The Paleo Diet for Weight Loss: Can It Be An Effective Tool?

If you want to lose weight on the paleo diet, first you should be clear on  how it works.

In this article you’ll learn why paleo is an excellent choice for fat loss, the key steps to success if you want to lose weight with paleo, what to expect, and how to fix the  paleo fat loss pitfalls you may encounter.

What is the Paleo Diet?

The paleo diet, or Paleolithic diet, is based on eating the way our ancestors ate prior to modern agriculture.

In contrast to the Western diet, people on the paleo diet eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, and seeds. It excludes bacon and other cured meats, processed or sugary foods, cheese, and other more recent culinary inventions.

Experts debate whether or not it’s actually possible to recreate ancient ancestral eating patterns, but the paleo diet is a fantastic way to improve your health, increase your energy levels, and enhance your mental and physical performance.

Is The Paleo Diet a Good Choice if Your Goal Is Strictly Fat Loss?

In a word, yes.

Eating paleo is a 1-2 punch for weight loss and wellness. The macronutrient content of the paleo diet leads to decreased caloric intake and feeling full without counting calories, resulting in weight loss. Meanwhile, the food selection lowers your blood sugar, improves your insulin sensitivity, and reduces inflammation in your body.[1, 2, 3, 4]

Here’s why eating paleo contributes to weight loss:

  • It’s high in protein, which boosts your metabolism.[5]
  • It’s relatively low in carbs, which helps your body burn more fat.[6, 7, 8]
  • It’s high in healthy dietary fats, which nourish your body and prevent hunger pangs.[9]
  • You don’t eat any processed foods or sugar on the paleo diet.

The big picture? You’ll not only slim down on paleo, you’ll also decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia (all of which are linked to insulin resistance and inflammation).[10, 11, 12]

However, it’s vital to remember that paleo is a lifestyle, not a temporary solution or quick fix for being overweight. Research shows that the majority of people who lose weight gain it back within a few years because they go back to old habits.[13]

While the positive results and health benefits of paleo can add up soon after beginning the diet, you need to stay paleo long-term to make it work for you. The upside is that if you stick with paleo and listen to your body, you can keep your hard-earned results.

8 Steps to Success for Losing Weight on Paleo

#1: Think of It as a Lifestyle Change

Many people are conditioned by social media, marketing, and diet fads to expect rapid results. As a result, they tend to jump from one diet to another, especially when things get difficult. The best way to overcome that tendency is to unplug from promotional material and instead build a positive mindset that allows you to stick with the paleo diet long-term.

While it’s true that you need to reduce calories and increase your activity levels to lose weight, paleo also rebalances the hormones that control your hunger and metabolism. Depending on your health history and your relationship with food, this process can take time.

By turning off some genes and activating others, paleo changes the way your body functions and handles food.[14, 15, 16, 17, 18] The process of adapting to paleo can take a few weeks to a few months, after which point you’ll start to feel better as you adjust physically and mentally to the diet.

Remember that the long-term benefits and rewards of going paleo only happen if you think of it as a lifestyle.

#2: Adopt the Paleo Mindset

The paleo mindset emphasizes foods that are high-quality, dense in nutrients, and local and seasonal whenever possible.

Here’s what to look for when you’re shopping or planning meals:

  • Choose organic and non-GMO if you have the option.
  • Eat colorful plant foods for their antioxidants and phytonutrients.
  • Add health-promoting ingredients like coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, bone broth, and organ meats to dishes whenever you can.
  • Emphasize fruits, nuts, seeds, and eggs in the spring, summer, and early fall.
  • Focus on animal proteins, animal fats, leafy greens, and root vegetables in late fall and winter.

Farmer’s markets are the perfect way to get high-quality, nutrient-dense, local food. If you don’t have access to farmer’s markets, this Seasonal Food Guide is an excellent resource to learn what’s local to your area this season.

It’s not as simple or easy as grabbing processed heat-and-eat food off the shelf, but this approach to eating pays long-term health dividends. However, beware of “grab-and-go” options that claim to be paleo–it’s nearly impossible to find true paleo options, since most packaged products contain preservatives.

#3: Adjust Your Portion Sizes

When it comes to weight loss, I don’t recommend counting calories on the paleo diet most of the time.An easier (and less stressful) approach is to manage your portion sizes.

When you start paleo for fat loss, eat one to two “palm-sized” portions of protein per meal. That means each protein serving should be the approximate width and thickness of your hand.

Got it? Now, fill the rest of your plate with vegetables. Congratulations, you’ve just designed a healthy paleo meal!

