What is Paleo?
If you’re new to Paleo, then this page will help you get started quickly and easily.
What is a Paleo Diet in a Nutshell?
A Paleo diet is really much more than a diet. It’s a lifestyle focused on nourishing and healing our bodies with unprocessed foods, ample relaxation and sleep, and healthy movement and exercise.
Although each person is a little bit different, every human body generally has the same basic needs – nutrients, sleep, water, and exercise. When our bodies don’t get these things – or worse, when we overload our bodies with natural and artificial toxins – our bodies break down. We get sick, tired, and fat.
A Paleo diet is about getting back to what we’ve always known is good for us. It’s a path to healing our bodies with real food instead of medicating our symptoms. It’s not about counting calories or exercising for 3 hours a day, but rather about giving our body the tools it needs to take care of itself.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, keep reading. If you’d like to get started immediately, we have a 7-Day Pure Paleo Challenge that is completely free. It comes with a quick-start guide, daily emails, and 8 videos to get you on track fast. Just click here to join.
What Can I Eat on a Paleo Diet?
The basic idea of a Paleo diet is to eat unprocessed foods.
Generally, this means that you can eat all meats, all vegetables, all fruits, all nuts, and fats that primarily come from fruits or animals (like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, beef tallow, duck fat, etc.).
To begin with, all the junk food (chips, cereal, candy, cookies, soda, etc.) has to go. Other foods that are discouraged include all grains (e.g., wheat, rice, barley, rye, quinoa, couscous, etc.), legumes (beans, peanuts, soy, etc.), fats from highly processed seeds (like canola, sunflower, vegetable oil, etc.), and processed sugars (table sugar, honey, corn syrup, etc.). If a food comes in a box or bag, then it’s probably not very good for you.
If you want a full list of foods you can and can’t eat on a Paleo Diet, then check out our Paleo Diet Food List, which you can also download as a PDF.
What’s This I Hear About Cavemen and Cavewomen?
Part of the idea behind Paleo is going back to what our ancestors ate. But by ‘ancestor,’ I mean Paleolithic ancestors (i.e., caveman-era people).
That’s why many people following the Paleo lifestyle fondly refer to themselves as caveman or cavegirl. Of course that doesn’t mean we actually have to grunt when we eat, eat with our hands, forgo electricity or live in a cave (although you are of course free to try any of these)!
The thing is, humans have been around for about 2.5 million years, which is a really long time. And life was often quite harsh and dangerous. Our ancestors never knew if they’d have enough food, they didn’t have medicine if they got sick, and lions and tigers weren’t the friendliest of neighbors.
But our ancestors had one thing going for them. They were lean, athletic, and didn’t have modern diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.
So what changed???
Actually, quite a few things changed. But one of the most important changes was that we stopped eating fresh, real food and replaced it with processed, nutrient-poor, and often toxic foods. The result is that we’re fat and sick and getting fatter and sicker.
But that doesn’t need to be the case.
Why We Went Paleo!
Jeremy went Paleo before I (Louise) did. He did it mostly to lose weight, since he’d struggled his whole life being overweight.
I was definitely a skeptic when he first told me about Paleo. Why was there so much emphasis on our ancestors? And wasn’t meat supposed to be bad for you? And then of course, “I would not give up bread and cookies!“
Unlike Jeremy, I’ve never struggled much with being overweight, but I’ve had a lot of other health issues (IBS, acid reflux, etc.). The real reason I first went Paleo was because Jeremy convinced me to try it, but after trying it, it was pretty much impossible to deny how much better I felt.
First of all, eating less processed sugar meant that that I had much more energy. There were no more horrific sugar crashes after lunch (or after breakfast and dinner!). Eliminating wheat and other grains from my diet cured most of my gut problems. And, my heartburn issues (for which I had been taking medication for years) suddenly vanished.
Eliminating bread, pasta, and cakes was difficult at first, but now that I’m acutely aware of how bad it makes me feel when I eat it, the temptation just isn’t there anymore.
If you’re on the fence, it’s your choice, but I’d encourage you to try it for 30 days. See how you feel. If it doesn’t make a difference, then you haven’t lost anything. If it does, then you’re on your way to a new a better life.
Why Does a Paleo Diet Work?
It’s not a coincidence that so many people feel better after adopting a Paleo diet and lifestyle. Our modern diets have really only been around for about 12,000 years, and the past 50 years have gotten much worse. More than ever before, our diets are full of processed grains and processed sugars that have very little nutrition and cause a lot of problems in our guts.
A Paleo diet works for a few reasons:
High in Nutrients. Your body needs vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Most of us barely get the minimum we need to survive, much less an optimal amount.
