What Is the Paleo Diet?
In 1973, before the Paleo diet even existed, Theodosius Dobzhansky unknowingly described it in a nutshell: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The Paleo diet is based on the principle that human beings evolved over hundreds of millions of years to thrive on certain types of foods. Since the Agricultural Revolution, however, the human diet has been changing faster than our bodies can evolve to match it. We’re built to eat meat. We’re built to eat vegetables. We’re not built to eat Oreos and Wonderbread.
Feeding a human a Twinkie is like putting gasoline in a diesel engine: it’s just the wrong kind of fuel. Since products of modern agriculture (like grains, legumes, dairy and all processed foods) are relatively recent additions to the human diet, we haven’t evolved to digest them well, and we get sicker and sicker the more we try to live on them. Modern “diseases of civilization” – diabetes, heart disease, obesity – are the results of constantly eating highly processed food products that our bodies simply weren’t designed to handle. Paleo is a return to the right kind of fuel: fresh, unprocessed foods that your body has adapted to thrive on.
The Paleo diet isn’t a crash diet that you endure for three weeks before diving back into your old eating habits. It does help many people lose weight, but it’s not only about weight loss. It also isn’t a mindless attempt to imitate some hypothetical “caveman” – shoes, central heating, and regular showers are all encouraged! Instead, the Paleo diet plan is an attempt to look beyond unhealthy modern food culture, and reap the benefits of eating the foods humans were built to eat.
For a more detailed description of the theory behind the Paleo diet, check out What is the Paleo Diet?.
Benefits of the Paleo diet
Diet is fundamental to good health. By emphasizing foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, a Paleo diet plan can help your body help itself with almost any physical problem.
One of the most common benefits is weight loss. Obesity is a uniquely modern problem, fueled by cheap, highly palatable processed foods that steamroller over your body’s natural desires and appetites, encouraging overconsumption of foods high in calories, but low in nutritional value. Maintaining a reasonable food intake is painful and difficult: who can actually eat just one serving of potato chips and then put the bag away? Adopting a Paleo diet, on the other hand, returns you to a type of food culture that supports a lean, athletic body without feeling hungry and deprived all the time. When your body isn’t overwhelmed with sugar and artificial flavors, it has a very effective appetite regulation system. Calorie counting is discouraged, but Paleo meals are so filling that most people have no trouble sticking to a reasonable amount of food. Since this way of eating doesn’t involve any extreme restriction, a Paleo diet plan supports sustainable and healthy weight loss.
The Paleo diet also helps people suffering from a variety of chronic diseases. Many people with digestive problems (such as Chrohn’s disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome) are pleasantly surprised by how much their symptoms improve with a Paleo diet, sometimes with just one or two tweaks to tailor it specifically to their needs. In fact, some people didn’t even know they had digestive problems until they started a Paleo diet and realized how much better they felt – this is especially true of people who didn’t know they were sensitive to gluten until they stopped eating it.
Other people have found that a Paleo diet helps with conditions as widely varied as acne, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, autism, and mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. A nutrient-dense Paleo diet also supports the immune system in general, leaving you less vulnerable to whatever bug is going around the office this week. Essentially, the Paleo diet unlocks your body’s amazing capacity to heal itself, leaving you less dependent on pills and doctors, and free to spend your days off on the beach instead of in bed.
What can I Eat?
In general, the Paleo diet encourages all foods that are non-toxic and nutrient dense. A toxin is anything that will harm you when you eat it – gluten, for example, is a toxin because it’s very irritating to the digestive tract. Toxic foods that you should avoid include grains (wheat, corn, rye, oats, and other cereal grains), seed oils (canola oil, soybean oil, and other seed oils) and legumes (lentils, soy, beans, peanuts, and other legumes). These foods were added to the human diet during the Agricultural Revolution, which is a long time ago in history textbooks, but very recent in terms of evolution. Since our guts haven’t had the chance to adapt to these foods yet, we’re better off avoiding them.
