10 Baby Steps to Help You “Get Primal”

For this month?s 30-day challenge, we realize that everyone is starting from a different place. As much as we learn from our hardcore Grokkers, we welcome Primal newcomers with open arms and eager ears. We want to know their stories, their challenges, and the strategies that finally make it work for them. Some of us are the type to jump in the deep end of the pool and figure it out when we get to the bottom. Others of us dip our toes, scan the ladder placements, and study the grade of floor depth. Different strokes, we say.

Even as we accept that our own Primal journey will be different from the next person?s, it can be a little awkward or discouraging to be the one feeling out the shallow end while others are doing flips and belly flops in the deep side of the pool. We thought a post on baby-stepping, breaking down the transition into small and very manageable steps, might come in handy for many of our readers ? newcomers, renewers, or even old-timers who are coaching friends and family in a Primal direction. Kick back and get brainstorming for your next baby step!

Re-make a meal

Not that a single meal doesn?t count for something, but we actually mean a meal category (or maybe snack) each day. Maybe you want to tackle your least Primal serving of the day first (if you?re still stuck in a carb rut at breakfast, say). On the other hand, perhaps you?re more inclined to take on the simplest meal and work your way up. (Morning snack first? Meat and salad for dinner?) Setting a consistent pattern for a meal each day not only gets you on a solid track; it offers the mental boost of daily accomplishment. Furthermore, it can serve as a template for tackling further food overhauls. Remaking one meal a day gets you in the mode of delving into Primal variety, trying new recipes and eating for health rather than habit.

Drop or swap a vice

Perhaps there?s a particular offender, a persevering and pesky element of your diet that will take special time and energy to ditch. We?re not talking here about an occasional indulgence item but a regular player in the lineup. Whether it?s your favorite creamy stout, morning danish or afternoon microwave popcorn fix, you might find it easier to isolate and conquer before expanding the battle. Some readers have shared stories of choosing ?better? but not totally Primal alternatives for their old favorites first and then going back to phase out these ?lesser evils? once they had the rest of diet more fully Primalized.

Give up a grain at a time

Those vexing little granules that litter the dinner plates of unsuspecting diners everywhere? We?re only half kidding of course. (You know our shtick on this subject.) Sure, not all grains are created equal. Some, like brown rice, don?t seem to do quite the same number on the intestines as others. Yet, at the end of the day they?re still the same insulin and inflammation inciters. As we?ve said time and again, they add little to a healthy diet and generally fill the space of more nutritious fare. Tick them off the list based on preference or prevalence in your diet. Or work your way through the grain chain with more of a mind to gluten, bidding adieu to wheat and its various derivatives first, then continuing onward through the inventory.

Sample a new vegetable (or other Primal ingredient) each week

Out with the old, in with the new as they say. Your Primal conversion shouldn?t be a story of the incredibly shrinking menu. Take a hint from those middle school food science/home ec journals and explore a veggie a week. Remember the color illustrations, origin histories and recipe lists? Of course, adding more than one new item a week is ideal (especially with the best of summer?s bounty). And there?s nothing wrong with mixing it up either with other new-to-you Primal fare like almond butter or less appreciated cuts of meat. Don?t worry if you have to do some less than ideal adaptations at first like hiding the new item in the midst of other ingredients or incorporating favorite dips or sauces. The idea here is to add, not limit. Your taste buds will adapt with time, and you?ll find yourself with less need for the camouflage or accompaniment strategies.

Ditch the deadbeat drinks

Now more than ever Americans get an enormous amount of their calories and sugar from drinks, an easily overlooked food category. (Too many people delude themselves into thinking liquids somehow don?t count!) With the likes of mega sodas, energy drinks, syrup loaded coffee beverages and alcohol, it?s not hard at all to drink your dinner: carbs and calories through the roof, nutrients generally nonexistent. Nixing deadbeat drinks and replacing them with water, tea (and a single cup of regular joe for a morning pick-me-up) can mean a major difference in your carb count for the day, not to mention your insulin response and ?real? (as opposed to jacked-up) energy level.

