One questions we’ve been getting a lot over here at the Ultimate Paleo Guide is this:
“How much food should I be eating while on Paleo?”
So, whether you’re just beginning your paleo journey and you’re not sure where to start, or you’ve been solid paleo for a little while now but you’re not quite seeing the results you’d like, this post is for you.
Table of Contents
Assess, Don’t Guess
The serving size recommendations in this post will provide you with a general starting point. Each person has different needs in terms of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) according to their:
- Lean body mass
- Activity levels
This is why it’s so important to take various measurements before making adjustments your nutritional approach. To set yourself up for success, and to know what is and what is not working, you need feedback.
Before even thinking about serving sizes, make sure to take care of the following.
Body weight measurements: One way to measure progress is to hop on a bathroom scale. There’s no need to hop on the scale every day (although if you can handle it, this can be a great way to hold yourself accountable). Once a week is sufficient. Just make sure that you weigh yourself on the same day and at the same time every week. Your weight fluctuates according to what you’ve just eaten and drank, and depending on what your hormones are doing, among other things. Record your results each week in a small notebook.
- Equipment: Traditional bathroom scale (preferably digital) or doctor’s scale.
Body girth measurements: To get a little more feedback than you’ll get just from hopping on the scale, take body girth measurements. You’ll want to do this weekly. You may find that you weigh the same or that you’ve even gained a few pounds but that your clothes are fitting differently. Your pants are a little looser and your shirts are a bit baggier, so you must be shrinking, right?
Well, why not find out? Using MyoTape or a cloth measuring tape, you can take a few different measurements to help you assess whether or not you may need to make adjustments to your current diet.
What you’ll want to measure:
- Neck: Just below the Adam’s apple
- Arm/bicep: Halfway between the armpit and the elbow joint
- Chest: In line with the nipple and the shoulder blade as you move round to the back
- Waist: At the belly button, keeping the measuring tape level as you move round to the back
- Thigh: At the halfway point between the groin and the knee joint
- Calf: The largest part of your calf
See if you can get a friend or family member to do the measurements for you to get the most accurate results. Make sure to hold the tape firmly against the skin but not so tight that it presses into the skin. Take three measurements for each location and use average of the three as your results.
- Equipment needed: MyoTape or vinyl tape measure
Photos: You’ll probably find that taking photos of your body is the best way to measure your progress. Let’s be honest; there are many reasons why we want to be healthier, get fit, and make healthy changes, and one of those reasons is that we’d like to look better naked. There’s no better way to see your progress than by taking before and after photos.
That said, it may take a little longer to see progress in photos, so take them every 30-60 days.
- Men: Take your photos shirtless with basketball or board shorts on (preferably above the knee)
- Women: Take your photos in a sports bra or bathing suit top with shorts or bathing suit bottoms
Make sure you are in a well-lit room when you take your photos and try to take them on the same day, at the same time, in the same place, and using the same camera settings each time.
Take three shots: one of you facing the camera, one of your profile, and one from the back. Make sure your whole body from head to toe is captured. Store these pictures on your camera phone or create a file on your computer.
Every month compare your photos. I recommend using an app like Diptic, so that you can crop each picture and put them in a frame for easy viewing.
- Equipment needed: Any camera or camera phone will usually do
How you feel: Keep a journal to record how you feel on a daily basis. Are you noticing changes in your energy, mood, concentration, or confidence? Does your body feel differently? Is your blood pressure lower? Is your cholesterol down? Are you able to sleep better? Note anything that may be of relevance, both good and bad.
Keep track of your workouts and performance as well. Are you now lifting more weight and becoming stronger, running a faster mile, or can you now do your first pull-up?
Body fat measurements (optional but recommended): We won’t get into this in too much detail because trying to measure body fat on your own can be a bit tedious and difficult. It’s best to contact a trainer to have them perform a skin caliper test or to find a BioSignature practitioner near you to perform a body fat test.
