What is the Paleo Diet Plan? A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Tim Skwiat

What is the Paleo Diet Plan

What is the Paleo diet?

Arguably, the Paleo diet is one of the “oldest” ways of eating. Simply put, it’s the antithesis of the modern Western-style diet. Essentially, it traces back to the diets of our ancestors from the Paleolithic era, which is far removed from current eating habits and food choices.

In its simplest form, the Paleo diet plan encourages eating whole, minimally processed foods you could hunt or forage in their most natural forms. Conversely, the standard Western-style diet is characterized by the overconsumption of heavily processed, refined foods. In other words, the Paleo diet may be summed up with slogans like “Eat REAL food” or “Don’t eat processed garbage.”

The History of the Paleo Diet Plan

In 1985, Drs. Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner published a seminal article titled “Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications.”1 In the paper, they argued for the “Evolutionary Discordance” hypothesis, which paraphrased here states: human genes evolved to adapt to conditions that no longer exist. The change occurred too quickly for us to adapt. And the resulting mismatch helps cause some common chronic diseases, or “diseases of civilization.” These include:2

  • • Cardiovascular disease (e.g., atherosclerosis)
  • • Type 2 diabetes
  • • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (a disease of the lungs that interferes with normal breathing)
  • • Lung and colon cancers
  • • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • • Obesity
  • • Diverticulitis (a digestive disease)
  • • Cavities

As a fundamental basis for Evolutionary Discordance, they found “surprisingly little overlap” between foods of the Paleolithic era, which spans from approximately 2.6 million to ~10,000 years ago, and those of the current era, beginning with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry ~10,000 years ago. While 10,000 years may seem like a long time, it’s just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.

The Paleo Diet Plan vs The Contemporary Diet

Speaking generally, ancestral diets were characterized by much lower levels of refined carbohydrates and sodium and much higher levels of fiber and protein. Currently, most people get the majority of their calories from grains, refined vegetable/seed oils, domesticated livestock, dairy products, and refined sugars. On the other hand, hunter-gatherers ate naturally occurring plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds), wild game, and fish. And they consumed virtually NONE of the following:1,3

  • • cereal grains
  • • refined sugars
  • • dairy foods
  • • separated oils
  • • commercially processed foods
  • • “empty calories”

Compared with the typical American diet, diets of the Paleolithic era generally provided:

  • • MORE protein
  • • MORE omega-3 fats
  • • LESS omega-6 fats
  • • LESS carbohydrate
  • • MORE fruits and vegetables
  • • LESS sodium
  • • MORE potassium
  • • MORE fiber
  • • MORE micronutrients
  • • MORE antioxidants and phytonutrients

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According to Drs. Boyd Eaton and Konner, the qualitative differences between the “average” ancestral (hunter-gatherer) diet and the contemporary Western-style diet can be summarized as follows:2

The Paleo Diet Plan Comparison

The Pillars of the Paleo Diet Plan

While Dr. Boyd Eaton has been one of the most influential educators on ancestral diets, arguably no one has been more pivotal in bringing it to the mainstream than the “founder of the Paleo diet movement,” Dr. Loren Cordain. According to Dr. Cordain and other Paleo diet experts, these fundamental characteristics contribute to optimal health and weight management while minimizing risk of chronic disease:

  1. 1. Increase protein intake by eating more lean meat, seafood, and eggs.
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  2. 2. Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index by eating primarily fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
  3. 3. Increase fiber intake by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  4. 4. Improve fat intake by cutting trans fats and omega-6 fats and eating more healthful monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.
  5. 5. Increase potassium and lower sodium intake by eating primarily unprocessed, fresh foods.
  6. 6. Increase intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and meat from pasture-raised animals.
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  7. 7. Reduce the acid load on the body by eating more alkaline-producing fresh fruits and vegetables.
  8. 8. Eliminate cereal grains and legumes.
  9. 9. Eliminate refined vegetable/seed oils.
  10. 10. Eliminate added sugars, soft drinks, juice, and sweets.
  11. 11. Eliminate dairy products.
  12. 12. Eat when you’re hungry instead of counting calories.

