Because humans were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved to use and favor the diverse plant and rich meat intake of our hunting and foraging history. Farming and its core crops (e.g. grains), by contrast, only came on the scene approximately 10,000 years ago and took at least 8000 of those years to spread across the world. Our evolutionary roots—and residual genetic expectations—favor the nutritional practices of our hunter-gatherer legacy. (For more on the history of the paleo diet, click here.)
The “paleo diet” today looks to the dietary model of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and translates those eating practices to the modern age for the purpose of optimum health.
The paleo diet favors nutrient-dense whole foods and eschews processed food products. Let’s look at the wide variety of flavorful (and healthy) choices within a paleo protocol as well as some basic principles for what to eat and what to avoid. For a PDF print-out of this list, click here.
Archaeological research indicates that our Paleolithic ancestors gleaned the lion’s share of their calories and nutrition from meat, in stark comparison to modern day Western diets. Studies of today’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies show that meat and other animal products comprise a whopping 65% of their total caloric intake, whereas current day Western protein intakes average in at a measly 15% of total calories.
This means that embracing the Paleo diet means upping the meat ante, but with one major addendum: that meat must be from high quality sources! Quality, in this instance, is synonymous with grass-fed/pasture-raised, organic, free-range, and (ideally) humanely-raised. (Avoid the additives and nitrates of cured meats.) If your budget won’t allow for meats carrying these labels all the time, go for organic and pastured when you can, prioritizing it for fattier cuts and going budget-friendly on leaner varieties.
Also, think like our ancestors and approach your meat consumption with a nose-to-tail mantra in mind, eating as many different parts of an animal as possible. In addition to muscle meat, organs, connective tissue and unidentifiables are all on the menu.
Eggs are a staple for paleo aficionados simply because they’re nutritionally amazing: they’re a potent source of protein and fat, they’re a top source of B vitamins and choline, and they come pre-packaged by nature…there’s just not much more you could ask for in a food.
But once again, choosing quality matters. Research shows that pastured eggs have twice the vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, 2.5 times more short-chain omega-3s, and a 38% higher concentration of vitamin A than eggs from caged hens. If you can’t get your hands on pastured eggs, free-range organic is the next best thing.
Standard Paleo-friendly eggs include those from:
Seafood provides an excellent alternative or complement to terrestrial meat as a source of protein and healthy fats. Paleo favorites include cold-water fish high in omega-3s like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, and nutrient powerhouses like oysters and mussels.
With seafood, wild and sustainably caught is always best, as is sourcing your seafood from areas that are less likely to suffer from pollution and heavy metal contamination. Generally speaking, larger predatory fish are more likely to have higher levels of heavy metals than smaller fish and mollusks. It’s not a reason to avoid larger fish entirely, but it’s good to balance intake between larger and smaller fish varieties if you’re concerned about pollution.
Shellfish are generally fine to buy from farmed sources, provided those farms are sustainably run.
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s good to experiment with different types of seafood to benefit from the varying nutrients each provides. Fresh water fish like trout and walleye also get the big Paleo thumbs up.
Despite the fact that even conventional nutritionists recommend that vegetables comprise a large portion of our daily diet, Americans and those in many other Western countries don’t get close to enough.
Under the paleo diet, vegetables make up a large part of the recommended nutritional intake. When we vary our plant intake as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, we get a broader spectrum of nutrients.
Note that tubers and root vegetables are generally quite high in carbohydrates. As a result, they should be consumed in moderation unless a person is very active and in need of additional carbohydrates.
Once again, this list is extensive but not non-exhaustive. With the exception of white potatoes and a select few others, you’ll find most vegetables get the Paleo seal of approval.
The high concentrations of fructose in fruit means they should only be eaten in moderation, and generally treated as more of a treat than a staple.
Nonetheless, many varieties of fruit have their fair share of antioxidants and other pro-health phytochemicals, so there’s definitely room for especially lower glycemic fruits on any but the most extreme Paleo diet. If you’re big on fruit, learn to seek out those fruits that are higher in nutrients and lower in fructose, such as berries.
This food group provides the basis for many “Paleo-friendly” breads, crackers and baked goods, but it’s surprisingly easy to go overboard on them—especially when they’re consumed in large quantities in baked goods or dairy-free milks.
Keep in mind that while nuts and seeds are good nutritional sources for many vitamins and especially minerals, they all tend to be high in phytic acid and can quickly send your caloric intake skyrocketing. Enjoy in moderation.
Going paleo means casting aside the Western aversion to fats, especially those of the saturated variety. While there are plenty of popular oils and fats that truly are bad for your health (particularly processed seed oils), there are others that provide critical nutrients—not to mention taste and richness. Here’s one such sample. Note that the less processed these products are, the better.