Change one workout a week

Whether you?re stuck in the chronic cardio circuit, the heavy lifting mode or a plateau of the same low level activity, consider mixing things up. Exercise outside your comfort zone by venturing into a different part of the gym (yoga studio, free weights?), hitting a different venue (the trails, the pool?) or just slowing it down (you cardio addicts out there). Get up the gumption to try one of Mark?s sprints, join a casual sports league or let your hair down and initiate a game of flag football or Ultimate (Frisbee) with the family.

Add a workout a week

A logical permutation of the previous tip of course? If your situation isn?t characterized so much by too much cardio or an imbalance of lifting and low level activity, you might be looking at the need for simply adding workouts period. (No worries here: everyone starts somewhere.) The idea might be to just get moving. Low level workouts are generally easiest to incorporate. We?d definitely recommend trying to add more than one a week if you find yourself in this boat. If you?re already exercising a few times a week but know you?re capable of or ready for more, throw in a weight training or sprint session. Even adding an additional day of low level work can make a difference and can help up your game later with the time you?ve learned to set aside.

Start a supplement

Mark has said unequivocally that no supplement can be a stand in for a truly healthy diet and lifestyle. That said, a quality supplement can kickstart and continually enhance the biochemical balance that characterizes good health. As you begin your own efforts in the realms of exercise and nutrition, why not give yourself a leg up? Another benefit? A supplement can help mitigate the disadvantages of less than fully Primal living as you make your transition.

Make the mental ? and logistical ? commitment

Of course we all have a million excuses for not getting Primal even though we know it makes sense. We care about our health. We want to eat right and be in good shape. Right? But there are all those hours of low level cardio, the sweaty sprints and all that vegetable cutting?. Hmmm. How can I possibly fit in anything extra right now? Living Primally doesn?t require more time than any other active lifestyle. When you consider the lack of chronic cardio prescriptions and the short investments of sprints and targeted weight training sessions, you?ll likely be looking at less time expenditure. As for food, food shopping is generally food shopping. (And if you do the CSA/cowpooling/etc., it?s actually less weekly outlay of time.) Cutting, chopping and cooking might add a few extra minutes, but they?re well worth the extra energy healthy food will give you. Get more done in less time and sleep better when your head hits the pillow.

There are few moments in our lives when we can truly say we don?t have the time to take care of ourselves. The weeks following a death or serious illness of a loved one, the birth of a child maybe. Even in the most difficult times, however, we can make progress even as we give up the ideal of perfection (who ever said anything about being perfect anyway?).

In other busy but regular circumstances, we are able to consider what we want to bring into our lives (e.g. healthy living) and earnestly examine what we?re willing to give up to achieve this. T.V.? Wii? Getting through the whole newspaper in the morning? Ditching the car commute for a daily walk to the bus or a bike ride? Relocating nightly discussions to the kitchen while you put together lunch for the next day? Making family outings or time with the kids more active? It?s generally not an issue of giving up valuable activities or interactions in our lives but instead a challenge/opportunity to remake them into equally fulfilling and life balancing Primal adaptations.

Develop a personal Primal diversion

By all means, remake everyday responsibilities into time-saving Primal activities, but also find a bit of time and energy to initiate something new for yourself. Figure out what will ?feed? your spirit in a necessary and vital way. For some it might be a meditation practice. For others it might be a new commitment to play ? the enjoyment of a favorite sport or a relaxing, rejuvenating activity that fulfills a need for space, solitude or nature. Whatever your Primal diversion of choice is, enjoy it as a gift to yourself. Use it to recenter and rediscover self-care. The small bit of investment/indulgence will make the rest of your Primal commitment come more naturally. When you believe your overall well-being is worth the time and effort, you?re ready to embrace the steps toward Primal vitality.

Got enough to get you going? Comments? Feedback? Other baby step ideas you?ve used or recommended to inspire the Primal journey? Thanks for reading.

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50 thoughts on “10 Baby Steps to Help You “Get Primal””

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  1. I’m definitely the type to jump right into the deep end, but for people who aren’t, it’s so much better to take a big change like this one at a time.

