Paleo-style eating has become a hot topic in the past few years, for good reason. In addition to the diet’s grassroots popularity, studies have found numerous benefits: more energy, lower levels of inflammation, fewer allergies, healthier aging, and lower risks of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Based on the premise that our bodies function best by eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a Paleo diet contains no grains, legumes, or dairy. However, the pre-historic connection can be misleading.
“Many people have a Fred Flintstone notion of Paleo, that it’s meat-centric,” says Julie Mayfield, coauthor of Weeknight Paleo. In fact, she says, meat portions should be no bigger than the size of your palm, with vegetables filling the rest of the plate along with some fruit. “I’ve had countless people who didn’t know what it’s like not to be bloated until they took out grains and dairy,” she says. “It’s like someone with poor eyesight putting on a pair of glasses.”
How the Paleo Diet Unique
While Paleo may seem like a low-carb diet, this isn’t its hallmark. There are many low-carb packaged foods with added sweeteners and other artificial ingredients, but a perfectly Paleo kitchen is completely devoid of packaged or processed foods and artificial ingredients, consisting only of fresh foods that are rich in nutrients—including starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes. In fact, if you already don’t eat a lot of cereal, bread, and pasta, switching to a Paleo diet probably won’t significantly reduce your carb intake.
Foods to Eat on The Paleo Diet
These are the basic Paleo foods:
Meat: Game, grass-fed beef, or organic, pasture-raised pork and poultry. Meat raised this way is a source of healthy fats without toxic chemicals.
Fish: Preferably wild.
Vegetables and fruits: Local, in-season, grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, and picked and eaten at their prime rather than being harvested early to extend shelf life during shipping and storage.
Healthy fats: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, natural fat from grass-fed animals, nuts, seeds, and avocados, and unrefined oils such as walnut, flaxseed, or macadamia.
Seasonings: A variety of herbs and spices add flavor to any dish.
Sugars: No refined sugars, but a small amount of honey, dates, or other natural sweeteners is generally acceptable.
While dairy products are fairly obvious, grains and legumes can be confusing. Wheat is an obvious grain, but corn and corn-based ingredients also fall into this category. Pseudo grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, are generally not recommended because they can cause grain-like digestive problems. Legumes means not only beans (including soy), but peas, lentils, and peanuts (including peanut butters and oils).
Not all Paleo proponents agree when it comes to certain foods. Butter, ghee, clarified butter, potatoes, salt, black tea, and coffee are considered acceptable by some, but not others. A moderate amount of alcohol in cooking and in drinks is generally considered acceptable.
Practical Paleo Meal Planning
“People can get too picky and dogmatic,” says Mayfield. Eating Paleo isn’t a recreation of a Stone Age lifestyle, she points out—no one is suggesting you get rid of your food processor. Rather, it’s adopting some age-old principles that, for many people, improve health.
Unless you have a personal chef or Paleo-perfect take-out in your neighborhood, this way of eating means preparing your own meals with fresh ingredients. To save time and effort, plan ahead and make a batch big enough to last for a few meals. And take advantage of convenient ingredients, such as:
Canned tomatoes: Choose a brand without salt, sugar, or chemical additives, preferably in a BPA-free can.
Coconut aminos: A substitute for soy sauce, which is not Paleo since it’s derived from soy beans, a legume.
Arrowroot powder: A vegetable-based thickener and great Paleo substitute for cornstarch.
Almond or other nut butters: Paleo alternatives to peanut butter.
Bone broths: Always choose grass-fed, organic, Paleo bone broths such as Kettle & Fire.
Noodle alternatives: Spaghetti squash is one and another is spiralized squash such as zucchini, which some stores sell already spiralized.
Keeping Things in Perspective
There are other important aspects of a Paleo lifestyle that are often overlooked, says Mayfield. Stone Age humans were constantly on the move rather than sitting most of the day as we do. And they typically shared meals with their tribe, which is a relaxed way of eating that helps lower stress levels and improve digestion and overall well-being.
Mayfield and her family eat according to these principles most of the time. They do eat small amounts of cheese and heavy cream, as these don’t cause problems for anyone in the family, and occasionally they enjoy other foods that aren't on the Paleo list.
“It isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Mayfield. “It’s making the best choice that’s available.”
Sample Paleo Meals
Breakfast: Eggs, seasoned with herbs, in-season fruit, herbal tea.
Morning Snack (optional): Fresh fruit and/or nuts (interchangeable with afternoon snack).
Lunch: Salad and meat, poultry, or fish.
Afternoon Snack (optional): Natural jerky or Paleo meat snack (e.g., Epic strips) and in-season fruit.
Dinner: A salad with avocado and oil and vinegar dressing, cooked vegetables, and other meat or fish. Choose fruit, nuts, and/or a small amount of dried fruit for dessert.
Paleo vs Whole30
Similarities and Differences
Whole30 is a diet designed to reset the way your body functions by completely eliminating foods that may be causing problems for 30 days. The rules are firm, and there’s no room for cheating, because it would defeat the resetting process. Paleo, on the other hand, is an ongoing style of eating, and occasional, non-Paleo food is generally considered part of a realistic routine.
The basics of Paleo apply to Whole30: eat whole, unprocessed foods; avoid legumes, grains, and dairy (although Whole30 does allow ghee or clarified butter). Things that may be acceptable in a Paleo diet but not in Whole30 include alcohol, any form of sweetener, any legume-derived ingredients (including soy lecithin in packaged foods), and pseudo-grains such as quinoa. Whole30 also frowns on recreating grain foods, such as pancakes or muffins made with coconut flour or other grain alternatives, during the 30-day regimen.
View our Spaghetti Squash Fritters recipe.