Is the Paleo Diet for Weight Loss?

Despite the notion that it’s potentially the “oldest” diet around, a 2015 US News and World Report ranking of 35 diets placed the Paleo way of eating dead last, citing a lack of research evidence that showed clinical benefits.5 That said, several randomized, controlled trials have been published recently, providing a limited amount of evidence supporting the Paleo diet’s efficacy for weight management. Whether the evidence is robust enough to substantiate some of the extravagant claims, however, is a story for another day.

In a 3-month trial, researchers from Sweden found a small group of men and women lost significantly more weight (over 6 ½ more pounds) following the Paleo diet plan compared to a “heart-healthy” diet.6 The Paleo group also experienced significantly greater improvements in waist circumference, glycemic control, blood pressure, and blood lipids (e.g., cholesterol and triglycerides). A number of other short-term studies corroborate these findings, suggesting beneficial effects on body weight and metabolic function.7,8

In addition, a 2-year randomized, controlled trial with 70 obese women provides some interesting long-term insight. In the study, researchers found women on the Paleo diet lost significantly more weight (14.3 compared to 5.7 pounds) after 6 months compared to a traditional “heart-healthy” diet. After 2 years, the Paleo group had lost about 58% more weight, although the difference was not significant.9

Perhaps the most telling science (especially with a limited number of controlled trials) is what’s called a systematic review with meta-analysis, which examines the data from all the available studies. In one such review, researchers identified 4 clinical trials (involving 159 participants) that met their inclusion criteria. In all 4 trials, the Paleo diet resulted in significant weight loss and in 3 of the 4, that was compared to the control diet.5

It’s worth noting the review also found the Paleo diet resulted in greater improvements in the five risk factors for metabolic syndrome, which predispose people to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, including:

  • • Waist circumference
  • • Blood pressure
  • • Fasting blood glucose
  • • Fasting triglycerides
  • • Fasting HDL cholesterol

Overall, the quality of evidence is moderate that the Paleo diet plan has beneficial effects on body weight and metabolic function.

One particularly important point about most existing trials is that they did not impose calorie restriction. In other words, the participants were not told how much to eat (see principle #12 above). Thus, the Paleo diet may be particularly effective for weight management without calorie counting or portion-control measures. Indeed, researchers from Sweden have shown that the Paleo diet is more satiating than the Mediterranean-style diet and other “heart-healthy” diets.10

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The Foods on the Paleo Diet Plan

While many would like you to believe there’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the Paleo diet, the truth is there is arguably no single Paleolithic nutritional pattern. In fact, one of the greatest criticisms (and there are many) from anthropologists is there is simply no blanket prescription of an evolutionarily appropriate diet.11

As Drs. Boyd Eaton, Konner, and Cordain have pointed out in several publications, food choices are critically depended on the latitude and climate.1,3,4 In other words, depending on geographic location and season, the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors likely varied considerably in terms of composition and the proportion of plant-based foods compared to animal foods. Thus, a good rule of thumb is to eat locally grown food when it’s in-season.

Having said that, the following are typically considered “staples” of the Paleo diet plan:

  • • Unprocessed lean meats including beef, chicken, turkey, bison, lamb, pork, and wild game, preferably from pasture-raised or wild animals when possible
  • • Fish and shellfish, preferably wild-caught when possible
  • • Eggs, preferably from local, pasture-raised hens when possible
  • • All fresh vegetables (including root vegetables and various forms of squash), preferably local, in-season when possible
  • • All fresh fruits, preferably local, in-season when possible
  • • Nuts and seeds
  • • Healthful unrefined fats and oils including lard, tallow, ghee, butter, and olive, walnut, flaxseed, coconut, avocado, and macadamia oils
  • • Fresh and dried herbs and spices
  • • Small amounts of honey and vinegar for flavoring
  • • Water, water, and more water, preferably natural, local spring water when possible

While there may be some variability (by geographical location, environment, and season) in what our ancestors ate, there’s very little debate over what they DIDN’T eat. And along those lines, the following are “NO-NO’s” on a strict Paleo diet plan:

  • • Cereal grains
  • • Refined sugar
  • • Dairy
  • • Legumes (including beans and peanuts)
  • • Processed foods
  • • Refined vegetable oils

As far as macronutrient composition, there’s not a single agreed upon recommendation. However, protein is typically around 25 – 35%, fat between 30 – 40%, and carbohydrate between 25 – 40%. Overall, the Paleo diet may be described as high-protein, moderate-fat, and low- to moderate-carbohydrate.