You can also eat one to two servings of fruits and nuts per day. A serving of fruit is one piece of fruit or a handful of berries, and a serving of nuts is a palmful of nuts.

If you feel a need to snack, it’s better to skip the snack and eat a little more at your next meal. If you find yourself requiring frequent snacks, you aren’t eating enough at meals–go ahead and add some more protein and veggies.

I recommend that you eat three meals a day, but it’s all right to eat two meals per day if you prefer. And while fasting works well, you’re better off saving it until you hit a weight loss plateau (more on that below).

As opposed to counting calories–which is time-consuming and imprecise–you can easily eat the perfect amount by managing your portions and adjusting them when necessary.

#4: Meal Prep is Your Best Friend

Preparing meals ahead of time is vital for paleo success, especially if your goal is to lose fat. If you find yourself getting stuck without healthy paleo meals, you’ll eventually slip up and eat non-paleo foods.

Here’s how you can become a meal prepping master:

  • Maintain an ongoing grocery list to shop for paleo foods one to three times per week
  • Set aside at least an hour twice per week to cook and store food
  • Make foods in batches on the stove, in the oven on a tray, or in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, and mix and match as needed
  • Keep different paleo-friendly sauces and seasonings on hand for variety so you don’t get bored
  • Use glass storage containers to store your food in the fridge or freezer
  • Bring your food along in a lunchbox or cooler whenever you need to

While the task of meal prepping a couple of times a week can seem daunting, it’s actually the secret to an easy, successful paleo lifestyle. If you make staple items like meat and vegetables in large batches, all you have to do is season, heat, and eat – done.

#5: Say No When Necessary

It’s fine to temporarily go off the paleo diet a few times a month for social gatherings or special occasions. But knowing how to say “no, thanks” is a crucial skill to ensure you lose fat and get the positive results you’re looking for on paleo.

It’s wise to practice your response ahead of time in case you’re offered bagels in the break room, donuts in the office, pizza on game night, or cake at a celebration. You just need to explain that you’re committed to the paleo diet and aren’t interested, but that you appreciate the offer.

Not only will you feel more confident in sticking with your decisions, you’re less likely to offend well-meaning people who aren’t on the paleo diet.

#6: Find Replacements For Your Favorite Non-Paleo Foods

Just because you’re on the paleo diet doesn’t mean you can’t reward yourself with enjoyable textures and flavors.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Blend berries or other frozen fruits into smoothies for a cold, sweet treat.
  • Purchase or make cauliflower “rice” in a food processor to use instead of real rice.
  • Use almond or coconut flour in place of grain flours.
  • Drink almond milk or coconut milk for dairy cravings.
  • Snack on almond butter or cashew butter instead of peanut butter.
  • Eat 100% dark chocolate or cacao nibs instead of milk chocolate.

Unlike conventional ingredients, paleo substitutes can satisfy your cravings while boosting your health, allowing you to adhere to paleo and enjoy yourself at the same time.

#7: Add In Exercise

To lose weight on paleo, exercise is mandatory. Physical activity isn’t as important as your diet (you can never outrun a poor diet) but it’s still a key factor.

Any physical activity is better than being sedentary, but your paleolithic ancestors didn’t watch TV while walking on an indoor treadmill. As with food, you can draw paleo exercise inspiration from your ancestral heritage.

Here are the top paleo-approved activities for burning fat and getting in shape:

  • Barefoot walking or hiking in nature
  • Swimming outside
  • Barefoot running on natural surfaces like dirt or grass
  • Primal bodyweight, dumbbell, or kettlebell movements outside barefoot

Primal movements include jumping, rolling, tumbling, climbing, crawling, carrying, pressing, pulling, squatting, hinging, swinging, wrestling, throwing, and playing.

If you’re currently sedentary, begin gradually. Try to move daily or go for a daily walk, with one or two structured sessions each week. And if you aren’t used to barefoot activity, you can ease in with zero-drop shoes or Vibram toe shoes.

As you become accustomed to regular exercise, your comfort zone will expand, and you can increase the frequency and intensity of your activity.

#8: Factor in Sleep and Stress

No matter how well you follow the paleo diet or how much you exercise, insufficient sleep and high chronic stress levels can derail you from your weight loss goals. Stress and poor-quality sleep can increase your hunger levels, raise your blood sugar, ruin your motivation, and even damage your organs and destroy your brain cells.[19, 20, 21, 22, 23]

That’s why it pays to be mindful about sleep and stress. In the short term, if you’re not sleeping well or if you’re under a lot of stress, go easy on yourself. For example, it’s wise to catch up on sleep instead of exercising if you’re tired.