Although strict paleo eschews dairy, grass-fed butter still deserves to find itself on this list, as it’s composed mostly of fat and has very little of the lactose and casein that can cause allergies in those who are sensitive to dairy.
If there’s one thing all advocates for the paleo diet agree on, it’s that grains simply aren’t worth eating. Even when compared to the much-touted Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet has been shown to improve glucose tolerance and satiate appetite more effectively, despite fewer calories consumed—and much of that is due to omitting grains.
Grains like wheat, barley, oats and corn simply don’t stack up on the nutritional front, with modern cultivars engineered for speed of growth and pest resistance rather than nutrient density. What’s more, the milling process tends to remove most of the nutrients that remain in those grains, meaning the end product is virtually pure carbohydrate. Throw in a heady dose of anti-nutrients like lectins and phytates, and one starts to see why grains are better left off the menu.
Note that any products made with any one or a combination of these grains are also off the cards. That means most breads, pastas, flours, baked goods and the majority of processed dry goods. Even if a product claims to be gluten free, it can still contain other grains (or pseudo-grains like quinoa or buckwheat) that subject the body to anti-nutrients like lectins.
Dairy is something of a contentious food group, even within the paleo community. While Primal folks have long recognized that grass-fed, full-fat organic dairy can provide far more benefits than drawbacks, advocates for the paleo diet are mixed on the subject. (For more on the differences between paleo and Primal, check out this article.) Certainly, modern-day dairy production on the mass scale has a lot to answer for, subjecting cows to appalling living conditions and thereby degrading the quality of the milk and dairy products they produce.
At the other end of the scale, free-range, grass-fed cows produce milk that is nutrient-dense and generally quite inflammation-averse…especially if it’s raw and/or fermented. For some, however, the risk of encountering allergens like lactose and casein outweighs the benefits, so dairy is “officially” considered non-paleo.
If you do opt for dairy, be sure to seek out high-quality products that have the highest fat content, as these will contain less lactose and casein.
The Primal Blueprint leaves room for legumes (other than unfermented, organic soy) in close moderation, but those on a paleo diet tend to steer clear of them. Like nuts and seeds, legumes contain anti-nutrients like lectins, phytates and saponins. Unlike nuts and seeds, however, legumes tend to be consumed in large quantities, potentially preventing your body from absorbing sufficient nutrients for optimum health.
Essentially, all beans are off-limits under paleo. Peas are also technically also legumes, but eating them occasionally isn’t going to do any harm. Know that they do have considerable carbs, however.
The fact that vegetable oils are still so prevalent in today’s world is a testament to just how aggressively they’ve been marketed, lobbied, and subsidized. But just because everyone else is using them doesn’t mean you should, and you most definitely shouldn’t if you’re planning on going full paleo (or Primal). The following oils are typically ultra-processed and pro-inflammatory on account of their high levels of omega-6 fatty acids.
You’d be surprised at how many processed foods have sweeteners in them—even those that aren’t supposed to be sweet! Food manufacturers know that refined sugars and many artificial sweeteners are highly addictive in nature, meaning customers will always come back for more.
But because our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have access to these kinds or concentrations of sweeteners, there’s really no reason why we should too. Sweet paleo-friendly foods like fruit and (occasional) raw honey or black-strap molasses provide more than enough glucose/fructose to keep our bodies (and tastebuds) satisfied.
Here’s some of the culprits to stay away from:
Natural sweeteners like stevia and xylitol have been extensively studied and don’t impose health risks. Allulose and yacon syrup also appear to be safe according to research studies. Primal (and some paleo adherents’) cooking and baking incorporate them as well as small doses of monk fruit, coconut sugar, maple syrup and wild honey. That said, it’s best to let your taste buds adapt to the natural sweetness and flavor of whole foods. Use these more Primal or paleo friendly very sparingly.
While iodized table salt—and essentially any other salt that’s been processed more than just drying and (mechanically) desiccating—isn’t supportive of optimal health, natural salts are.
In fact, salt is a critical part of our anatomy, and a lack thereof would soon make itself known. It’s best to favor more mineral-rich paleo-friendly salts like sea salt, “Real Salt,” Celtic salt, gray salt, or Himalayan pink salt.
Ultimately, eating Paleo is really about eating real food—naturally raised and occurring foods that would be recognizable to the ancestral genes.
That means eating meat and animal products from animals raised in the most natural (or wild) conditions, eating plenty of varied vegetables and smaller amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds, and not being shy in adding generous amounts of healthy, stable fats to our fresh meats and produce. It also means staying away from grains, processed foods, and compounds that have been modified beyond recognition.
As a nutritional philosophy and dietary practice, the Paleo diet foremost centers around the value of real, whole foods above all others. Enjoy the health and variety they offer to live—and eat—well.