Not Just a Diet

Any staunch proponent of the ancestral way of eating would tell you it’s far more than a diet. Paleo is a way of life, and that includes copious amounts of physical activity. Not surprisingly, it is estimated that hunter-gatherers expended upwards of FOUR to FIVE times as many calories as the average sedentary American.3,13

What does a hunter-gatherer fitness regimen look like? Here are some essential features:13

  • • Include copious amounts of light-to-moderate activity, including walking, chores, etc. It’s estimated that hunter-gatherers walked 3 – 10 miles a day.
  • • Carry weighted loads (backpacks, children, light weights, etc.) when walking if possible.
  • • Walk on soft, natural, uneven surfaces such as grass and dirt when possible.
  • • Walk barefoot or wear barefoot-mimicking shoes when possible.
  • • Perform interval training once or twice per week.
  • • Lift weights twice per week.
  • • Follow strenuous days (such as weight lifting or interval training) with a relatively easy day.
  • • Perform as much physical activity outdoors as possible.
  • • Exercise in a group/social setting when possible.
  • • Walk with a dog if possible.
  • • Dance!
  • • Engage in regular sexual activity.
  • • Make plenty of time for sleep, relaxation, and rest.

Eat like a caveman

There are several valid criticisms of the Paleo diet plan, including the argument that there is no single Paleolithic way of eating. (Ironically, there are at least a half-dozen variations of the Paleo diet.) To the credit of its founding fathers, however, the Paleo way of life encourages people to eat more REAL food (and less processed garbage), to move more, to spend more time outdoors, and to develop well-rounded social support. It’s hard to argue with that recipe when it comes to optimizing health, fitness, performance, and longevity.

That said, if your interest is piqued and you’re now considering the Paleo diet, that’s great! Now that you have some of the basics down, it’s time to take some next steps. Please post your questions or comments below, and we’ll be happy to help you get started.

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References

  • 1. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. N Engl J Med. 1985;312(5):283-289. doi:10.1056/NEJM198501313120505.
  • 2. Konner M, Eaton SB. Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25(6):594-602. doi:10.1177/0884533610385702.
  • 3. Eaton SB, Strassman BI, Nesse RM, et al. Evolutionary health promotion. Prev Med. 2002;34(2):109-118. doi:10.1006/pmed.2001.0876.
  • 4. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(2):341-354.
  • 5. Manheimer EW, van Zuuren EJ, Fedorowicz Z, Pijl H. Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;102(4):922-932. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.113613.
  • 6. Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahrén B, et al. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009;8:35. doi:10.1186/1475-2840-8-35.
  • 7. Boers I, Muskiet FA, Berkelaar E, et al. Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids Health Dis. 2014;13:160. doi:10.1186/1476-511X-13-160.
  • 8. Genoni A, Lyons-Wall P, Lo J, Devine A. Cardiovascular, metabolic effects and dietary composition of ad-libitum Paleolithic vs. Australian guide to healthy eating diets: a 4-week randomised trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(5). doi:10.3390/nu8050314.
  • 9. Mellberg C, Sandberg S, Ryberg M, et al. Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a two-year randomized trial. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014;68(3):350-357. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.290.
  • 10. Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Lindeberg S, Hallberg A-C. Subjective satiety and other experiences of a Paleolithic diet compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutr J. 2013;12:105. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-105.
  • 11. Turner BL, Thompson AL. Beyond the Paleolithic prescription: incorporating diversity and flexibility in the study of human diet evolution. Nutr Rev. 2013;71(8):501-510. doi:10.1111/nure.12039.
  • 12. Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SH, Speth JD. Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(3):682-692.
  • 13. O’Keefe JH, Vogel R, Lavie CJ, Cordain L. Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2011;53(6):471-479. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2011.03.009.
  • Roger

    Confused:::: You state that butter is a “staple” of the paleo diet, but later declare dairy as a “no-no”. How does this work??

