What to Expect on The Paleo Diet

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Chicken in a frying pan with tomatoes, spinach leaves, and olives
 Claudia Totir/Getty Images

If you’re preparing to follow the paleo diet, get ready to channel your inner hunter-gatherer. This diet only allows foods that were readily available before the dawn of agriculture. Some of the foods you’ve enjoyed in the past may now be off-limits, as the diet eliminates food groups like grains and dairy. With careful planning and preparation, though, you can enjoy a variety of nutritious meals on the paleo diet.

What to Eat

There's no one "official" set of paleo diet guidelines. Most proponents have taken what they believe to be true about ancestral eating and developed recommendations based on this. However, there are several divergences of opinion that you may see within each subgroup of compliant and non-compliant foods.

Compliant Foods

  • Meat and fish

  • Eggs

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Certain oils

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Grains

  • Legumes

  • Dairy

  • Refined sugar

  • Artificial sweeteners

  • Certain oils

  • Processed foods

Compliant Foods

Meat and Fish

Protein powerhouses like beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and seafood are all acceptable choices. Some paleo proponents also recommend paying attention to the way the animals were raised. The strictest guidelines advise only eating grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish.

Eggs

Eggs are a staple in the paleo diet, and make a great option for quick breakfasts or snacks. Some strict guidelines recommend eating only free-range, organic eggs – while less rigid ones suggest any eggs are fine.

Vegetables

Non-starchy vegetables are a key component of this diet, and for good reason – they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Paleo proponents diverge a bit on starchy vegetables. Most paleo plans allow certain starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, but place white potatoes off-limits. Some followers refuse to include any tubers at all, while others have decided to embrace all starchy vegetables including white potatoes.

Fruits

You’ll be able to enjoy your favorite fruits on the paleo diet, from apples to berries to cherries and beyond. Some paleo plans limit higher-sugar fruits (like grapes or pineapple) if you’re trying to lose weight – while others don’t place any restrictions on these naturally sweet treats.

Nuts and Seeds

With the exception of peanuts, you’re free to graze on any other nuts and seeds. These are rich in healthy fats, making them a satiating snack to eat during the day. You also may find these in beverage form, such as unsweetened almond milk, often used as a dairy substitute for those on this diet.

Certain Oils

As there’s no “official” definition of the paleo diet, different authors or researchers put out different guidelines for recommended oils. In general, these include:

Non-Compliant Foods

Grains

All grains are eliminated on a paleo diet. This includes wheat, oats, quinoa, amaranth, cornmeal, rice – and any other grain you can name.

Proponents of the diet claim that “anti-nutrients” like phytates, lectins, and gluten are bad for your body. Scientific evidence has not proven these theories to be true, though (at least not yet).

For example, there is no current scientific evidence that supports eliminating gluten unless you suffer from celiac disease or a food sensitivity to gluten.

Legumes

Legumes are a category of plants with a pod that carries seeds. Foods from this category include beans, peas, peanuts, lentils, and soy.

Similar to grains, paleo proponents recommend avoiding all legumes due to their high lectin and phytate content. It is true that raw legumes contain lectin, and that high amounts of intact lectin could potentially bind to the cell lining of the digestive tract and cause negative effects. However, cooking beans and lentils before eating them significantly reduces the lectin content to minimal levels.

If you do decide to follow the paleo diet, remember that this category also includes spreads like peanut butter (peanuts) and hummus (beans), as well as sauces like soy sauce and teriyaki sauce (soy).

Dairy Products

The most rigid paleo guidelines exclude all dairy, including foods like milk, cheese, cream, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. These products are traditionally eliminated for two reasons: early humans did not eat dairy products prior to domestication, and some paleo proponents voiced concerns over lactose intolerance and milk protein sensitivities.

Since the initial paleo push, some dieters have embraced certain dairy products – such as full-fat, grass-fed clarified butter, or fermented dairy like kefir.

Because there is no “official” definition for a paleo diet, it’s a personal decision whether or not to include limited dairy on this diet. From a research-based standpoint, there is currently not any strong evidence to avoid dairy unless you have an allergy or sensitivity.

Refined Sugar

You’ll probably need to clear out some items from your pantry, as there is no refined sugar allowed. This includes sugar that you might add to a baked good, or any number of the added sugars found in ingredient lists for packaged foods.

Some paleo diet plans do allow small amounts of honey or maple syrup, though, so you can still create some tasty desserts occasionally.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are commonly used to add a sweet taste to foods without calories. You’ll want to eliminate all artificial sweeteners on the paleo diet, as they were not around back in prehistoric times. This includes:

Certain Oils

Most paleo proponents recommend excluding the following oils from the diet:

  • Canola oil
  • Corn oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower seed oil
  • Soybean oil (frequently called “vegetable oil” on product labels)

The reason these are excluded is either due to a high omega-6 fatty acid content or because they are frequently GMO products.

