What Is the Paleo Diet? A Beginner’s Guide to This Popular Diet

It’s clear that when it comes to our modern-day eating habits, we’ve gone way off track. 

Just take a look at the health of our nation. Rates of diabetes keep going up, two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and heart disease remains the leading cause of death.1 

 Possibly the most alarming forecast about the health of our nation comes from a special report in The New England Journal of Medicine. It predicts that younger generations may be the first in history to have shorter lifespans than their parents.2

If that’s not a wake-up call that something needs to change, I don’t know what is. 

 So, how did we get so off track? To sum it up, everything we think we know about nutrition is wrong. The old-school food pyramid we’re all familiar with tells us that grains should dominate our diets while meats and especially fats should only be eaten in small amounts.

 Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about food out there. This confusion is thanks in large part to the processed-food industry. Yet mounting evidence shows us that there’s a much better way—returning to the nutritional patterns of our ancient ancestors. 

 That's where the Paleo diet comes in. It basically takes that old-school food pyramid, flips it on its head, then strips it down. What’s left mimics only the foods that our ancient ancestors ate. Let’s take a deeper look into what exactly the Paleo diet is, what you can and can’t eat, how this “stone-age” way of eating became so popular, and some benefits and drawbacks.

What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleolithic diet, “Paleo” for short, is all about simple nutrition that helps your body work at its best. It emphasizes eating only those foods that were available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. That means all pre-packaged foods, refined sugars, and ultra-processed fats are out. Along with grains, dairy, and legumes. 

That leaves us with basic foods in their whole form like meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.3 

The thought is that our genes haven’t had the chance to catch up to the fast-paced changes in the food industry.4 At least 70% of our standard American diet comes from foods that were never or rarely eaten by our ancestors.5 

During the Paleolithic era, our foraging ancestors had diets that were fundamentally different than our standard diet. They lived off the land in every way as hunters and gathers and ate the foods they found instead of cultivating it for themselves.

If they lived in the frozen tundra near water, then they had plenty of fish to eat with limited plants, while those surrounded by tropical dry land could select from land animals and a variety of plants. There was no single nutritional pattern because our nomadic ancestors were only able to eat the things they could hunt and gather in season and in the areas they lived.6 

What Foods Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet?

It’s important to know what foods you can eat and which ones are best to avoid when following a Paleo diet. Here’s a list of both:7,8 

Foods to eat on the Paleo diet:

Foods to avoid on the Paleo diet:

  • Grains and cereals
  • Dairy products
  • Legumes, including peanuts and soy 
  • White potatoes
  • Refined and artificial sugars and sweeteners
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Salt
  • Fatty domestic meat
  • Most processed and refined foods, and those with additives and artificial ingredients

Variations of the Paleo Diet

It makes sense with the variations of our ancestor’s diets that we too have variations of the Paleo diet. Several variations of the Paleo diet have developed as advocates of eating the Paleolithic way make it their own. One might be called “standard” by some, while the same variation is called “strict” by others. So, I encourage you to not get caught up in the names. They’re just meant to give guidance.

With this in mind, I’ve listed some of the more common variations of the Paleo diet. This will give you good examples of how this diet really is an approach to eating rather than a rigid list of rules.

Strict Paleo Diet: This plan is the most traditional and aligns most closely to the foods listed above. With this version of the diet, you aren’t allowed “cheat” foods or meals like some later variations.

Primal Paleo: Same as the Strict Paleo diet, but lets you have full-fat dairy, ideally raw and from pastured animals. The argument is that the benefits outweigh the risks of including this form of dairy. 

The Primal Paleo diet also lets you eat a small amount of legumes if they’re soaked and cooked well to help with digestion and reduce anti-nutrients. Other foods like white potatoes, rice, coffee, and even dark chocolate can be occasionally consumed if they’re tolerated.9 

85/15 Paleo: As the name suggests, you follow a strict Paleo diet 85% of the time. Then you’re free to loosen up those standards the remaining 15% and eat other non-Paleo foods you enjoy. One argument for this type of Paleo variation comes from Weston A. Price who encountered people groups who ate large amounts of foods like rye and dairy and still led very healthy lives.10

Paleo for Autoimmunity: Also known as the Autoimmune Protocol Diet (AIP), this variation is like the Strict Paleo diet but takes it a step further by restricting even more foods. And it’s ideal for those with various autoimmune disorders. 

On top of the food-to-avoid list, you’ll also want to avoid nightshades, eggs, nuts, and seeds. After several weeks you can start to bring these foods back into your diet. But make sure to notice if they’re causing any negative side effects.11 

How Did the Paleo Diet Become so Popular?

