The Paleolithic diet is based on the idea of following a diet similar to your Paleolithic ancestors. It’s also a lifestyle that involves more time outside, increased exercise, and as a result, lower stress levels.
The paleo diet is simpler than other diets, easy to learn, excellent for wellness and preventing disease, and flexible for your goals and preferences.
This guide is for people who want to start a paleo diet soon and just need the basics on what to do and what not to do. Namely, it’s broken into two main sections:
Read on if you want to know the easiest way to start a paleo diet, described in the simplest way possible. If you want the technical science behind paleo or in-depth explanations, check out our other article: Paleo Diet 101.
12 Steps to Starting Paleo
These simple tips can give you a clear picture of what you need to do daily to succeed with paleo long-term, regardless of your goals.
#1: Eat High-Quality Meats, Eggs, and Seafood
On a paleo diet, you will meet your energy needs with whole, natural foods. Since you won’t be eating protein bars, meal replacement shakes, or sandwiches, your main sources of “clean” protein will be animal products. Eat a moderate-to-large serving of protein at every meal.
The top choices for paleo protein sources are pastured pork, grass-fed beef or bison, lamb, free-range pastured eggs (including chicken, duck, quail, and others), and wild-caught seafood like salmon, tuna, seabass, sardines, lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels, and clams.
#2: Eat Plenty of Healthy Fats
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat, and dietary cholesterol doesn’t raise your risk of cardiovascular disease . Healthy fats are a paleo staple because they are filling and nourishing to your body. Consume fats by the tablespoon and use plenty of minimally refined oils when you cook.
The best choices for healthy fats on a paleo diet are extra-virgin coconut oil, pasturized butter and ghee, extra-virgin olive oil, free-range pastured eggs, avocados, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, chestnuts, pistachios, pecans, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.
#3: Eat a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables will round out your daily paleo menu. Fruits and veggies provide micronutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. Paleo is relatively low-carb compared to most weight loss diets, but fruits are an appropriate paleo source of carbohydrates if you are an athlete or have the occasional sweet tooth.
When it comes to fruits, you should prioritize colorful, fibrous fruits like berries. Healthy paleo fruits include blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapefruit, watermelon, cantaloupes, pears, apples, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Make sure to get plenty of green and leafy vegetables. The best paleo veggies are spinach, broccoli, avocado, kale, asparagus, carrots, cabbage, celery, beets, garlic, and onions.
#4: Avoid Processed Foods
The most important part of paleo is to know what to eat. The second most important part is knowing what not to eat.
Processed foods are manufactured food products as opposed to whole foods. They usually come in convenient packages.
You’ll be able to identify processed foods by their expiration date (five or ten years out), number of ingredients (most food items with more than two or three ingredients are processed), and type of ingredients (added sugar, preservatives, flavoring agents, dyes, or other chemical additives are only found in processed foods).
#5: Avoid Sugar, Dairy, Grains, and Legumes
Sugar, dairy, grains, and legumes are not part of the paleo diet. That means you need to avoid milk and other dairy products, table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, bread, muffins, bagels, wheat, rice, corn, barley, oatmeal, quinoa, soy products, peanuts, beans, and all other grains and legumes.
#6: Avoid Trans Fats, Vegetable Oils, and Other Industrial Oils
Along with knowing which healthy fats to eat and cook with, you also need to know which fats to avoid. Unfortunately, most restaurants cook with unhealthy refined oils. If want to eat a paleo meal at a restaurant, try calling ahead to ask what oils they use before you show up and order.Your best bet is probably to try a vegetarian, vegan, or speciality paleo restaurant.
Manufactured fats like trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and any food that has trans fat content listed on the label), “vegetable” oils (sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil), and other industrial oils (like canola oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil, and peanut oil) are to be avoided whenever possible. Consuming trans fats works against all of the positive momentum towards a healthy lifestyle that a paleo diet provides.
