Diet

Paleo Diet for Beginners
What is it & Is It All Just a Fad?

The Ins And Outs Of The Paleo Diet: Is It A Fad Or Worth Following?
Written by Isaac

Food fad diets come and go, and many don't last more than a year or two before fading back into obscurity. These diets typically revolve around a single premises, like 'juice will cleanse you out' or 'all carbs are bad news'.

Though people might have success with these diets at first, they usually become too confused by the rules and too resentful about giving up their favorite treats to stick with them for long.

For that reason, the fad diets wane in popularity until another, more exciting diet plan can take its place.

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo diet (commonly called the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, and Primal diet) is based on the premise that you need to align the food you eat with your natural genetics, in order to provide yourself with optimal nutrition for your health and well being.

For the vast majority of human history, humans were tribal nomads that ate what they could hunt and forage out of nature. 

During these tens of thousands of years, the human body slowly evolved to maximize the foods in this diet and turn them into highly efficient forms of energy.

When the agricultural revolution happened about 10,000 years ago, human history (and the human diet) changed dramatically. 

paleo man

Now carb-filled grains and dairy products were consumed instead of the vast array of wild edibles, and the human genetic system that had been slowly primed for wild food found itself in trouble.

It might be 10,000 years later, but, according to the premise of the Paleo diet, our bodies still haven't caught up with the change of eating a farm based diet.

The modern western diet has proven toxic for our society - filled with processed foods, piles of grains and tons of trans fats and sugars - and has caused an estimated 66% of Americans to go through life feeling sluggish and overweight.

This problem can be solved, Paleo followers claim, by rejecting the foods of the agricultural revolution and returning to the kinds of foods that are ancient ancestors ate instead.

What Not to Eat on Paleo Diet

  • Grains - Composed mainly of carbohydrates, grains turn into glucose in our systems which provide a quick source of energy. Unfortunately, our bodies haven't adjusted to living in a world where carbs are plentiful enough to satisfy every craving. Whatever glucose isn't burned through physical activity is stored in the body as fat.
Hands holding glass with grains
  • Dairy - Most Paleo followers forgo dairy products to their diets. However, some Paleo followers add butter to their diet as a way to get plenty of healthy saturated fats. If dairy is consumed, only get it from pasture raised animals allowed to live a natural lifestyle without artificial antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Legumes - Beans were only added to the human diet ten thousand years ago, and Paleo followers claim that we aren't evolved to handle them yet. Many people suffer from bloating and indigestion when they eat lots of beans, so cutting them out of your diet might make a difference for your intestinal health.
  • Sugars are hard to come across in the natural world, meaning that it was a rare occurrence in the lives of our hunter gather ancestors. Even honey wouldn't have been eaten more than a few times a year. For this reason, the Paleo diet restricts all types of sugar besides those found in fruit.

Foods You Can Eat on the Paleo Diet

  • Lean Proteins - There's little doubt that paleolithic people got much of their daily energy from meat that they hunted. This meat would have been extremely lean and helps to support strong muscles and bones as well as an optimized immune system. 
steak with vegies and sauce
  • Meat - Ensure your meat comes from animals that got to eat their natural diet. This will ensure that the amount you eat stays similar to hunter gatherer levels.
  • Fruits And Vegetables - If there was one food group consistently available for our hunter gather ancestors, it was fruits and vegetables. Rich in antioxidants and vitamins, a diet full of fruits and vegetables will keep you healthy and lower your risk of developing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and obesity.
  • Nuts and Seeds - almonds, cashews, Brazilian nuts, pumpkin seed, walnut
  • Healthy Fats - Coconut oil, olive oil, etc 

Paleo Diet for Weight Loss

Paleo weight loss plan comic

The central premise of the plan is that modern life and a western, processed diet is making us sick and fat.

Our bodies haven't adjusted in the short ten thousand years of agrarian history to this form of eating, and it's causing us to suffer from allergies, lethargy and excess weight.

In contrast, the bones that have been discovered of paleolithic peoples almost always look healthier and better formed than their later agriculturally minded descendents.

Eating foods closer to what our earliest ancestors ate, in contrast, will provide the necessary nutrients for us to thrive instead of suffer. However, this doesn't mean you can chow down on hamburgers all day.

A big part of Paleo is finding ways to eat foods that are similar to what is found in the natural world, and there is nothing “natural” about feedlot cattle that are fed a diet of corn and antibiotics their whole life. Rather, Paleo followers eat only pasture raised meats that more similarly match the body composition of wild animals that would have been hunted.

Following this form of diet lowers our body's glycemic load.

