The paleo diet is the latest diet to hit the fitness world. But what exactly is the paleo diet? How does the paleo diet work? Can you trust it and is it safe? Most importantly, how do you get started with the paleo diet? To answer your questions, we’ve put together a complete guide to the paleo diet.
Now, please note that this comprehensive guide to the paleo diet is just that – comprehensive. It’s pretty long. To make things easier, we’ve created a short index here, so that you can jump to whichever part of the guide you’d like to read.
- 1 What Is The Paleo Diet?
- 2 The History of The Paleo Diet
- 3 Burning Carbs vs. Burning Fat
- 4 Good Carbs & Bad Carbs
- 5 Isn’t Fat Bad for You?
- 6 How The Paleo Diet Works
- 7 Is The Paleo Diet Safe?
- 8 What Can I Eat on The Paleo Diet?
- 9 Are Grains Paleo?
- 10 Is Dairy Paleo?
- 11 Are Legumes Paleo?
- 12 How Do You Know What Is and Isn’t Paleo?
- 13 What Are Some Good Paleo Diet Recipes?
- 14 More Paleo Resources
- 15 The #1 Paleo App on iTunes
- 16 Next Steps with Paleo
What Is The Paleo Diet?
What is the paleo diet? Good question!
The paleo diet is a focus on eating natural, real food that is widely available with little or no processing. In other words, the paleo diet focuses on eating the way nature intended us to eat.
Our current diet is relatively recent, as we’ve only been eating this way for about 10,000 years. In contrast, most estimates say that humans have been around for a little over two million years. Now that’s a long time. The paleo diet focuses on eating food the way we ate before the last 10,000 years.
Clearly something is not working. The paleo diet seeks to fix that.
Recent books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, have caused a surge in the amount of attention paid to the paleo diet and similar diets. These paleo books are widely regarded as the reasons for the paleo diet’s newfound popularity.
The History of The Paleo Diet
The paleo diet began a long time ago in a cave far, far away. Well, probably in Africa.
The human body has evolved over millions of years. We’ve only been eating grains and other things since the agricultural revolution, which happened about 10,000 years ago. That might sound like a long time, but it’s really a teeny, tiny amount of time in comparison to how long we’ve actually been roaming this blue marble in space.
As it turns out, our bodies are best suited to eating different foods to the foods that we tend to most these days. The copious amounts of sugar and processed foods that permeate our diets just weren’t around when your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand cavefather was running around and throwing spears at saber tooth tigers.
And, while we’ve been eating processed grains since agriculture got started, our bodies never quite turned away from their caveman roots. Not only that, but grains don’t like to be eaten. There’s a whole host of dangers associated with grains and with eating them. Grains have been shown to damage your gut lining, hurt your immune system, and cause a bunch of other issues. Put simply, when you eat grains, things get messy.
The paleo diet is a return to eating like we used to, eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and nuts.
Burning Carbs vs. Burning Fat
The main reason many people find the paleo diet to be such an effective method for losing fat is that it turns your body from a primarily carb-burning machine into a fat-burning machine.
Here’s how it works:
Your body’s preferred source of energy is fats. Fat is a slow burning fuel and it’s more efficient for your body to use. However, due to the amount of carbohydrates that we consume on a daily basis in the western world, our bodies burn carbohydrates rather than fat. So, when we take in more carbohydrates than are needed for energy, our bodies store the rest as fat for later “just in case” (this process is left over from when we needed to store fat in case we couldn’t find food for weeks).
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), most people will never really be in danger of “not eating.” We almost never have to resort to using our fat stores for energy, so instead of us eventually burning the fat we’re storing in our bodies, we simply add to it, over and over and over again. This is a pretty good explanation of why there’s such an obesity problem in the United States and abroad.
The paleo diet changes a lot of this by doing one simple thing: removing a lot of the simple carbohydrates from your diet.
When this happens, your body can no longer get away with using cheap carbohydrates for energy, so it’s forced to use the fat stores. That’s good!
Without the constant stream of cheap carbohydrates that your body would normally turn into sugar, your blood sugar drops to a normal level and your insulin levels begin to regulate. Regulated insulin levels allow a process called lipolysis to occur. Lipolysis is the process of your body releasing triglicerides (fat stores) to be burned as energy. That’s a bunch of big words. Basically these words mean that, by reducing the amount of cheap carbohydrates in your system, the paleo diet allows your body to start the process of burning fat. Thanks paleo!
Good Carbs & Bad Carbs
So, are all carbs bad? No, not all carbs are bad. Some are worse than others and there’s definitely a sliding scale of carbohydrate badness.
It’s easy to make a jump from “eat fewer carbs” to “all carbs are bad for you.” There’s definitely a sliding scale. The chances are that you’ve heard of simple and complex carbohydrates and, while these can be a little tricky to understand, basically, with carbs, you want to be asking how fast your body turns the carbohydrates you’re consuming into sugar. Carbs that are transformed quickly are considered “simple” (you’ll want to avoid these), while carbs that take longer to break down are considered “complex” (you can eat these in moderation).
