What Is Paleo Diet? The Need to Know Before You Go PALEO

The Paleo Diet claims that you will improve your health, lose weight, and decrease your risk of many “diseases of civilization,” such as Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases.

So, what is this magical diet, claiming to cure us all?

The theory behind the Paleo diet is we need to go back in time, and live like our Paleolithic ancestors— at least eat like they did. 

Paleo advocates believe that our highly processed, carb-obsessed eating patterns is the culprit behind many of big health illnesses, so why not go back in time— way back around 10,000 years ago.

Back when there was no junk food and heavy carbs like pasta.

The Paleo eaters advise we should only eat animal proteins, fish, and plants and eliminate everything else.

“I’ll get a hamburger, but hold the bun, I’m Paleo!” is a perfect way to illustrate Paleo diet followers’ way of life. 

This Paleo diet also known as caveman’s diet is rapidly gaining popularity in the recent years, and it just seems that you cannot get away from the “I’m paleo” phrase lately. 

Just on a side note, Hawaii Public Radio reported that the Paleo Diet was the most searched diet in 2013.

It’s also one diet that has a huge celebrity following. A famous name from Uma Thurman, Jessica Biel, Megan Fox to Kobe Bryan, Rick Ross is reported living the Paleo lifestyle.

You cannot also talk Paleo without mentioning the CrossFit community as CrossFit has been instrumental in the upbringing of this meat and veggie eating diet and supporting its fast-growing trend.

Despite its cult-like following and die-hard backers, Paleo is no where near without controversy and oppositions.

While proponents and followers believe that Paleo is not a diet but a lifestyle, many opponents and doubters argue it’s nothing more than another fad diet

With so much conflicting information, it’s hard to really know what Paleo means and what foods are considered Paleo.

So follow this guide along to learn about this trendiest diet, the Paleo Diet.

The Paleo Diet

Stone age cavemen diet

In a nutshell (by the way, nuts are Paleo, so that’s appropriate), if the Paleolithic caveman could eat it, then it’s Paleo.

The name Paleo comes from the term Paleolithic, or circa “Old Stone Age” time. It’s sometimes called the cavemen diet because the general idea is to eat a diet that resembles the diet of our paleolithic ancestors. 

That means packaged and processed foods are off the table, no more Twinkies. Sorry! 

If your hunter-gatherer ancestor could find the food you’re about to eat by foraging, it is a fair game. Everything else is to be avoided. 

That means no processed junk food is allowed, so get used to it ’cause we’re going back to the nature.

To begin, the Paleo diet isn’t about a diet system like calorie counting or glycemic number counting. Instead, it’s all about food sources. It’s not even necessarily about nutrient-density or superfoods either. (Note that you can still eat nutrient-focused diet with Paleo.)

It’s about feeding your body with foods from quality sources.

This means all macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats need to come from quality, unprocessed, non-artificial sources that contain no gluten such as poultry, meats, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

At a quick glance, it sounds like a perfect diet. After all, who doesn’t want to eat everything from quality sources?

Taking a closer look, you can probably start to notice that everything from quinoa to whole grain (even rye) bread is off limit. Let alone, beans and yogurts. That’s where the effect of Paleo diet comes from. The off limit list!

The diet also operates under the following conditions.

You can eat everything from the list below:

  • Grass-fed meats
  • Free-range Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Wild fish
  • Oil

You can grab the Paleo food list for a more extensive list of what to eat and not to eat on the Paleo Diet.

Avoid the following:

  • processed foods
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Potatoes
  • Salt
  • Refined Sugars
  • Vegetables Oils

So, is the Paleo diet really healthy?

Is Paleo Diet healthy

The diet consists of whole foods instead of processed foods. On top of that, you are also avoiding refined sugars and any modified ingredients.

From that point, it’s healthy as it can be.

And obviously, the Paleo community also believes that.

They believe that the current obesity crisis is led and magnified by the modern processed food companies and food manufacturing companies. By avoiding their foods, you can supposedly live a healthier life, they say.

To uncover real benefits and drawbacks of this popular and trendy diet, let’s take a closer look at its rule, belief and each food group that is or is not allowed on Paleo.

The Paleo’s first rule is if our ancestors ate it, then we should too. 

This means, any modern food such as chicken nuggets, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and frozen pizza are off limits.

There goes all the convenient food choices, but undeniably, that’s also the best part of Paleo’s way of eating, no-junk, processed or manufactured food.

That by itself can bring a tremendous benefit to your waistline and the number you see on the bathroom scale.

In fact, there are countless people who succeeded a major weight loss eating the Paleo Diet.

The downside of this rule is what’s really there today that our Paleolithic ancestors had an access to.

We are not biologically identical to our ancestors, nor do we have access to the foods that they ate, according to Scientific America. 

The foods we eat and love today are nothing like what our Paleolithic predecessors found foraging from the earth so long ago.

The vegetables we shop at the grocery stores have been modified to remove the bitter tastes, so we can enjoy it.

