“I Want to Eat Paleo, But I Don’t Know Where to Start!”

March 24, 2012 in Categories: , by

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I have heard this question a few dozen times lately.  Often followed by a statement of “and I couldn’t possibly give up my [insert gut-damaging food here]!”.  The reply that I refrain from making is: “You start by just doing it.  You eat paleo foods and you stop eating [expletive deleted] stuff that hurts you.”.  And while this flippant reply is tempting (and valid), it’s also disrespectful of each individual’s challenges when it comes to major diet and lifestyle changes and it doesn’t answer the real question lurking in the background.  I understand the real question to be: “I am overwhelmed with making so many changes all at once, so please give me a list of priorities that I can tackle one step at a time.”.

So then, where do you start?  The first step is to understand what a paleo diet is and how you can expect to benefit from one.  Even if you chose to tackle your transition in small steps, you need to know what the goal is:  grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free, modern vegetable oil-free, refined sugar-free, and processed food-free.  Eating this way can completely resolve (or at least dramatically improve) dozens of health conditions (some of which you may not even realize that you have!).  I have written a collection of posts that address the why’s of the paleo diet (and continue to expand on these topics weekly).  They will help you understand why each aspect of this diet is important.  I suggest starting with the following posts:

Now, that you understand a bit more about why we make these food choices when following a paleo diet, you may feel that you can just dive right in, throw out all the neolithic foods in your house and just start eating paleo.  But if you still feel a little overwhelmed, here’s a step by step (these steps can overlap) guide to tackling the transition:

1.  Get the gut-irritating foods out of your diet.  This can be done as a multi-step process while you tackle the other steps.  I suggest focusing on gluten first.  This means cutting out all foods that contain wheat, oats and barley (as well as hidden gluten ingredients like malt).  As you cut these out though, don’t replace them with gluten-free alternatives unless they are also paleo (So don’t go buy rice-, potato-, or sorghum-based gluten free bread.  If you really want bread, make paleo bread.  Better yet, get used to not eating bread).  Next, focus on other grains (like rice) and pseudo-grains (like quinoa).  Next, cut out legumes.  You can switch to almond butter or other nut butters instead of peanut butter, but there really aren’t good replacements for soy products or dried/canned beans, so it’s really just a matter of getting used to life without them (note that even though green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas are legumes, most people can tolerate them on a paleo diet since the majority of what you are eating is the pod).  Last, cut out dairy products.  Many people can tolerate ghee, butter and maybe even small amounts of heavy cream, but see if you can get these from grass-fed sources (better yet, cut them out for a month and see how you feel).

2.  Start cooking all your own food.  Unfortunately, it’s really hard to get meals consistent with paleo diet principles from restaurants, take-out, delivery, or as pre-packaged meal options.  This can be one of the hardest aspects of paleolithic nutrition for people because we are so used to convenience foods.  Start collecting recipes for quick meals that can be prepared mid-week.  Start making large meals that can provide lots of leftovers.  And start filling your freezer with your own homemade meals that can be thawed and reheated for a quick, easy meal when you’re too busy or too tired to cook.  I very rarely cook one meal’s worth of anything anymore (unless it’s something that just really doesn’t reheat well).

3.  Get used to your meals consisting of some kind of protein (meat, fish or eggs) and some vegetables (maybe a few different vegetables).  This should be what every meal looks like, even breakfast.  Some fruit and nuts are okay, but they shouldn’t be the foundation of your diet.  This would be a good time to try some new vegetables or types of meat and fish and some new ways to mix them together and cook them.

4. Start thinking about carbohydrates, especially added sugars.  Chances are that just by cutting grains, legumes, and dairy out of your diet, you have dramatically reduced your carbohydrate intake.  Once everything else is in place, have a look at what sugars and starches remain in your diet.  A paleo diet is not necessarily a low-carb diet and you may choose to include lots of starchy vegetables and fruits in your diet.  But, you still want to cut out the added sugars in your diet.  If you have been relying on paleo baked goods to get you through cravings, now is the time to cut back.  If you still add sugar or sweetener to your tea or coffee, try weaning yourself off or finding a different beverage that you like unsweetened.  Cut out juice, soda, and other high-sugar/high-sweetener drinks entirely (even diet soda!).