A nutrient-dense food has high levels of vitamins and minerals. Nutrient-dense foods that are encouraged on the Paleo diet include meat (preferably from grass-fed animals or wild-caught fish), eggs, healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, non-starchy vegetables of all kinds, and fruits in moderation. The Paleo Food List goes into more detail about the kinds of foods allowed on a Paleo diet plan.
Since the Paleo diet community is so large and various, different Paleo diet plans emphasize different foods. Some focus on a high-protein diet with adequate fat; others promote a high-fat diet with adequate protein. Carbohydrates are hotly debated: while the traditional Paleo diet is a very low-carb diet that excludes starchy vegetables, some Paleo diet plans allow “safe starches” (starches that do not contain toxins) like sweet potatoes or even white rice.
Certain foods are also “gray areas” – some encourage them, and others don’t. Dairy is one example of this. The original Paleo diet guide by Loren Cordain forbids all dairy, but more lenient Paleo-style diets (for example, Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint Diet) allow dairy in moderation, especially raw and unpasteurized dairy from grass-fed animals.
Despite these variations, however, Paleo diet guides have more similarities than differences – at the end of the day, we’re all shopping in the same 10% of the grocery store. Every Paleo diet plan is based on understanding what humans have evolved to eat, and focusing on nutrient-dense foods while avoiding modern toxins: enjoy a delicious variety of meats and vegetables, and leave the grains for the birds.
A Day in the (Paleo) Life
Many people find the thought of a day without wheat impossible. No Cheerios? No PB&J? What can you eat? But eating Paleo doesn’t have to be frustrating or complicated. The key is to focus on enjoying your new menu and how great it makes you feel, rather than thinking about the restrictions. The menu below is an example of what you might eat in a day:
- Breakfast: an omelet with three eggs with some leftover salmon from last night’s dinner, onions, peppers, and spices. Omelets are a great Paleo breakfast because they’re quick and easy to throw together, and a convenient way to use almost any vegetables you have in your fridge.
- Lunch: a base of mixed greens topped with red peppers, carrots, avocado and shrimp, with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some balsamic vinegar on top. For a heartier lunch, you could also add a bowl of vegetable soup.
- Snacks: mixed nuts, beef jerky, or a piece of fruit.
- Dinner: a hamburger wrapped in a lettuce leaf, with a side of sautéed mushrooms, broccoli, and bok choy. If you aren’t on very low-carb Paleo diet plan, homemade sweet potato fries would also be a classic side.
- Dessert: a handful of fresh or frozen berries, or a small amount of dark chocolate with some nuts.
For even more Paleo meal plan ideas, check out the 1 Month Paleo Diet Menu.
Getting Started with Paleo
So you’ve decided to give Paleo a shot. What next?
The first step is some serious self-reflection: are you more comfortable easing into major changes, or do you prefer to jump in headfirst? Since starting a paleo diet is such a major life change, making the change in a way that you’re comfortable with will set you up for a much smoother transition, and put you on the path to long-term success.
If you’re happier making gradual changes, you can start in one of two ways. The first way is to focus on one meal every day (for example, you might keep your old diet for breakfast and lunch, but switch to a completely Paleo dinner). After a few weeks, expand to two meals a day, and finally to all three. The second way is to focus on replacing just one food group (for example, you could start by eliminating gluten from your diet). After a week or two, move on to the next until you’ve completely switched over to the Paleo Food List.
These methods give you a chance to adjust slowly, but some people are more comfortable ripping off the Band-Aid all at once. If this is you, take a deep breath and print out a copy of the Paleo Food List. Then get a big trash bag and purge your kitchen of everything that isn’t on it. If you can’t stand the idea of waste, donate anything unopened to a food bank – Cheerios and goldfish crackers might not be health food, but they’re much, much better than going hungry. If you’re the only person in your household who’s making the switch to Paleo, ask your family to keep all their non-Paleo foods in a special drawer (or section of the fridge, or shelf in the pantry). As far as you’re concerned, that food doesn’t exist.
