The paleo diet has been a popular trend over the past few years but, as the name implies, it is based on eating habits which have existed for millennia. If you’ve heard the phrase but aren’t quite sure what is a paleo diet, don’t worry. It’s a pretty simple and intuitive idea.
In this article, we’ll give you all the key facts and information you need to understand what is paleo diet, what you can expect from it, and how you can best adopt the paleo diet as a new part of your healthy lifestyle.
The paleo diet (sometimes called the “caveman diet”) is based on the simple idea that the foods our ancestors had been eating for millennia are the best foods for our bodies. It is largely based on whole foods—meat, fruits, and vegetables.
There’s no real limit on calorie intake or meal portions. You can eat as much as you want to as long as you are eating the foods that are allowed in the diet. The primary restriction in this diet is high-carb food.
You should avoid breads, grains, sugar and other foods high in carbs. Beyond that, many advocates of the paleo diet also suggest eliminating legumes (beans, peas, peanuts, etc) and dairy products.
So, the key restrictions of paleo are:
While that may sound like almost everything is off limits, there are lots of foods you can and should enjoy on paleo:
Even if you know what is paleo, you might still be wondering why people use this diet. Are there any actual benefits to restricting your diet to foods that were available to our paleolithic ancestors? The answer depends on how you approach the diet.
When done right, a paleo diet can provide a lot of health benefits. But, as with any diet, if it’s not done well, it is at best not effective and at worst harmful to your health. So it’s important to know the logic behind the diet so that you are making smart and informed nutritional choices rather than just blindly following a set of rules.
Most of our ancestors did not start eating grains until they started farming. You can’t eat grains without processing them. Simply eating wheat straight from the field is not very satisfying and you don’t gain much from it.
High carb foods are also the quickest to turn into fat in your body. Carbohydrates, even in complex carbs, are broken down in your body very quickly. So if you don’t get a lot of physical activity in very shortly after eating them, that unused energy will be stored as fat.
Proteins and fats, on the other hand, take a lot more time to break down. That means your energy levels will be more stable, you’ll store less of those calories as fat, and you’ll eat fewer calories overall because you will feel full longer.
The majority of the human population is actually lactose intolerant. That’s because drinking milk after infancy is a relatively new phenomenon that some human groups started doing when safe, clean water was scarce.
For this reason, many paleo dieters tend to avoid dairy since it was something most of our ancestors didn’t consume. However, those who descend from milk-drinking populations (mainly those with some European ancestry) generally have the genetic mutation that allows them to digest milk even in adulthood.
So there is some logic to eliminating dairy but it is a somewhat debated topic in the paleo community as dairy can also be a good source of protein—and it happens to be delicious! So, as mentioned above, we recommend experimenting with a no-dairy diet and a dairy diet to find out which one works best for you.
One of the worst aspects of our modern diet is the high level of processed foods. We fill up on high calorie junk with little to no nutritional value. This means we are eating a bunch of empty calories that just make us bloat up and feel terrible. But we are so used to it, that many of us don’t even realize it’s all our favorite junk foods that make us feel so awful.
One of the key advantages of switching to paleo is that you give up all these modern, processed meals. By eating natural, whole foods that our ancestors ate, we are filling our body with highly nutritious foods that actually nourish and fuel our bodies so that they can look, feel, and perform their absolute best.
So when you practice a smart paleo diet, you can enjoy a lot of great benefits to your physical and mental health. Here are a few of the greatest benefits you will experience as a result of paleo:
More nutritious. By eating a paleo diet, you are eating a diet high in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and every other nutrient your body needs.
Better metabolism. On a paleo diet, you eat foods that your body actually evolved to digest. While your body struggles to figure out processed junk like corn syrup, it knows exactly what do with and how to use beef protein and spinach.
Fewer calories. When you eat nutrient rich foods, your body is actually satisfied by the meals you eat. So even though you are eating “high calorie” foods like meat and fatty oils, you eat less calories overall because you actually feel full for longer. Processed junk will keep you full only as long as it is taking up space in your stomach. Real food will keep you feeling full for hours.
Healthy weight. Not only will a paleo diet help you lose weight by eating fewer calories, it also lowers the amount of calories that end up getting stored as fat. Along with a good exercise plan (see tips on this below), the paleo diet can help you burn off that extra fat and build up healthy muscle so that you have a beautifully toned figure.
Prevent or manage health problems. A paleo diet can prevent diabetes, obesity, and heart disease among others. It also lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. If you already suffer from a problem like diabetes or obesity, switching to paleo can help you manage these issues.
Eating healthy does not have to be bland and boring. Luckily, the paleo diet incorporates lots of delicious foods that can be turned into some very tasty meals. If you’re used to eating a lot of carbs, it can seem difficult at first but if you get creative and experiment, you will find new favorite foods and meals and change the way you think about food and flavors.
Here is a sample menu to give you an idea of what your diet might look like once you go paleo:
Breakfast - an omelet with mushrooms, peppers, and shredded chicken.
Lunch - Sashimi salad (raw tuna, salmon, green onions, mixed greens, orange or mandarin slices, etc.).
Dinner - steak with roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes.
Dessert - mixed berry smoothie with almond milk (or regular milk/yogurt if you are on the dairy-inclusive version of paleo).
Snacks - mixed nuts and seeds with fresh or dried fruits.
While most discussions of paleo focus exclusively on the dietary rules, the paleo diet works best when combined with an exercise program. In addition to eating lots of natural, unprocessed whole foods, our ancestors were also significantly more active than we are.
None of our paleolithic ancestors sat behind a desk 8 hours a day only to go home and sit on a couch in front of the TV for another few hours and then go to sleep. Compared to our ancestors, then, we lead an extremely sedentary lifestyle and this has major consequences on our health.