5.  Start thinking about fats.  Switch to using tallow, lard, bacon fat (all preferably pastured), and coconut oil as your main cooking fats.  Use olive oil, avocado oil and macadamia nut oil as your raw fats (like salad dressings).  Also start thinking about your omega-3 to omega-6 intake.  If you’re still eating alot of conventional meat, maybe you want to take a fish oil supplement.  Better yet, go straight to the next step…

6.  Address food quality.  You’ve probably already cut out all of the processed food from your diet just by cutting out sugars and pre-packaged foods.  If there are any remaining processed food chemicals in your diet (like bacon or deli meats with nitrates), now is the time to cut them out.  It’s also time to start thinking about where your food is coming from.  Budget permitting, start eating grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, pastured eggs, and organic, locally-grown and in-season fruits and vegetables. 

7. Purge your pantry.  As you go through each step, throw out foods you have in the house that you don’t eat anymore (or compost, or feed to some ducks, or give to a food bank or a non-paleo friend).

8.  Find support.  One of the toughest things about switching to a paleo diet can be the lack of understanding from friends and family.  I suggest finding some blogs (like mine!) and/or podcasts to follow, some forums where you can post questions, and see if any of your friends/acquaintances have restricted diets (someone who eats gluten-free will be fairly understanding of your choices even if they don’t eat paleo).  Feeling like you are part of a paleo community will help you find ways to cope with questions and uninformed judgments from those around you.

9.  Address other lifestyle factors.  Once you have transitioned to a paleo diet, make sure that you don’t ignore the other aspects of a paleolithic lifestyle, especially sleep, managing stress, getting sun exposure and getting exercise.

10.  Celebrate!  You’ve done it!  Appreciate how far you’ve come and revel in how great you feel.


It’s scary to contemplate the whole change. I know I was totally overwhelmed when I looked at the big picture. For me I just thought I’d jump in and try it to see how long I could go. I aimed for 1 week but wasn’t sure I could even stick with that. I made it that far and then just challenged myself to see how far I could make it. All the while still thinking I’d probably cave any day now and being prepared not to beat myself up if I did. Trying and failing would be better than not trying at all. Read all the blogs I could find to learn more and motivate myself every day. Been over 2 months now and I’m still going. I think some people freeze looking at the big picture. Sometimes you’ve just got to focus no farther than the day in front of you, or even just the next hour and then you string them all together and you’ve done it.

I have a friend that has two young children, one with autism and the other with ADD and severe allergies. I have been telling her about our change to the Paleo diet and all the benefits. I told her I really believe it could help alleviate a lot of the problems in her children’s behavior and symptoms. She is on board but having a hard time convincing her husband. He is the type that needs to see documented research and/or testimonials. Do you know of any articles, research, etc. on paleo and behavior disorders that I could send to him to read? I have been googling but not coming up with much. Thanks for your help!

Hi Tina,

I definitely think that a paleo diet could help your friend’s children.

I think that most of the evidence for paleo helping autism and ADD is anecdotal (for example, this blog post by paleo guru Robb Wolf http://www.robbwolf.com/2011/05/23/real-life-testimonial-scarlets-turnaround-autism-paleo/ and also this website http://www.autismweb.com/diet.htm ). However there is more science suggesting gluten-free and casein-free (which is most of the way to paleo), can be very helpful (see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120229105128.htm ). I would highly recommend checking out this blog: http://peacelovepaleo.net/about/

These are the less technical summaries of the articles. The science articles they reference seem to all be pay-for-access. Anyway, I hope this helps!

Thank you SO SO much for taking the time to reply and gather this information. I really appreciate it. I just reviewed and sent them over to her. THANK YOU!!

Thanks for posting this – it IS overwhelming! I am going to start by making dinners paleo friendly. That will be a big step as is. I am also using up things in my pantry and not buying them again i.e lentils, pasta etc. I will try (aim!) to buy paleo only ingredients. Keeping the dark chocolate, and will switch to red wine. I will make some small changes and see if I start to feel a bit better and then take it into more of my diet.
I do not want to give up cheese either – that will be hard, I LOVE feta!?!

That’s exactly what we did (I did eventually get around to purging the panty, but it was about 6 months of only buying paleo foods and slowly transitioning my family first). Lots of people continuing eating cheese, but I will also say that LOTS of people notice a huge improvement in their health when they give it up. I’ll have to see if I can come up with a coconut milk-based cheese that is similar to feta. 🙂

Huge thanks to you… you’re making such a difference. For me personally, I am already gluten free (coeliac – whole family is), but I still find it difficult due to time. Takes ages to cook enough to meet an active lifestyle – we are out and about a lot and I need to cook and have lots of food on hand for the kids and I. I’ll get that, but thank you so much. I just couldn’t do it alone.