#7: Learn to Prepare Food at Home
To stay with a paleo diet long term, you need to learn to cook at home. Even mail-order paleo meal prep services require some cooking at home.
You don’t need to make it fancy at first — you can start by learning to sauté meat and vegetables on the stove and cook food in your oven on a tray. Use natural fresh or dried herbs and spices to make your dishes more interesting.
#8: Set a Goal
Scientific research shows that if you set a health or fitness goal, you will get better results, even if you don’t fully accomplish the goal.
Paleo can help you feel better, become healthier, lose weight, fit into your clothes better, focus more, or increase your performance. Come up with a great goal, write it down, and revisit it from time to time.
#9: Build Paleo Habits
If you make your paleo diet a habit first, and then a way of life, it will work out long-term. Stay at least 90% paleo for three weeks, and it will only get easier from there.
It is true that we are defined by our habits, and that habits are difficult to create and easily broken. In order to cultivate healthier habits, they will need to be developed and nurtured.
If you want the paleo diet to stick, you need to make it a daily habit. For those of you that forming habits doesn’t come easy, it could mean pulling out a calendar or piece of pater and marking each day each day that you eat paleo until it become ingrained.
Since paleo is a restrictive diet, you may need to be more patient and give yourself a break if you fall off the wagon at times. It’s a common part of the progression and from temporary diet to permanent lifestyle.
#10: Understand Paleo Detox
Most people feel awesome as they transition to paleo, but some people get temporary physical symptoms within a few weeks of starting paleo. The most common symptoms are:
- carbohydrate cravings
- blood sugar swings
- disrupted sleep
- unstable mood
- mild headaches
- constipation and sluggish digestion
If you experience these issues, the two most likely causes are that you are releasing stored toxins as your body switches into fat-burning mode, or that your body is adjusting to your new healthy diet after years of sugary carbs and other processed foods.
If your symptoms are disrupting your life or do not go away on their own, you may need to adjust your approach to paleo. For example, eating too many vegetables after years of eating few veggies can cause constipation, and eating insufficient calories will result in fatigue. Expect that your symptoms will last 7 to 10 days after starting to eat paleo.
Talk to your doctor if you have serious side effects from starting the paleo diet. You may have blood sugar issues from insulin resistance, an undiagnosed food allergy, or another medical concern that you need to address.
#11: Listen to Your Body
Paleo is an ancestral diet, and your body is the product of millions of years of evolution After the initial transition period, you will become the best expert on what works for you — simply by listening to your body.
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, try fasting occasionally.
Over time you can develop your instincts for what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. A food journal or tracking app may come in handy for noticing how your diet impacts your energy levels and flagging potential deficiencies.
#12: Spend More Time Outside
Studies have shown that spending more time outside is linked to better health, lower mortality from all causes, and lower stress levels. Our ancestors 10,000 years ago were outside for most of the day, so part of the paleo lifestyle we are trying to achieve means being outdoors – including during exercise – is something to strive for whenever possible.
Moving your lifestyle outdoors can seem daunting at first, but you can start by taking walks outside and switching your sweat sessions on the treadmill to sprints through an outdoor track. You might even want to try walking barefoot on safe surfaces, like your garden or driveway, to reconnect your body to the earth. When you’re spending time outside, you’re boosting the amount of vitamin D that your body absorbs, which is essential for hormonal balance as well as nutrient absorption. If you’re not spending enough time getting sunshine, your paleo diet is incomplete.
Paleo Mistakes to Avoid
It’s better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than from personal experience. Here’s what not to do as you start your paleo journey.
#1: Don’t Be Overly Strict
To succeed at paleo, you don’t have to follow it 100% of the time, and you don’t have to be a social outcast. A healthy diet is just one part of a healthy lifestyle, and you’re allowed to live a little.
Plan to follow the paleo diet about 90% of the time. That means if you eat three meals a day, you can have two or three indulgent meals every week. Or you can take a full day out of every ten days to enjoy yourself without being strictly paleo. If you have social obligations or get stuck somewhere without paleo options, no problem.