Simple carbs break down into sugar quicker than complex carbs, triggering a bigger insulin response. When your insulin levels are elevated, your body is prevented from burning fat. This is the main reason you should stay away from simple carbohydrates like white bread and pasta. Eating them is not much better than eating straight sugar!
Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser explains how not all carbs are equal and what the Glycemic Index is:
Isn’t Fat Bad for You?
No. Not in the way that you’ve been told all your life.
Most people think that fat is to be avoided because your body takes it directly from your food and sticks it right onto your thighs, right? Well, that’s not what really happens.
See, your body’s preferred source of energy is actually fat. Yup, you read that right. Fat is a longer lasting and slower burning fuel than carbohydrates. Because of this, when you stop shoving simple carbohydrates and sugar into your mouth day after day, your body resorts to burning body fat for energy – energy that, up until this point, was sitting on your body and jiggling around. It was unused because you were getting way more energy than you needed from simple sugars because you were consuming simple carbohydrates.
For more on this, check out this stellar infographic: Fat doesn’t make you fat – that’s not how it works. Also, check out the video below to see why you really got fat.
Why You Got Fat
See, fat is actually much more satiating than carbohydrates (this means it makes you feel fuller). Because you get full faster, it’s actually easier to eat fewer calories on a high-fat diet than it is when you’re on a high-carb diet. You naturally eat less because you simply feel full faster. It might seem strange, but it’s true.
The paleo diet works by focusing almost exclusively on real, unprocessed foods that have been around for thousands of years. If it comes in some cute packaging, it’s probably not paleo.
Eating this way eliminates the preservatives, salt, and sugars that are so often added to foods from your diet. So, whether or not you like the name “paleo”, by moving away from eating processed foods towards eating real, whole foods, it’s virtually impossible to not make better eating decisions. In fact, you can throw out the names “paleo”, “primal”, “caveman diet“, or whatever you want to call it, just focus on eating real food, and you’ll start feeling better.
To get started with the paleo diet, peruse our Paleo Diet Food List and meal plans. We’re doing our best to continually add information to these, so they’re comprehensive (and growing constantly) resources.
We’ve also collected together a couple of our favorite YouTube personalities to weigh in with their thoughts on paleo.
Ask Robb Wolf Anything about The Paleo Diet
Robb Wolf is a real paleo diet expert. You can read more about him on our Robb Wolf page.
The Truth about The Paleo Diet
Elliot Hulse is one of the best fitness personalities on the internet. In this video, he lets loose about the paleo diet (NSFW due to the language he uses, so put in some headphones).
Is The Paleo Diet Safe?
NBC Nightline on The Paleo Diet
This was a big, big question. Interestingly, no one ever asks if the pizza and Diet Coke that most people are eat is safe, but whenever you threaten to take away breadsticks, people get all worried. Fortunately, NBC Nightline decided to take on this question. Check out the video below.
Essentially, if you focus on eating real food that comes from the ground or that used too moo, you’re going to be fine. Eat lots of vegetables and lots of high-quality lean meats. You shouldn’t chow down on ten hot dogs in a single meal just because you heard that meat is fine on paleo.
What Can I Eat on The Paleo Diet?
What foods can you eat on the paleo diet? Good question!
Here is a quick run-down of the foods allowed on the paleo diet. These are the ones that our ancestors would have had access to on a regular basis.
- Lean meats – beef, veal, venison, lamb, chicken, bison, etc (try to eat the grass-fed versions of these if at all possible)
- Fish – salmon, tilapia, bass, etc.
- Eggs – go for it
- Vegetables – don’t leave these out!
- Some fruit – Berries and the less sugary fruits are best
- Nuts – in moderation (and not peanuts)
- Natural oils – olive, coconut and avocado oils
Basically, if a hunter-gatherer wouldn’t have been able to eat it 10,000 years ago, you shouldn’t eat it either! That means no Twinkies, Oreos, or your favorite breakfast cereal. Sorry, but we’re not sorry. There are 101 other paleo foods you can eat and they’re pretty tasty. Remember, if it contains a bunch of chemicals that you can’t pronounce, it’s probably not paleo. Sorry!
You can see a complete list of foods allowed on the paleo diet here. Trust us – eating paleo tastes great!
Are Grains Paleo?
Is Dairy Paleo?
The answer is “it depends.” For a more complete answer, read Is Dairy Paleo? The Bad, The Better & The Best Options.
There’s no one set rule for the paleo diet, as it’s much more of a framework than a diet. For example, Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple includes whole milk and some fermented dairy products in his primal lifestyle (the primal diet is similar to the paleo diet). However, other strict paleo dieters would exclude milk completely, arguing that early cavemen didn’t have domestic cows hanging around outside their caves.
Wherever on the spectrum you fall, the more processed a food is, the less paleo it is. So whole milk is better than 2% milk which is, in turn, better than skim milk.
whole milk > 2% milk > 1% milk > skim milk
What about yogurt, butter, cheese, and ice cream?
Another good question. With lactose intolerance as widespread as it is, it’s suprising that we continue to eat such high quantities of dairy. But, as with carbohydrates, dairy comes on a sliding scale of badness. Let’s take a look at it more closely.