    • Good catch Roger. Here is how it works in the Paleo world. Dairy is classified as “processed” milk products. True butter is made with unprocessed milk. Unfortunately, most butter is not “true unprocessed” butter. Ghee is a better choice when it comes to cooking. I would choose bacon fat if the sodium levels were not off the charts.

    • Cristina

      Hi Roger. Great question! This is one of the great debates among the Paleo community.

      There are some basic principles of the Paleo diet, which considers grains, legumes, and dairy products to be off limits because of the way they can influence and affect the digestive system. Since many folks cannot tolerate these foods, and Paleo is all about optimizing digestion and gut health, they have been deemed unacceptable.

      Since there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to creating a healthy meal plan that is both manageable and effective for you, as an individual, it really boils down to what foods optimize your total wellness.

      I did, however, want to share with you a video that was part of a segment on “The Ultimate Paleo Guide”. Hopefully this will help clear up any confusion.

      Is Butter Paleo?

    • Hi Roger,

      This is an excellent observation, and I appreciate you calling me out. Cristina and Robert have already done a fantastic job of elaborating, and I don’t disagree with them.

      Just to reiterate something that I mentioned in the article as well as what Cristina mentioned below: “While many would like you to believe there’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the Paleo diet, the truth is there is arguably no single Paleolithic nutritional pattern. In fact, one of the greatest criticisms (and there are many) from anthropologists is there is simply no blanket prescription of an evolutionarily appropriate diet.”

      Along those lines, much like vegetarianism, there are many variations of the “modern” Paleo diet, and the lines are often blurry, leaving many (admittedly, at times, myself) with questions amid confusion. There are even some discrepancies between the Paleo diets reported by Dr. Stanley Boyd Eaton and Dr. Loren Cordain.

      Having said that, while butter (particularly from grass-fed cows) and ghee (to a greater extent) are largely accepted by the Paleo community, you are absolutely right. In staying true to Dr. Boyd Eaton’s original work, all dairy, including butter (clarified or otherwise), would be “out.” In fact, another potential contradiction is the fact that Dr. Boyd Eaton reports that Paleolithic nutrition is void of separated oils, yet it’s very common for modern-day Paleo approaches to “allow” healthful oils like those listed above—even though it’s highly unlikely that our Paleolithic ancestors were using cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. Rather, their fat intake was more likely largely a function of whole food intake.

      Nonetheless, your point is very good one and well received, and I do apologize for any incongruity. In doing so, it’s clear that the take-home message may have been lost in translation. While it’s an oversimplification, I think the last sentence of the second paragraph above is a good rule of thumb: “In other words, the Paleo diet may be summed up with slogans like ‘Eat REAL food’ or ‘Don’t eat processed garbage.'” Along those lines, Robert and Cristina have shared some sage advice here in the comments section.

      I do hope that this is helpful, and I apologize for any confusion that this may have caused.

  • cal sealy

    i just really need someone to tell me what to eat and when to eat it and I’ll do it.. right now there is so much info out there I’m not sure which to follow..

    • Cal…I know what you mean. So many people are telling us what to eat and especially what not to eat. Often the information is completely contradictory. Here is one thing I can guarantee – Stop eating at Fast Food places. Their food is the absolute worst from a nutritional standpoint. My one other tip is to “shop the outside” of the grocery store. If you think about it, fresh veggies, fruits, meats, and seafood are located on the outer edges of most supermarkets. Frozen dinners, canned foods, pop, and chips are located in the aisles (the inside) of the grocery store.

    • Miles Meyrow

      Myfitnesspal.com (free site) gives you a nutritional breakdown of your food. Track your food and your mood / weight. Try some diets for a week or two that interests you. Each body is different and will react differently to food.