    I think the “swapping a vice” is particularly a great piece of advice since giving up indulgences is one of the biggest obstacles for many people. In some cases, you can even find a completely healthy alternative to an indulgence, and as you come to appreciate real food, you may even like the replacement more than what it’s replacing. For example, raw nuts have become one of my favorite snack foods.

    I think trying new vegetables is a great suggestion as well. You just may be surprised to find some that you really like which will make it easier for you to eat more of them.

  2. I think all of these are wonderful suggestions. I am so glad that Mark and the other folks on this site welcome newcomers with such positive attitudes and open arms. When I gave up gluten a year ago, it was a year of learning and small steps. Now I am ready to delete the other grains and reduce sugar. I would not have been able to do that all at once a year ago.

  3. As a fellow “baby stepper” I really appreciate this post. I have been at it for several months now and am still reaping the benefits. I figure I am 90%+ of the way there and am using this month to continue my slow progress. I mainly wanted to encourage the newbies here this month that slow progress can work, if that is your style. Even if I stall where I am today I would be content, but I know that I can and will move forward over time. So, pick a baby step from the list above and when that becomes old hat…add another. It really works if you just remain consistent and don’t let a small setback become a large one.

    1. So, I sort of get the general gist of what this entails from the context of the article, but I still don’t completely know what “going Primal” actually means, completely. Any good sites that I should check out?

      I’m also a bit skeptical, because reading the article makes this sound, in some respects, a little like the Atkins diet, which caused more heart attacks than helped people! JMHOT!

      1. It’s really nothing like the Atkins diet. Until you look into it, I can see why you feel that way though, that’s what everyone thinks when I start talking to them about Paleo or Primal. Really you can do a search for paleo and get a lot of the info you need, that’s the term for the “diet” (healthy lifestyle) portion of going primal. There’s lots of posts on this site as well as my other goto website, the whole9life.com.

      2. In 2000, Dr. Atkins developed cardiomyopathy, an incurable heart condition which has quite a few different causes. His was thought to be from a viral illness, and his physician stated at the time that there was no evidence that his diet contributed to the condition. His coronary arteries were reported to have been checked at that time and found to be free of blockages. What is the evidence that the Atkins or similar diet is bad for the heart? Some of this notion is connected with the concept that the Atkins diet is high in fat, particularly saturated fat that ’causes heart disease’. The thing is, though, there is no good evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease. Another common cause for concern regarding the Atkins diet is the amount of protein in it. Some people have come to the conclusion that protein is somehow bad for the heart. I’m not sure where this notion originated. It might be part of the anti-Atkins propaganda that includes the telling us that protein is bad for the kidneys and bones too. While protein intake may need to be limited by those with compromised kidney function, there is no evidence that it is damaging to individuals with normal kidney function (the vast majority of us). And studies suggest that higher protein intakes are actually associated with improved bone health. But what about the relationship between protein and heart health? One recent study that has shed some light on this looked at the relationship between protein levels in the diet and blood pressure [1]. This study, conducted in Japan, found that the higher animal protein intake was, the lower blood pressure was found to be too.

  4. I’m the jump-right-in type…and boy, did I ever! But, I appreciate this post for the sake of my interested, but baby-stepping, friends. Thanks.

  5. Swapping a vice is huge. One of mine was swapping sodas for coffee. I didn’t start drinking coffee until age 36. Talk about a calorie reduction!

  6. Mark –
    I like the “baby-steps” approach. I’m mostly there on the big things after a couple of months (no sugar/grains) but there are still things I need to tweak. Like maybe trying new vegetation each week. I’m sort of in a rut right now with salads – they’re great and I not tired of them, but I feel that I need variety. 🙂 Thanks!!

  7. Good tips. I’ve been on this for a few weeks with mostly positive results. I was wondering if anyone else has experienced random energy dips, though?

    This week has been kind of draining for me. I had to break down and have oatmeal this morning after intense sprints and weights at the gym (eggs weren’t cuttin’ it today). Was just too lightheaded at work.

    Anyone have any suggestions on how to avoid this? I’m getting adequate sleep.