The most nutritious foods you can eat (and this surprises some people) are Organ Meats (like liver), Seafood (like oysters), Vegetables (like spinach), and Meat (like pastured beef). And this is not really open to interpretation – anybody can visit the USDA Nutrient Database, where you can find nutrient information for all foods.
A good Paleo diet focuses on eating more of the foods that are high in nutrients and fewer of the foods that are lower (like grains), so that your body can start to thrive.
Low in Toxins. Most of the time, we hear about toxins like pesticides and chemicals. And those are bad. But what’s actually worse for us is eating natural toxins all the time.
For a variety of reasons, things like gluten, chemically-altered vegetable fats (e.g., Canola oil), and excess sugars are toxic to our bodies. They disrupt the good bacteria in our guts, they alter our hormonal balance, and they generally wreak havoc on our bodies.
A good Paleo diet eliminates or at least limits these natural (and artificial) toxins so that your body can recover and heal itself.
Breaking Addictions and Ending Overeating. Although not very many people talk about this, being addicted to food and overeating all the time is a real problem. The quality of our food is really important (for the reasons above), but over-eating anything can be bad also.
A good Paleo diet helps to break addictions to food by eliminating processed foods that are actually designed to be addictive. See, food companies create foods with a certain amount of sugar, fat, and salt that makes those foods addictive to humans. Real, natural foods never have that addictive combination, even though they’re still delicious.
In addition, a Paleo diet also helps your body to balance hormones and get the nutrients it needs, both of which automatically help you stop overeating. Trying to will yourself to eat less doesn’t work for most people, but focusing on the quality of the food you eat can get you there without even trying.
So Grains and Legumes are Actually Bad for Me?
“Bad” and “Good” are probably the wrong words to use. Grains and legumes just don’t happen to support optimal health.
First of all – despite what the grain industry would like for you to believe – grains and legumes don’t have as many nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as other foods like vegetables and seafood. As a result, if most of what you eat is grains and legumes, then you’re almost certainly not getting all the nutrients you need.
Secondly, our bodies don’t digest grains or legumes very well. You can’t actually eat a grain or legume without processing (milling and cooking) it. Have you ever tried to eat a wheat stalk from a field? The thing is, these plants have natural defenses against being eaten, and those defenses are things like gluten, prolamins (gliadin is one prolamin), and lectins. These are all proteins in these foods that our bodies don’t break down very well.
These proteins cause all sorts of digestive issues because our bodies view these grains as toxins. And because our bodies can’t break these foods down well, it causes problems like overgrowth of bacteria in our guts, leaky gut, and nutrient deficiencies.
Even though we think people have been eating grains forever, the fact is that scientists believe that grains entered our diet around 12,000 years ago (humans have been around for 2.5 million years). More and more people are discovering that even if they are not celiac, they are still sensitive to things like gluten. So even people without any health problems often feel much better (just generally) when they cut out wheat and sugar.
But I Love Sugar!!!
Everybody loves sugar, myself included. And in small amounts, sugar isn’t bad for us. But how often do we actually eat just a “small amount”?
On a Paleo diet, you can eat sugar, but it has to be in its natural form. So you can eat apples, berries, and other fruits, all of which have sugar in them. You can eat sweet potatoes, which also have sugar.
But those donuts, cookies, and cakes you love? They have to go. Those foods have amounts of sugar that are terrible for your gut, destroy your hormonal balance, and worst of all, make you addicted.
Think about the last time you ate a big meal and were really full. Could you have eaten another bite of steak or spinach or even a baked potato? Probably not. But you probably could have eaten a whole slice of cake.
That’s not just because the cake is delicious. It’s because the cake is addictive, and that’s a key reason why we overeat these days.
I know as well as anyone that it’s daunting to give up processed sugar, but practically nobody thinks that processed sugar is actually good for us. We lived without it for millions of years, and once you give it up for a week or so, you actually stop missing it altogether. And the best part? All the other foods you eat start to taste a lot better!
Can I Eat Dairy?
This is a tricky one.
Dairy is actually very nutritious with a lot of vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, a lot of people (maybe even most) just don’t react very well to dairy.
And you’re probably saying to yourself right now that you’re one of the lucky ones who can digest dairy very well. Yeah…I told myself that, too.
If you’re serious about feeling and looking better and really being as healthy as you can be, then you need to completely eliminate dairy for at least 60 days. After you do that, you can start re-introducing different types of dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) and see how they make you feel. More often than not, you’ll notice that they actually make you feel pretty bad.
Even if you do decide to keep eating or to re-introduce dairy, I highly recommend that you try to eat only raw or fermented dairy. Dairy that has been pasteurized has had all of the good bacteria and enzymes destroyed.