Loren Cordain

Author of The Paleo Diet

In his view, following a Paleo-based eating pattern provides you with a healthy ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats as well as plenty of vitamins and nutrients to keep you running smoothly, all without unnecessarily weighing your body down with excess carbohydrates and sugars.

By fueling your body on fats instead of carbs, you get to take advantage of a slow burning fuel that is more efficient for your body than glucose.

Because the majority of people have little risk of needing to rely on their fat stores for survival, it's unnecessary to store away carbs in our body to fuel it. By eliminating these carbs from your diet, you will retrain your body to run on fats like it is optimally designed to do.

Once you remove the constant stream of carbohydrates from your body, your blood sugar levels will plummet and allow a process of lipolysis will occur, which allows your fat stores to be burned as a form of energy. Not only will this make you a more efficient nutrient processor, it will also help you maintain and obtain a healthy weight.

Paleo Diet Benefits

Though the Paleo diet as a whole hasn't been fully studied yet, there are huge documented benefits to transitioning from a diet filled with processed foods to one focused around whole foods eaten in optimal proportions.

  • Decreased sodium content - You will dramatically cut your sodium content down to manageable levels, which reduces your risk of hypertension, heart disease and obesity. This is also beneficial to your overall health, not just in your weight loss goals.
  • You will find yourself cooking more - according to a journal in Public Health Nutrition, a study showed that people who cook for themselves at least five times a week are 47% more likely to be alive ten years later, compared to study participants that ate processed foods.
  • Dealing with cardiovascular disease - Today, CDC is the leading cause of death in the United States, but hunter gatherers had almost no cases of heart attacks or strokes. Whether or not this immunity was caused entirely be their healthy diet remains to be seen, but the evidence is clear that it is a step in the right direction.

The Controversy Behind This Diet

Everything about the diet makes perfect sense… on paper. Unfortunately, the story from a scientific study stand point is a little different. ​

In fact, almost every claimed health benefit of Paleo is currently unproven.

According to Christopher Ochner, MD, claiming that their diet is the reason that paleolithic people didn't suffer from modern diseases is making a lot of assumptions. 

Our ancestors ate this way and didn't have many of the chronic diseases we do, but that doesn't mean the food they ate is the reason why; drawing that conclusion would be like saying we live three times longer than our Paleolithic ancestors because we eat fast food.

Christopher Ochner MD

Christopher Ochner

MD

Some studies have tried to show evidence that Paleo is healthier for humanity than other diets. For example, a small study compared blood sugar levels on participants eating a Paleo diet to those on a Mediterranean one and found the advantage was with Paleo, but the study was too small to make the results significant.

Issue 1 - Part of the issue of verifying the health of the Paleo diet is that it's actually impossible to follow. No matter how hard we try, living the modern world means that it's simply not feasible to feast on the wild elk and mastodon that paleolithic hunters would have depended on.

Eating pasture raised cows and chickens is better than getting meat from a feedlot, but it's certainly not equivalent to hunting wild game. Modern meat options simply can't match the levels of omega 3 fatty acids that were in game that paleolithic hunters depended on.

Issue 2 - many nutritionists find that paleo diet rules tend to be arbitrary. Just because our ancestors didn't eat grains and dairy doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't either.

It goes without saying that nomadic paleolithic hunters lusted after the security that grain crops and dairy products provided for their lives- why else would they have switched to agriculture in the first place?

The Paleo diet often makes it too easy to attribute scarcity of a food source in the ancient world to mean that it is unhealthy, when many foods like dairy, carbs and legumes have been proven perfectly fine to eat in moderate levels. It's illogical to cut out these beneficial foods without any proof that our bodies aren't adapted to eating them.

Should You Try This Diet?

Eggs on a plate for breakfast

Eat a diet that is high in fat!

Whether or not to eat Paleo is a tricky decision for some people.

While many swear that it's the best way to live, others feel like it makes their lives far more complicated than they need to be.

It makes it difficult to eat food with other people, as you can forget about finding pasture raised meat cooked without vegetable oils in most restaurants.

An easy way to answer the Paleo question is to look at how satisfied you are with your current lifestyle.

If you are at a healthy weight and eating a diet filled with whole foods, there isn't any reason for you to try going Paleo.

However, if you have a few stubborn pounds to lose or are stuck in a rut of TV dinners and need some structure to make a big change, going Paleo might be the best thing that you can do for yourself.

How to Start a Paleo Diet

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, thousands of people simply feel better eating a Paleo diet, and that's more than enough evidence for them to keep at it.

If you're ready to take a risk on yourself and give the Paleo diet a try, here are some tips to help you make the transition smoothly so that you are more likely to stick with it for the long term.

Paleo dinner

Remove all added sugar from your diet!