If you do have skin fold measurements taken, make sure they are taken by the same person at roughly the same time of the day each time, for consistency.
Other methods you can also look into include:
- Bod Pod: This calculates your body fat using air displacement. It’s a little pricey at roughly $75-100 per session but it’s fairly accurate.
- Hydrostatic/water displacement: Again, this is pretty darn accurate but it can be a little uncomfortable for some people, as it requires submerging yourself underwater for a few seconds and blowing out as much air from your lungs as possible.
- DEXA scanning: This method uses a full X-ray of your body to determine your body composition. It is extremely accurate but the price can range from $100-300 per session.
Now you know a few ways to assess your progress to avoid guessing what changes you should make to your nutritional approach, we can get into serving sizes.
You may think that losing weight is as simple as consuming fewer calories or burning more calories than you consume. Or that, to pack on a few pounds, simply eating more food and burning a little less is the way to go.
Unfortunately there’s a little more to it than that. We won’t get into all the details (that’s a topic for another day) but, basically, because of the way nutrition influences the hormonal environment in the body, the ‘calories in versus calories out’ approach doesn’t always work. 2,500 calories from Snickers bars are different to 2,500 calories of broccoli.
Food labels only provide us with very general approximations of calories, vitamins, and other nutrients. For more accurate measurements, a bomb calorimeter would need to be used.
Calorie counting is also an inexact science. It can give you a rough estimate of how much energy (how many calories) you are consuming every day but it is not precise. There are many factors that can influence the calorie, nutrient, and mineral content of the foods you eat:
- Expiration dates: Expired foods and foods close to expiry lose energy and nutrients.
- Animal nutrition: The living conditions of animals, as well as the food they are fed, influence the nutrition and energy contained in the food they produce.
- Starches: Certain starches and fibers are not processed efficiently by the body, which means you don’t get all the nutrients and calories from them.
- Storage: Food picked and sold at a farmer’s market the same day will have a different nutritional profile to food that has been on a shelf for weeks.
- Cooking: Raw food and cooked food also have very different nutritional values.
Because of the factors listed above, it makes sense to save yourself a ton of trouble by skipping the calorie counting and using the serving size recommendations below.
Ditch the measuring cups, food scales, and apps, in favor of your hand.
- Men: Two palm-sized servings of protein per meal (three whole eggs)
- Women: One palm-sized serving of protein per meal (two whole eggs)
- Type: Grass-fed beef, wild-caught seafood, free range poultry, or anything from our food list
When I refer to carbohydrates, I am including vegetables, fruit, and paleo starches. You’ll want to eat a serving of veggies with each of your meals. If fat loss is your goal, limit fruit to one or two servings per day of low-sugar options like berries. Starches should be left for post-workout nutrition only.
- Men: One to two fist-sized servings of veggies per meal. The same goes for fruit and starchy carbs.
- Women: One fist-sized serving of veggies per meal. The same goes for fruit and starchy carbs.
- Type: Leafy greens, low-sugar fruit like berries, and starchy carbs like taro or sweet potatoes
- Men: Two thumb-sized servings per meal
- Women: One thumb-sized serving per meal
(This works out at roughly two tablespoons of coconut or olive oil per meal for men and one tablespoon for women.)
- Types: Avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, and nuts and seeds if you do not have any issues with them
NOTE: For a complete list of paleo-approved foods, check out the UPG Paleo Food List.
How To Make Adjustments
Because we all have different hand sizes, body compositions, metabolisms, ages, ethnicities, and genders, the above guidelines will give you a place to start. However, once you’re taking measurements, you will be able to track your progress and make adjustments as necessary.
Here are a few tips that will help you to make adjustments as you progress.
Note: Before making any changes to your nutritional approach, give your current approach a fair chance to work. Stay consistent with it for at least thirty days before deciding whether or not you need to make any changes.
By consistent, I mean you’re sticking with your approach 90% of the time. A great way to find out whether or not you’re doing this is to use a habit tracker (or an app). How many checks do you have compared to crosses?