But they also didn’t have gyms where they ran on treadmills or cycled on stationary bicycles. They got their exercise from hunting, exploring their environment, and other activities. Because of this, many paleo exercise tips are based on doing activities that your ancestors might have done: lifting heavy rocks, hiking, and so on.
Now, we know that not everyone has access to natural environments they can explore and exercise in. And that’s ok. The most important thing is to be more active. Here are some guidelines and tips for getting more exercise into your life—no matter how busy you are:
1 hour minimum - aim to get at least 1 hour of physical activity per day. That is 1 hour in which your heart rate is elevated. If you can manage to do more than 1 hour, do that. But if even getting 1 hour of activity is tough with your schedule, you can break it up into multiple shorter sessions.
Be creative - physical activity doesn’t have to mean finding time to go to the gym. It can be as simple as walking or biking to places instead of driving or getting a treadmill or stationary bike at home to get you off the couch when you watch TV. If you can get outside, do it but if indoor exercise is your only option, that’s fine.
Change sedentary habits - we know that after a long day of work, you are probably used to sitting down and relaxing at home. That kind of relaxation is tempting but it’s not actually what you need. If you sit behind a desk all day, you may be mentally exhausted but your body is actually anxious to get some movement in.
Replace sedentary habits (like watching TV) with active habits (like going for a walk around the neighborhood or riding your bike). At first, you will find it hard to get the motivation but just as your body will begin to feel better when it’s nourished on a paleo diet, it will quickly begin to appreciate the exercise. Soon, you’ll prefer going for a walk or run over watching TV.
Don’t overstrain yourself - if you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle right now, you don’t want to immediately start on a program of intensive daily exercise. Start with moderate exercise—even if it’s just a 1 hour easy walk per day. By starting out at a level that suits your current fitness level, you are more likely to be able to stick with the exercise program and less likely to get injured.
Make a schedule - incorporate exercise into your schedule. Having a concrete plan for being more active is the best way to make sure you actually follow through.
Change it up - doing the same exact activity day in and day out can get boring. If you find yourself getting bored, change it up. Change can be as simple as running a different route than you normally do or as dramatic as completely switching to a new sport. Keep it interesting and new so that you don’t fall into a rut.
Depending on your current eating habits, switching to paleo can be a bit of a challenge. This is especially true if you are used to eating a lot of processed foods and other junk that isn’t very good for you. But making the switch can be well worth the effort. So here are a few tips to help you get through the challenging first stages of transition.
Know what to expect. When you make a significant change to your diet, your body needs some time to adapt. If your body is used to high sugar and high salt junk, it’s going to crave those things. Think of it like an addiction where your body craves these unhealthy things even though they are bad just because it is in the habit of getting them.
Be prepared to deal with these kind of cravings at the beginning. They will go away as your body adapts to the new, healthier diet. But it’s important to prepare yourself for those first few weeks or months.
Try a more gradual approach. If you’re finding it tough to give up all your bad eating habits at once, you can take a more gradual approach. Each week, eliminate 1 bad food and replace it with 1 paleo friendly food. Over the span of a few weeks, you’ll gradually shift toward a completely paleo diet without the stress or shock of trying to manage the switch all at once.
Keep a journal. Tracking your journey to a healthier you has a lot of advantages. For one, it keeps your motivated. It also helps keep you aware and conscious of the choices you are making. And it can help you more easily see your progress and the effects the diet is having. So keep a log of the foods you ate that day and also note how you feel—both mentally and physically.
Drink a lot of water. This might seem like a pretty random tip but it will actually help a lot. About 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Chronic dehydration causes low energy, unhealthy cravings, poor mental functioning, and lots of other problems.
By simply drinking enough water every day (at least 2 liters but more on extremely active days), you will decrease those cravings that are begging you to eat junk and you will have more energy to power you through your exercise program. So just by drinking enough water, you are making it easier to handle the transition to this new lifestyle.
Don’t break the bank. While many paleo advocates also recommend eating organic or buying direct from local farms, we understand that this isn’t necessarily in everyone’s budget. If you can afford the top quality ingredients, definitely buy them. But you will still enjoy all of the benefits of paleo even if you buy the cheaper, nonorganic versions.
Get the whole family on paleo. They may complain but they will appreciate it in the long run when they are healthier and happier. If you are the only one in the house eating paleo then that means that the others will have off-limits food in the kitchen. It’s difficult to resist a craving when you know the off-limit food is right there in the kitchen waiting for you. If everyone goes paleo then you can make sure you only have paleo friendly foods in your kitchen.
Plan your meals. It’s easier to stick to a diet when you already know exactly what you’re going to eat. If you just buy a bunch of paleo friendly ingredients at random, you’re going to find yourself standing in front of the fridge, wondering what to eat and contemplating just giving up and ordering a pizza. With a meal plan set out for the week, you’ll know exactly what to make.
Get support. Whether that’s finding a friend to make the switch with you or finding an online community you can reach out to, support will make all the difference in your journey. Simply having someone to talk to about your goals and your struggles will help lessen the burden and give you the strength to get through the most challenging moments.
For the best paleo diet results, you need to treat it as a lifestyle rather than a crash diet. This is about nourishing your body with the foods it evolved to eat. That means it’s not meant to be a quick weight loss detox or a temporary bodybuilding diet plan. It needs to be a permanent change.
With that said, you don’t need to be 100% strictly paleo for the rest of your life. You can use the rules of the diet as a guideline for making healthy choices while still making some adaptations to fit your own nutritional needs. The important thing is that you are eating a diet filled with natural, nutritious whole foods and maintaining a more active, healthy lifestyle.