This article exists for one simple reason: I get asked, over and over, “So how does this ‘paleo diet’ work?” And I want to give people an answer that is simple, solid, and above all, motivational. I want you to finish this article and think “Yes! I understand, and I can do this.”
Here it is: a step-by-step guide, roughly in order of importance. Make progress at whatever pace you can. Don’t stress about perfect adherence, or obsess about making it all the way down the list: any progress you make will most likely improve your health, mood, and physical fitness.
“Do not eat” items are grouped with “Eat more” items at each step, so you’ll always have something to eat. Let’s go!
First, our guiding philosophy:
Eat like a predator, not like prey.
Predators gorge and fast; prey grazes.
Rephrased for modern humans: predators eat meals, prey grazes on snacks. This means you need to eat meals which will carry you through to your next meal, but that won’t make you tired or sleepy.
Step 1: Eat Meat, Not Birdseed
- Eat more meat. If it’s not meat, it’s not a meal.
- Favor ruminants—animals that eat grass and leaves. (That means red meat: beef, lamb, bison, elk, venison, goat.) Ruminants are far better at converting plants into essential fats, complete protein, and bioavailable nutrients than humans are.
- Buy grass-fed beef whenever possible: it’s better for you, and better for the Earth. Cows didn’t evolve to eat corn and soybeans any more than humans did.
- Buy fatty cuts, buy occasional organ meats. Do not avoid animal fat! If you try, you will become ravenous for fatty junk food.
- Pork and chicken are permissible in moderation, but are far less healthy due to excessive omega-6 fat content.
- Frankly, you could stop here, as many native cultures did: as long as you eat organ meats and marrow, fatty, grass-fed ruminant meat provides 100% of your nutritional needs. But most of us enjoy more variety in our diets—and some vegetables and fruits offer tangible health benefits, even if they don’t provide meaningful calories.
- Eat more fish and shellfish.
Favor oily fish like mackerel, sardines, and wild salmon, but be careful of methylmercury content: keep your intake of tuna, shark, and other high-level carnivores low. (The FDA’s table of mercury content can be found here.) In a Paleolithic world we could eat all the fish we wanted…but we humans have polluted the entire Earth so badly (mostly by burning coal for power) that one of our healthiest food sources is now universally poisonous. Good job, ‘civilization’.
- Do not eat anything made with ‘flour’.
No bread, no pasta, no cereal, no crackers, no cookies, no donuts or danishes. Period. This is your most important step.
Flour is ground-up seeds. What eats seeds? Birds and rodents. If it’s poisonous to humans until we grind it into powder and cook it, and it causes mineral deficiencies and birth defects unless we add vitamins, it’s not food. (Read more about lectins, phytic acid, and the role of grains in autoimmunity and heart disease.)
- Do not drink your food.
No soda (even diet soda), no sports drinks, no milk, no soy ‘milk’, no smoothies, no fruit juice, no yogurt or vegetable drinks. Tea, coffee, and mate are fine in moderation. Learn to drink water: once you get used to it, you’ll find that soda and juices no longer quench your thirst. (You can potentially add small quantities of dairy and fresh fruit/vegetable juices back in later, if you’ve met your other goals.)
- Do not eat table sugar, or its equivalents.
This includes circumlocutions like “brown rice syrup”, “agave nectar”, and my favorite, “evaporated cane juice solids.” That’s what sugar is! Sheesh. Even honey is basically just sugar, though it has useful medicinal properties. Diet sweeteners are out, too, as are those goofy Atkins sugar alcohols.
- Get your ‘carbohydrates’ (sugars) from plants—not their seeds.
Prefer foods that are high in glucose and low in fructose, particularly root starches like potatoes, and only eat what your body needs: 15-20% of calories is plenty. (Do you want to lose fat? Then you’d better accustom your body to burning it for energy.)
Important! If you are active and not concerned with losing weight (or trying to gain it), you’ll want to eat more carbs than the average person trying to lose a few pounds. Sports nutrition is beyond the scope of this article…but in general, I find occasional starch refeeds, when necessary to refill muscle glycogen, much better than a constant diet of pasta, “energy bars”, and other sugary junk food. Basically, if you find yourself bonking during long, intense efforts, try upping your starch intake.
Don’t forget about sweet potatoes, sago, taro, sweet cassava, and tapioca…and always peel your potatoes, as that’s where the solanine is. If you must eat birdseed, white rice is the least bad of the grains…but give yourself a couple weeks to see if it’s just withdrawal symptoms, or whether you really need it on a regular basis.
Remember, fatty meat is your primary source of calories and nutrients. Quite a few ‘mainstream’ paleo books and sources sugarcoat or dance around this. You’re a predator: eat like one.
Congratulations! You’ve just made some massive, positive changes in your life.
You may be going through bread and cereal withdrawal, with periods in which you absolutely crave them. This is absolutely normal: you’re forcing your body to learn how to burn fat again, because it’s used to burning all the sugar (‘carbohydrates’) you’ve been eating.
