The Paleo Diet for Beginners

This paleo diet info will make your transition to the trendy way of eating stress-free *and* successful.

A bowl of fresh salad with soft boiled eggs on black background
Photo: Claudia Totir/Getty Images

The paleo diet has been reported to eliminate bloating, clear up acne, eradicate seasonal allergies, free you from migraines, and even help you shed a few pounds. CrossFitters swear by it and celebs like Jessica Biel, Megan Fox, Blake Lively, and Gwyneth Paltrow have followed it.

But what exactly is the paleo diet, where did it come from, what are its benefits, what foods are allowed on the plan? Allow experts to explain.

What is the paleo diet?

The basic paleo diet food list calls for skipping grains (both refined and whole), legumes, packaged snacks, dairy, and sugar in favor of vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fats, and oils.

All the paleo diet info you need to know can be summed up in 10 commandments:

  1. Thou shalt not eat processed foods.
  2. Honor thy egg, nut, and (grass-fed) meat.
  3. Thou shalt refuse refined sugars and grains.
  4. Thou shalt give up gluten.
  5. Remember thy natural sweeteners (raw honey, dates, maple syrup).
  6. Thou shalt bypass beans and legumes-yes, that means you, peanut butter!
  7. Thou shalt avoid most alcohols. (Non-colored spirits, like vodka and gin, are best.)
  8. Honor thy coconut (flour, oil, water, etc.).
  9. Thou shalt vary thy veggies.
  10. Thou shalt not sip sugars.

Where did the paleo diet come from?

Only our cave(wo)man ancestors can know for sure when the paleo diet came into existence. The modern hunter-gatherer-inspired plan began in 1985 with a research study in the New England Journal of Medicine, says Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet and professor emeritus at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, who pioneered research about the eating plan. From there, Cordain and a few other scientists began investigating and writing papers and books on the topic. The paleo diet really picked up steam in 2008 thanks to, well, the internet and the rise of old-school workout programs like CrossFit (and a desire to eat in a similarly classic manner). "It spread like wildfire as people saw positive results and shared them online," says Cordain.

What are the benefits of the paleo diet?

While eliminated bloat, no more acne, and a lack of migraines are certainly not guarantees, cleaning up your diet and focusing on whole, fresh foods is definitely a good idea. "Real foods in the right portions help you feel more satisfied because they help keep blood sugar levels even and your hunger hormones balanced," says Diane Sanfilippo, a holistic nutritionist and author of Practical Paleo.

About 70 percent of the average American's diet consists of processed sugars, grains, dairy, and vegetable oils (often hidden in favorite items like bagels, ice cream, and pizza, among other foods), too. And eating a paleo means avoiding those processed foods. "This forces people to shop the perimeter of the grocery store for real, living foods like our ancestors ate. The paleo diet is very sustainability-minded since it's all about eating what's naturally available," explains Cordain.

Of course, the diet has its critics. "All of the foods allowed are nutritious—it's some of what's not allowed that worries me," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet. "I love the focus on eating fruits and vegetables, giving refined sugar the ax, and ditching processed food, but restricting whole grains, potatoes, legumes, and dairy isn't healthy."

Still interested in trying the paleo diet? Modify your program with a more general "balanced eating" focus, incorporating legumes (plant-based protein!), low-fat dairy (probiotics!), and whole grains (fiber!). Or consider the outline below—it's the "how to" paleo diet for beginners. (P.S. The pegan diet, a hybrid of paleo and vegan eating styles, also exists.)

Clean out your kitchen.

Gather all the "no" foods on the paleo diet food list—grains, cereal, vegetable oils, beans, yogurt, cheese, milk, packaged foods, you get it—and toss them. Doing it all at once has an advantage. "It's easier to avoid temptation if it's not there," says Nell Stephenson, author of Paleoista, Gain Energy, Get Lean and Feel Fabulous with the Diet You Were Born to Eat.

But if you prefer to baby-step your way into the paleo diet, that works too. Perhaps you cut out dairy the first week, eliminate refined grains during week two, skip all grains the next week, and so on until you're following a paleo diet. Either way, be sure to restock your kitchen with whole foods so you have plenty to work with to design a paleo diet for beginners meal plan.

Pinpoint your motivation.