When the book, “The Paleo Diet,” by Dr. Loren Cordain, hit the bookshelves in 2002, the popularity of the Paleo diet skyrocketed. And just over 10 years later, Paleo diet was the most searched term in Google. But, the Paleo diet can actually be traced back to the 70’s when gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin, also wrote a book about the Paleo diet called, “The Stone-Age Diet.”12 

Then, 10 years after that, doctors Melvin Konner and Stanley Boyd Eaton wrote the article, “Paleolithic Nutrition,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. And it became one of the foundations of the Paleo diet as we know it today.13 

The Paleo diet has gained popularity in large part because of its many benefits making this way of eating very appealing. Many often look to this diet at first because of its promise of weight loss, but that’s just a first welcome benefit. 

What Are the Benefits of the Paleo Diet?

On top of weight loss, the Paleo diet is credited with these health benefits:

  • Improves heart health14 
  • Reduces symptoms of degenerative arthritis15 
  • Reduces the risk of cancer16
  • Regulates blood sugar17
  • Reduces the risk of diabetes18
  • Reduces or eliminates acne19 

Diet-related chronic diseases are the single largest cause of death in America.20 Meanwhile, hunter-gatherer cultures are virtually free of the types of degenerative diseases we find in our Western culture.21 In fact, when these cultures adopt a Western diet, their health suffers.22,23 

Besides these health-related benefits, the Paleo diet makes us more aware of the highly processed foods we’re eating. Did you know that the top ten sources of calories of the standard American diet are:24 

  1. Grain-based desserts like cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, and granola bars
  2. Yeast breads
  3. Chicken (often fried) and chicken-mixed dishes
  4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Mexican mixed dishes
  9. Beef and beef mixed dishes
  10. Dairy desserts

Not exactly the kinds of food you’ll find on our ancestors’ menus.

The Paleo diet lets you explore eating how you were designed to. It’s a blueprint that gives you a foundation to start from. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all diet. I believe this is really at the heart of what makes a way of eating successful. The exact foods that work for me and my body might not be the best ones for you and your body. And that’s perfectly okay.

Are There Any Downsides?

Along with these benefits, we should consider a few drawbacks of the Paleo diet.

  • Portion sizes could be too large

 There are no specific portion sizes given for the Paleo diet. Because of the limited food choices, you might find yourself eating too much. This is true, especially for meat. 

Consuming meat is highly emphasized on the Paleo diet. 

 While meat brings with it many good micronutrients like iron, and macronutrients like protein, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. It can have negative effects on your health and even increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. 25 

The high consumption of meat also makes the Paleo diet difficult for vegetarians and vegans.

  • Some nutrient-rich food groups are left out

 The Paleo diet also leaves out some entire food groups that are found to be nutrient-dense and offer health benefits. For some, this could create nutritional gaps in their diet. And, because of the restriction of certain food groups, the Paleo diet can be lacking in variety, potentially making the Paleo diet tough to follow.

  • All-or-nothing thinking

 Because the Paleo diet food list comes with do’s and don'ts, the restrictive nature of the Paleo diet can put you in an all-or-nothing mindset. And that type of thinking can be unhealthy in a different way. 

Wondering How to Get Started Eating Like Our Ancestors?

I’ve got you covered! Eating healthy doesn’t have to be hard. Check out these delicious recipes for some ideas on how to get started. From our lamb burgers to our coconut custard, you’re sure to find something your tastebuds will enjoy. 

And, if you’re ready for a total mind, body, and lifestyle change, then the NativeBody Reset is for you. When I started out on my journey toward optimal health, I realized there isn’t just one right path. I immersed myself into the roots of our native path and discovered something missing in our modern culture. 

That’s when I created the NativeBody Reset. It’s designed in a way that teaches you how to reconnect with natural ways of eating, moving, and living to help you discover your native path.

The NativeBody Reset is a 30-day course that begins with identifying which foods work for you, and the ones that don’t so that you can follow a diet that’s native to your unique body. It’s complete with meal plans, recipes, and workouts for a total body, mind, and lifestyle reset

I’d love to show you how the NativeBody Reset can put you on the path to whole-body health. Join our community today by signing up for our newsletter. It’s where you’ll get all my insider tips on healthy living delivered right to your inbox! 


1 https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
2 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsr043743
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22642064
4 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/2/341/4607411
5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22642064
6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15699220
7 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/2/341/4607411
8 https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/paleo-diet/
9 https://www.primalblueprint.com/blogs/primal-blueprint/what-is-the-primal-blueprint
10 https://thepaleodiet.com/tag/8515/
11 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5647120/
12 https://thepaleodiet.com/a-brief-history-of-the-contemporary-paleo-diet-movement/
13 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198501313120505
14 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26003334 
15 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4359818/
16 https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-8-75
17 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25304296
18 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22642064
19 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/479093
20 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/2/341/4607411
21 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10702160
22 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19710163
23 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1875844
24 https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/top-10-sources-of-calories-in-the-us-diet
25  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26780279

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