I first heard of the Paleo diet when I had a couple of friends who had started CrossFit and were looking to pick my brain for some workouts they could do to supplement their CrossFit training.
As a certified personal trainer for almost 15 years, I was always the “go-to fitness expert“ for my friends and we often talked about the different types of workout classes, fitness fads, and diet and nutrition advice that was “hot” at the time.
Although the Paleo diet has been around for quite a while, it made a huge resurgence in the early 2000s when CrossFit started to explode, as CrossFit and Paleo often run hand-in-hand.
But, what is the Paleo diet? Is the Paleo diet good for weight loss? Is it good for CrossFit or other athletes? And what can you eat on the Paleo diet plan?
In this diet guide, we will discuss what the Paleo diet is, how to follow it, what you can eat, foods to avoid, and potential pros and cons of the Paleo diet plan.
Let’s jump in!
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet, also called the Paleolithic diet or caveman diet, is so named because it is a dietary pattern designed to replicate the eating habits of people during the Paleolithic, or Stone Age.
This means that there is a strong emphasis on meat, fish and seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, with the overall goal of consuming whole, natural, unprocessed foods.
Additionally, because the Paleo diet aims to replicate the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the goal is to eat only grass-fed meat, wild-caught seafood, and free-range eggs.
Organic fruits and vegetables are also prioritized over conventionally grown produce.Although these stipulations are not mandated in order to follow a Paleo diet meal plan, the premise of this diet is to return to a more ancestral way of eating, and our modern livestock practices and use of pesticides and hormones were not part of the diet or in the Paleo era.
At its core, the principle of the Paleo diet is that better health can be achieved by returning to a more ancestral way of eating because common modern lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, hypertension, cancers, and insulin resistance or diabetes, were virtually unheard of (or at least undocumented) during that Paleo era.
To this end, the Paleo diet excludes processed foods and packaged foods that are made from ingredients that weren’t available thousands of years ago, as well as certain food groups that are thought to have been rarely included in the everyday diet of hunter-gatherers.
Thus, the Paleo diet plan excludes all grains (including whole grains), legumes, dairy products, vegetable oils, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, and many processed foods.
However, some modifications of the typical Paleo diet food list do permit grass-fed butter (dairy) or soaked and sprouted grains and legumes.
What Are the Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet?
There are several potential benefits1Frassetto, L. A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R. C., & Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(8), 947–955. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2009.4 of the Paleo diet plan including the following:
Benefits Of The Paleo Diet
- Helping people lose weight2Osterdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., & Wändell, P. E. (2008). Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62(5), 682–685. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602790 as long as a caloric deficit is maintained.
- Improving blood sugar regulation and lowering insulin levels.3Frączek, B., Pięta, A., Burda, A., Mazur-Kurach, P., & Tyrała, F. (2021). Paleolithic Diet—Effect on the Health Status and Performance of Athletes? Nutrients, 13(3), 1019. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13031019
- Decreasing the risk of lifestyle diseases like obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other adverse health conditions4Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B., Branell, U.-C., Pålsson, G., Hansson, A., Söderström, M., & Lindeberg, S. (2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 8(1), 35. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2840-8-35 by eliminating processed foods and industrial oils.
- It may help to control appetite because Paleo diet foods are higher in fat and protein, both of which help promote satiety.
- There are no specific rules about the serving size, meal frequency, Paleo diet calories, etc. This can be freeing for those5Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, October 1). Stop counting calories. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/stop-counting-calories who don’t like to be in a “diet” mindset.
- The Paleo diet removes all processed foods6Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gain and many problematic food groups such as added sugars and alcohol, which are known to cause inflammation, weight gain, and other adverse health problems.
There are also potential downsides to the Paleo diet.
Downsides To The Paleo Diet
- It is highly restrictive and eliminates many food groups that are often deemed healthy such as whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. Low-fat dairy products are a great source of calcium while legumes and whole grains provide a host of phytonutrients, fiber, B vitamins, and other vitamins and minerals to promote overall health, optimal digestion, and control appetite.
- Due to the restrictive nature of the Paleo diet plan, this diet can be difficult to adhere to in the long term.7Gibson, A., & Sainsbury, A. (2017). Strategies to Improve Adherence to Dietary Weight Loss Interventions in Research and Real-World Settings. Behavioral Sciences, 7(4), 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs7030044
- Many of the common Paleo diet foods and Paleo diet recipes use high-calorie foods, so if you want to follow the Paleo diet for weight loss, you need to be mindful of your caloric intake. You might find that it is difficult to maintain the caloric deficit necessary for weight loss on such energy-dense Paleo-friendly foods.
