Is eating like a caveman for you? Here’s the rationale behind the Paleo plan—and the seven basic rules you need to get started.
Tracy Miller 1 / 8
What You Need to Know About the Paleo Diet
Call it whatever you want: Paleo. The caveman diet. Primal eating.
Everyone from athletic trainers to holistic health professionals to diet book authors has something to say about why we should (or shouldn’t) take a lesson from ancient hunter-gatherers and get back to our dietary roots—which, Paleo enthusiasts will tell you, is the way humans were really designed to eat.
And for every nutritionist or worst-diets list that slams the plan, there’s a research scientist, endurance athlete or weight loss winner who swears by it.
What’s behind the hype?
The Paleo craze has its roots in a 1985 study by S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., titled “Paleolithic Nutrition,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and was further popularized by evolutionary medicine expert Loren Cordain, Ph.D., whose book The Paleo Diet, first published in 2002, is considered the seminal guide on the subject. Since then, guides to eating Paleo have proliferated, and while they may differ slightly from one another, they’re all based around a few common principles.
To give you a bit of an introduction to this prehistorically-minded nutrition plan, we broke the diet down into seven preliminary rules. Read on to learn the basics—and see if eating like a caveman could be right for you.
So with Paleo, you’re encouraged to pile on the protein, seeking out fresh, naturally raised, grass-fed and wild-caught varieties while shunning corn- or grain-fed animals and cured, processed meats. Paleo tends to favor red meat in all its glory, from beef to bison, and fish and shellfish are prized too—especially fatty ones, like salmon. (Familiar proteins like chicken, pork, hamburger and eggs are fine too, as long as their sourcing complies with the standards above.)
But wait, this sounds like too much meat…right? Critics of the diet slam its saturated fat content, but Paleo experts claim you’re retraining your body to rely on fat—not carbs—for energy. “In our world, it’s ridiculous that you would avoid eating saturated fat, provided you are also cutting back on processed carbs and the types of sugars that raise insulin and cause havoc,” says Mark Sisson, a former world-class marathoner, Ironman triathlete, and author of The Primal Blueprint, one of the most popular guides to Paleo-style eating.
When our Paleo ancestors settled down and began raising crops such as wheat and rice, that’s where our troubles began, according to Paleo advocates.
They say grains are full of hard-to-digest gluten and “antinutrients” such as lectin, which prevent the absorption of other essential vitamins and minerals—while wreaking havoc on our digestive systems. “Our ancestors would soak or sprout their grains to get rid of these antinutrients, but we don’t do that,” says Neely Quinn, integrative nutrition therapist at PaleoPlan.com.
On the Paleo diet, even gluten-free grains like quinoa are verboten; you’re better off replacing them with more meat and vegetables. Still, many Paleo practitioners say it’s fine to “cheat” once in a while—a slice of birthday cake, say, or a plate of pasta or brown rice if you’re really craving it—so long as your body can handle the grains without any nasty GI side effects.
Load up on produce—but make sure it's the right kind.
Our caveman forebears had easy access to fruit and vegetables, which means all varieties of fresh, in-season produce—from leafy greens to tubers to berries—are completely fair game. (Pro tip: If you go Paleo, you’ll probably want to get acquainted with your local farmer’s market.)
On the flip side, though, Paleo experts think we modern humans rely far too heavily on high-carb legumes, like soy, peas, chickpeas, beans, and peanuts—so they’re all nixed. “Legumes are off the diet for the same reasons as grains, minus the gluten component,” says Quinn. “They’re high in antinutrients like lectins and phytic acid."
Paleo experts are divided on whether dairy can be a healthy part of the diet. Cavemen didn’t keep cows or other livestock, and there’s some evidence to suggest our ability to tolerate lactose wanes as we age. But more relaxed practitioners say milk, yogurt and cheese are fine in very small amounts—if your system can handle it. “My take is, if you can find good sources of high-fat, raw, natural dairy and you don’t have the problem of lactose intolerance, then by all means, include dairy in part of your regimen,” says Sisson.
As Sisson mentions, any Paleo diet dairy would theoretically be consumed raw and unpasteurized to avoid the stripping away of fats and important nutrients. But this can be downright impossible unless you become pals with an organic farmer (or if you live in California, the only U.S. state where it’s legal to sell raw dairy). The everyman fix is to look for full-fat yogurts and milk, and to buy organic to avoid hormones.
Fat is a big part of Paleo eating—it’s essential to keeping you full and energized—but not all fats are encouraged. Steer clear of saturated fats found in processed meats and butter; polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which are higher in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids; and the trans fats that hide in many baked goods and processed foods. Instead, stock your pantry with artery-friendly monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and avocados, as well polyunsaturated omega-3s found in fish oils.
“Macadamia nuts are my favorite snack,” says Sisson. “They are just the king of nuts—high in monounsaturated fat, low in omega-6 fats.”
One more Paleo diet staple worth mentioning here: Coconuts. Their meat, milk and oil are also considered a healthy saturated fat, so you’ll find them in many Paleo recipes.
Even ancient humans were programmed to love the sweet stuff, but diving into a honeycomb as an occasional treat was much different than the constant stream of processed, refined sugars we end up flooding our bodies with these days. (For one thing, they had to contend with all the bees.) So on Paleo, you have permission to eat naturally occurring sweet treats like whole fruits, raw honey, coconut milk, Stevia and dark chocolate—the key, though, is to do so in moderation.
Too much sugar, even the natural kind, will send your blood sugar spiking and dipping, which will prevent your body from burning fat efficiently.
If you’re ready to go Paleo, you’ve probably realized you need to rethink your trips to the grocery store.
To avoid wheat and refined sugars, you’ll have to forgo most of the packaged and prepared foods so many of us rely on for convenience. This doesn't just mean shunning the obvious, like sliced breads and preservative-packed frozen dinners, but you'll also be checking ingredients lists on soups, sauces, condiments, and even Paleo-friendly foods like nut butters for things like added sweeteners (which often go by sneaky names like dextrose, maltose and crystalline fructose), excess sodium, and wheat-based ingredients. Shopping the perimeter of your grocery store, where the whole foods like produce and meat are located, or buying directly from farmers and butchers are good rules of thumb—and you’ll almost certainly be doing a lot more cooking.