Our modern convenience has removed our need to forage in the wild to hunt our foods.

Another thing to point out about this rule is depending on what food groups you have an access to, your diet can get skewed, thus unhealthy.

Here’s why

If you live in colder climate, you won’t find any fresh fruits and vegetables in the cold months. Following the Paleo lifestyle diet, you have no choice but to eat a mostly meat-based diet only because “grains are not allowed”.

On the other hand, if you happen to live in a warmer climate, then you see the opposite.

With Paleo, because there is no food choice adjustment based on food availabilities, one’s diet can easily get skewed and become unbalanced based on what’s available to them. 

If you have an access to fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and animal proteins all year round, it’s very much possible to have a balanced, nutritious diet throughout the year.

So think about what foods grow in your areas during what seasons.

If you have an abundance of allowed foods for all three macronutrients without interruptions, you are more likely to have a higher success with Paleo than those who live in an extreme climate.

Paleo and Food Choices

A beginner's guide to the Paleo diet -- eating like your Paleolithic ancestors did.

Grains are forbidden on the Paleo Diet

All grains — are forbidden on the Paleo diet. That means there are no baked goods, flour, and pasta. Be sure to note that quinoa is on this list too.

Grains to avoid include:

  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Rye
  • Bulgur
  • Sorghum
  • Corn
  • Spelt
  • Millet
  • Teff
  • Oats
  • Wheat

Did you also note that corn is there too? Yup, con is out.

In the Paleo community, grains are believed to be toxic—toxic substances that prevent your body from functioning properly and absorbing the nutrients it needs and that create autoimmune and digestive irritation — and inflammatory proteins like gluten. 

Paleo advocates believe eating grains and gluten will damage the gut lining and cause irritation throughout the body. They further claim many of the grains are believed to release insulin, causing the body to store fat. 

While I agree processed white breads and refined sugar don’t provide any nutritional value to your diet and should be avoided at all cost, whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa contain certain nutrients that can be beneficial to your overall health.

Harvard reported, whole-grains contain a complete package of health benefits that refined grains are stripped out of in the refining process.

Another source, Whole Grains Council stated whole grains offer many great health benefits including:

  • Lowers the risk of stroke by 30-36 %
  • Lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • Lower the risk of heart disease by 25-28%

Although quality (see Harvard’s guide to choosing high-quality whole grains.) and quantity of grain consumption needs to be in check, whole-grains can be healthy and part of a balanced diet.

So how much grains can you eat up to?

No grains on the Paleo Diet

According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRIs), a balance diet should comprise of:

  • 10-35% of protein ( fish, meats, eggs, diary)
  • 20-35% of fat( healthy dietary fat)
  • 45-65 of carbohydrates( fruits, vegetables, grains)

Being on Paleo diet, you are only allowed to eat proteins, vegetables and certain fruits —no dairy, grains, legumes, so with Paleo, grains will make up zero percent on your total carb intake.

Off Paleo, I’d keep each grain serving about the size of your fist as Precision Nutrition outlines on their portion guide.

No Legumes on the Paleo Diet

No legumes on the Paleo diet

Legumes such as pinto beans, lima beans, chickpeas (Hummus‘s main ingredient) are also not allowed on the Paelo diet.

So this means, you need to depart from all the bean soups you like to eat to fulfill, fuel and fiber you up.

Despite legumes’ reputations for foods high in fiber, high-protein, rich vitamin and mineral content, Paleo advocates believe legumes contain the same anti-nutrients as grains; therefore should be avoided.

Even with pre-soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, Paleo eaters consider beans to be high-carbohydrate foods that spike your blood sugar levels and trigger insulin release.

They are also considered difficult for your body to digest.

Legumes to avoid on the Paleo diet:

Black beansNavy beans
broad beansPeanuts, peanut butter
Garbanzo beans (chickpeasPeas
LentilsPinto beans
Lima beansSoybeans (including tofu, tempeh, natto, soy source, miso, edamame, soy milk
Mung beansWhite beans

Although snow peas, sugar peas, and greens beans are beans, they are exceptions as they are considered more pods than peas.

In all cases, they are all complex carbohydrates, which are slower in digestion than simple carbs such as white breads and cereals.

Legumes are packed with quality carbs, proteins and high fiber, helping to balance your blood sugar after eating.

The downside of beans, which made the Paleo community to ditch this food group all together, is they are anti-nutrients.

What it means is that legumes contain substances called anti-nutrients that can interfere with digestion and absorption of other nutrients.

According to Loren Cordain, Ph.D from The Paleo Diet, legumes are anti-nutrients for a reason. It’s to discourage predation and prevent destruction of the plant’s reproductive materials like seeds by microorganisms, insects, birds and rodents.

The bottom line is legumes come with numerous health benefits and help you stay fuller for longer, preventing over-eating and packing in additional unnecessary calories from snacking. 

However, because of their anti-nutrient characteristics, when you cook beans, use ways to neutralize the anti-nutrients such as soaking, sprouting and boiling.