Processed foods

If you’re used to grabbing snacks or frozen meals at the grocery store, you’ll need to re-evaluate those choices on a paleo diet. Our great ancestors didn’t have processed snack foods to pop while binge-watching television or a microwavable TV dinner to heat up when they didn’t want to cook. As such, most processed foods are off-limits on this diet.

Recommended Timing

There’s no official meal timing for the paleo diet. As long as you are choosing compliant foods, you can stick with a conventional eating schedule of three meals a day with any necessary snacks in between.

Certain paleo proponents – like Loren Cordain, for example – do recommend abstaining from late night eating to keep in line with circadian rhythm.

There is also a growing segment of people promoting an intermittent fasting diet (specifically, the time-restricted feeding model) in conjunction with the paleo diet. In this case, you would fast for part of the day and then only eat paleo meals during an 8-hour eating window (for example, from 8am-4pm or 10am-6pm). Though research has shown some initial promising effects of intermittent fasting on weight loss measures, there is little long-term data available at this time.

Resources and Tips

While many would consider the paleo diet restrictive due to the exclusion of multiple food groups, there are still plenty of delicious and nutritious meals you can make. Here are a few tips to help you on your paleo journey:

  • Remember that meat/fish and vegetables can be the starting point for just about any meal. Experiment with the types of meat you buy, trying different cuts of beef or different types of seafood. Similarly, explore the produce section at your grocery store or hit up your local farmer’s market for new types of produce. Being an adventurous shopper like this will help you continuously add variety to your meals.
  • Shop the sales - and shop around! If you’re following strict paleo guidelines to only purchase grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish, it can start to take a toll on your wallet. Try to keep an eye out for what’s on sale each week at your grocery store, and stock up when you catch a good price. Be sure to also explore the pricing from local fishmongers and butchers, local farms, or meat and fish CSA programs.
  • Get creative with occasional sweet treats. While store-bought snacks and desserts are generally off-limits, you can work within the confines of the paleo diet to create your own occasional sweet treats. Regular flour can be substituted for alternatives like almond flour; sugar can be subbed out for date paste or a smidge of maple syrup or honey. You’ll find tons of inspiration online for paleo-friendly desserts. Just remember that these should still be eaten only in moderation; eating them frequently is not in line with the diet's goals.
  • If you need some culinary inspiration, be sure to check out one of the many Paleo cookbooks on the market. You can use these cookbooks or online recipes to prepare your meal plans each week and then shop for groceries based on those ideas. That way, your kitchen is always stocked with exactly what you need.

Try These Recipes

If you’re getting started on this diet, consider whipping up these tasty, paleo-approved recipes:

Modifications

Because the paleo diet excludes several food groups, it can be difficult for some groups to meet their nutritional needs without extra planning. If you fit one of the groups below, consider making some modifications to this diet:

Pregnant Women

There are several pluses to the paleo diet when it comes to pregnancy – in particular, an emphasis on lots of nutrient-rich produce, the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and limiting less-healthy processed foods.

However, eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy can make it very challenging to meet energy needs, especially if a woman is struggling with food aversions to meat or fish. In addition, key prenatal nutrients like calcium and Vitamin D – frequently in dairy products – may be more challenging to meet with the exclusion of dairy.

During pregnancy, focus on what works best for your body and always check with a doctor to see if a certain diet is appropriate. If you’re finding it hard to meet your needs on the paleo diet, add in one or more of the excluded food groups.

Children

Most experts agree that it’s unwise to put children on a very restrictive meal plan, barring a medically-necessary diet. Forcing a child to only eat paleo-approved foods might put them at potential risk for nutritional deficiencies (for example, a lack of calcium due to the elimination of dairy) without proper planning. 

Perhaps even more concerning though is that restriction in childhood can create an unhealthy relationship with food later in life. Try to maintain a neutral approach that no one food is "bad" or "good."

Endurance Athletes

For most competitive endurance athletes (barring those who practice a keto diet), getting enough carbohydrate is essential to performance. Though the paleo diet includes some carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, the elimination of grains can leave athletes falling short.

If you want to stick with a paleo style diet as an athlete, be sure to include plenty of starchy vegetables. Though some strict paleo advocates recommend avoiding these, you’ll need that energy if you decide not to add grains back in.

Depending on your training and body, you may find it best to add grains back to the diet though during peak season.

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