What is the Paleo Diet?

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The Paleo diet is a nutrient-dense whole foods diet based on eating a variety of quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  It improves health by providing balanced and complete nutrition while avoiding most processed and refined foods and empty calories.

What do you eat on the Paleo Diet?

Following a Paleo diet is actually pretty simple.  There’s a huge variety of health-promoting foods to choose from, including

  • all meats
  • all seafood
  • eggs
  • vegetables of all kinds
  • fruits of all kinds
  • edible fungi like mushrooms
  • nuts and seeds

At it’s core, the Paleo diet is a plant-based diet, with two thirds or more of your plate covered with plant foods and only one third with animal foods.  Of course, meat consumption is enthusiastically endorsed as well because it provides vital nutrients not obtainable from plant sources.  Sourcing the highest quality food you can is encouraged, meaning choosing grass-fed or pasture-raised meat, wild-caught seafood, and local organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible.

Food Pyramid 1

Variety is very important because a variety of different foods supplies a variety of different nutrients.  By focusing on as many different whole foods as possible, it’s easier to achieve sufficient and synergistic quantities of all the nutrients, including potentially some that haven’t been discovered yet.  Easy strategies to increase variety include “eating the rainbow”, meaning that you choose fruits and vegetables of different colors, and “eating snout-to-tail”, meaning you eat every part of the animal, including offal.

How can the Paleo diet improve health?

Clinical trials demonstrate that a Paleo diet improves cardiovascular disease risk factors, reduces inflammation, improves glucose tolerance, helps with weight loss and can even improve autoimmune disease.

By focusing on the most nutrient-dense foods available and by eliminating foods that can contribute to hormone dysregulation, inflammation, and gut dysbiosis (where the bacteria in your gut are the wrong kinds, wrong diversity, wrong numbers, and/or in the wrong part of the gastrointestinal tract), a Paleo diet can improve a vast array of health conditions. It’s also great for weight normalization, meaning that overweight people tend to lose weight but underweight people tend to gain weight.

The Paleo diet provides the foundation for a healthy digestive system.  It supports healthy growth of a diversity of probiotic bacteria in the gut through its focus on prebiotic and probiotic foods and through its avoidance of foods that contribute to gut dysbiosis (where the bacteria in your gut are the wrong kinds, wrong diversity, wrong numbers, and/or in the wrong part of the gastrointestinal tract).  It supports the health of the tissues that form the gut barrier by supplying essential nutrients required for gut barrier integrity and by avoiding foods that are inherently difficult to digest, are known to irritate or damage the tissues that form the gut barrier, or that are known to stimulate the immune system.

The Paleo diet reduces inflammation and supports normal functioning of the immune system.  Foods that are inherently inflammatory are avoided, removing this unnecessary stimulus for increased inflammation. By providing the essential nutrients that the immune system requires to regulate itself, an overactive immune system can be modulated.  By providing the essential nutrients that the immune system needs to function optimally, a suppressed immune system can recover.

The Paleo diet supports liver detoxification systems by supporting gut health and by providing the essential nutrients that the liver needs to performs its functions.  The Paleo diet supports hormone regulation by focusing on foods that contain the nutrients required for hormone balance and avoiding foods known to stimulate or suppress vital hormone systems.  Because providing the body with the essential nutrients that it needs to be healthy forms the basis of the Paleo diet, every system in the human body is positively affected by this approach to food.

A diet that’s not a Diet

The Paleo diet is also the first time a set of diet principles has been compiled using modern scientific health and nutrition research.  While the initial insight leading to the Paleo diet was gleaned from studies of Paleolithic man and both modern and historically-studied hunter-gatherers, the core support for this way of eating comes from contemporary biology, physiology, and biochemistry. There are thousands of scientific studies that each evaluate how components in foods interact with the human body to promote or undermine health.  These are the studies used to form the basic tenets of the Paleo diet.

There are no hard and fast rules about when to eat, how much protein versus fat versus carbohydrates to eat, and there’s even some foods (like high quality dairy and potatoes) which some people choose to include in their diets whereas others do not. This means that’s there’s room to experiment so you can figure out not just what makes you healthiest but also what makes you happiest and fits into your schedule and budget.