However, you’re probably already noticing an increase in energy, a decrease in post-meal fatigue, and a lessened desire to snack. Stay on target! The cravings will dissipate, but the benefits won’t.
The best part about a primal/’paleo’ diet is that you don’t have to measure or keep track of anything: no counting calories, no ‘points’, no worries about macronutrient ratios. Eat real food, and you won’t have to worry about parceling out your addiction to junk.
Step 2: Eat Food, Not Diesel Fuel
- Buy fatty cuts of meat, cook with their included fat.
If you need to douse it in butter to make it taste good, it’s too lean. I always laugh when I see people making sandwiches with low-fat hamburger or skinless chicken breast—then covering them with cheese and mayonnaise because they’re too dry! Hint: ask your butcher for untrimmed cuts of meat. Often they’re cheaper.
- Cook with butter, coconut oil, and grass-fed beef tallow.
These are healthy fats: they don’t oxidize or polymerize during cooking the way that seed oils do, they don’t contain hidden trans fats, and they have low to zero omega-6 fat content.
I discourage lard unless it’s from pastured pigs: store-bought lard is usually hydrogenated (= trans fats), and grain-fed lard is high in omega-6 fat.
- Cook with eggs, and always eat the yolks.
Egg whites are just protein…the nutrition is all in the yolk. And few foods remain unimproved by the addition of a fried egg.
- Do not eat “vegetable oils”. The term itself is a lie.
There’s no such thing as “lettuce oil” or “broccoli oil”. They’re made from seeds, and they’re extracted using poisonous organic solvents (hexane). Remember: if you can put it in a truck and the truck starts, it’s not food.
- This means no french fries or other deep-fried food; no potato chips or corn chips (or any ‘chips’); no margarine, ‘spread’, or bogus butter substitutes; no mayonnaise (or, worse, Miracle Whip); and you can basically ignore the entire snack aisle.
- This prohibition includes granola, which is just birdseed stuck together with oil and sugar. Corn ‘nuts’ and wasabi peas are soaked in oil, too: frankly, nothing in those bulk bins is food. One of the best things you can do for your health is to avoid everything you see in the ‘health food’ aisles.
- Extra-virgin olive oil, cheese, avocados, and nuts are OK in moderation…think of them as condiments, not ingredients. If you need to eat a can of nuts or a brick of cheese, you didn’t eat enough meat.
- Heavy cream, sour cream, full-fat yogurt (not that worthless ‘low-fat’ candy), and whipped cream make delicious sauces, condiments, and desserts, used in moderation. But remember that fatty meat is always your primary source of calories.
Well done! You’ve made another big step towards better health and greater vitality. You’re no longer shuffling through life like a wounded gazelle, expecting the jaws of death on its neck at any moment. You are becoming less tasty and more dangerous each day.
Yes, we all need some moral support when we give up potato chips and corn chips. But wouldn’t you rather have an omelet for breakfast, and then not have to snack at all? Butter, eggs, and coconut oil taste much better than seed oils and ‘spreads’…and after you’ve used them for a while, you’ll start noticing that canola oil smells terrible, and that your food is much less greasy despite a much higher fat content.
Most importantly, now that you’re no longer eating huge plates of sugar (‘carbohydrates’) and greasy seed oils, you’ll find that big, hearty meals don’t make you fall asleep. You’ll also find that it’s much easier to go without food now that your body is reaccustomed to burning fat. In short, you’ll have more useful hours in your day now that you’re not spending them stuck in food coma, or constantly grazing to keep from going hypoglycemic—which more than makes up for the extra time you’re spending on cooking and buying food.
Besides, shopping for food is quick and easy when the only places you have to go are the meat counter, the produce bins, the dairy refrigerator, and the spice rack.
Step 3: Supplements For An Imperfect World
- Consider vitamin D3 supplements.
Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D3 from sun exposure…but Paleolithic humans didn’t live and work indoors. 2000-4000 IU per day is, from what I understand, a good start for most adults on days they’re not getting meaningful sun exposure. Testing for 25(OH)D levels will tell you if your dosage is correct: 45-60 ng/mL is apparently a good place to be.
- Consider EPA and DHA (“omega-3″) supplements.
The seed oils and grain-fed meat we’re often forced to eat are higher in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, and lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, than natural grass-fed meat. 1g/day of EPA and 0.5g DHA can be helpful if you haven’t eaten any fatty fish that day; more if you’re pregnant or nursing.
Note that it’s much better to minimize omega-6 intake by eliminating seed oils and reducing nut intake, than it is to “balance your ratio” with pathological quantities of fish oil.
- Flaxseed oil (ALA) is not an acceptable substitute.
Our bodies are woefully inefficient (less than 1%) at converting it to the DHA we require. Besides, its real name is linseed oil. That’s furniture polish, and furniture polish is not food.
- Consider chelated magnesium supplements.
Until the last few decades, humans drank untreated ground water or well water, usually with high mineral content—but modern treatment plants strip them from our tap water.