    1. Instead of adding back in a grain, try increasing your healthy vegetables or low carb fruits. That light headedness is probably a little too low carb going but you don’t want to up your insulin with the oatmeal. Just add a healthy dose of fat to your veggies or maybe coconut oil to your fruit to help balance things.

      1. Thanks. I just realized too that my allergies have picked up again this week and that could be attributing to the weak/woozy feeling.

  8. Baby steps make a life change like this a lot easier to manage. It takes a fair amount of time to change habits. Good ideas in this post.

  9. Definitely babysteps … people are so conditioned to hang on to their favorites – I have given up many things over the past 15 years – I remember thinking at one time, “yes, but ..I can’t live without ____” … last year it was gluten – now all grains and sugar !!!
    thanks 🙂

  10. Hey Marcus, before I found your site or anything “primal” for that matter, I had already met you half way.

    I was diagnosed with diabetes (type2) and I have been on a fitness plan for several months. (low glycemic diet and P90X workouts).

    Going “all primal” is a baby step and it feels GOOD!

    Monday I am going to check my overnight fasting blood sugar and see where I stand.



  11. Couldn’t agree with you more… It’s a constant journey to reach our goals and then to reach new goals…little bit at a time.

  12. this is so helpful…especially for an all-or-nothing perfectionist like me. it really is good to take it easy on ourselves. stressing ourselves out about being healthy is pretty counter productive.

  13. This was a helpful post and I think I have , over the last years time, before I knew much about primal eating habits, I was well on my way already. I was , and still desperately want to be, a Kashi Go Lean breakfast fanatic. Love the cereal for breakfast.In winter, I eat oatmeal most mornings with walmuts and craisins.. That might be a tough one for me to give up. So I guess for me , letting go of the Whole Grain thing is my biggest challenge. Today, I did an egg with spinach and tomato for breakfast. I am taking it one meal at a time. It’s going to be a slow process .I am not a jump into the deep end kind of person. But I already am starting to feel some improvements and so the pace should pick up. Thanks for the post , very helpful for those of us trying to make these transitions.

    1. Yum, the egg with spinach and tomato sounds yummy, too bad I am allergic to the egg and the spinach!

      I still don’t understand how our bodies are supposed to function without grains at all, though. If I go very far into my day without any grains, I become extremely dizzy and weak. I’m chronically ill, so that is a factor, since I did not have this requirement before I was ill. But it seems that a certain amount of grains is necessary for health, though I acknowledge that most Americans eat far too much in the way of processed grain products, myself included!

  14. Well, having challenged myself to play (and meeting this challenge with grim determination, as is my wont), I did take my first indoor climbing lesson today. Thanks for the leg up! Having fun is hard.

  15. It’s going to be hard to give up the Friday night popcorn (munch, munch). But replacing it with the Sunday night steak has helped.

    I thought lunch sandwiches would be hard to give up, but if you look, most sandwiches have a salad equivalent. Basically, I can be pretty darn primal (with the exception of not knowing where my lunch salad meat is from if I go out with the office crew), up until the evening/before bed time. That’s when the popcorn/cookie munchies kick in.

    1. When I get the late night munchies I try to reach for something fatty like walnuts. Also, I try to make sure to have hard boiled eggs at the ready. Nom, nom, nom… 😀

      1. I do something salty and super yummy like kale chips when I’m longing for popcorn! Popcorn was a tough one for me. Love it.

  16. Caitlin, I totally hear you on the popcorn/cookie munchies before bed time (said as I am about to dip my hand in a bowl of popcorn). I guess that it’s just late and the brain has shut off and it’s just oh so easy to stray. Got to figure a way out to kick this late night habit.

  17. Caitlin and Jason,
    I find it easier to not eat junk at night if it’s not in my kitchen. Try stocking your kitchen with only primal foods. Now when I really feel the urge to nibble at night (and drinking water won’t curb the craving), I have some veggies or meat or a perhaps a bite of raw, grass-fed cheese or eggs.