#2: Indulge, Don’t Cheat
If you like the idea of going off paleo 10% of the time, don’t call it a “cheat meal” or “cheat day,” you are merely indulging a little. Indulging once in a while is allowed, if it’s done in moderation. “Cheating,” on the other hand, can lead to a mindset that isn’t very healthy and can snowball into something that no longer resembles paleo.
For your indulgent meals you should still pay attention to the quantity (for example: don’t spend the whole afternoon eating as much as you can at a buffet) and quality. If you’re looking for suggestions on healthy foods you can enjoy while indulging, try treating yourself to the wide variety of paleo-approved snacks. Dried fruits, homemade trail mix, tea, wine, beer, and spirits can all be had in moderation.
#3: Don’t Snack
It’s vital that you allow yourself to get hungry between meals, then eat just enough to satisfy your appetite. Eating unplanned snacks throws off your body’s appetite mechanisms and circadian clocks, and can cause leptin resistance, resulting in unwanted weight gain.
If you usually snack throughout the day and have trouble with energy or cravings, this advice is for you. Stick to two or three meals a day and don’t snack or nibble. After 4-6 weeks, your body’s hunger mechanisms will reset, and your metabolism will improve.
#4: Eat Enough Fats
No matter how many times I say “fat doesn’t make you fat,” some people will unconsciously fall back on decades of wrong information about dietary fat.
Cook with healthy fats and eat them at every meal. They’re good for your skin, brain, heart, nervous system, reproductive system, and hormone levels. Fats will provide you with sustained energy and are excellent for your health. As long as the fats you’re eating are healthy, it’s incredibly difficult to actually overeat fats.
#5: Eat Enough Salt
Sometime between 20,000 years ago and now, salt went from being a precious commodity to a so-called risk factor for high blood pressure. But new research calls into question the dogma that salt causes hypertension, and we still need salt to survive and thrive.
When you cut out processed foods on paleo, you automatically reduce your salt intake. Consider consuming 1-2 teaspoons of sea salt, Celtic salt, or Himalayan salt per day to get enough salt in your diet. If you exercise or sweat a lot, you may need more.
#6: Don’t Overeat Protein
People who are fat-phobic also tend towards overeating protein on paleo. But eating too much protein is expensive and pointless.
If you’re only eating lean meats, you may be consuming excessive amounts of protein. Mix it up with some fatty cuts of meat and get extra calories from healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables.
#7: Don’t Obsess Over Calories and Macros
Because other diets often require counting calories and macros constantly, some people come to paleo with an obsessive need to keep track of everything. If you aren’t one of the rare people who actually enjoys that, you can go ahead and stop.
As a rule of thumb, here’s a good breakdown for macronutrients to follow on paleo:
- Protein: 30-35% or less of total calories
- Fat: 30-35% or more of total calories
- Carbs: 10-40% of total calories
But it’s more important to listen to your body than to follow strict calories and macronutrients. Even if you decide to adjust your paleo diet occasionally, you don’t have to count calories and macros for life.
Wrapping Up: What to Expect
Now that you know the basics of how to start your paleo journey, I recommend you take immediate action to get things started. The next steps are up to you: you can start by making a shopping list or by cooking your first paleo meal today. Set a goal that motivates you and be sure to develop your paleo habits through consistency.
Within a few days or a week, you may experience a sense of wellbeing and better sleep. After a few weeks or a month of paleo eating, most people find their clothes fit better, their energy levels are up, and their cravings have disappeared.
Remember that paleo is a lifestyle, not a short-term diet. If you want more info on the paleo diet and lifestyle, here are some handy resources:
- Paleo Diet 101
- Paleo Diet Food List
- 5 Steps to Success with Paleo
- Paleo Diet for Weight Loss: Can It Be An Effective Tool?
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