Whether you decide to switch gradually or all at once, your shopping list will almost certainly change. The <<PALEO SHOPPING LIST>> is a great guide to help you navigate the grocery store – as you become more comfortable with the Paleo diet, you won’t need to rely on it, but for the first few weeks it can prevent a lot of confusion.
You don’t need any special equipment for the Paleo diet, but if you’re used to living on takeout and Lean Cuisine, you’ll need to get a decent set of kitchen utensils. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money – you can find pots and pans for a few dollars at Goodwill, and even decent knives don’t have to break the bank. The most important kitchen tools for Paleo cooking are:
- A frying pan (any size, although if you’re cooking for more than one person you’ll probably want a fairly large one)
- A medium-sized pot, with a lid
- A cutting board
- A decent chef’s knife
- A couple of paring knives
- A roasting pan (the tinfoil ones are fine – you can easily wash and reuse them)
- A spatula and ladle (these often come as a set)
- Food containers (Tupperware or something similar), if you plan to bring lunch to work
Gourmet chefs have much more than this – and if you have the money to splurge on really nice kitchen equipment, go for it! – but this is all you really need to start cooking Paleo meals. Once you learn to cook, you can add more utensils as you want them.
Paleo Cooking Tips
Cooking Paleo doesn’t have to be complicated. Many Paleo food blogs include mouthwatering pictures of beautifully arranged meals, but don’t feel discouraged if your dinners don’t look like magazine photos.
If you have about $20 to spare, the easiest way of getting started with Paleo cooking is with a slow-cooker. As the name implies, a slow-cooker lets you throw in a big cut of meat and some vegetables in the morning, turn it on, and then come home in the evening to a delicious dinner ready to eat. You can put almost any kind of meat into it (the exception is fish: most types of fish are too delicate for slow-cooking), without having to worry about oven safety or complicated cooking techniques.
Once you’re interested in moving beyond the slow-cooker, try mastering one of these meat-cooking methods per week: the basic techniques are fairly simple, and once you feel confident in the kitchen, you can start to experiment and add your own personal touches to your meals. Veggies can be steamed, sautéed, stir-fried, or just enjoyed raw. When you’re cooking, remember to use oils on the Paleo Food List (not vegetable oils like canola or peanut oil) – coconut oil is best for higher heats, while olive oil is more appropriate as a salad dressing.
Basic cooking methods will give you food that’s nutritious and fairly tasty, but to take any Paleo meal from acceptable to awesome, look no further than your spice rack. All kinds of spices are encouraged on the Paleo diet: try garlic and basil for a foolproof combination with almost any meat, or branch out into more exciting ethnic flavors (curry powder and paprika for an Indian dinner, or ginger for an Asian-inspired stir fry) for a new twist on basic foods. Experiment with different combinations – a fun challenge is to bring home a new spice every week, and figure out a way to use it before your next grocery trip.
Paleo Success Tips
Success with the Paleo diet takes a lot of effort. It can be a huge change from your previous eating habits, and it requires a serious commitment, especially if your friends and family aren’t supportive of your efforts. Family dinners and eating out can be very draining until everyone gets used to your new Paleo diet plan. So how can you stick to your guns without going insane?
- Remember: you are the only person who decides what you eat. If someone starts to pressure you to eat something that isn’t on your plan, a simple “No thank you” followed by a change of subject is perfectly acceptable. If they keep pushing, it’s because they’re being rude and invasive, not because you’re being unreasonable.
- Don’t try to explain everything. Some people just aren’t ready to change their diet habits, and by justifying your actions, you’re giving them the opening to argue with you. Rather than getting into an involved argument about whether grains are harmful or not, just say, “I’m an adult; I choose to eat this way, and I’d rather not debate it,” and change the subject.