Nice post! I noticed in your personal information that you noticed an improvemet in migraines on Paleo. I have been *mostly* Paleo for about 5 months and have also noticed fewer migraines. I didn’t have ANY migraines in April, the month I started Crossfit. I have had a few since then (twice when I consumed a small amount of white bread). Do you have any thoughts as to specifically why Paleo reduced your migraines?

I think it has to do with improved vascular health (migraines are believed to be caused by inappropriate dilation and contraction of blood vessels around the brain and/or by inflammation in those vessels). A paleo diet makes absolutely profound improvements to inflammation in blood vessels, regulates blood pressure, and because hormones and regulated and because there are far fewer oxidants in the diet (like sugar), there is better regulation of vascular tone (high sugar causes a cascade of proteins to be released, many of which dilate blood vessels). It’s a topic on my To Do list to thoroughly research and write up for a post, but these are my thoughts so far. I’ve only had 2 or 3 migraines since starting paleo, each time after eating something I shouldn’t.

I am totally on board with making the change to Paleo, problem, the rest of my family. I have 9 year old twin boys who are extremely picky eaters. They were born premature 28.5 weeks and from the beginning doctors were telling me they needed to gain weight at all costs. Once at a well visit I was even advised to feed my 2 year old chicken nuggets to get the weight on….ugh! Can’t believe I got that advice from a doctor, then again, I guess I can since my own doctor at my physical told me he is not really qualified to give nutritional advice. Anyway, I guess my question is, where can I find some kind of shopping list to get started and also, I think I need to start with foods they recognize only with paleo friendly ingredients to get them started. My husband is a meat and potatos guy who just want “regular Food” he does not require anything fancy and me, I have come to the point where I will at least try antything in order to get myself and my family healthy. We have learning/focus issues with the kids as well and I will not go near any type of add/adhd meds. Sorry for long post….any help is appreciated. Thanks

I had a similar experience with my oldest. But, we re told to feed her instant pudding made with heavy cream after every meal! It’s definitely a slower road when you’re also dealing with that kind of history. But, we approached it that way, focus on foods they already like and find gluten-free or paleo versions of their staples. We still make plenty of pancakes, bread, and things like homemade granola bars… Even after more than a year. Our first focus was gluten-free and I bought plenty of gluten-free breakfast cereals and waffles in those first couple of months, before figuring out how to make paleo versions at home. That made a huge difference to health and behavior and we saw another huge difference when we went fully grain-free and dairy-free. But, we took about 6 months to switch over and I think m oldest’s taste buds are still slowly adapting (her biggest struggle has been jaw strength and coordination to chew meat and we still have battles over suppers).

I don’t have a specific shopping list, but you can look at the kids section in the recipes menu for some paleofied kid staples. I also have some pantry items type lists to help you get started with baking.

I am just starting paleo. Well, I am one that researches and makes small changes. But I am ready to do it 100%. I think I have found enough different foods to make it or at least until I figure some other things out. But right now my biggest challenge is my daughter is deathly allergic to nuts. I am trying to get them to eat healthier too but it really limits the things that I can make especially like desserts. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

Under Paleo Baked Goods, I have an entire section dedicated to nut-free baking (some recipes contain coconut because so many people allergic to nuts can still eat it). Also check out my perfect paleo pancake and creme recipe in breakfast.

I started the AIP last week and tried to purchase some of the books you suggested as well as reading & connecting with several blogs. I thought I was ordering Practical Paleo as you have referred, but when my shipment came today I realized I had made a mistake & ordered Everyday Paleo Family Cookbook instead. Is the Practical Paleo more detailed? Would you suggest I order it as well? Or should I just wait for yours?

Yes, Practical Paleo has tons and tons more information (in fact, I would say its more of a resource than a cookbook, but its a great cookbook too). But, there isn’t that much specific to AIP (but more than any other book to date). I personally think that there’s a lot between Practical Paleo and my book that will complement each other, and certainly not much overlap.

My husband has Hoshimotos. At this time he is gluten free and not doing well. We really want to try the autoimmune paleo diet. I want to be completely prepared so I do not set him up for failure on this. I’m very confused on where to start. Especially after reading some of your posts about “if you have Hashis don’t do this or that” . I need a starting point. Quite frankly I am completely over whelmed by all the reading I have been doing about a number of different things and I need a clear starting point. If you could please give me any suggestions I would appreciate it. Working full time, taking care of and worrying about my sick husband and raising a family all at the same time. I just want to do whatever I can to help my husband get back some of the person he was until a year and a half ago. Thanks for any advise you can give.

