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What to Eat on the Paleo Diet®

The Paleo Diet® is built upon an extremely simple concept: we should eat foods similar to those we evolved around, and we should avoid the foods that were not part of our evolution. Media and popular personalities can make it seem complicated, but it is not. The Paleo Diet consists of vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Essentially, it’s what you learned in kindergarten.

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The foods we were and weren't designed to eat:

While a huge body of science lies behind the creation of The Paleo Diet concept, as with many other scientific concepts, it boils down to something very simple. So, it’s very unfortunate that fad versions of the diet, strange theories (like the idea that our ancestors lived on salt licks), and popular personalities have made the Paleo Diet seem confusing. This has led to many arguments about what is and isn’t Paleo—arguments that really shouldn’t exist.

There are actually two simple ways to look at what is Paleo? The first is to focus on emulating the foods that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. The second, which is even simpler, is to look at what they did not eat and remove those foods from our diet. Let’s briefly explore both.

There is some understandable confusion and debate around the concept of eating the foods we evolved around. The fact is there isn’t a perfect record of the foods that were eaten. Furthermore, many of the foods that existed during Paleolithic times no longer exist. Fruits were wilder, smaller, and more nutrient dense. Hunted animals were often larger, and their body fat composition was different. And even if some of the foods do still exist, many of us don’t live on the same continent as our ancestors. So, we don’t have access to them.

This is why we sometimes refer to it as the Paleolithic Diet Template. The idea is to emulate our ancestral diet. Exactly what that looked like is still being debated; that’s the debate we should be having. Nevertheless, there’s no argument that at its simplest, the Paleolithic diet consisted of a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

To describe what The Paleo Diet is another way, we look to the foods we know our Paleolithic ancestors did not eat during human evolution. Surprisingly, 70 percent of the foods that make up the modern Western diet fit in that category. They are (as a percent of the Western diet)1:

Cereal grains: 23.9%
Refined sugars: 18.6%
Refined vegetable oils: 17.6%
Dairy: 10.6%
Alcohol: 1.4%
Total: 72.1%

As you’ll see throughout this website, those foods have been associated with obesity, chronic inflammation, and what are commonly being referred to as the Diseases of Civilization: metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions.

The Paleo Diet mostly eliminates these foods from our diet. While some criticize the diet for eliminating those foods, suggesting it leads to nutritional deficiencies, the truth is that eliminating those foods actually improves the nutrient density of your diet.

It’s really that simple.

1. Cordain, L., et al., Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 81(2): p. 341-54.

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Is It Paleo?
The Paleo Diet® comes down to a simple idea—eat lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, and nuts and eggs sparingly. However, it becomes a little more complicated when you start getting into particular foods that don't fit nicely into a category, or that you really like. Let us walk you through which foods you should and shouldn't eat.
Gluten- and Grain-Free
Gluten is an anti-nutrient that is not part of a natural Paleo Diet®. However, the increasingly popular gluten-free trend is not the same thing as a Paleo Diet—simply substituting gluten-free flour doesn’t make a food healthy. The Paleo Diet promotes eating few, if any, grains, which are low in key vitamins and minerals and high in anti-nutrients.
Avoid Simple Sugars
There are few foods that humans crave more than simple, or processed, sugars. So, it should be no surprise that sugar is being added to almost every processed food you can find at the grocery store—a trend that coincides with the rise in obesity and all metabolic diseases. Unfortunately, that’s not just a coincidence.
Avoid Added Salt
Like sugar, there are few things that humans crave more than salt, which explains its high level in most processed foods. However, some in the Paleo community have started claiming that eating more than the RDA of 2,300 mg of sodium per day is healthy. The reality is that added salt has a variety of health consequences; it also does not agree with the Paleolithic template.
Dairy-Free
How do we know that our hunter-gatherer ancestors never consumed dairy? Imagine a ferocious, unruly herd of 30 African Cape buffalo snorting and pawing the earth with powerful hooves supporting their one-ton bodies crowned by enormous menacing horns. Anyone interested in trying to milk one of these cows? Enough said.
Legumes and Nightshades
Both legumes and nightshades contain high concentrations of various anti-nutrients that increase intestinal permeability and can, therefore, cause a myriad of health concerns.
Supplements
Ideally, you should get as many of the key nutrients you need from the foods you eat. If you need to supplement, that’s often a sign of poor dietary habits. There are only a few cases where supplementing may be beneficial. Let us explain those exceptions.
The Paleo Diet is this simple
 
The Paleo Diet is this simple
 

What You Should and Should Not Eat on the Paleo Diet®

You’ve heard of the benefits of The Paleo Diet, but still don’t fully understand what it is. Or you’re looking for a simple guide to share with your family and friends who keep asking about it. Check out this simple guide to what you should eat and not eat on a Paleo Diet.
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Paleo Leadership
 
Trevor Connor
Trevor Connor

Dr. Loren Cordain’s final graduate student, Trevor Connor, M.S., brings more than a decade of nutrition and physiology expertise to spearhead the new Paleo Diet team.

Mark J Smith
Dr. Mark Smith

One of the original members of the Paleo movement, Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the benefits of Paleo nutrition.

Nell Stephenson
Nell Stephenson

Ironman athlete, mom, author, and nutrition blogger Nell Stephenson has been an influential member of the Paleo movement for over a decade.

Loren Cordain
Dr. Loren Cordain

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.