Grass-fed butter is widely considered to be paleo. It’s a good source of fat, so have at it!
Yogurt is definitely a bit of a grey area. The probiotics in yogurt can help improve digestion and yogurt is a traditional way of extending the shelf life of dairy. The main problem with it is the high sugar content of most modern yogurts. Simply put, the sugar content in some of these is surprisingly high. (The average Chobani yogurt contains twenty grams of sugar. And they sponsor the Olympics, so they’re supposed to be healthy!) Again, the rule is that the more processed a food is, the more you should stay away from it.
Cheese is another form of dairy that’s relatively safe (the fermentation process removes much of the lactose that may bother those with lactose intolerance). That said, you should read more about the problems with dairy before making a call on this one.
Ice cream, however, is still a no-go. Have it as a treat every once in a while if you must, but there is just too much sugar in it for it to be a regular staple in the paleo diet.
Are Legumes Paleo?
A legume, for the uninitiated, is a pod fruit. Legumes that you’ll be familiar with include the following foods.
How Do You Know What Is and Isn’t Paleo?
Most of the time it’s clear whether or not something is paleo. Beef is found naturally in the world in the form of cows, so it’s paleo. Ice cream isn’t found naturally in the world and is manufactured by humans, so it’s clearly not paleo.
But sometimes the boundaries between paleo and non-paleo foods are a bit fuzzy. For example, you might think peanuts are paleo because nuts are paleo but peanuts are actually a legume, which isn’t paleo.
There are a number of ways to work out what is or is not paleo. You can consult our Paleo Diet Food List to see if the food you’re curious about is on there. You could waste loads of time researching it on the internet. Or you could use Paleo.io, the paleo app that tells you whether or not a food is paleo in an instant.
With Paleo.io, you simply type in the name of the food you’re curious about and straightaway the app will tell you whether it’s paleo, primal, or neither. It will also provide you with an explanation, so you’ll understand why that particular food is or isn’t good for you.
The app also contains a paleo diet food list, access to over one hundred delicious paleo recipes, and quick “do eat” and “don’t eat” guides, which serve as handy guidelines for when you’re out and about.
Paleo.io is the easiest way for you to stay paleo whether you’re out shopping and want to know what food to buy or at a restaurant with your friends and not sure what to order. It’s particularly useful at the start of your paleo journey, when you’re still learning the basics of what is and isn’t paleo.
Download Paleo.io from the app store today to make sure that you never have to guess again, with the power of paleo in your pocket.
What Are Some Good Paleo Diet Recipes?
Some of our favorite paleo diet recipes and cookbooks can be found below.
We also have a comprehensive list of paleo recipes and a few other favorite paleo recipes. If breakfast is your jam, check out five of our favorite paleo breakfast recipes or take a look at our list of over one hundred paleo breakfast recipes.
You can also check out some awesome paleo cookbooks below.
We also have a comprehensive guide to the very best paleo diet cookbooks out there. You’ll never be short on paleo recipes with us around!
More Paleo Resources
Fortunately there are a ton of resources online that can answer all the questions you could ever have about the paleo diet. Here are a few of our favorites paleo diet resources.
- Mark Sisson – The godfather of the primal/paleo movement, Mark Sisson posts daily bombs on paleo and primal living, eating, and playing. Good, good stuff.
- Robb Wolf – The author of The Paleo Solution, Robb Wolf is one of the most respected people in the paleo movement. His blog is a treasure trove of information.
- Paleoso – Paleoso provides great paleo recipes and paleo resources. It’s particularly good if you’re into working out and optimizing your diet.
- Nerd Fitness – Nerd Fitness is a big fan of the paleo diet. If you’re a nerd and you’re looking to get into shape, check it out.
- Paleo Hacks – Paleo Hacks is a useful community forum on the paleo diet.
- Paleo Plan – Paleo Plan aims to be a practical plan for the paleo diet (say that five times fast!).
- PaleoDiet.com – PaleoDiet.com provides a wealth of resources. You just have to put up with poor organization and style. It’s not the best looking site on the web, but there’s a ton of info you can pick up from it.
- PaleoDiet.org – PaleoDiet.org is a clean guide to paleo resources.
- FITBOMB – This is a handy Q&A on the paleo diet. If that’s what you’re looking for, we have a really comprehensive paleo diet FAQ here.
- Huffington Post – This article answers the question, “is the paleo diet healthy or a hoax?”
- US News – This is the type of stuff that makes us sigh.
- Web MD – This is an interesting look at the paleo diet. Spoiler alert: it likes everything about paleo except the cutting out grains part. *sigh*
Also, like most things on the internet, you can look up the Wikipedia entry on the paleo diet (so, like our friend Michael Scott says, you know you’re getting the best information when you use Wikipedia).
“Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want, so you know you are getting the best possible information.” – Michael Scott
And we’d be forgetting something if we didn’t mention ourselves, the Ultimate Paleo Guide – the premiere source of paleo diet information on the web. Remember, you can also check out our paleo resources page and our list of paleo diet blogs for a more complete listing of paleo diet resources around the web.
The #1 Paleo App on iTunes
Next Steps with Paleo