If your aim is to loose body fat, there are a few strategies which could enhance your results.
- Am I eating a protein source at each meal?
- Am I eating a fat source at each meal?
- Am I eating vegetables at each meal?
If you are consistent with your habits and you’re not seeing results, it may be time for a few tweaks.
1. Make sure you are sleeping for at least eight hours every night: Sleep is a big factor in fat loss. A lack of sleep can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, improper cortisol regulation, and food cravings (particularly for sugary or starchy foods).
Cover any windows with a dark sheet, blanket, or window shade to keep all light out of the room. Make sure the room is kept cool and comfortable, and try to avoid use any electronics before you go to bed.
2. De-stress, for Pete’s sake: Stress can also hinder fat-loss. Keeping stress out of your life allows for low systematic inflammation, which, in turn, will allow your body to release excess fat. Learn to take it easy
Stress can hit us in all kinds of ways. Work, family, lifestyle, and exercise are all common stressors which I’m sure we’re all well familiar with. Food is another. Foods containing gluten put a high demand on our bodies, essentially stressing them out. The same is true of any highly processed or food that is “not real”.
Do your self a favor by sticking to the real food on the list to ensure minimal internal stress. Practice meditation, take up yoga or t’ai chi, or head on for low-impact walks with pets or loved ones. You may have your own set of practices for de-stressing. Take advantage of them early and often.
3. Watch the fruit: If fat loss is your goal, limit your fruit intake to no more than one or two servings per day, with one serving being about half a fruit or one cup of berries. Fruit can contain high amounts of fructose which can slow down thyroid function (for some people but not everyone). It also may trigger sugar cravings. Try you best to limit it to one or two servings at most, if possible, after workouts only.
4. Avoid the booze: Sorry, Charlie. If your fat loss is slow, take a look at your alcohol consumption. Too much alcohol can impair your liver’s ability to detoxify which can slow down fat loss. Do you best to give alcohol up completely until you reach your goals. If you must have it, limit it to a few glasses of red wine per week. One glass per day, every few days.
5. Tell Starbucks you’ll be taking a few weeks off: If you’re drinking multiple cups of coffee or other caffeine sources every day, you may want to reduce your consumption of these beverages. Excessive caffeine can be a stressor on the body and on adrenal glands. This can lead to an increase in cortisol response. That could lead to slower fat loss.
Limit caffeine to no more than one cup (12 oz.) per day. If you are consuming caffeine, avoid it after 12PM, so that it leaves your system before it is time to get to bed.
6. Are you training for a marathon?: If the only exercise you are doing is thirty or more minutes of steady state cardio multiple time per week, you may be causing low blood sugar and a heightened stress response in your body.
Steady state cardiovascular exercise is fine but make sure to mix in some strength training, yoga, interval training, or active sports participation. The variety will do your body good and the lean muscle growth from strength training will improve your body composition and metabolism.
Make sure not to overdo it. Adequate rest from training is vital if you want to stay healthy and progress towards your goals. Make sure to take complete rest days after every couple of workouts and don’t be afraid to take a couple of days off in a row if you need to.
7. Get those Omega-3s in: Omega-3 fatty acids from sources like fish oil or krill oil, cold water fish like herring, salmon, and mackerel, and walnut and pecans are anti-inflammatory and do a great job mobilizing fat for energy. Try to eat roughly a pound of cold water fish like those mentioned above per week, or take a minimum of one to two tablespoons per day of fish or krill oil.
As a last resort: If your body is still not co-operating and is being stubborn, slowly cut back on the fats you add to each meal. I would not cut back on the fattier cuts of meat like ground beef, salmon, and steaks, but would instead limit the extra fats you add like coconut oil, olive oil, and nuts.
For example, if you are currently adding two tablespoons of healthy oil to each meal, cut back to one for now. If you are adding one tablespoon to each meal, cut back to two teaspoons. If you are eating an entire avocado, cut down to half of one. Make small adjustments and track your progress over the next two to four weeks.