While we tend to think that bacteria is bad for us (and much is), there’s a lot of bacteria that actually helps our bodies. Raw and fermented dairy tends to have a lot of good bacteria and enzymes that help us digest the dairy and that also make us healthier in general.
If you want a simple recommendation, get rid of the dairy. Almost everyone feels better when they do.
Is There Any Science Backing All of This Up?
Contrary to what some people may think, the paleo lifestyle is simply chock-full of science.
In fact, some paleo writers tell us so much of the science behind the lifestyle that it’s practically impossible to keep up! Even I’ve broken into the occasional medical study or two (despite having promised myself that I wouldn’t do so after quitting my life as a physicist!).
So What Can I Eat?
I covered this a little bit above, but in general, you can eat any meat, vegetable, fruit, seafood, nut, egg, or tuber. Again, if you want the detailed list, click here.
I Can’t Give Up My Junk Food!
Despite what you might think, I’m not trying to convince anybody to adopt a Paleo lifestyle. That’s your choice. I just want to give people the information and opportunity to make a good decision for themselves.
I’ve been told hundreds of times (often by my friends) that I don’t understand how much someone likes a particular food (cookie, bread, etc.). That always makes me laugh, because I LOVED bread and cookies and especially red velvet cake.
But at some point, I decided it was more important to me that I feel great every day.
If you can’t decide whether this is something you want to commit to for the rest of your life, then just try it out. Try it out for 30 or even just 7 days. See how you feel, and then make a decision after that.
A Few FAQs About Paleo
Paleo is NOT…
- Eating raw foods (whether it be meat or otherwise, although there are a small number of raw Paleo eaters).
- Eating only meat. Veggies, fruit, and nuts also play a large part in our diets.
- Full of crazy people. I personally think I’m quite “normal.”
- A get thin quick diet. This is a lifestyle for healthy living. It’s quite likely that you will lose weight too, but the aim is actually being better for your body rather than starving yourself into a thinner body.
Other Really Important Things To Know About Paleo:
Like I’ve mentioned above, Paleo is really a lifestyle rather than a 2 week diet!
Perhaps the most important thing that I haven’t discussed, but which is crucial to living a Paleo lifestyle is…SLEEP!
This is the part of Paleo I’m really not good at. Most of us just don’t realize how lack of sleep truly affects us in so many ways (from brain function, to aging, to stalling weight-loss).
Many people consider it a badge of honor to be able to function on 4 or 5 hours of sleep. And I admit that I’ve been tempted and have done that many times in my life.
But it’s terribly unhealthy. Your body needs time to recover, time to build hormones and neurotransmitters, and generally just time to rest. Getting too little sleep – even for one night – can make you insulin-resistant, can dramatically decrease your willpower, and quickly increases your risk of many metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
We’re all busy these days, and it seems like sleep is the last thing we’d want to prioritize, but I’ve learned the hard way that nothing is more important.
Like lack of sleep, stress is actually under-emphasized as a health problem.
I won’t go into too much detail here, but very large studies have been published showing that stress levels may be a better indicator of how long we’ll live than pretty much anything else. Plus, isn’t life just better anyway when we’re not stressed?
It probably won’t surprise you much, but the human body didn’t evolve to sit around all day. And by now, you’ve probably heard about all the scientific studies showing just how bad sitting is for us when we do it for long periods of time.
The point is, we need some exercise (preferably lifting heavy objects and working hard every once in a while), but we also need to just move around more often.
I’m telling you all of this because although food is really important, it’s not the only thing that matters. If you’re eating well but never sleeping and never moving around, then you’ll probably still be unhealthy and unhappy.
And all Jeremy and I really want is to help everybody live a life they love.
How do you start living a Paleo Lifestyle?
You’ve really got 2 options:
- Go Whole Hog
- Ease into it
If you can, then going for it all at once is a great way to do it. The main reason this is a good idea is because you’ll quickly start feeling better, more energetic, and happier. You’ll likely see fast results.
And although it’s a lifetime journey, seeing fast results can really motivate you to stay focused and keep going.
However, if you don’t feel like you have the dedication, time, or energy to completely change your diet and lifestyle, then take heart. I’ve seen thousands of people do it gradually with great success.
If you’re taking the gradual path, then the first thing you should do is to cut out wheat from your diet. So, no bread and no pasta. This would be a great start, because wheat is what usually makes the biggest difference for everyone.
If you want to go further, cut out all processed sugars from your diet, and then all other grains (like rice, quinoa, etc.). And perhaps above all else, start sleeping at least 7 hours a night on a regular schedule.
What’s Your Experience?
Infographic on What Is Paleo – The 5 Pillars Of The Paleo Diet: