood, not supplements.

In our current grain-based industrial agriculture system, Omega-6 fatty acids are readily available, while Omega-3s are not. Most of our ancestors lived near the coast or other waterways, and ate seafood daily. If you follow their cue and eat more seafood, I guarantee your health and wellbeing will improve.

Fermented Foods

Lacto-fermentation is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Foods, usually vegetables, are rubbed with salt and then submerged in a container with water containing about 2.25% salt. After a few days, naturally occurring bacteria activates and colonizes the container.

The fermentation process takes anywhere from just over a week to a couple of months, depending on the vegetable. Then you can preserve the food in the fridge safely for months.

Fermented foods are probiotic and great for your gut health. You may be aware of sauerkraut, kimchi, and cucumber pickles, but there are hundreds more. It’s easy and inexpensive to make fermented foods at home. If you want to learn all about fermentation, check out these books by Sandor Ellix Katz: Wild Fermentation, and The Art of Fermentation.

Bone Broth

Make bone broth by simmering bones in water. Choose between beef, pork, and poultry (ideally grass-fed, organic, and pastured).

  1. Roast bones in the oven for 30 minutes on a pan at 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Cover in a pot with water and a splash of apple cider vinegar, then let them rest for 30 minutes
  3. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then lower the temperature
  4. Watch and skim the top of the broth for an hour
  5. Add salt, carrots, onions, celery, and herbs of your choice and simmer for 12-24 hours, stirring occasionally

Buy bones from a butcher or save and freeze leftover bones from meals. You can drink bone broth as-is or use it in other delicious recipes.

Organ Meats

People eat organ meats for their unique flavors and health benefits. Organ meats contain far more nutrients than the lean muscle meat most modern humans eat. Unlike supplements, organ meats are a Paleo-friendly way to increase your nutrient intake.

With organ meats, it’s especially important to source grass-fed and organic products. If you can get past the modern aversion to eating these nutritious morsels, here are some organ meats that are suitable for beginners:

Eat organ meats one or two times each week for a big boost in nourishment.

Fasting

When did you last skip a meal? Our ancestors fasted a lot, not always by choice. We are not built to eat three meals per day, every single day, for the rest of our lives.

If you fast regularly, it’s easier to avoid unwanted weight gain. Some people notice increased mental clarity and improved mood. Fasting has been shown to reverse type II diabetes and improve health markers in humans[10][11].

You don’t need to fast every day, but consider skipping breakfast, or breakfast and lunch, up to three or four times per week. Consider a longer fast of 3-7 days a few times each year, too. With longer fasts, you can dramatically reduce your cancer risk.

It’s normal to get hungry during a fast. Start easy and work your way up. During a fast, you can drink water. Avoid other liquids, and don’t consume any calories. Fasting is also a great hack for travel. If you lack access to the right foods, you can build in a fast period rather than eat empty calories and processed foods.

Listen to Your Body

I want you to avoid strictly counting calories and macronutrients most of the time. You need to develop the skills to listen to your body without obsessive counting.

If you are lifting weights and getting very sore, you may need more protein or carbohydrates. If you are hungry often, you may need more dietary fiber and fats – or you may need to eat more food overall. If you aren’t feeling hungry often, do more fasting.

Over time you can develop your innate instincts for what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat.

Common Mistakes On The paleo Diet

Here are some common paleo mistakes to avoid:

Fat doesn’t make you fat. Fat is an excellent, healthy source of energy. If you are struggling with hunger or finding the paleo diet too difficult, you’re probably not eating enough fat.

If you aren’t sure, try tracking your macronutrients for a few days. During this time adjust your fat calories upwards, to 50% or more of total calories. More fat content helps you lose weight and keep it off[12].

If you’re only eating lean meats, you may be eating excessive protein. For the most part, protein should not constitute more than a third (30-35%) of your calories on the paleo diet. Eating too much protein is expensive and pointless.

Don’t count calories and macros all the time, but if you aren’t sure, it can be an occasional useful tool to make sure you aren’t eating too little fat or too much protein. Free websites and apps like LoseIt, MyFitnessPal, and FitDay work well for getting an idea of your macronutrient ratios.

Too little fiber means bad news for gut health. Lots of people trying paleo eat large quantities of meat, and nothing else. Eat more fibrous veggies to stay full and feel better.

Salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world, with good reason. We need salt to survive and thrive. When you cut out processed foods, you also decrease your salt intake. Consider consuming 1-2 teaspoons of sea salt, Celtic salt, or Himalayan salt per day to get enough salt. If you exercise or sweat a lot, you may need even more.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is paleo right for my goals?

A: If you want to lose weight, tone up, or improve your health, paleo is a great choice.

Even if you have certain medical conditions, like diabetes, a Paleolithic diet can deliver great results[2][3]. Talk to a trustworthy doctor about doing paleo if you have a medical condition.

If you are an athlete, paleo can work, but you may need to do a lot of experimentation to optimize it. Give it a try and see what happens. You may benefit from hiring a coach or sports nutritionist.

Q: How do I know if this is working?

A: Weigh yourself one to four times per month. Measure your waistline near the navel with a cloth tape. Don’t obsess. Look for trends. Write it down and move on.

Notice how your clothes are fitting, and listen to feedback from people who know you. Track your energy level, mood, and sense of wellbeing. When you go to the doctor for an annual physical, look at the trend of numbers like blood glucose levels and blood pressure.

That’s how you gauge mid- and long-term success. If it isn’t working, the rest of this guide is full of tips for troubleshooting your issues to get better results.

Q: Can I “cheat” on the paleo Diet?

A: I wish I could erase this word from people’s vocabularies. Indulging is fine. Live your life. But don’t set aside a “cheat day” or even a “cheat meal.” It is a black-and-white perspective that leads to addictive patterns for a lot of people.

If you are being consistent and only straying away from the paleo diet 10% of the time or less, it’s not cheating. Keep the 90% rule in mind, and check your results. If your results aren’t good, be more consistent.

Q: What about supplements?

Supplements aren’t ancestral. They are the opposite of Paleo. Use supplements short-term or not at all. Healthy people don’t generally need any supplements.

If your diet isn’t providing you the nutrients you need, fix your food selection. Don’t use a band-aid in pill form. If you want a boost in nutrition, eat organ meats once or twice per week.

Q: What about juices and smoothies?

Juices and smoothies aren’t Paleo, but you can include them about 10% of the time if you enjoy them.

Q: What about sweet potatoes and squash?

Sweet potatoes and squash are starchy and are a product of agricultural civilization. Like fruits, they are okay for an occasional treat.

Q: Is 100% raw paleo a good idea?

No. Without even addressing safety issues, there is no real advantage to eating all your food raw. Cooking may have even contributed to brain growth and social development in early humans, in part by making more nutrients available and cutting down on time spent chewing and eating[13].

However, some foods are excellent in raw form. Examples include oysters, sashimi, and many vegetables. Enjoy fresh raw foods whenever you like. But there’s no need to go all-in.

Q: Are paleo substitutes for non-Paleo foods a good idea?

A: “Paleo” flours, sweets, and semi-processed snacks aren’t paleo staples. They never will be.

Feel free to indulge from time to time if you enjoy these things, but paleo isn’t about imitating non-Paleo foods with different ingredients. It’s about eating how our ancestors ate, and they didn’t eat almond flour pancakes or bacon cacao snacks from a bag.

Q: I can’t stick to the diet, what should I do?

Don’t give up and go back to a standard American diet. Remember why you decided to try paleo and double down. There is no point to getting down on yourself. Instead, remove obstacles and find support.

Focus on making good grocery store decisions, set aside time to shop and cook, and make a binder or favorites list with recipes you enjoy.

If you are indulging too often away from home, you may need to focus on better food prep. If you are indulging too often at home, you need to throw away, donate, or remove all foods from the “Avoid” list, and stop bringing those foods home. If someone else is offering you non-Paleo foods, practice saying “no thanks!”

If friends and family members aren’t going paleo with you, consider finding a support group online or on social media. There are dozens. It’s amazing how much difference having support and accountability from others makes!

Give it three more weeks, again following the diet 90% or more. After you make a habit, things will become easier. Stay away from “crash” diets and diets that require you to plan out every single meal in detail – they won’t work long-term either if you can’t follow Paleo. Relative to other diets, paleo is not difficult to follow. The grass isn’t greener on the other side.

If nothing else works for you, consider hiring an experienced coach or nutritionist. A good advisor can help you get motivated, and uncover blind spots. Even just one, two, or three sessions can be a great investment in your health.

References

[1] Weedkiller cancer ruling: What do we know about glyphosate? (2018, August 11). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45155788

[2] Whalen, K.A. et al. (2016). Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Balance in Adults. J Nutr, 146(6), 1217-1226. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.115.224048

[3] Whalen, K.A. et al. (2017). Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in Adults. J Nutr, 147(4), 612–620. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.116.241919

[4] Otten, J., Stomby, A., Waling, M. et al. (2018). A heterogeneous response of liver and skeletal muscle fat to the combination of a Paleolithic diet and exercise in obese individuals with type 2 diabetes: a randomised controlled trial. Diabetologia, 61(7), 1548. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-018-4618-y

[5] Otten, J. et al. (2016). Benefits of a Paleolithic diet with and without supervised exercise on fat mass, insulin sensitivity, and glycemic control: a randomized controlled trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes/metabolism research and reviews, 33(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/dmrr.2828

[6] Ghose, T. (2012, December 28). Alcohol: Social Lubricant for 10,000 Years. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/25855-stone-age-beer-brewery-discovered.html

[7] Landolt, H., Werth, E., Borbély, A.A., Dijk, D. (1995). Caffeine intake (200 mg) in the morning affects human sleep and EEG power spectra at night. Brain Research, 675, 67-74. https://doi.org/10.10160006-8993(95)00040-W

[8] Landolt, H., Dijk, D., Gaus, S.E., Borbély, A.A. (1995) Caffeine Reduces Low-Frequency Delta Activity in the Human Sleep EEG. Neuropsychopharmacology, 12, 229–238. https://doi.org/10.10160893-133X(94)00079-F

[9] Crawford, M.A., Broadhurst, C.L., Guest, M., Nagar, A., Wang, Y., Ghebremeskel, K., Schmidt, W.F.. (2013). A quantum theory for the irreplaceable role of docosahexaenoic acid in neural cell signalling throughout evolution. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 88(1), 5-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2012.08.005

[10] Furmli, S., Elmasry, R., Ramos, M., Fung, J. (2018). Therapeutic use of intermittent fasting for people with type 2 diabetes as an alternative to insulin. BMJ case reports 2018, bcr2017221854. https://doi.org/10.1136/bcr-2017-221854

[11] Golbidi, S., Daiber, A., Korac, B. et al. (2017). Health Benefits of Fasting and Caloric Restriction. Curr Diab Rep, 17, 123. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-017-0951-7

[12] Ebbeling, C.B., Feldman, H.A., Klein, G.L., et al. (2018). Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance: randomized trial. BMJ 2018, 363. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4583

[13] Atwell, L., Kovarovic, K., Kendal, J. (2015). Fire in the Plio-Pleistocene: the functions of hominin fire use, and the mechanistic, developmental and evolutionary consequences. J Anthropol Sci, 20, 93.

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