    • Cristina

      Hi Cal. I can understand your frustration over the influx of information on the various meal plans and diets that are circulating. I have said this before, but I feel it’s worth repeating: there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to creating a healthy meal plan, and even being a Nutrition and Exercise Coach, I do not possess just one single nutrition philosophy.

      You see, even if I were to recommend what has worked for me, at one point in my life, under a particular set of circumstances, this would not automatically mean it will allow you to achieve the same results. Since we are just as unique on the inside as we are on the outside, it would be important to discover your individual physiological and psychological needs.

      If you are looking to implement a Paleo-type diet, we can certainly help. If you have a specific goal in mind, that would be helpful to be aware of so that your meal plan provides you with what you need to sustain your energy, while keeping your hunger and cravings minimized.

      There are a few key elements to any successful meal plan, and they are as follows:

      · Raise nutrition awareness and attention.
      · Focus on food quality.
      · Help eliminate nutrient deficiencies.
      · Help control appetite and food intake.
      · Promote regular exercise.

      The take away here is that it may take some trial and error to discover which diet or approach will work best for you, but provided you are mindful of good nutrition and listening to your body, you will be able to determine which plan is the right one for you.

  • Thanks Tim. Excellent overview of the paleo diet. Having tried the paleo diet, I found the most difficult factor is “recipes”. Great cooks and average cooks alike have a difficult time following the Paleo diet. No dairy, no cheese, no grains and no beans eliminates 70-80% of recipes. You have to be creative in the kitchen every night.

    • Cristina

      Greetings Robert. Your words of encouragement make us deeply proud of what we are doing.

      I would tend to agree with you that creating healthy recipes which adhere to the guidelines of the Paleo Diet are difficult at times, which is why we encourage our readers to share their recipes with us.

      I have bookmarked a few sites of my own, and would love for you to let us know if you have anything you would like to share.

      Ultimate Paleo Recipe Archive

      Paleo Grub: 100 Paleo Recipes

      Thank you once again for giving us a pat on the back. We value your contributions and friendship.

      • Actually I have given up on websites. They are very “salesy” and not a lot of content. I have switched to kindle books. The amount of Paleo cookbooks is staggering. Most of them are $3 or less. Some are free.

        • Cristina

          Great information, Robert. What a bargain at $3 or less for a cookbook, and free is even better. I must admit I am old school when it comes to certain things, one of which is having a physical recipe book to follow along as I am preparing my meals in the kitchen. I believe having one downloaded on my kindle would satisfy that need.

          Thanks for the tip!

          • Cristina, I am pretty much the same way. Give me a physical cookbook, but…

            With the price of simple tablets getting so cheap ( ~$40.00 ), I now have a tablet in my kitchen running the Kindle App. Best of all though, I can watch the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” or listen to Slacker radio at the same time.

  • Music Lover

    I never understood why Paleos are against legumes/pulses. Surely they were around to be eaten back in the day.

    • Cristina

      Hi Music Lover. You have uncovered yet another debatable ingredient among the Paleo community.

      While legumes were certainly around during the Paleolithic Era, which by default classifies them as Paleo, they are not considered part of the Paleo diet due to several factors.

      The first being that legumes contain phytic acid, which when digested, binds to nutrients making them difficult to absorb. When looking for nutrient dense nutrition sources, legumes are not as favorable as others that were discovered during this time period.

      Another reason that legumes are not part of the Paleo diet is that they contain a potentially toxic source of protein called lectin. Lectin can be found in many foods, however the lectin found in legumes has contributed to digestive issues, and leaky gut syndrome. This is not to say that everyone will find legumes to be problematic, however since the Paleo diet is focused on optimizing digestion and gut health, legumes didn’t make the cut.

      Chris Kresser, a globally recognized leader in the field of Paleo nutrition, has offered his take on this topic in the following article:

      Are Legumes Paleo?

      I am not sure if this debate will ever be settled, which is why it’s important to not look at this meal plan or any other in a vacuum. While there are guidelines and recommendations, we must still take into account and be mindful what benefit an ingredient or food choice has on our body.