Athletic Performance & Lean Muscle Gain:
Some of you trying to develop healthy eating habits might be interested in athletic performance and/or lean muscle gain. You too can tweak a few things to ensure that you are performing optimally and gaining lean muscle tissue at the same time. (Note: fat loss is still likely to occur if you have not been eating real foods on a consistent basis.)
The checklist (the same as the fat loss one above):
- Am I eating a protein source at each meal?
- Am I eating a fat source at each meal?
- Am I eating vegetables at each meal?
Just to reiterate, before making any changes, make sure that you are consistently doing each of those things.
1. Add starchy carbohydrates before and after exercise: Try to consume roughly 40-75 grams of starchy carbohydrates pre- and post-workout. Typically, try to consume your pre-workout meal one to two hours before your workout, and your post-workout meal within an hour of training. Time may vary, so please pay attention to how meals make you feel.
Add or subtract carbohydrates pre- and post-workout as necessary and according to the results you see, the intensity of your sessions, how long you work out for, and, most importantly, how you feel. Sweet potatoes, cassava root, and berries would be good choices both before and after exercise.
2. Train smart: Listen to your body and take rest days as needed. Different sports, athletic events, and schedules will determine when you train but be sure to schedule in rest days. I often see those wanting to improve their performance or gain muscle trying to train longer, more often, or with more volume, but you body needs ample time to recover, rejuvenate, and grow.
A good rule of thumb is to try not to train for more than two or three days in a row. Limit any long steady state cardiovascular exercise and, if any is performed, keep it to short, intense interval training sessions no more than twice a week.
If CrossFit happens to be your sport of choice and you are performing WODs multiple times per week, those carbohydrates and rest days will be vital to your success, ability to recover, and performance.
3. Make sure you are sleeping for at least eight hours every night: Sleep is a big factor in fat loss. A lack of sleep can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar, improper cortisol regulation, and food cravings, especially for sugary or starchy foods.
Last But Not Least
My word! You mean there’s more?
Hey, the UPG just wants to make sure you are taken care of.
Serving sizes are important but don’t forget the following.
1. Quality over quantity comes first: Real food (three ingredients = ok, two ingredients = good, one ingredient = great, 0 ingredients = awesome!) means satiety, stable blood sugar levels, and better nutrient composition.
2. Slow down and eat mindfully: It takes our stomachs about twenty minutes to send the message to our brains that we’re full. Slow down, use chopsticks if you have to, or put down the utensils as you chew.
Eliminate distractions like the television, your phone, or the computer while you’re eating. Schedule time in your day to eat, so that you’re never eating on the run or in a stressful situation.
Slowing down and eating more mindfully will help with proper digestion and balanced blood sugar levels.
If your goal is to eat less, try using smaller plates or containers.
3. Opt for meals over snacks: Snacking usually results in poor food choices, mindless consumption, and eating far too quickly. If you have no choice but to snack because you’re always on the go and it’s difficult for you to sit down to eat meals, focus on consuming healthy fats and small amounts of protein to keep your blood sugar levels stable, and create a feeling of satiety.
Macadamia nuts make for a great snack but make sure to have a serving (a small handful) prepared (in a bag or container) ahead of time, so you don’t end up eating from the jar without thinking (guilty as charged).
One to two tablespoons of coconut oil right out of the jar is also a great snack. Don’t knock it until you try it.
If you have any questions, are confused at all, or just need some general advice, do not hesitate to comment below, email us, or look into personalized coaching.
There are also tons of free resources, our 30 Day Paleo Challenge to help jump-start your journey, and meal plans if you could do with a hand in cooking department.
Photo credit: Charlotte Astrid, Tiffany Terry, Andrew_Writer
Download Your FREE Paleo Starter Kit Today!
- 3-Day Paleo Diet Meal Plan
- Comprehensive Paleo Diet Shopping List
- 5 of Our Favorite Paleo Diet Recipes