Best of all, the Paleo diet is not a diet in the sense of some hard thing that you do that requires a great deal of willpower and self-deprivation until you reach some goal. It’s a way of life.  Because the focus is long-term health, the Paleo diet allows for imperfection but educates you so that you can make the best choices possible.

Sustainability is an important tenet of the Paleo diet, meaning that this is a way of eating and living that you can commit to and maintain for your entire life.  This means that you have the flexibility to experiment with your own body to discover what is optimal versus what is tolerable, to find what works best for you and fits into your life for the long term. For some people, flexibility is achieved by following an 80/20 rule (or a 90/10) rule, which means that 80% (or 90%) of your diet are healthy Paleo foods and the other 20% (or 10%) are not.  Many people find that they are healthiest when their 20% (or 10%) continues to avoid the most inflammatory foods such as wheat, soy, peanuts, pasteurized industrially-produced dairy, and processed food chemicals.

What foods are eliminated?

The foods that are eliminated in a Paleo diet are the ones that provide our bodies with very little nutrition (especially for the amount of energy they contain), and that are difficult to digest (which can cause gut health problems and contribute to gut dysbiosis), and have the ability to stimulate inflammation or mess around with important hormones.

Generally, a Paleo diet excludes:

  • grains and pseudograins
  • legumes (legumes with edible pods like green beans are fine)
  • dairy (especially pasteurized industrially-produced)
  • refined and processed foods (including refined seed oils like canola oil and safflower oil, refined sugars, and chemical additives and preservatives)

There are many foods that can be additionally problematic, especially for those with chronic health conditions, typically referred to as “gray-area” foods (see the Autoimmune Protocol).

There are also many foods that might be tolerated and reintroduced to your diet after an elimination phase.  This is generally referred to as the “shades of Paleo”.  Some people enjoy white rice in their diets.  Others include good quality (i.e., grass-fed) dairy is generally considered fine to include with the caveat that a large percentage of people are sensitive or intolerant (and might not know it).  The best way to know whether or not these foods work for you is to cut them out completely for a few weeks and then reintroduce one at a time and see how you feel.

Where can I get more information?

Click here to download a FREE pdf version of this post!

This blog is full of articles, easily accessed through the menus or the search function, that address many aspects of the Paleo diet and lifestyle.  If you enjoy the science, you’ll love my New York Times bestselling book, The Paleo Approach.

You can also download a printable version of this page here.

Also, get access to my FREE Paleo Quick-Start Guide by signing up for my weekly newsletter.  See the box below!

 

Comments

The Paleo diet ma be better than the existing western diet of processed foods. However there is no science to back it up. In fact the science proves that this is not what Paleolithic man ate.

1. What is the message promoting?
The message is promoting a weight loss diet consisting of high protein, fat, fruit and vegetables.
2. What problem is this recommendation intended to solve? Is it, in your opinion, an important opinion?
The problem to solve is to lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes by losing weight. These problems are very important. Both heart disease and diabetes are terrible diseases which may lead to death and cost billions of dollars a year in health care.
3. What questions being asked? And what questions not being asked?
“What would the cave man do?” What did the cave man eat? Are there any risks to eating Paleo? “Is the Paleo really a healthy alternative to the modern diet?” “Is the Paleo better than the current western diet?” “Is the problem highly processed, energy dense, nutrient poor foods?” Is the Paleo diet good or is the current western diet really bad?
4. What kind of evidence being used to answer these questions? How does it relate to other evidence used on this topic if you know?
There is very little evidence to support this theory. One very small study of 14 participants was conducted. Amanda Henry, a paleo-biologist, suggests Paleolithic man probably ate a diet of plants. And Katharine Milton, a physical anthropologist, state, “The human diet has always been anything you could get your mits on that won’t kill you and they could digest.”
5. What kind of assumptions being made about the problem?
The assumptions is that the paleo diet is healthier than the current western diet of highly processed food. And people following the Paleo diet will lose weight and thus reduce their change of heart disease and diabetes.
6. What can you tell about the authors approach to nutrition science?
The author of the Paleo diet has an uneducated approach to nutrition and what people who lived in the Paleolithic era ate. What might be missing? The Paleo diet is missing scientific evidence, peer review and comprehensive studies.
7. Are the conclusions well-reasoned and warranted? The conclusions that weight loss may lead to less heart disease and diabetes is accurate. However the Paleo diet provides no evidence significant weight loss will result by following this diet.
8. What might be some important conclusions to accepting these conclusions? Relying on a diet of fat and animal protein will most likely result in increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Environmentally, the production of animal based foods is a terrible threat to the environment. Livestock farming results in pollution, greenhouse gasses and global warming. In places like the Amazon livestock farming results in loss of habitat and deforestation.