I saw this post on your journey, and I am very impressed with the challenges you overcame, I was told that I have to go on a total vegan/diabetic/gluten free diet to save my liver, autoimmune disease, my body cannot absorb sugar, it cannot tolerate red meat, it cannot handle breads or sugars of any kind, and I have been at an extreme loss as to where to start, what to do, where to go, and if I had the time right now I would read every single thing you have on your website 🙂 LOL….the doctor didn’t really tell me much except to go and read a bunch of different books, so this is encouraging to look at thank you so much 🙂

What about sprouted beans? From what I understand, when the beans are sprouted, the gut-irritating components are deactivated and some good health components are activated. I LOVE sprouted beans, but I’m willing to give them up if even they are bad. I just haven’t seen them addressed.

Many of the antinutrients are reduced but some aren’t. The agglutinins in them, which cause increased intestinal permeability and stimulate the immune system, are present in the sprouts until mature leaves form, which is about a week for most seeds. Many agglutinins are deactivated by cooking, so if you were going to say, cook mung bean sprouts and you’re a healthy person, I think that would be fine. If you’re going paleo to address some health issues, it would be better to leave them out of your diet for a month and then try them again to see how you do. In general, I think sprouted beans should be well tolerated by most people, especially if cooked.

Thank you for your blog. Lots of great recipes and advice! I’m struggling with the decision of whether to go paleo or not – reading about it I know I should give it a go but it seems such a big step to take and it scares me so much. I have been fighting multiple food intolerances and was at one point down to 10 foods I could eat at all. I can tolerate more foods now but have major histamine issues and leaky gut (I know these are probably linked). My biggest problem is a chronic and worsening fatigue. Last year I was an active cyclist and was able to go a good 90 miles on the bike. At this point I sometimes can’t manage a single flight of stairs. Doctors are clueless, and I still think somehow diet could be the key to making me feel better. I don’t eat meat (and won’t reintroduce it) and don’t tolerate coconut very well. No nuts either, no fermented foods. I don’t eat grains anymore and no sugar except from fruit, but I depend so heavily on dairy. I feel letting go of it (after successfully reintroducing it too) will cut down my food options so much. I know I don’t have much to lose, why is it so difficult to give it try?
Sorry, I know there’s no good answer to this because there’s no real question. I just felt I had to put my struggle into words. I’m sure there must be others out there going through the same thing.

I’m sure you aren’t alone either in your struggles or your dilemma. I researched paleo for three solid months before committing, so I understand from that perspective too. The only thing I can say is that you have a lot to potentially gain from trying. Give it a couple of months. At best you will have started down the road to better health and at worst, you will have given up some favorite foods for a few months.

Astrid….have you had you B12 levels tested(blood work)? I just went through something similare and was diagnosed with pernicious anemia. Feel great now after lots of B 12 injections. Just a thought you might want to try…..

Thank you, Sarah :). This sounds very much like the rational voice in my head (the more emotional one is more like “But your diet is so restricted already, why would you want to restrict it any further?”). The irony is that I’m probably already 85-90% there! It’s pretty just dairy between me and paleo ;). So here’s the deal – I’ve decided to cut out dairy for a week and see how it goes. If it doesn’t kill me, I’ll continue for a bit longer to see whether I see any improvements.
Again, thanks for your response and your blog – it’s a great resource! Greetings from Germany, Astrid

Dear Dr. Ballantyne,

Your story and blog are inspirational. I thoroughly enjoy the scientific aspect of your blog and how you address multiple common paleo questions. I mentioned your story and blog in my essay “The New Paleolithic Era: A Debate of Diet.” In this work I attempt to close the gap between paleo and non paleo eaters. I present both the positives of the paleo diet and the implications that make paleo not possible for everyone. The link is below and I would love feedback if possible.


Thank you,

Tanna M
The Green Room at Iowa State University

The first time I got rid of everything in my pantry I didn’t think it would make a big difference. I found myself walking up several times throughout the day looking for something to snack on…. but it was empty. So it totally made me realize how often I eat random junk that adds extra calories.

Thanks for the article!

