The Paleolithic, Paleo, Caveman, or Stone-Age Diet is focused on returning to the diet that our evolutionary ancestors ate before they settled into an agricultural lifestyle. The idea stems from a belief that the change in diet and lifestyle between the Paleolithic era and the Neolithic Revolution led to the existence of many diseases and health problems that we humans have today, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and many autoimmune disorders as well. Proponents of paleo eating, including the author of The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain, advocate that many of these issues can be avoided by returning to eating habits practiced by hunter-gatherers.
Although long-term effects of the paleo diet have not been studied at this point, there are some positive health effects that many paleo eaters report, including lowered blood sugar, weight loss, and higher energy levels. So, “What is the downside?” The paleo diet can be a tough transition, as there are quite a few restrictions on what you can and cannot eat. Below, we’ve put together an extensive, but by no means definitive, list of foods that are paleo-friendly, and a list of foods that are not accepted under the paleo diet. Remember, our ancestors lived in very diverse areas with different dietary options, so there is technically not a single, “correct” paleo diet. This is all about emulating early human eating habits to try and retain their health benefits. It’s okay to personalize the diet with what works best for you.
What Are the Rules of Paleo?
The most basic rule of the paleo lifestyle is that you do not eat anything that our Paleolithic ancestors either could not or would not have eaten. The “could not” part refers to anything that involves modern processing technologies, such as processed grains, candy, or added sugars like in fruit juices. The “would not” part is a little different, and can cause some confusion when eating paleo. Legumes like peanuts and beans were likely around in the Paleolithic Era, but evidence suggests that our ancestors either did not eat them at all, or simply did not eat them like we do today. Thus, all legumes are technically not on the paleo diet. The same goes for many starchy vegetables like white potatoes and squashes.
Um, No Potatoes?
Nope. Some foods that the paleo diet restricts are simply due to health reasons. As the main purpose of the paleo diet is to restore humans to our “natural” or evolutionary state of healthy living, some limits have been placed on foods that do not seem to meet those standards. Most food items on the paleo list have a few things in common:
- High in protein
- Low in carbohydrates
- Low score on the glycemic index
- High in fiber
- Moderate to high in fat intake (mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats)
- High in potassium and low in sodium
- Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid
- High in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals
It follows, then, that if an item does not meet these qualifications, it may be seen as not truly paleo. So out go your starches and foods that are high on the glycemic index, like lentils and legumes!
Where Does This Leave Me?
Great question. There are a ton of items still acceptable to the hunter-gatherer’s diet. Here is a list of some of the most common foods that those on the Paleolithic diet love to consume regularly. Stock up on these foods if you plan on going paleo!
- Meat, preferably lean meats like chicken, and grass-fed, free-range choices
- Fresh vegetables, preferably the non-starchy ones
- Fresh fruits
- Any kind of nut that can be eaten raw (cashews, almonds, pecans, etc.)
- Fish and seafood of all kinds, including shellfish and sashimi
- Seeds, those that can be eaten raw
- Healthy oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut)
- Clarified butter or ghee
- Sweet potatoes (only in moderation)
In general, you can eat as much meat, as many fruits, and as many veggies as you would like. However, the balance needs to be right as a whole, so that you are not missing out on nutrients or stockpiling too much of one thing. The main nutrient issue with the paleo diet is that it contains no dairy whatsoever. Dairy is a good source of calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin D, so followers of the paleo diet may be deficient in some of these categories. Other deficiencies include magnesium, iron, and folic acid. Pay attention to your consumption of these nutrients to stay as healthy as possible. Foods like leafy greens, roe/caviar, and chicken livers can help you gain all of these nutrients.
Another health issue with paleo eating is that it is very possible for a person to eat too much protein. Having too much protein can leave you feeling nauseated and parched, as well as lead to more serious issues like kidney damage. Make sure you do not rely on meat or other proteins for the majority of your diet while trying to follow the paleo diet. Try to mix it up and maintain a balance of at least 1/3 protein, 1/3 carbohydrates, and 1/3 fats. Luckily the fats included in the paleo plan are almost all monounsaturated or omega-3 fats, otherwise known as “good” fats, so you will no longer be storing the bad fats up with every meal!
One additional note--most paleo followers only eat grass-fed or free-range meats. The belief is that these are more closely related to the meats that our ancestors ate as they were hunting in the wild. Also, many animals today are given feed that is high in saturated fats and sugar, as well as various chemicals that are not paleo.
Okay, What Can I Not Eat?