Feel free to carry on eating your current ‘western’ diet and live with the consequences! Nobody is forcing you to eat Paleo! It’s quite simple to see why a diet full of nutritious vegetables, fruit and meat might be better for one that eating processed foods that resemble nothing natural.
If you need science to back it up why, then just stick to your current diet! Good luck to you!

There are better diets out there. The Paleo diet is flawed form its inception, the cave man probably ate more protein from plants, bugs and insects than meat or fish. As you probably know meat is carcinogenic, if you want to live 35 years (average) as back then, go ahead, but a proper modern diet is low on animal protein, free of dairy, and antinutrients, and that comprises many vegetables as well. Grains, actually probably rice only, is fine in most meals as 3/4 parts of the world can’t be wrong. Just treat your food the traditional way and keep it unprocessed.
Examples of better planned diets are: PHD, Seignalet, macrobiotic, etc

Hi Dr. Sarah ,
What would you recommend for someone like me that got amenorrhea hypothalamic in my early 20ths & now I’m 40 years old & want to get my period back by trying the paleo diet ? Have you heard any case like mine that someone actually reverse the condition & got the period back to normal ? I need help & if you can just help me with a link of info it would be very much appreciate it ….
Many thanks

Magda Zanartu

I have a friend who just had her periods return after 7 years. It’s complex, and there’s variety of factors, hormones, stress, thyroid, underlying chronic illness, gut health. I think that the main thing is treating the underlying chronic illness (which will probably require following the autoimmune protocol, more information under the autoimmunity menu above), and it will be useful to work with an integrative medicine or functional medicine doctor. For a functional medicine specialist, you can find one local to you or that works with patients remotely on the Paleo Physician’s Network, Primal Docs, the Institute for Functional Medicine, or my consulting company which does work with clients remotely: http://www.thepaleomomconsulting.com

Dear Sara:

I hope you can give me an advice about my problem. I have many food intolerance (gluten, lactose, among others), contipation, indigestion, nausea and i have been loosing weight since 5 years ago and right know i am underweight.
My question is, can I gain weight with the paleo diet? I eat only 3 times a day because it seems that my body and symptoms improve when I am not eating between meals, but my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner are big.

Thank you for you time,

Best regards

Dear Sara,

I am wanting to see if you have any information linked to epilepsy and the paleo diet? I developed epilepsy 5 years ago at age 37 with no known cause. I am notorious for eating the world’s worst foods and always have (even foods I’m sensitive to) but I’ve never heard of the paleo diet until recently. I’ve read that a ketogenic and semi-ketogenic diet are good for controlling seizures but I’m still at a loss as to what caused my epilepsy when it doesn’t run in my family.

Any info you have would be appreciated.

Davina (Davie)

Hi,
I learned about the Paleo Diet from the Stop the Thyroid Madness community. I have hypothyroidism and am trying to get it under better control. I often don’t feel well but primary complaints would be sometimes I just can’t manage exercise (and I’m someone who loves it), I seem to have an energy shut-off at 5pm, it’s hard for me to go into an office because it is so physically draining and takes everything I’ve got mentally to keep up. I am just coming off Setraline and am doing well socio-emotionally by taking Iodine Plus, B12, C and D supplements. I’m also starting to feel like moving around more as a result. I’m considering going off synthetic hormone (Synthroid) to natural dessicated hormone options. Do you feel this type diet would complement my efforts? I just don’t want (or need) to sabotage myself. Thank you.