Paleo carbs

Paleo carbs -- brocoli

Good carbs are those close to the nature like fruits and vegetables.

These are the carbs high in nutrients necessary for optimal body functions. Other examples of good carbs include sweet potatoes and different varieties of squash.

As you probably guessed it already, opinions are conflicted as to whether potatoes are Paleo.

Some believe because they were around during Paleolithic times that they would have been boiled and eaten, whilst others say no, due to the high carb levels.

The simple fact remains though that paleo man wouldn’t have deep fried them in oil and eaten them as French fries. So even if potatoes are on your menu, choose your cooking methods wisely.

Dairy is also forbidden on the Paleo diet

No dairy on the Paleo diet

Along with potatoes and legumes, another forbidden food is dairy.

This can be good things for many whether they are Paleo or not. According to a recent study, large portion of the population is lactose intolerant and cannot tolerate dairy.

However some paleo recipes call for grass-fed butter and others call for milk and cream. This type of butter is considered to be an excellent source of healthy fat.

If you have no digestion issues regarding dairy then perhaps dairy isn’t an issue for you.

The fact does remain however that no other animal in the world drinks milk past infancy, and certainly not from a different species. 

The following dairy products are not allowed on the “Paleo food list”:

  • Cheese
  • Cream
  • Half-and-half
  • Milk
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt

No seed oil on the Paleo diet

No-sunflower oil on the Paleo diet

Despite vegetable and seed oils often being prompted as “healthy”, they’re not because they require significant processing to become edible.

They’re prone to turning rancid and creating free radicals in your body, making them very inflammatory.

It’s really no surprise they are forbidden on the Paleo diet.

Non-healthy vegetable and seed oil to avoid:

  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Margarine
  • Sunflower
  • Palm Kernel oil
  • Trans Fats
  • Partially hydrogenated oil
  • Vegetable shortening

Sugar is off limit with Paelo

No sugar on the Paleo diet

Eliminating all refined sugar from your diet is part of living the Paleo life. Paleo advocates believe that you get a plenty of sugar from fruits and vegetables that you don’t need the help of refined sugar.

Sugar or other artificial sweeteners tend to produce a big insulin response, causing your blood sugar levels to be off balance.

Paleo Diet: Sugar to avoid

  • Agave
  • Molasses
  • Artificial sugars
  • Raw sugar
  • Aspartame
  • Rice syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Corn syrup
  • Sugar cane
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Stevia
  • Maltodextrin
  • White sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Paleo protein

The Paleo Diet is a high-protein and low-carb diet

Lean protein - Ahi fish

An average 10 to 35 % of daily calories should come from protein according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines; the Paleo diet exceeds this recommends amount at 38 percent.

Paleo approved proteins:

  • Grass fed beef or free range meat (flank steak, top sirloin steak, chuck steak, lean veal)
  • Lean pork
  • Turkey
  • Reindeer
  • Lean poultry
  • Goat meat
  • Wild fish ( Sea bass, Salmon, Halibut, Mackerel, Sardines, Tuna, Red snapper, Sunfish, Swordfish, Tilapia, Trout, Walleye)
  • Shellfish

Try limit red meat to 2-3 days a week.

A diet comprised of too much red meat can be just as unhealthy for you. According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, an ingredient called L-Carnitine, a compound that is abundant in red meat is the reason why.

An original “research” reported by the Journal Nature Medicine, eating red meat deliver L-carnitine to bacteria that live in the human gut. These bacteria then turn into compound called trimethylamine-N-Oxide (TMAO), which causes atherosclerosis, the disease process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries.

Another source, prevention.com warns eating too much red meat hardens blood vessels, increases your risks of type 2 diabetes, and puts your colon and brain at risk.

Eat proteins, but don’t let protein consume your meal. Keep all macronutrients balanced is an important element of having a success with Paleo.

S0, Is the Paleo Diet Safe? 

In short, yes.

In today’s western world, we are spoiled in our food choices, yet obesity epidemic is increasingly serious.

How can a nation of people who eat to excess be undernourished?

The answer is simple. It’s because we are not feeding our bodies the nutrients it needs to function, maintain good health and keep the body fit.

In the sense, going back to the basic approach of Paleo is tempting and has a point. However as with all diets, a word of caution is in order.

People with Celiac or Crohn’s disease may thrive on the Paleo diet. Paleo or any diet for the matter shouldn’t be understood with one size fits all mentality.

It might not be the best choice for those with specific health issues that require major dietary changes like kidney disease or dialysis patients.


Don’t believe everything you read.

In my personal belief, approach Paleo as a mindset more so than a strict regime.

When making food choices, think is this processed or fresh and unprocessed? Does it contain ingredients you don’t understand?

Think if you were to limit your food to wholesome foods, is the food in your hand make the list?

Even just thinking how nutritious your food choices are can help you eat comparable to the Paleo way and reap the benefits of their diet.

Because the base of all diets in the end is all about making nutrient-rich food choices.

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