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The Paleo Diet: Rules, Foods and Potential Benefits

Eat like a prehistoric human with this popular "caveman" diet.

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Caroline Igo (she/her/hers) is a wellness editor and holds Sleep Science Coach and Stress Management certificates from the Spencer Institute. She received her bachelor's degree in creative writing from Miami University and continues to further her craft in her free time. Before joining CNET, Caroline wrote for past CNN anchor, Daryn Kagan.
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6 min read
paleo diet dinner

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

Claudia Totir/Getty Images

How did humans survive thousands of years ago before fast food, grocery stores or stovetops? Many were hunter-gatherers who relied on what they could find growing and living in the wild. Today, experts wonder if the hunter-gatherer lifestyle could still be sustainable. In a callback to our prehistoric roots, the popular paleo diet was born. 

The paleo diet began its rise to fame in the early 2000s when paleo advocates touted benefits like improved physical performance and mental clarity. The diet has since secured its place in the wellness industry as a popular diet that has garnered a diverse following of bodybuilders, CrossFit advocates, professional athletes, yogis and overall wellness aficionados. 

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

paleo diet foods

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

Ekaterina Markelova/500px/Getty Images

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 ancestors ate. This means eating only whole foods such as fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts. The paleo diet also goes by other names, such as the Stone Age diet, the caveman diet and the hunter-gatherer diet.

Proponents of the paleo diet say this eating style promotes health and fitness more than any other diet, mainly because it lacks processed foods.

How to start the paleo diet

The easiest way to wrap your head around the paleo diet is to consider it 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.

Unlike other more clear-cut diets, 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 exactly what cavemen ate. The route you decide to follow depends on your own speculation 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 you won't.

sweet potatoes on a roasting pan with herbs

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

Guido Mieth/Getty Images

What can you eat on the paleo diet? 

What you can and can't eat on the paleo diet depends on how close you want your diet to be to a Neanderthal's. The strictest form of the paleo diet includes only water, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, 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. And some 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.

The paleo food guidelines seem to most widely accept the following fresh foods:

  • Meats 
  • Fish
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Olive, coconut and avocado oils
  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Seeds
  • Nuts

Depending on how strict you want your diet to be, try to limit or avoid the following foods:

  • Dairy products
  • Beans
  • Grains 
  • Sugar (except fruit)
  • Sauces
  • Condiments
  • Some vegetable oils (canola, soybean, grapeseed or cottonseed)
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Trans fats 
  • Processed food

As for beverages, water should be your go-to. Avoid sugary and artificially-sweetened drinks such as sodas and sports drinksCoffee 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 a straightforward 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. 

variety of donuts, some chocolate, glazed and with sprinkles

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

Getty Images

Meal planning and prepping for paleo

Successfully following the paleo diet for an extended period 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 give 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 and 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 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 (Note: oats may be limited in certain paleo diets, depending on how strict), chia puddings and egg casseroles for quick, easy breakfasts.

paleo diet ingredients like tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado on a cutting board

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

Westend61/Getty Images

6 benefits of the paleo diet

The paleo diet offers several potential benefits because it requires avoiding processed foods, refined grains and large amounts of trans fats. These nutrient-lacking foods are often linked to common health issues. If you follow a paleo diet, you may: 

Researchers warn of one important consideration: 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 -- with more clinical evidence supporting following them. 

By eliminating entire food groups, you may miss out on key nutrients you can't get enough of from other foods. For example, the Paleo diet restricts you from eating beans and legumes, which are high in fiber, protein and potassium

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

a couple preparing food in a kitchen while laughing

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

Tom Werner/Getty Images

Is the paleo diet for you?

No single diet is suitable for everyone. However, Paleo may be a good diet choice if you have multiple food intolerances such as gluten or lactose intolerance. Paleo is also a good choice for people who generally feel better physically and mentally when they don't eat processed foods

On the other hand, the paleo diet is not recommended for those with disordered eating habits or a history of eating disorders.

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. Always speak to your doctor before starting a new diet.  

Still not sure if the Paleo diet would work for you? Here are a few more aspects to keep in mind. 

You should try the Paleo diet if:

  • You have access to lots of fresh meats, fish, fruits and vegetables
  • Your schedule allows you to spend lots of time prepping and cooking meals 
  • Your diet already consists of primarily whole, fresh foods 

Try another diet or seek a dietitian if:

  • You don't have the budget for long grocery lists of fresh, whole foods
  • You have preexisting vitamin and nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin D or calcium. The paleo diet requires you to cut out foods like dairy products that contain essential nutrients your body needs.  
  • You are already at risk of heart disease. Higher red meat intake has been linked with risks of cardiovascular disease

Paleo diet FAQs

What can't you eat on a paleo diet?

On the paleo diet, try to steer clear of any products prehistoric humans couldn't hunt or catch in the wild. This means avoiding foods such as sugary products, processed foods, dairy products, condiments, sauces, artificial sweeteners, trans fats and some vegetable oils. 

Who should not eat paleo?

You should not eat a paleo diet if you have preexisting vitamin deficiencies. With paleo, you cannot eat dairy products, but your body might need those essential nutrients like vitamin D and calcium. It is also not recommended for those at risk for heart disease, kidney damage or Type 1 diabetes.  

Is the paleo diet healthy?

The paleo diet could be considered healthy because it cuts out trans fats, processed foods, excessive sugar and some oils. However, the paleo diet also cuts out food groups that are considered healthy like dairy, grains and beans. This diet isn't for everyone, and you should consult your doctor before starting the paleo diet. 

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.