- Research shows that people often overeat or consume more calories when they think a food product is healthier in one aspect; thus, if you think a Paleo food is inherently healthier because it is Paleo-friendly, you might eat more of it.8Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews, 70(10), 571–593. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x
What Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet food list focuses on unprocessed foods that were available in the Paleolithic Era. The following food groups are allowed on the Paleo diet:
Spinach, beet greens, kale, collard greens, carrots, Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, mushrooms, etc. (organic and in-season veggies, if possible)
Berries, apples, pears, melons, oranges, berries, peaches, nectarines, bananas, pomegranates, kiwi, plums, grapes, coconut, tomatoes, etc. (ideally organic and in-season fruits)
Beef, venison, pork, veal, lamb, bison, etc. (ideally grass-fed organic meat)
Fish and Seafood
Salmon, tilapia, trout, cod, sardines, sea bass, tuna, mackerel, lobster, crab, scallops, shrimp, octopus, mussels, clams, squid, etc. (ideally wild-caught seafood)
Chicken, turkey, duck, squab, quail, etc. (ideally free-range, organic poultry)
Chicken eggs, turkey eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, etc. (ideally cage-free eggs)
Nuts and Seeds
Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, squash seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
Healthy Fats and Oils
Olives and olive oil, avocado oil and avocados, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, walnut oil, macadamia nut oil, etc.
Herbs and Spices
Basil, parsley, thyme, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, salt, rosemary, tarragon, cumin, chili powder, etc.
Water, herbal tea, green tea, black tea, red wine, coffee
As long as it’s 70% cocoa or higher
As mentioned, the Paleo diet plan eliminates any foods that were not readily available to people during the hunter-gather times of yore.
Here are the foods to avoid on the Paleo diet meal plan:
- Grains: Whole wheat, oats, quinoa, rice, spelt, couscous, barley, teff, rye, bread, pasta, crackers, oatmeal, tortillas, etc.
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, hummus, etc.
- Dairy Products: Milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, kefir, butter, cream, ice cream, etc. Note that some versions of the Paleo diet do allow for full-fat dairy such as butter, ghee, and certain cheeses. Low-fat and fat-free dairy is never allowed.
- Processed Foods: Canned soups, breakfast cereals, sandwich bread, cookies, jarred sauces, chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, rice cakes, bagels, chips, pretzels, popcorn, frozen dinners, Ramen noodles, anything packaged as “low fat” etc.
- Sugar (except for honey and agave): High-fructose corn syrup, juice, white sugar, brown sugar, sweetened foods, pastries, date syrup, etc.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Splenda, aspartame, saccharine, stevia, sugar alcohols, sucralose, etc.
- Vegetable Oils, Margarine, Trans Fat: Soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, etc.
- Snack Foods like chips (even corn chips, bean chips, or plantain chips), French fries, pork rinds, pretzels, popcorn, etc.
Sample Paleo Diet Meal Plan
Here is a sample paleo meal plan for a day:
- Breakfast: Eggs fried in coconut oil, turkey bacon, sautéed spinach, honeydew melon slices, coffee.
- Snack: Coconut chia pudding
- Lunch: Shredded chicken lettuce wraps with carrots and celery, apple with almond butter.
- Snack: Homemade trail mix with nuts and seeds and some dried apricots.
- Dinner: Walnut pesto-coated steak with pan-roasted sweet potato, asparagus, and mushrooms.
- Snack: Pistachios and pomegranate.
Consider working with a registered dietician or nutritionist to develop the best meal plan for your needs.
- 1Frassetto, L. A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R. C., & Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(8), 947–955. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2009.4
- 2Osterdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., & Wändell, P. E. (2008). Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62(5), 682–685. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602790
- 3Frączek, B., Pięta, A., Burda, A., Mazur-Kurach, P., & Tyrała, F. (2021). Paleolithic Diet—Effect on the Health Status and Performance of Athletes? Nutrients, 13(3), 1019. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13031019
- 4Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B., Branell, U.-C., Pålsson, G., Hansson, A., Söderström, M., & Lindeberg, S. (2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 8(1), 35. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2840-8-35
- 5Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, October 1). Stop counting calories. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/stop-counting-calories
- 6Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gain
- 7Gibson, A., & Sainsbury, A. (2017). Strategies to Improve Adherence to Dietary Weight Loss Interventions in Research and Real-World Settings. Behavioral Sciences, 7(4), 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs7030044
- 8Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews, 70(10), 571–593. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x