When you first start Paleo, just commit to the diet for 80% of the time.

This means that you follow the diet perfectly for most of the week, but give yourself a “cheat day” every weekend where you can eat non-Paleo favorites like pizza and ice cream.

This will help you get the dairy and carb cravings out of your system so that you can fully commit to the diet for the rest of the time. 

Other tips include:

  • Fill your diet with saturated fats from a variety of sources, including coconut oil, butter, lard and beef tallow. Olive oil is also good, but only been used raw and not for cooking.
  • Half your plate for every meal should consist of fresh or frozen vegetables, cooked in fat whenever possible.
  • Starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes and yams) are okay, so long as they aren't eaten in excess. The high glycemic levels in root vegetables make them a perfect post-workout food option.
  • Nuts and fruits are great in moderate amounts (four ounces or less a day), and be intentional about eating low sugar, high antioxidant fruits like berries. 
  • Stick to water and herbal teas as much as possible. If you need to treat yourself, alcohol like beer and wine is fine in moderation (and both were enjoyed by our paleolithic ancestors).
  • Cut out any vegetable oils that you cook with, including margarine, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil. Olive oil is okay to use, so long as you drizzle it on foods instead of cooking with it.
  • Remove all added sugar - this includes any packaged junk food, soft drinks and fruit juices.
  • Eat plenty of animal proteins like red meat, pork, poultry, eggs and organ meats. Wild caught fish (not farmed, as they might contain too much mercury) and shellfish are also great. Shellfish like clams, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops, and shrimp are all smart choices.
  • A general rule for grocery shopping Paleo style: if it came from a box, don't eat it.
  • Exercise - Balance your Paleo diet with a new workout regime. The feel-good endorphins will help you make the transition to giving up some food favorites and keep you motivated about the big changes you are making.
  • High heat cooked goods (like anything off a griddle) can be toxic for you, so pull these out of your diet as well as the kinds of cooking oil used to cook them.

FAQs

When you first start following the Paleo diet you are sure to have a few questions about best practices. We've anticipated some of your top questions and answered them the best we can below.

1. Is It Going Expensive?

In most cases, eating Paleo is going to cost you more than a diet filled with factory farmed animal products and processed food.

Many people believe that their health is worth the cost of buying organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed beef, but with a little research you can find easy ways to make a Paleo affordable.

Buy local, buy in bulk and freeze what you can't use immediately in order to take advantage of seasonal bounties where you live.


2. Is It Hard to Do In Public?

Admittedly, yes. When you go Paleo your restaurant selection options go down dramatically.

For this reason, many Paleo followers allow themselves a “cheat day” where they can eat forbidden foods like carbs and dairy when they go out or eat with friends.

For many people, this level of compromise is worthwhile for the long term health benefits.

3. Didn't Cavemen Have Shorter Lifespans Than Us?

Yes.

There were a lot more danger and potential for accidents and preventable disease in the life a prehistoric hunter. 

It's unknown how long a hunter gatherer would survive in today's society with access to modern medicine.

4. Can this Diet Work For Diabetics?

Because Paleo requires that you get rid of all sugars from your diet, insulin-dependent diabetics see the diet as a dangerous lifestyle for them to take on.

Though there is evidence that following a Paleo diet can reverse some of the complications that come from diabetes, more research needs to be done to see what the long term effects of the diet are for diabetics.

Sugar, injection and apple on a table

Can paleo diet help prevent or manage diabetes?

In any case, adding minimal levels of sugar into your diet if you are a diabetic will likely be essential, even on the Paleo diet.

Paleolithic Diet: The Bottom Line

The Paleo diet is both praised and scorned by scientists and nutritionists around the world, but there is little doubt that this diet is a far healthier way to live than the average American diet.

If you feel like you need a change in your lifestyle and want to incorporate some more whole foods into your diet, then Paleo is a smart eating plan to try out. 

The scientific rational to eat like our ancestors is sketchy at best, but every food recommended by the Paleo diet will work to keep you healthy and even lose some weight.

If you're ambitious enough to commit to it, we fully recommend it. (But don't be afraid of an occasion carb and dairy splurge)!

About the author

Isaac

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

  • Thank you, good article.
    The most important thing about this diet is to eat exactly the same food our ancestors ate in their caves: food as raw as possible, minimally processed (meat, eggs, natural oils, season fruit and vegetables, seeds).

    On the other hand, this diet strictly forbids wheat, corn, brown rice, soy, peanuts, beans, peas, sweets, and sodas.

  • I guess I really need to start the Paleo diet this new year. God, I need to lose weight. Saved this on my bookmarks so I can look back at it anytime. Thanks.

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