Many people turn to paleo in an attempt to help with medical issues, such as GI problems, autoimmune conditions, and allergies. Some simply want to feel better day-to-day or believe that it's the healthiest way to eat. Your reason will help determine the guidelines you follow and what you want to be meticulous about, Sanfilippo says. And be strict about your personal rules for the first 30 days, Stephenson recommends. "This is enough time to start noticing all the health benefits."

Follow the 85/15 rule.

After the first month, many experts recommend the 85/15 approach, meaning 85 percent of the time you're strictly paleo, leaving 15 percent for non-paleo stuff, whether that's a granola bar, a hamburger (bun and all) at a cookout, or cocktails with the girls. Pay attention to how you feel after reintroducing things into your diet, Sanfilippo says. For example, if you have a scoop of ice cream and wake up bloated the next day, you may decide that future discomfort isn't worth it. (

Cook Paleo Recipes

Because the diet is based on whole, fresh foods, it's easier to whip up paleo recipes at home rather than eat in a restaurant where it's harder to control what ingredients are used. Take this opportunity to experiment with new foods-maybe even challenge yourself to buy the weirdest-looking vegetable at the farmer's market and ask the seller for advice on how best to prepare it. You can also search online or invest in some paleo diet cookbooks for recipe inspiration so your meals stay flavorful and aren't just plain seared chicken breast with plain kale and carrots.

Expect a setback (or two).

"It's totally normal to go paleo and slip back into your normal eating habits," Sanfilippo says. "But don't feel like a failure. It's a learning process." Find like-minded people following the diet through local groups, blogs, forums, and Facebook, and connect with them to help steer you back on track—and keep you there.

Become a food label decoder.

You know to skip doughnuts, cookies, and crackers, but some foods are surprisingly not paleo: peanut butter (it's a legume); nut butters or dried fruit with added sugars; and soy sauce, malt vinegar, lunch meats, and many marinades and sauces, because they often contain soy, gluten, preservatives, and sugar. (FYI: Coconut aminos make a great paleo-friendly soy sauce swap.) Be sure to read the ingredients list closely when buying anything in a package.

Rethink your plate.

You've been taught to reserve half your plate for veggies, a quarter for lean protein, and the remaining quarter for whole grains. When you adopt the paleo diet, stop holding a place for grains: A balanced plate consists of a palm-sized portion of protein, a dollop of fat, and veggies, veggies, veggies (fill the rest of your plate with them). (

Make an oil change.

Instead of reaching for canola, corn, or soybean oil for sautéing, use coconut oil or lard. Really. These high-quality saturated fats are healthy to cook with because they are more stable and won't oxidize when heated (oxidation releases damaging free radicals). And when it comes to lard, "animal fats-if from grass-fed cows-pack more omega-3s, as well as a type of fat called conjugated linoleic acid, which some studies suggest may help burn fat," Sanfilippo says. Some experts also recommend butter from grass-fed cows, but many restrict dairy of any kind. (The choice is yours.) For cold applications, use olive oil, avocado oil, and walnut oil.

Eat meat.

"Many people have restricted meat from their diet because they believe it is harmful to their health. You can eat meat—just make sure it's high quality," says Cordain. So say goodbye to processed meats such as bologna, salami, and hot dogs. Wild meats like bison, elk, and boar are the ideal choice, followed by pasture-fed meats and poultry, and lean grain-fed meat should be your last pick. For seafood, opt for wild-caught as often as possible. Sustainable, low-mercury choices are best.

Fool your sweet tooth.

Giving up sugar is a major hurdle during the paleo diet for beginners. If you love to have a treat after dinner, swap the cookies or fro-yo for a piece of fresh fruit. (For major sugar cravings, Sanfilippo says a paleo secret is a little bit of dried mango.) With time, your taste buds will adjust-and that Oreo you loved so much before might become too sweet now, Sanfilippo adds. Seriously!

Eat out with ease.

A business dinner or brunch with your best friend is still doable on the paleo diet. All it takes is a little ingredient sleuthing, Stephenson says. First, look at the menu ahead of time and pick one or two options that you can paleo-ize. That might be wild salmon with broccoli. (Request double the veggies in place of the rice pilaf.) At the restaurant, don't be shy to ask questions about how things are prepared and request changes, if necessary.

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