This list is by no means exhaustive, as the packaged, canned, and boxed foods category could go on and on forever. However, many of the most commonly opposed foods on the paleo diet are listed below so you can see what you would be letting go of if you started following the paleo plan. Many of these products are high in saturated fats and refined sugars, which are commonly believed to not be good for your body. As we mentioned, there is no tried and true correct paleo diet, but most people on paleo have made the diet fit to make their body feel best. The key here is moderation—for instance, honey is a way better option than an added sugar supplement, and potatoes in their pure sense are not terrible. Just avoid the processed versions like fries and potato chips!
Foods That Are Not Paleo:
- White potatoes and squashes
- All dairy products besides butter and heavy cream
- Any processed foods or foods that contain processed foods (anything in a bag, can, or box at the store)
- Legumes (peanuts, beans, peas, lentils etc.)
- All cereal grains
- Any kind of rice
- Overly salty foods
- Vegetable, hydrogenated, and partly hydrogenated oils
- Processed meats (think Spam!)
- Soft drinks, fruit juices, and energy drinks (due to the added sugars)
- Alcohol (Red wine is the best if you have to cheat, though!)
- Caffeine in general
- All foods and drinks with added sugar or artificial sweeteners
- Meat substitutes like soy, tofu, etc.
- Candy and processed snack foods
- Honey (most of the time)
Basically, you will avoid anything that is not a raw animal or plant product. This list should help you rule out some of the questionable items, but again, it is not definitive. Always make sure you read your labels to see if an item contains sugars or oils that you would not expect!
Paleo Cooking Methods
So we tend to use the word “raw” very often when discussing paleo diets. It may be scary to imagine yourself chowing down on a giant plate of raw spinach every night, but that is definitely not the case. Our ancestors did have access to basic cooking, so some methods of preparing your foods are allowed on the Caveman Diet. You will need to stay away from frying and anything that involves flour or breading, as well as pay attention to what oils are used to cook your foods. When eating out, remember to always ask your waiter about the oils used and stick to those that are paleo-approved (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut)!
Paleo Cooking Methods:
- Grilling – There is nothing like a perfectly grilled steak or chicken breast! Try grilling your veggies, or even some fruits like tomatoes and pineapple, for paleo skewers
- Braising – This method creates the most tender meats by searing them first and then slowly cooking the rest of the meat
- Sauteeing – Pay attention to what oils you use
- Stir-Frying – Try paleo-friendly cauliflower rice and coconut aminos in place of rice and soy sauce
- Roasting – Use the drippings from your roasting pan to create a paleo-friendly sauce
- Slow Cooking – Perfect for getting fall-off-the-bone meat and so easy for the busy Cavemen out there
- Steaming – Works well for vegetables
- Poaching – Ideal for chicken or fish fillets to keep them moist and flavorful
With all of these cooking methods, you have just enough leeway to get your imagination going and create some delicious and healthy paleo meals! Show us what you create in the comments below!
Since The Paleo Diet was released in 2002, the popularity of Caveman eating has grown considerably. Luckily, this has made it easier than ever to make the transition from modern eating to paleo eating. Any of your favorite non-paleo treats most likely have a paleo substitute recipe (or four) out there already! We encourage you to create your own substitutions as well!
Some popular Paleo substitutions include:
- Bob’s Red Mill Paleo Baking Flour to replace all purpose flour
- Coconut or almond milk when dairy is needed
- Coconut aminos for soy sauce
- Honey or maple syrup (if you have to) instead of sugar
- Cauliflower makes a delicious rice substitute
- Spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles in exchange for regular noodles
- Ghee, not margarine (ghee is also known as clarified butter)
- Cauliflower pizza crust with all of your favorite veggie and meat toppings
- Nut mix as a substitute for granola in your parfaits or oatmeal
- Almond butter, not peanut butter
- Dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate
- Cauliflower as a stand in for chickpeas in hummus
- Plantain, kale, apple, or other chips as a paleo-friendly potato chip option
- Greens or lettuce in place of tortillas or bread
Bob’s Red Mill carries some delicious oats and flour substitutes that are paleo friendly! Some of our favorite treats have been made paleo by using these substitutions, including pancakes, cookies, and brownies. I think we can all agree that not having to give up pizza is for the best!
Going paleo is about getting in touch with our evolutionary past as humans and learning more about our bodies, with a goal of keeping them as fit and healthy as possible. The paleo lifestyle extends further than food in a lot of areas, such as treating food as a fuel source for exercising, and only eating when you are hungry as the “cavemen” did. Although the long-term effects of paleo eating have not yet been studied, the health benefits of a more produce-heavy diet are obvious. If you choose to transition to a paleo diet, we encourage you to share your favorite recipes and your progress in the comments below!