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 for your consumption.
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 like. You can also download the complete guide in PDF format (coming soon).
The Paleo Diet: A Complete Guide Index
- What is the Paleo Diet?
- The History of the Paleo Diet
- Carb Burning –> Fat Burning
- Good Carbs/Bad Carbs
- Is Fat Bad For You?
- How The Paleo Diet Works
- Is The Paleo Diet Safe?
- What Foods Can I Eat On The Paleo Diet?
- Are Grains Allowed On The Paleo Diet?
- Is Dairy Allowed On The Paleo Diet?
- Are Legumes Allowed on The Paleo Diet?
- Where Can I Find Paleo Diet Recipes?
- Where Can I Find Out More About The Paleo Diet?
What Is The Paleo Diet?
What is the paleo diet? Good question!
The paleo diet is a focus on eating natural, real food which is widely available with little or no processing. In other words, the paleo diet focuses on eating the way nature intended.
Our current diet is relatively recent – 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 2 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.
Nowadays, the Standard American Diet (SAD), featuring sugar, refined sugar, and even more sugar, is simply ruining the health of almost anyone who tries to eat according to the food pyramid.
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, and 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, we’re optimized to eat different foods than we mostly eat now. 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 cavemen were 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 litany 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.
Carb Burning –> Fat Burning
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 in to a fat burning machine.
Here’s how it works:
Your body’s preferred source of energy is fats. Fat is a much slower burning fuel, and it’s more efficient for your body to use. However, due to the abundance of carbohydrates that we consume on a daily basis in the western world, our bodies burn the carbohydrates rather than fat. So, when we take in more carbohydrates than are needed for energy, our bodies stores 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, and it’s forced to use the fat stores. That’s good! This is how it works:
Without the constant influx of cheap carbohydrates being turned 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 which basically means 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!
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. Chances are you’ve heard of simple vs. complex carbohydrates, and while that can be a little complicated, the biggest question you’re looking at is how fast your body turns the carbohydrate into sugar. Ones that make the transformation quickly are considered “simple” (and you’ll want to avoid them), while ones that take longer to break down are considered more “complex” (you can eat these in moderation).
Simple carbs break into sugar quicker, and trigger a bigger insulin response. When your insulin levels are elevated, your body is prevented from burning fat through a process called lipolysis. That’s the main reason it’s recommended that you 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 all carbs are NOT created equal and what the GI Index means:
So, Fat Isn’t Bad For You?
No. Not in the way that you’ve heard 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 really what 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 in your mouth day after day, your body resorts to burning body fat for energy – energy that, up until that point, was sitting on your body jiggling around. It was unused because you were getting way more energy than you needed through simple basic sugars of 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 on why you really got fat.
Why You Got Fat
See, fat is actually much more satiating than carbohydrates (it makes you feel fuller). Because you get full faster, it’s actually easier to eat less calories on a high fat diet than it is while eating a high-carb diet. You naturally eat less because you simply feel full faster. It might seem strange, but it’s true.
Note: if you’re having trouble feeling hungry on the paleo diet, you’ll want to start eating more fat – coconut oil and avocados are great sources for this.
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 gets rid of tons of preservatives, salt and sugars that are added to foods so often. So, whether or not you like the “paleo” name, by moving away from processed foods and towards real, whole foods, it’s virtually impossible to not make better eating decisions. In fact, you can throw out the name “paleo”, “primal” or whatever you want to call it and just focus on eating real food and you’ll start feeling better.
To help you get started on the paleo diet, peruse our paleo diet food list and meal plans. These are both comprehensive (and growing constantly), so we’re doing our best to continually add information and insight to them.
We’ve also dug up a couple of our favorite youtube personalities to weigh in with their thoughts on paleo:
Ask Robb Wolf Anything About The Paleo Diet
The Truth About The Paleo Diet
Elliot Hulse is one of the best fitness personalities on the internet. In this video, he unleashes about the paleo diet (may be NSFW – language – 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/coke diet that most people are on is “safe”, but anytime you threaten to take away breadsticks, people get all concerned. Fortunately, NBC Nightline decided to take on this question – head on. Check out the video below.
Essentially, if you focus on eating real food – that comes from the ground or something that used too moo, you’re going to be fine. Eat lots of vegetables and lots of high-quality lean meats. Just because paleo allows meat, doesn’t mean you can chow down 10 hot dogs in a single meal.
What Food Can I Eat On The Paleo Diet?
What foods can you eat on the paleo diet? Good question!
A quick run down of the foods allowed on the paleo diet are the ones that our ancestors would have access to on a regular basis.