I have lupus, anything with the paleo diet I should be aware of?
Also, I have been trying to loose weight for the past 1 1/2 yrs., with no success.my husband and I have changed the way we eat. Low carbs, no sugar, no caffeine etc. I have tried Atkins in which my husband lost 30 lbs. I was going to do gastric sleeve, had to quit smoking and did but gained weight back and now dr won’t do surgery. Counting calories, still nothing is working. I am even exercising but to no avail. Help!

My daughter suffers from Eosinaphallic Eosphagatis. ( for the past 10 years). She also has severe food allergies to all dairy and egg products. Can the Paleo diet, ( and possibly the AIP protocol?) (also minus eggs ect for her) help her? Regular medicine can’t do anything for her. Please advise us. Thanks

In re: to Nancy Stinson “My daughter suffers from Eosinaphallic Eosphagatis. ( for the past 10 years)”…
My very fit, gluten-free 19yr old daughter had 2 episodes of food sticking in her esophagus (chicken, watermelon!) last summer. We had the endoscopy, diagnosis eosinaphallic eosphagatis, then MD recommended PPIs. No thank you. We also went to a functional doctor who prescribed no grains, no dairy on top of the no gluten.. Basically paleo. My daughter is a college athlete/runner. She just reported to me this morning how much the supplements and paleo diet have not only eliminated any further problems with her esophagus, but her energy level and athletic performance have never been better!

Hi Doc,

I have polycistic ovary sydrome (PCOS) with polycistics in my right ovary. I have very horrible symptoms especially hair loss/thinning hair. Will this kind of diet help with my condition? Doctors seem not to understand my condition and especially with how i feel about it. They are always prescribing hormonal pills which i read is not good for the body. I hope to hear your opinion.

Thank you very much.

My husband suffers from primary lymphedema. It came on when he was 14 and had suffered a large number of mosquito bites to his ankles at summer camp. He’s done the lymph drainage and wears compression garments. He went gluten free over two years ago, as well as limiting (but not eliminating) his animal protein intake (at the suggestion of our nutritional therapist due to his kidneys not handling the protein well). These steps have definitely helped, but we are looking for ways to further improve the condition. There is not much out there when it comes to dietary suggestions for lymphedema, but what I have found focuses very much on an anti-inflammatory diet. Do you think a paleo diet could help?

Carb junkie here. I seem to fail when I try to start paleo because of the carb/sugar addiction. Any suggestions for starters? Cold Turkey or phase out? Thanks for any direction you can provide

Hi Matt, cold turkey my friend. Your brain and body are focused on sugar supply from the liver, you need to start getting rid of the carbs and replacing with fat, no grains, cereal, potatoes. It takes about two months to make this change, then you will be OK, Not every morn but bacon and eggs are good, make sure you have a little cream in your morning coffee then fast. A lot of pre breakfast morning exercise is best, makes you fast till noon, then lunch paleo, lots of veggies and Salad, meat of fish at night with veggies Still have a little dairy, NO sugar, flour etc, follow the paleo recipes, so much variety. Been on it for 4 months, lost 8Kg, so much fitter and brain focused Blood sugar and insulin levels down Feeling awesome. This is not dieting its just eating correctly. Nothing to do with cave men. Its about eating fresh, non processed, highly manufactured, human engineered rubbish.

Hey Doc,

Would this work for me. I suffer Hashimoto’s, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pelvic Pain, crappy endocrine, immune and metabolism systems plus a whole heap of other conditions, some of which result in regular injury.

Thanks

Hi……I just stared reading your blog today even though I have been subscribed for a good while…..I have SEVERE Fibromyalgia and had to quit my job 2 1/2 years ago and get on disability. I am 42yrs old almost 43 and was wondering if The Paleo Approach would be good for me??