    I do way better if my cupboard isn’t stocked with things that would derail me. SInce I’ve eaten this way solidly for about a year now, I’ve found the cravings for junk food have mostly dissipated. If I have the occasional craving for ice cream or cake, I’ll go out a buy a one-time serving versus a huge container that will be in my home for days (or devoured in one sitting).

  18. My Primal Challenge:
    Diet wise – The Warrior Diet. Paleo/Primally. A form of intermittent fasting. Grazing and eating. Undereating/overeating.

    Sleep – No alarms, go to sleep when tired, wake up when light comes and wakes me up.

    Supplementation – Fish oil.

    Workouts – I will be away in the Netherlands all fall (And am leaving for Los Angeles today) so I’m out of gym membership. I’m going to incorporate more sprints, biking, hiking, walking and “fun.”

    My journey starts right now. August 8th, 2009.

    Thank you, Mark.

  19. OMG! This recipe is Awesome! I swapped out the crab meat with some Bumble Bee Mackerel 1.82 per 15 oz can…the whole family LOVED IT!

    Thanks (again)Mark


  20. I am a newcomer to the primal living idea. I am in work at the minute and am coming down with flu for the third time in as many months. The prospect of being healthier and leaner sounds like heaven to me at this moment in time! I have just ordered the book and I will give it my all. I am a jump in at the deep end type of person and that is what I plan to do!

  21. For those munchies… instead of buying pre-packaged stuff you can make your own, much healthier alternatives. Especially things like icecream. Homemade icecream can be pretty healthy and if you are doing dairy free there is coconut milk. You also know what’s going in it. I buy raw cream from the farmer’s market once every 2 or 3 weeks and make icecream at home for that rare (well more rare for my son than me, I have been cheating to much lately) sweet treat. I use raw organic maple syrup and skip the cane/white sugar all together. At least there is some nutritional value to maple syrup. You don’t need a lot either to have some vanilla icecream that tastes like the stuff in the store.

    I love this post, I found that I’m not a diver and after a few months of stressing and trying to be perfect, lasped back into a less perfect (though I didn’t go ALL the way back) diet. I’m doing more baby steps now.

    I do love that the healthier diet gets rid of some of these cravings! I have also found that when I do eat those old cravings.. they just don’t taste that great anymore. Which of course makes it that much easier to hold them at bay.

  22. These baby steps are great! I know what I have to do to be healthier, eat less carbs, become more active, incorporate more vegetables, stop drinking calories, changing up a workout and so and so forth. From the beginning perspective the end goals looks almost impossible, but you provide some great ideas for taking baby step and to gradually increase them until you look back and you have completed your goal. Thanks Mark!

  23. I’m 90% grain free for a couple of months now. Huge improvement in terms of no cravings, energy is noticeably better, and other negative symptoms have vanished. Starting slow is great, but you may be eager to pour it on as you feel the results.

  24. I am just getting started in Primal living. It is great to see these baby steps that can help incorporate it into my daily life. My husband is very much against it…insisting that whole grains are healthy and low carb is a load. I am having a hard time with this but am still trying little by little. Thanks for the baby steps!!

  25. I, too, am just getting started. Today is actually my first 100% day. For the last few weeks I’ve been transitioning, finding replacements for problem foods, trying new foods, etc. I really enjoyed reading this post, and am very glad you put it out there. For some folks cold turkey may be the key, but for me when it comes to a whole lifestyle change, baby steps are the route to success.