But if you find that you’re frequently sleep-deprived or stressed out, it’s imperative that you solve these issues to succeed in your paleo lifestyle.

To sleep better, avoid electronics and bright lights a few hours before bed, stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule that allows you to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and maintain a consistent bedtime routine.

In addition to removing negative influences and toxic people from your life, methods like meditation, deep breathing, sharing intimate touch, and time outside in nature can reduce the impact of stress on your body[24, 25, 26, 27]

The good news is that you’ll not only have an easier time reaching your health goals, you’ll also be more productive and effective at work if you get enough sleep and manage your stress levels.

What to Expect During Your Paleo Fat Loss Journey

Now that you know the most effective ways to approach your paleo lifestyle, here’s what to expect on your fat loss journey.

Everyone’s experience is different, but you can look for these landmarks to confirm you’re on the right track.

Cravings Disappear

For many people, food cravings are the biggest obstacle to eating differently. Cravings have several causes:

  • If you’re insulin resistant, your brain, which consumes 20% of your body’s daily energy, may demand extra sugar to get through the day.[28]
  • If you use food as a treat or a way to reduce stress, your body makes extra dopamine or serotonin to reward you when you eat enjoyable foods.[29]
  • Your culture and socially-learned habits also have a large influence on your preferences.[30]

Luckily, you can retrain your brain and body to have a different relationship with food. This process isn’t instantaneous, but over time your brain will become better at using fat for fuel and you’ll also begin to perceive paleo foods as rewarding and enjoyable.

You will notice reductions in cravings in the first week or two, and your cravings will most likely be gone within a month. Scientific research shows that if you make it past this initial period, your chances of lasting success increase dramatically.[31]

It’s not uncommon to experience detox symptoms when you first begin the paleo diet. Headaches, fatigue, and mental fuzziness can occur when you shift to a cleaner diet. Drinking plenty of water, spending time in a sauna, and outside time in the sun can help. But if you experience these issues for longer than ten days, speak to your doctor for medical advice to be on the safe side.

New Food and Taste Preferences

Along with disappearing cravings, you’ll notice yourself developing new preferences for paleo foods as you progress on your paleo fat loss journey.

Your food preferences are based on a complex relationship between your brain, body, and gut. While it may seem food flavor plays a big role in your preferences, your body also sends signals to your brain during digestion based on the nutrient content of your meals.[32]

That means that the longer you eat healthier foods, the more you learn to appreciate them.[33] Instead of bread, processed snacks, and sugary beverages, you’re more likely to look forward to eggs, green vegetables, and fermented drinks after a few weeks on paleo. In the meantime, it helps to have faith that your body will adapt!

Weight Loss

Because your hormone production and metabolism require some time to adjust to paleo, don’t expect dramatic overnight weight loss results from eating paleo.

But if you weigh in once per week, you’ll probably notice consistent weight loss results after one to two weeks. Your initial weight loss results come from losing so-called “water weight” as you cut out processed carbs, sodium-laden prepared snacks, and other unhealthy foods.

A common pattern I’ve observed when people first begin paleo is that their face shows noticeable changes after two weeks. As you lose water weight and adapt to burning fat, your face is one of the first areas to slim down. Don’t be surprised if people compliment your appearance or ask you what’s changed.

Depending on how much weight you plan to lose, you’ll probably notice reductions in your waistline within the first month of paleo. Your clothing will fit more loosely, and you may be able to wear outfits you haven’t worn in a couple of years. That’s because paleo is highly effective at reducing the unhealthy belly fat that’s associated with a higher risk of heart disease and premature death–so it’s a win-win for better health and a slimmer body.[34, 35, 36]

It’s also common for people to achieve progressively better results over time for the first three to six months on paleo. As your body becomes more efficient at using fat for fuel, your activity levels increase, and your appetite changes, your paleo results should continue to improve.

Fixing Common Pitfalls When Eating Paleo

These are common mistakes or misconceptions people make on the paleo diet, paired with solutions you can use to avoid or overcome them.

Be Realistic About Your Paleo Commitment

Some people find paleo easy, but it does require a major commitment to avoiding foods like desserts, alcohol, and the majority of meals you’re likely to be offered socially.

To keep yourself honest, follow the 90% rule. As long as you stay 90% paleo, you can expect good results. That means if you eat three meals each day, you can eat two to three non-paleo meals per week, but be sure your portion sizes are reasonable.