Hello Sarah, I was skeptical when I first started reading around on your site, but then I noticed that your food list looks like Phinney and Volek’s, only with the addition of sugary fruits. About what percentage of CHO would you say end up in a typical PaleoMom day’s worth of eating? So far, low carb has helped my Crohn’s dramatically, but has caused a 10 pound weight gain (I had been a vegetarian for 30+ years).

Hello Sarah:
My chiropractor is on your diet and has recommended it to me. I have Fibromyalgia, chronic pain, TMJ, RLS, IBS, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, numerous surgeries to replace both knees and unable to work and am on Disability. Do you offer a forum where I could connect with others who have similar health issues to support each other? Thank you so much for writing these books. I am very excited to start your diet.
Doreen

Hi, my 2 year old daughter has arthritis, she is on immunosuppressants, and I really want to try the Paleo diet for her. I think grains will be fairly easy to eliminate, but she loves milk and cheese. Have you heard of other similar cases, where gluten was primarily the issue, or milk?

Hi Hannah, have you tried adding numeric tablets to your daughters diet
It is amazing stuff I am 55 an old sports player and with tumeric now have knees of a 25 year old
and back on the treadmill and weights My wife runs a business that involves a chronic about of typing she has has severe arthritis of the hands and arms Wth the concentrated numeric, ALL the pain is gone after years of pain and lack of sleep
Its worth a look

I must admit I am confused about all these different diets and their worth. Been doing some research on cancer and food, cancer cures, foods to avoid etc., and meat is considered a cause of some cancers. I am a meat eater, so I am not here to bash, but the testimonials of nutrition and cancer cures seem to happen through vegetarianism, raw vegetarian foods, juices, you know the formula no doubt. Dr. Ruth Heidrich, the 80 year old runner who cured herself 30 odd years ago with vegan, basically raw diet is just one of many stories. Tell me something I don’t know or understand.
(By the way I put raw vegetarian instead of simply raw, cause I always find it funny that people assume a raw diet is vegetarian, when it could just as well be met and fish,, hee here!)
Thanks

I have just looked into this protocol on Paleo dieting. I have been fighting mercury toxicity for 15 years. my doctor as done an excellent job in detoxing me, however, my intestinal fungus still is there causing inflammation, gut pain, face swelling unevenly and elimination problems at times. do you think there is hope to pull my health back together?

I signed up for the newsletter but cannot find the FREE Paleo Quick-Start Guide anywhere…???!!!
I’ve searched but …. nada…

and… btw,… I have bought the Paleo Approach book. I am interested in the quick start… for starters…the FREE Paleo Quick-Start Guide

After you sign up, you should receive a confirmation e-mail. After you confirm, you should receive another e-mail with the link to the guide. Be sure to check your spam folder. If you didn’t receive either of these e-mails, you may need to try signing up again. If you only received the first one, you may need to try unsubscribing (via the link at the bottom of the first e-mail) and then signing up again.

I lost a huge amount of weight about 11 years following a low carb plan, I am now 60, past menopause but I think my hormones and metabolism are out of wack.
I have tried to do low carb a few times with no success.
Will this work for me

many thanks

Please, please, please show your name as Dr. Sarah Ballantyne or Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. Using the title and then your degree shows grammatical ignorance unbecoming someone who has a Ph.D.

Hi! My son has a leaky gut and his cardiovascular stress rate is high. We did a food sensitivity test and it is showing a sensitivity to most vegetables and fruits but all the proteins are ok including the cow cheses and yogurts! How can I find out more why he is that sensitive to all the vegetables? Thanks, Yana

Dr. Ballantyne,

I was recently “diagnosed” with leaky gut after 4-5 months of gastrointestinal problems/discomfort. Would you suggest paleo or AIP protocol for my symptoms? I have already cut out corn, dairy, eggs, and gluten due to my Naturopathic Dr.’s recommendation from results of an igG.

Thank you so much.
Sydney

If you have tried the Paleo diet, and it really works for you (i.e. it’s really not a placebo), then more power to you. But I really hate the growing orthorexia I see in society. I even see parents inflicting these paleo on their kids, which is crazy and unfair – the medical community do not support this diet (it’s only a handful of characters who do).

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