- Set yourself up for success. For the first few weeks, sticking to a Paleo diet will require a lot of planning ahead. Write down your grocery lists, schedule time for grocery shopping and food preparation, and use the 1 Month Paleo Diet Menu to help you stay on track.
- Keep it interesting. Even the most motivated and enthusiastic Paleo dieter would get bored after a week straight of chicken and broccoli. Try new recipes, and enjoy re-discovering the tastes of real food.
- Don’t beat yourself up. If you slip up, think about the situation: how could you have prevented it? What can you do to avoid that kind of situation in the future? Then let it go – it happens to everyone. You know that one piece of broccoli won’t make up for a lifetime of Big Macs, so how could one piece of cake ruin a lifetime of healthy Paleo food? Learn from your mistakes and move on.
One of the great parts of the Paleo diet is the company – people on a Paleo diet plan are usually very friendly and helpful to newcomers, and happy to share whatever lessons they’ve learned from their own experiences. Some of the most useful general websites and blogs are:
- The Paleo Diet is the website associated with the book The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain’s original Paleo diet plan.
- Mark’s Daily Apple – the Paleo site with the highest traffic, Mark’s Daily Apple is dedicated to ancestral health and wellness, including Paleo food, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.
- The Daily Lipid – Chris Masterjohn, the author of The Daily Lipid, provides a highly scientific take on the Paleo diet. The blog isn’t light reading by any means, but if you have an afternoon to dedicate to the latest in ancestral health research, it’s a fascinating treasure trove of information.
- The Perfect Health Diet – the Perfect Health diet is a slight variation of the Paleo diet that allows more starches and slightly less protein. Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet analyze scientific studies from an evolutionary perspective, and give practical advice (and occasionally delicious recipes).
- Chris Kresser, an alternative medicine practitioner from California, blogs about ancestral and evolutionary health topics from the perspective of a practicing physician.
- Paleo Parents – a godsend for any parents trying to help their children transition to a Paleo diet, this blog provides family-oriented Paleo resources. The authors have even written a children’s cookbook, Eat Like a Dinosaur!
- Whole 9 Life – run by Paleo power couple Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, Whole 9 Life is dedicated to helping everyone, everywhere, eat a whole, Paleo diet. The Whole30 is the Hartwigs’ Paleo bootcamp – strict, no-excuses Paleo for 30 days straight.
- Robb Wolf’s site includes a wealth of information on Paleo diet, lifestyle, and fitness, written by a former athlete and student of Loren Cordain. Robb also publishes a podcast.
- Balanced Bites, a website dedicated to Paleo eating in the real world, also includes recipes and a regular podcast.
- Paleo Diet Lifestyle publishes not only articles on Paleo nutrition, but also mouthwatering recipes.
On top of general Paleo resources, the Paleo community has enough recipe sites to keep even the most adventurous chefs happy.
- Chowstalker lets you search hundreds of Paleo recipes by ingredients, and filter them by allergies and other categories.
- Nom Nom Paleo, a blog full of mouthwatering pictures, documents the food adventures of a Paleo family.
- Paleo plan has options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, searchable by ingredients.
There are so many great Paleo recipe blogs that it’s impossible to list them all; if you don’t find what you’re looking for, a quick Google search for “[recipe name] Paleo” will almost always turn up something. You can even try this with foods that traditionally include flour, beans, or other ingredients not on the Paleo diet plan: Paleo cooks are very creative and love inventing Paleo versions of cookies, bread, and other baked goods.
One last resource is Paleohacks, a free forum where anyone following (or interested in) the Paleo diet can post and answer questions. If you have a very specific question that isn’t answered in any blog article, or you just want to meet and talk to like-minded people, Paleohacks is a great place to hang out.
A Paleo diet guide can help you get started, but ultimately the commitment to a healthier way of eating has to come from within. The process can be tough, but the results are worth it, and if you need a hand up along the way, the Paleo community is full of friendly, supportive people to help you stay on track.