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Diet & Nutrition

Your Paleo Primer

Done well, the paleo diet is one of the cleanest plans around. Here's how to make it work for you.

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It may be trendy today, but the general concept behind the Paleo diet dates back to the 1970s, when gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin noted that our hunter-gatherer ancestors—who subsisted on lean meat, leafy greens, nuts, and berries—knew what they were doing. And in 1985, S. Boyd Eaton, MD, of Emory University, expanded on the idea in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which sparked renewed interest in the diets of our ancient ancestors.

Also known as the Caveman or Stone age Diet, Paleo is based on the presumed diet of our ancestors in the Paleolithic era, essentially foods that could be found by hunting and gathering. When farming practices began, grains, legumes, and dairy quickly became staples of the human diet. But as the Paleo theory goes, our bodies aren’t designed to eat foods that emerged from farming practices, and this genetic mismatch contributes to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other modern illnesses. Many studies support these claims. Some highlights:

Weight loss. By eliminating specific foods, the Paleo diet naturally lessens cravings and makes losing weight easier. It’s high in protein and (ideally) fiber-rich vegetables, which impact hormones linked with appetite and promote feelings of fullness. Many studies suggest that going Paleo results in (often significant) weight loss, lower body fat, and reduced waist circumference.

Heart health. Several studies show that a Paleo diet can increase beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, lower harmful LDL and triglyceride levels, and decrease blood pressure—in some cases, better than other heart-healthy diets that replace saturated fat with carbs and reduce total fat intake.

Diabetes and insulin sensitivity. Studies show the beneficial effects of a Paleo plan on blood sugar, insulin resistance, and diabetes control. In some research, a Paleo-style diet improved glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and lipid profiles better than the Mediterranean diet.

Overall health and longevity. Numerous studies have shown that going Paleo can lower inflammation, decrease oxidative stress, improve digestive conditions, and reduce overall mortality. In one study of more than 2,000 people, participants who followed a Paleo diet showed a decrease in mortality from cancers, specifically colon cancers, as well as all-cause mortality.

The Definition of Paleo Varies

The Paleo diet focuses on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocados), plus meat, fish, and eggs—ideally grass-fed, pasture-raised, and organic. Sugar, grains, legumes, and most dairy products are avoided, as are trans fats and vegetable oils such as soybean, cottonseed, and sunflower oils. Processed foods with artificial additives and long ingredient lists are banned.

There is no set-in-stone Paleo plan, however, and variations abound. Some versions allow honey, maple, and full-fat butter and cheese. Some allow potatoes. And while quinoa (technically a seed) and peanuts technically legumes) are generally excluded, you’ll find plenty of Paleo products and approaches that include them in moderation.

When done right, the Paleo diet is high in fiber- and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and low in processed foods and artificial ingredients. Plus, it’s less restrictive than the Keto diet, making it easier to follow and potentially more nutritious.

Making the Most of a Paleo Plan

How to make your Paleo plan super healthy? Start by treating it as a template, not a dogmatic diet—while our ancestors subsisted on whole, unprocessed foods, those foods varied significantly in different regions, depending on what was available. Some survived on fatty meats, others on greens or high-carb fruits.

Start with a more flexible interpretation, like the 80/20 plan: Eating Paleo 80 percent of the time, and including non-Paleo (ideally, nutrient-dense) foods 20 percent of the time. Other tips:

  • Enjoy meat in moderation. Even though the standard Paleo diet tends to be higher in meat, research suggests that our ancestors ate less meat than we originally thought.
  • Be careful with hidden sugars. Fruits aren’t restricted, and those sugar grams can add up fast.
  • If your version of the Paleo diet excludes dairy, you’ll want to keep an eye on calcium, and boost your consumption of dark, leafy greens.
  • Go easy on the “Paleo-friendly” packaged snacks. Look for ones with short ingredient lists, and use them as an occasional treat.
  • If you are a vegetarian or vegan, consider a modified Paleo diet that includes properly-prepared beans and lentils. A good source for more information:

Make It!

Photo: Hannah Healy

Paleo Egg-Free Chocolate Pie recipe


Recipes reprinted with permission from 1,001 Paleo Recipes by Arsy Vartanian, Rachel Ball, Jenny Castaneda, Hannah Healy, Katja Heino, Nazanin Kovács, Rachel McClelland, Vivica Menegaz, Caroline Potter, Kelly Winters, and Amanda Torres, Page Street Publishing Co. 2021.