- Lean Meats – Beef, Veal, Venison, Lamb, Chicken, Bison and more. Try to have these grass-fed if at all possible.
- Fish – Salmon, Tilapia, Bass and more.
- Eggs – Have at ‘em.
- Vegetables – don’t leave these out!
- Some Fruit – Lean towards berries & those of the less sugary variety)
- Nuts in moderation – don’t go too crazy on these.
- Natural oils (olive, coconut and avocado oils are all great).
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’s got a bunch of chemicals that you can’t pronounce in it, it’s probably not paleo – sorry!
You can see a complete list of foods allowed on the paleo diet here. Like we said earlier, just because you’re eating paleo doesn’t mean it can’t taste great!
Are Grains Allowed on The Paleo Diet?
Is Dairy Allowed On The Paleo Diet?
The answer is “it depends.” There’s no one set rule for the paleo diet as it’s much for of a framework than a diet. For example, Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple would probably include whole milk some fermented dairy products in his “primal” lifestyle – an offshoot of the paleo lifestyle. However, other stricter paleo dieters would exclude milk completely arguing that early cavemen didn’t really have domestic cows hanging out outside their caves (rightly so).
Wherever on the spectrum you fall, the idea that the more processed a food is, the less it’s considered “paleo” holds true. So, whole milk is better than 2% milk which is, in turn, better than skim milk.
Whole Milk > 2% Milk > 1% Milk > Skim Milk
So 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, like carbohydrates, dairy has a sliding scale of badness. Let’s take a look at them individually.
Grass-fed butter is widely considered to be paleo and a good source of fat, so have at it!
While yogurt is definitely considered “grey” area. The probiotics of yogurt can help improve digestion and yogurt is a time-tested traditional way of prolonging the shelf life of dairy. The main hangup that you’ll find in modern versions of yogurt is the sugar content. Simply put, the sugar content in some of these can be surprisingly high (the average Chobani yogurt has 20 grams of sugar – and they sponsor the olympics – they’re supposed to be healthy!). Again, the rule is the more processed a food is, the more you should stay away from it – especially if it’s got a ton of sugar added after the fact.
Cheese is another good source of dairy and relatively safe (the fermentation process removes much of the lactose which may bother those with lactose intolerance).
Ice cream however, is still a no go. Have it as a treat every once in a while, but the sugar content is just too high to be a regular staple in the paleo diet.
Are Legumes Allowed On The Paleo Diet?
Legumes, for the uninitiated, is for all intents and purposes a pod fruit. If that still doesn’t help one bit, real life examples of legumes that you’d be familiar with include the following foods:
For more in depth knowledge on how legumes fit within the paleo diet, please see our “what the hell is a legume” article.
Where Can I Find Paleo Diet Recipes?
Some of our favorite paleo diet recipes & cookbooks can be found below:
Where Can I Find Out More About The Paleo Diet?
Fortunately there are a ton of resources online to answer all the questions you could ever have about the paleo diet. Here’s a few of our favorites.
- Mark Sisson – Probably the Godfather of the primal/paleo movement, Mark Sisson and his mascot Grok post daily bombs on paleo & primal living, eating and playing. Good, good stuff.
- Robb Wolf - 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 – Great paleo recipes & paleo resources in general.
- Nerd Fitness Paleo Article Guide
- Paleo Hacks – A useful community forum on the paleo diet.
- Paleo Plan – A practical plan for the paleo diet (say that 5 times fast)
- PaleoDiet.com – This is a wealth of resources available here if you can put up with the poor organization and visual pain of the website. It’s not the best looking site on the web, but there’s a ton of info you can pick up from it.
- Fit Bomb on the Paleo Diet
- Huffington Post on the Paleo Diet
- US News on the Paleo Diet (this is the type of stuff that makes us let out a collective sigh).
- Web MD on the Paleo Diet – Interesting look on the paleo diet from Web MD (spoiler alert: they like everything about it except cutting out grains *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).
“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, as the premiere source of paleo diet information on the web. Remember, you can also check out our paleo resources page and our paleo diet blogs list for a more complete listing of paleo diet items around the web.
Well that’s it (or so we think). If you have any questions, feel free to leave them below or send us an email.
I Need More! – Where Can I Find More Paleo Diet Resources?
- Check out our (FREE) paleo diet starter kit here
- Plan out your meals with our free paleo diet meal plans
- Check out our comprehensive paleo diet food list.
- Read up on more paleo diet resources
- Grab some paleo cookbooks.
- Find some delicious paleo diet recipes