How to Start a Paleo Diet Plan That's Right for You
Confused about the caveman-inspired eating of the Paleo diet? We’re breaking down Paleo diet basics and sharing a Paleo diet plan that will give you a taste of (really) old-school sustenance.
Paleo diet rules are based around the premise that our bodies are made to be fueled with similar foods as our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the Paleolithic Era about 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago.
What is the Paleo Diet?
No, a Paleo diet doesn’t force followers to grab a bow and arrow to hunt or forage for berries. But yes, Paleo dieters do need to limit or cut out processed foods such as sugary cereals, store-bought bread, and pints of ice cream.
There are several versions of the Paleo diet plan. Some give the green light to bacon; others forbid it due to the curing process. Some forbid sprinkling on supplemental salt; others shake with no shame. Some allow sweet treats made with wheat-free flours (coconut, almond, flax, etc.) and natural sweeteners such as honey and agave. Others consider that cheating.
Regardless, protein sources such as meats, poultry, eggs, fish, and shellfish are the cornerstone of the Paleo diet, and fresh vegetables and fruits are important, too.
“Like other diets that limit carbohydrate sources, the Paleo diet usually causes a significant amount of weight loss within the first two weeks. The body turns to its glycogen stores, a form of stored carbohydrate in the muscle, for fuel,” says Ashley Reaver, RD, a registered dietitian at Ashley Reaver Nutrition LLC in Oakland, California. “As the body is utilizing the stored carbohydrate as fuel, it releases the water that it was stored with. This results in substantial weight loss, but it’s mostly due to a loss of water and not any actual body fat.”
What are the Best Paleo Diet Foods?
A well-stocked kitchen is key to making it easier to stick to a Paleo diet. Print this Paleo diet food list list to take with you to the supermarket as your Paleo diet recipe starter pack:
- Steak, grass-fed if possible
- Sustainable seafood
- Unsweetened nut milk
- Fresh fruits, especially those low in sugar
- Fresh vegetables, especially nonstarchy options
- Fresh herbs
- Additive-free spices
- Nuts, except for peanuts
- Avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Maple syrup
Rolled oats on the left and steel-cut oats on the right
What is Off-Limits on the Paleo Diet?
Paleo diet devotees avoid the following foods, citing them as potential causes for digestion troubles, weight gain, and autoimmune issues.
- Grains: wheat, rice, barley, oats, rye, and millet
- Dairy: milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt
- Legumes: beans, peanuts, and peas
- Processed foods with additives
- Processed sugar
“Roughly half of Americans suffers from acne. For those who suffer, following an eating style similar to a Paleo diet can help reduce the occurrence and severity of breakouts. It eliminates dairy, peanuts, soy, and processed sugars, many of which have been associated with acne,” Reaver says.
Can You Share a Sample Day of Paleo Diet Recipes?
From the moment you wake up, you’ll need to alter your eating compared to the “complete breakfast” many Americans are used to consuming. Instead of a bowl of cereal or a bagel with cream cheese, eggs are a staple. But they’re not the only option.
For lunch and dinner, grilled proteins and vegetables are the centerpiece of many Paleo diet recipes. You can also create smart, low-carb swaps such as cauliflower rice or spiralized veggie noodles. And yes, Paleo diet desserts exist!
Just beware: “Even when you’re not counting them, calories still count at the end of the day. Many Paleo dessert recipes can be high in fat and sugar even if they are ‘unrefined sugars,’” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of Nutrition Starring YOU and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
Here’s a fairly fiber-rich, calorie-controlled Paleo diet menu you can try if you’re interested in dipping your toe in the Paleo pool.
Fat: 71 grams
Protein: 71 grams
Carbohydrates: 176 grams
Fiber: 10 grams
Should I Try the Paleo Diet?
For those with sensitivities to gluten and lactose, a Paleo diet plan can relieve pain and lower levels of chronic inflammation. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis found that those who ate Paleo had a lower risk for metabolic syndrome (a dangerous combo of high blood sugar, high blood pressure, extra inches around the waist, and high cholesterol) compared to those following a typical Western diet.
For the general population, though—especially those at a normal weight—Reaver and Harris-Pincus take pause.
“It's never a good idea to follow a diet that you cannot see yourself sticking to for the rest of your life, as any results that come from it will be lost when you no longer follow the diet,” Reaver says. “I don't discourage clients from going Paleo, but I do let them know that the diet lacks soluble fiber, an important type of fiber mostly found in grains and beans that is linked to healthy levels of cholesterol.”
While Harris-Pincus says she’d not recommend it to her clients, citing the lack of fiber and other heart-healthy items such as whole grains, “I like that Paleo focuses on more whole foods while eliminating processed junk,” she says.