First off, I’m loving your blog; it is really inspiring. Anywhoo, I am a person who is in the gym 2hr per day/ 6 days a week. I’ve been wanting to get into the Paleo diet for a while now, but I’ve been a little apprehensive due to the carb-free nature of the lifestyle. What do you suggest about energy substitutes? Also, what do you think about quinoa? I know it can been very processed and starchy ( = not paleo friendly). I would love any suggestions

Paleo is not carb-free and you’ll find that the mainstream paleo movement strongly endorses starchy vegetables as well as fruit in moderation. You’ll even fine a large number of people who include white rice in their diet regularly.

Just came across your blog/page. I’m trying to see what is a better life change for us, and have been slowly making changes to our diet. However, the one thing we love is our grass fed raw milk, and raw milk cheese. I see that you ( or the Paleo diet) state no dairy. Does that include all raw milk based products? or processed dairy.

Hi I am Salicylate Intolerant and, Gluten Int. so I cant do the complete Paleo diet but I didnt even realize that I was doing most of it. There are very few fruits and vegetables that I can eat. I drink only water.On a typical day, I eat eggs over rice or quinoa, I eat chicken salad and papaya over lettuce for lunch and a meat or fish with string beans for dinner. I avoid artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, MSG,and sodium nitrate. By avoiding all foods moderate to very high in sals I was able to get rid of migraines, asthma, arthritis, swollen glands, dizziness, nauseousness, and a foggy headed feeling. I actually wrote a book called,”Salicylate Intolerance and The Healthier I Ate the Sicker I Got.” Because I was eating too many fruits, veggies, apple cider vinegar, etc.

Here is my question. Why are legumes bad for me. My diet is so limited that I thought beans were high in fiber and protein and good for me. I seem to digest them very well. Once I went Gluten free I realized that any gas I had was from the gluten. THank you, Joan

Hi there. I am excited to say that I am going to begin the paleo lifestyle tomorrow morning. I lost over 80 lbs already , however, have hit a major plateau recently. Here’s to hoping to break through this plateau!

My hubby and I have done Paleo since January 2014 & feel great! We just jumped right in and totally decided to make this our new lifestyle of eating. We both suffered joint pain and needed to lose a few pounds. After the first 30 days we no longer had joint pain and had lost 14 &15 pounds.

[…] This is the next article I want you to read.  Below the second paragraph there are several links in blue.  DO NOT click on those…just yet.  Finish reading the article and then go back at your leisure and read the others.  Sarah’s entire website is dedicated to educating readers about the paleo lifestyle and how it can improve your health.  I know most people search out information about paleo because they want to lose weight, but as Sarah points out, it has been known to cure disorders and also free people of medications they have been on for years.  She also has a recipe section, but I will tell you that I have not tried any of her recipes yet.  So many recipes, so little time! […]

Hi Sarah,

Thank you for all of the incredible information. My 7-year-old daughter was recently (2 days ago) diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. After reading through your blog (I also bought your books), I think Paleo might be the way for our family to go; however, the symptoms of her disease are almost intolerable right now. She has missed 2 full weeks of school, and is in pain all day every day. Do you still recommend starting the way this post describes, by cutting gluten first? I’m a bit overwhelmed by the transition, and feel like I don’t have the luxury of taking my time to ease my family into it.

Thank you for all of this! I don’t even know how I would feel if I didn’t have all of these resources to read through. It’s the only way I feel “powerful” in an otherwise “powerless” situation.

Hi every body,
Diet is not about losing weight, it’s about eating right. Read Grain Brain and you will understand Paleo Diet. Sugars cause inflammation, which ages us. Marketing is damage you up. A slice of whole wheat bread is probably the worst thing you can put in your mouth. It’s about putting gas in your engine, not diesel. And yes arthritis is gone, the bags under my eyes are gone and as a side effect, went from 180 to 152. Don’t knock it till you try it. And you have to put the alcohol away.I used to have big problems with lose weight tips, but am getting in better shape now. Here’s a good site I found that really helped. It gave me great methods and and showed me what I was doing wrong before…there’s even lots of free articles on the site…http://www.cavediet.net

The key point for those wanting to start a paleo diet is definitely understanding what it is all about and how it can benefit your lifestyle. Would you recommend cutting out bread all together or trying paleo bread if your a lover of bread ?
It can be very hard changing your lifestyle and diet and reading though the points you have made, point 8 – Support groups, can you recommend any support groups?

This was a wealth of information. I started reading and couldn’t stop. Thank you so much.
Looking forward to feeling good agin.

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