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Paleo diet: Everything you should know before you start

Welcome to the beginner's guide to paleo.

paleo diet dinner

On the paleo diet, you'll eat lots of meat and vegetables.

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When calorie-counting, macro-tracking, food journaling and other healthy eating tactics don't work, many are tempted to turn to a clear-cut diet that says, "Eat this, not that." Some people find success with that while others don't. 

If you're currently researching diets that can make healthy eating simpler -- but not necessarily easier -- the paleo diet is one eating plan worth looking into. It began its rise to diet fame in the early 2000s when paleo advocates like Mark Sisson (the "Pied Piper of Paleo") touted benefits like improved physical performance and mental clarity. 

The paleo diet has since secured its place in the wellness industry as one of the most popular diets and it's garnered a diverse following that includes bodybuilders, CrossFit advocates, professional athletes, yogis and overall wellness aficionados. 

Here, learn exactly what it means to "go paleo" and how to get started on the paleo diet, plus who should and who shouldn't adopt these caveman-era eating habits.

paleo diet foods

This is a pretty good representation of what the paleo diet looks like. 

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What is the paleo diet? 

"Paleo" is short for "Paleolithic," which refers to the era of Neanderthals, aka cavemen. The idea behind the paleo diet is to return to how our ancient ancestors ate. 

Proponents of the paleo diet say this hunter-gatherer style of eating promotes health and fitness more than any other diet, mainly because it's devoid of processed foods. 

The diet also goes by other names, such as the Stone Age diet, the caveman diet and the hunter-gatherer diet.

How to start the paleo diet

The easiest way to wrap your head around the paleo diet is to think of it as a very strict whole-food diet. People who follow the paleo diet assume, probably correctly, that those who preceded modern humans existed on whole foods such as vegetables, fruit and meat. In other words, our ancestors from the Stone Age ate what they could harvest or kill with their own hands. 

Unlike some other diets that are more clear-cut, such as the keto diet, there are various iterations of the paleo diet ranging from superstrict to relatively lax. Different versions of the paleo diet likely arose because no one knows for sure what exactly cavemen ate; the route you decide to follow depends on your own speculation about what cavemen ate and your values surrounding food and health. 

The first step to following the paleo diet would be deciding how strict a diet you think you can handle and then finalizing which foods you'll eat and which ones you won't. 

sweet potatoes paleo diet

Getting creative with ingredients on the paleo diet is crucial to success.

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What can you eat on the paleo diet? 

Speaking of paleo-friendly foods, what you can and can't eat on the paleo diet depends on how close you really want your diet to be to a Neanderthal's. The strictest form of the paleo diet includes only water, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, meats and fish -- and excludes what many would call whole foods, such as rolled oats, beans and legumes. 

Other paleo dieters deem healthy oils, eggs, milk, some whole grains, beans and legumes okay. Still others say foods like grass-fed butter and snacks made of paleo ingredients, such as RX bars, which are made of egg whites, fruit and nuts, are okay to eat on the diet.

These paleo food guidelines seem to be the most widely accepted and followed:

  • Do eat: Meats, fish, seafood, eggs, healthy oils (olive, coconut and avocado oils), fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
  • Don't eat: Dairy products, beans, legumes, grains, sugar (except fruit), sauces, condiments, grains, some vegetable oils (mixed, canola, soybean, grapeseed, cottonseed), artificial sweeteners, trans fats and processed foods.

As for beverages, water should be your go-to. Avoid sugary drinks like soda as well as artificially sweetened drinks such as sports drinks. Coffee and tea aren't paleo by true Paleolithic standards, but most people drink them anyway -- just drink them without cream or sugar to adhere to the paleo diet. 

If that all feels overwhelming and you want one simple paleo guideline to follow, here it is: If it's something you couldn't make, harvest or hunt on your own in the wild, don't eat it. 

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Added sugar is not allowed on the paleo diet. No donuts, sorry!

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Meal planning and prepping for paleo

Successfully following the paleo diet for an extended period of time will require a great deal of planning and meal prepping , especially if you follow a particularly strict version. If you try to jump into a paleo diet blindly, you may find yourself giving up sooner rather than later (e.g. If you forget your lunch, you'll likely be hard-pressed to find a paleo-friendly replacement near your office).

One of the best ways to do meal prep for the paleo diet is to do so in bulk. Many people find success by buying and freezing large packages of meat, fish and seafood, as well as buying frozen fruits and vegetables. 

An easy way to do paleo meal prep is to set up sheet-pan meals: You can cook large amounts of meat and roasted vegetables on sheet pans and portion them into meal-size containers for easy lunches and dinners. 

You may also find success by slicing fruits and veggies to keep on hand in the fridge for simple snacks. If you plan to follow a less strict version of the diet, it can help to prepare large batches of overnight oats, chia puddings and egg casseroles for quick, easy breakfasts.

paleo diet ingredients meal prep

Prepping food in bulk once or twice a week will help you adhere to the paleo diet.

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Benefits of the paleo diet

The paleo diet offers a number of potential benefits because it requires avoidance of foods that are linked to common health issues, such as processed foods that are high in sugar, as well as refined grains and foods high in trans fats. If you follow a paleo diet, you may: 

Researchers warn of one important consideration, though: Modern humans are not the same as Neanderthals, and while this diet may have worked for them, it was the only option back then. Now, we have other diets -- such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH Diet -- that have more clinical evidence that supports following them. 

One book on the paleo diet says, "This diet first used by our human ancestors may have been good for the digestive tract but most people were dead in their 30s to 40s and so, of course, they never developed any serious chronic disorders." 

That's something to consider when weighing the long-term health benefits.

Read more: 8 ways eating too much sugar is bad for your health

paleo diet healthy lifestyle

A paleo diet can support an overall healthy lifestyle for most people.

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Who should do the paleo diet?

The paleo diet isn't right for everyone -- no diet is. Paleo may be a good diet choice for you if you struggle with multiple food intolerances, such as gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance or FODMAP intolerance. Paleo is also a good choice for people who generally just feel better physically and mentally when they don't eat processed foods

The paleo diet may not be right for people who have disordered eating habits, as eschewing some food groups and ingredients can lead to labeling foods as "good" and "bad," which can promote an unhealthy and restrictive relationship with food. 

People at risk of any nutrient deficiencies, particularly calcium and vitamin D, should consult a dietitian or physician before trying the paleo diet: Cutting out dairy products can increase your risk of deficiency for those nutrients. 

If you have any medical conditions or take prescription medication, you should ask your doctor whether the paleo diet can support your health, or if a different diet might be a better fit. 

Read more: There's a new nutrition facts label for 2020. Here's how to read it

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.