Whether you’re looking to lose weight, manage diabetes, reduce risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease, mitigate autoimmune disease, improve performance or simply want to experience the best health possible, a diet that is abundant in all the micronutrients that our bodies need and that simultaneously omits foods known to be problematic for health is your best bet. What does this diet look like? Its foundation is the most nutrient-dense foods available to us, including organ meat, seafood, and both huge variety and copious quantities of vegetables, with other quality meats, fruit, eggs, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, probiotic and fermented foods, herbs and spices to round it out. At the same time, it omits foods known to be inflammatory, disrupt hormones, or negatively impact the health of the gut, including all grains, most legumes, conventional dairy products, and all processed and refined foods. Yes, this is the Paleo template.
Over the past decade, Paleo has grown from a relatively underground movement to a diet that dominates news headlines, bestselling books, and even products in the grocery store. But despite its popularity, the scientific rationale for Paleo remains wildly misunderstood and misrepresented. For example, we might know that grains are a no-go, that vegetables are fantastic, and that dietary fat is nothing to be afraid of (despite years of the low-fat push from various health authorities), but why are these guidelines in place? Here’s a hint: the answer has little to do with reenacting what our early ancestors ate, and everything to do with what modern science says is best for our bodies!
In short, Paleo is a nutrient-focused whole-foods diet, with the goal to maximize foods that heal and minimize foods that harm. It improves health by providing balanced and complete nutrition while avoiding most processed and refined foods and empty calories. It’s not a way to simply lose pounds quickly (even though, for many people, it has that effect!), and it’s not a fad that dissolves under scientific scrutiny; rather, every Paleo principle is rooted solidly in the latest research and data.
What do you eat on the Paleo Diet?
- quality meats (grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild as much as possible)
- organ meat, offal and bone broth (aim for 5 times per week, the more the better)
- fish and shellfish (wild is best, but farmed is fine) (aim for at least 3 times per week, the more the better)
- vegetables of all kinds, as much variety as possible and the whole rainbow, aim for 8-14 cups per day
- Green vegetables
- Colorful vegetables and fruit (red, purple, blue, yellow, orange, white)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips, arugula, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, watercress, mustard greens, etc.)
- Sea vegetables (excluding algae like chlorella and spirulina which are immune stimulators)
- Edible Fungi, like mushrooms
- fruit of all kinds
- herbs and spices
- quality fats (pasture-raised/grass-fed animal fats [rendered or as part of your meat], fatty fish, olive, avocado, coconut, palm [not palm kernel])
- probiotic/fermented foods (fermented vegetables or fruit, kombucha, water kefir, coconut milk kefir, coconut milk yogurt, supplements)
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.
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. See Paleo Diet Clinical Trials and Studies.
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 (see Carbs Vs. Protein Vs. Fat: Insight from Hunter-Gatherers), and there’s even some foods (like high quality dairy, white rice 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, emulsifiers 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?
This website 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. Also, learn more about the Paleo Lifestyle here and about the Autoimmune Protocol here.