Paleo Diet / Primal Diet 101

Paleo Diet / Primal Diet 101

The Paleo Diet / Primal Diet has gotten a lot of attention recently.  For low carb diet advocates, going Paleo seems  a natural extension of our healthy eating plan.  But there is some confusion as to what Paleo is and how you actually do it.  Let’s cut through of the jargon.

What is Paleo?
The Paleo diet has been popularized by folks like Art DeVany, Robb Wolf, and Loren Cordain.  The basic premise is that our ancestors did not originally eat processed foods, grains, dairy and the like.  Hunter-gatherers  only had access to foods that were hunted (animal protein and fat) or easily gathered –vegetables that grow above ground and seasonal fruit.  The thinking is that most of the diseases of society can be attributed to the shift, roughly 10,000 years ago,  from a hunter-gatherer diet to a diet of grains, beans, and other foods for which we were not adapted.  More recently we have also added to the dangerous mix “foods” that have been heavily processed, genetically modified and filled with unnatural substances.

Mark Sisson has tweaked  the Paleo diet, and calls his version “Primal.”  While acknowledging the failures in our modern food supply, Mark also advocates for testing foods, especially dairy, to see if you can tolerate them.  In Mark’s book The Primal Blueprint, he encourages people to live by the 80/20 rule, meaning that you strive for compliance 80 percent of the time.

Some people get turned off from the Paleo message because of its reference to human evolution.  I don’t think that this should be a deal breaker.  Whether you accept evolution or believe in intelligent design, everyone knows that Twinkies don’t grow on trees.  You don’t have to go back millions of years to understand that the foods that naturally occur in our environment are the foods that are best for us.

Another paleo controversy regards whether or not we should be eating a lot of naturally occurring carbs.  I have done a good deal of experimenting,  and can tell you from my experience that just because a food is natural and Paleo doesn’t mean that it is for you.  I will delve into this next week, because the topic deserves an article all its own.

So how can we mimic our caveman ancestors and eat Paleo in the modern world?  Here are a few tips that I try to use.

Shop the Perimeter
When you go to the grocery store, shop the perimeter.  This is where you will find meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy (if you can tolerate dairy) and nuts.  Every grocery store I have ever been in is laid out this way.

Start with meat
Stock up on good cuts of beef, chicken, pork and seafood.  Don’t be afraid of fatty cuts of meat.   When your food supply depends on the success of the hunt, you do not waste anything.  I am pretty sure that your ancestors would not waste a good source of dense calories by trimming the fat from their meat.

Try organ meats
Liver is especially rich in vitamins and minerals.   Analyses of nutrient density always rank liver head and shoulders above bread, fruits, even vegetables — anything it’s compared to.    Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Like I said earlier, our ancestors did not waste anything.  Try to think the same way.

Don’t forget about eggs; I eat a LOT of eggs.  Great animal protein and fat at a reasonable price, and endlessly versatile.

Shop for vegetables that are low in starch and high in fiber and nutrients.  A good rule of thumb is to pick vegetables that grow above ground.  With few exceptions, vegetables that grow above ground are lower in starches and sugars than those that grow beneath it.  Zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, peppers, all sorts of leafy greens, squash, eggplant, olives and cucumbers are all good choices.  Again, try new things. Cook with fat, which enhances absorption of fat-soluble nutrients.  Which leads to:

Good Fats
Nutiva Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, 29-Ounce JarStock up on good fats; my favorites are coconut oil, olive oil and butter.   I cook nearly everything with coconut oil.  It took me a while to get up the nerve to try it, because I am not a fan of coconut.  Let me assure you, your eggs will not taste like coconut.  Most coconut oil has a very mild flavor.  Because it’s saturated, coconut oil is heat-stable, and safe to use at higher temperatures.  Olive oil is good for lower temps,  and also, of course, mixed with low-sugar vinegars for salad dressings.  Butter is a favorite fat of mine;  I use it often.  While butter is dairy, it is nearly all fat, so even many lactose intolerant people can use it.  I keep a carton of heavy cream around for coffee,  since, like butter, cream is mostly fat.

Fruit is tricky because of its wide range of  natural sugar content, from low — berries — to high — pineapple.  While fruit is natural and “real food”, it may not be the best choice for you depending on where you are in your journey and your carbohydrate tolerance.  I have experimented with different levels of carb intake, and always come back to keeping my carbs quite low.  Remember, too, that for the vast majority of our ancestors, fruit was seasonal and regional.  If your ancestors, like mine, were from northern Europe, they probably never ate a peach or orange or banana.  It just wasn’t available to them.  If you want to experiment with fruit, keep a seasonal attitude.  Instead of eating high sugar fruit everyday, save it for treats and special occasions.  If you use apples, bananas and peaches instead of cake and ice cream, your taste buds and cravings will change.

Avoid foods that are packaged in cardboard boxes or mylar bags.   Found in the middle aisles of the store, these are usually processed, made in a lab and full of unpronounceable ingredients.  Read the label on everything that has one.  Foods that seem like good choices can be filled with chemicals, sugars and the like.  The shorter the ingredient list, the better.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  If it all seems a little complicated, remember, just eat real food.  Being mindful of this will go a long way.   We will get into some more specifics in the coming weeks, especially delving into whether fruit and starches are necessary or helpful.  I would love to hear your comments and questions, so please chime in.

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When people begin to learn about the Paleo diet, they are usually excited to hear they can add in fruits and a few starches. In my case, I learned that I could eat a few peaches without negative side effects.   However, I was also running upwards of 30 miles per week and training for marathons. Most of us are not expending that much energy on a daily basis.  To lose weight, we need to be low carb, even if we are eating "real food".


  1. Hank, what brand of coconut oil do you use? Organic, Extra virgin, Refined, etc. I find that the kind I’m using is great in protein shakes, but leaves too much a coconut flavor for cooking. Thanks

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