  26. So, I need some help. I feel like I eat a fairly healthy diet with good portion control. I eat sort of a Mediterranean style diet and eat very little sugar. But (and I realize this is a huge but), I also tend to eat a lot of carbs. I thought they were healthy carbs (granola, whole grain crackers, and pasta are my primary offenders) and like I said, I don’t go overboard. I don’t really eat bread. I rarely eat processed foods, buy organic foods, avoid nasty chemicals, drink pretty much only water and wine. 🙂 My problems are as follows: I have never been a big meat eater. Particularly red meat. Just have never been able to get past the whole blood thing. I’ve been that way since I was a child. I do eat poultry or seafood 3-4 times a week. It is beyond hard for me to imagine eating protein all the time. It is hard to get past the years of conditioning that said that too much protein and fat were bad things. On top of getting past my own mental problems, I am trying to prepare meals for a family of four. Hubby is full on into the primal thing, which is how I ended up here. He went in slowly at first, but now is pretty committed. Meanwhile, I have a 9 year old son, who absolutely refuses to eat meat. He just won’t. If you actually force him to eat a bite of chicken, he will literally gag until he throws up. So, he is just plain vegetarian. No 2 ways around it. He eats dairy and a fair number of fruits and veggies, but also lots of breads and pastas. My other son is a growing teenager, who eats practically everything in sight. My goal is to get everyone fed, make meals that my husband can work with, and babystep the rest of us along. I am not sure where to begin. Many of my stand-by dishes of pastas, sandwiches, tacos, burritos, etc. will no longer work. I need quick week-night meals that will work for everyone. Any suggestions??

    1. These baby steps were so helpful. I think it will really help to me to re-think things this way. Like “nothingbutnet’s” comments, I too am pretty good about eating organic, avoiding sugar in most any form (except wine – oops), and would much prefer a plate of vegies to meat, on top of having 3 teen boys who eat everything in sight, each with slightly different taste preferences and tolerances. What I try to do is make 3 things, 1 of which at least each person will like, though sometimes you just have to say ‘tough”. Some quick suggestions to feed starving teen boys? I use a lot of almond meal, instead of anything that calls for breading. It is straight protein, rather than carb and I think fills them right up. I season it and coat it on vegies or fish, and saute it – yum. I also substitute brown rice pasta for anything that calls for pasta, or spiralize zucchini instead for ‘pasta’. Also, I cut up and prepare healthy things and just have them sitting in the fridge (plates of vegies and fruits ready to go) – the boys seem to grab those items first if they are prepared. I also do a lot of raw food preparation with nuts & beans for protein – my oldest son loves that stuff. I also make raw food treats that are actually very healthy (usually with almond or cashew butter and maybe a little honey and coconut or ‘ice cream’ without dairy using cashews & honey.) We do a lot of healthy smoothies. If I find a quick recipe that sounds good, and it has anything ‘unhealthy’ in it, I substitute it for something healthy (i.e. sugar – I eliminate it or use stevia, flour – I use almond meal, a food someone hates – I use a food they like. For sandwiches, try a lettuce wrap night. Another thing I do is create a meal where everyone creates their own…I put out individual bowls of ingredients and each person puts what they like on their plates. Hope that helps!

  27. All of these comments are very helpful to me. I had actually never heard of Primal Blueprint, I found my way here when googling “almond flour pizza” recipes. LOL. I have been on Atkins Diet for five days and I am starting to long for something besides eggs, meat and cheese. I am intrigued by what I have read so far, but I’m sure there is quite a lot to the diet/lifestyle that I still don’t understand.

    Most of the posters here sound very young. I am not. I wonder if that is an issue? I am 56 and have only just started exercising. I have had a lot of medical challenges the last few years, most of which are resolved. So, if it’s not too late, I’d like to lose about 70lbs and get really fit. Silly at my age maybe, but I am committed to giving it my all.

    I am definitely a carnivore and the meat, vegetables and nuts will not be a problem for me. I do like dairy, but it’s not a “got to have it” part of my diet. The biggest challenge I see is my diet soda. I don’t drink the sugared stuff, but I know the diet sodas are just as bad, even the caffeine-free kind I drink. I like green tea, that might be the best thing for me to substitute for diet soda.

    I would like to find out a little more about the program and what I will need to get started. Any suggestions for older women? 🙂

  28. I am a 60 year old woman without any health problems who needs to lose 30 pounds. Does this diet seem appropriate for me?

  29. I am a sixty year old woman, healthy, who needs to lose 30 pounds. Would this seem like an appropriate diet for me?

  30. I’m interested in starting a Primal lifestyle with my wife, and wondering what types of things people use as motivation, and what the easiest way to get started is? My wife is not a physical person at all, and I need to be able to find a motivation for her as well. Any suggestions?