Studies show that people’s memory for recalling what they’ve eaten isn’t very accurate. You can consider short-term food journaling or using a food-logging app like FitDay or LoseIt to check in with yourself, especially if you aren’t seeing the results you’re hoping to get.[37]

Put Hunger Pangs in their Place

Contrary to popular belief, hunger isn’t your enemy if your goal is fat loss. The truth is that if you plan to lose weight, you need to develop a healthy relationship with hunger pangs.

Here are examples of when you should feel hungry:

  • Between scheduled meals
  • When you reduce your portion sizes
  • If you alter your meal schedule (for example, fasting, which is discussed below)

Try this mantra to remind you that hunger is normal and acceptable during fat loss: “Hunger is what fat loss feels like.” You can reframe hunger in your mind from being an uncomfortable sensation to avoid, and instead regard occasional hunger pangs as a sign that you’re on track for weight loss.

However, if you’re hungry all the time, you probably aren’t eating enough. You should eat enough healthy, whole, paleo-friendly foods at each meal to get full without stuffing yourself. Drinking plenty of fresh, cold spring water between meals also helps.

Mind These Macronutrient Mishaps

Most people achieve fantastic results by eating whatever they want from the paleo menu (meat, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds), but not always.

If you eat too many carbs or too much protein, your weight loss results could be unsatisfactory. Paleo technically isn’t a low-carb diet like the keto or Atkins diets, but eating fewer carbs is a great way to enhance your weight loss results. That’s why you should only eat one to two servings of fruit per day.

If you’re insulin resistant, too much protein spikes your blood sugar and slows fat loss.[38] By following my recommendation of one to two palm-sized portions of protein at each meal, your protein intake will be around 20-30% of your overall calories. More than that can halt your results.

If you’re eating too many carbs or too much protein, you can fix the issue by reducing your fruit and protein portions and adding more healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and nuts to take their place.

Food Quality Matters

Along with balancing your hormones and helping you lose weight, many of the long-term health benefits of the paleo diet come from eliminating toxic chemicals and by-products found in modern foods.

Here’s what you avoid by eating fresh, high-quality foods:

  • Preservatives
  • Hormones
  • Antibiotics
  • Omega-6 fatty acids from grain-fed animals, which cause inflammation in your body[39]
  • Glyphosate (Roundup), which causes cancer, destroys your gut bacteria, and weakens your connective tissue[40, 41, 42]
  • Microplastics like Bisphenol A, which is linked to reduced sperm count and birth defects[43, 44]

That’s why it’s essential to eat non-GMO, organic, locally, and seasonally whenever possible. It’s not as cheap as eating packaged, canned, or preserved foods, but you’ll save money on long-term healthcare costs.

What to Do When You Hit a Plateau

Depending on your weight loss goals, you may hit a plateau before you cross the finish line. A plateau occurs when your results slow down, or progress stops altogether.

The most important thing to remember is that plateaus are a normal part of weight loss, and they aren’t a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. Your body evolved to adapt for survival, meaning it seeks to preserve fat stores and prevent weight loss whenever possible.

If you hit a plateau, begin by avoiding snacks between meals and ensuring you’re following the paleo diet at least 90% of the time. If you aren’t, you need to get back on track before you try other plateau-busting methods.

Here are the best ways to get through a plateau and reach your fat loss goals:

  • Reduce your carbohydrate portion sizes
  • Stop using sweeteners, including paleo-friendly ones
  • Eliminate dried fruits and other calorie-dense carb sources
  • Eat fewer paleo treats
  • Cut out roasted and salted nuts
  • Add one to two additional exercise sessions per week
  • Experiment with fasting 12-20 hours several times per week, consuming no calories during that time, to balance your hormones, further reduce your body weight, improve your cholesterol levels, and lower your triglycerides [45, 46, 47]
  • Go from three meals to day to two meals per day
  • Temporarily eliminate carbs altogether to lose the last few pounds of body fat
  • As a last resort, you can use a calorie-counting app and reduce your calories by 10-30% to kick-start fat loss again

Try combining one or two methods at a time to break through the plateau. Be sure to save others for the future, in case your results slow down again later on.

The Bottom Line

Maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong journey, not a destination. That said, paleo is one of the best ways to trim up, improve your health, and reduce your risk of chronic disease.

By adopting the necessary mindset and behaviors, maintaining realistic expectations, and avoiding common mistakes, you can achieve phenomenal fat loss results on the Paleolithic diet.

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