The bioavailable forms of magnesium, and the ones you should buy, are chelates: any form ending in -ate. Magnesium citrate has a laxative effect that some people don’t tolerate well—in which case magnesium malate, glycinate, or orotate will be superior. The RDA of 400 mg/day is a good start. (Avoid magnesium oxide, found in most supplements and all multivitamins, as it’s not bioavailable.)
- I am not a doctor, and you are responsible for your own health. Do your own research, and if you notice adverse effects, use common sense. What your body tells you is more important than what a website tells you.
If you get to here, you’re doing great—and you’re already far healthier than you were on the SAD (Standard American Diet) even if you haven’t lost any weight. (But odds are good that you have.) You’re also probably noticing, over time, that you’re happier and less depressed, that your skin problems and allergies are less severe (or gone entirely), and that you sunburn less easily.
Step 4: Play Like A Predator
- Play hard, work hard, challenge yourself, then rest.
Lift heavy objects, sprint until you’re out of breath, climb trees and jump down, kick balls, shoot baskets. Shovel snow, dig dirt, split firewood. Practice agility as well as strength and endurance. People will stare at you if you’re doing it right, because you’re enjoying yourself—not shuffling down the road in ‘running shoes’, with that vacant look of resigned suffering usually seen on wildebeest being eaten alive by hyenas. The world is your playground! (And if others won’t take advantage of it, too bad for them.)
- Don’t ‘exercise’, don’t ‘do cardio’. The only way to improve is to push your limits.
You’ll lose more weight and gain more strength from periodic bursts of short, intense exercise than from hours of ‘cardio’. You’re a human, not a hamster; get off the treadmill! Seriously: drive to work, then drive to the health club so you can pedal a bicycle that goes nowhere? Imagine this: every time you get hungry, you and your six closest friends have to chase down an antelope or spear a mammoth—and if you can’t, none of you get to eat. That is the required intensity.
- If you must ‘work out’, do bodyweight exercises, and get some dumbbells or kettlebells.
That way you can finish a workout before you’ve even arrived at the gym. Our objective is health and fitness: a gym body is a lot more work. (Do it if you want, and I admire those with the dedication to sculpt themselves—but it’s not necessary.) Remember, you should be doing short, intense bursts of activity throughout the day: you’re not going to drive to the gym three times.
Note: If you have the time and genuinely enjoy it, absolutely lift heavy weights and get strong. Especially women: you’re not going to suddenly become 1970′s Arnold just because you do squats, and any man who thinks you’re “too muscular” because you don’t look like a heroin addict is weak, insecure, and not worth your time.
- Stop trying to ‘save energy’. Make physical effort part of your life. Don’t waste time looking for the closest parking space: just park and walk. Take the stairs. Shovel your own snow, split your own firewood. Unless you’re a cabinetmaker or construction worker, do you really need that cordless screwdriver?
Congratulations! You’ve put all the pieces together. Most likely you are sleeping better now that you’re regularly putting forth physical effort. You’re thinking of the world as your playground, and you’re seeing familiar surroundings with new eyes. And now that your symptoms of withdrawal from the SAD (Standard American Diet) are over, you’re feeling more energetic—and thinking more clearly due to the action of ghrelin, now that being hungry doesn’t just make you cranky and hypoglycemic.
In other words, your body is finally—perhaps for the first time—beginning to function as it should.
Now that you are physically stronger, you will find that you are emotionally and mentally stronger. You are less willing to be walked on and taken for granted, and more likely to take credit for what you deserve. You are beginning to understand what it feels like to be a predator, instead of the prey you’ve been for so long.
You’ve tasted power, and it’s delicious. You want more.
Step 5: Optimization
By now we’re just cleaning up loose ends. Some of you may never get here, some may find it doesn’t make much difference to you and drop back, some may find here the key to optimal health.
- Remove any remaining grains from your diet.
They should be mostly gone already, but if you’re still eating corn, oats, or any bogus ‘health grains’ like kamut or amaranth, ditch them. Absolutely eliminate all gluten grains from your diet: wheat, barley, rye, spelt. (You should have done this already by eliminating flour in Step 1, but people always find a way to sneak in ‘wheat berries’ or some other bogus name for seeds. And gluten hides in all sorts of things you don’t realize.)
- Remove any remaining legumes (beans) from your diet.
This is usually easy once you’re getting plenty of fat and protein from meat. Like grains, beans are seeds—and they’re for birds and rodents, not humans.
- Remove all remaining junk from your diet.
There are a lot of non-foods that technically sneak through the above rules, but which we all know perfectly well are junk. I’m not going to enumerate them, because there are thousands…but if it has more than one layer of packaging, contains any ingredient you don’t understand, claims any health benefits on the label, or is a fake version of something else, it’s not food.
- Experiment with removing dairy from your diet.
Milk is already out, but some people feel better without cheese, yogurt, or even heavy cream. (Butter is basically 100% butterfat, and extremely unlikely to cause problems for anyone.) In general, the more butterfat and the less casein and lactose, the less likely it is to cause problems.
Now that you’re sleek, powerful, and dangerous, you’re feeling quite satisfied with yourself. You wake up well-rested, with no aches or pains, and you know yourself capable of stalking, killing, and eating whatever problems the day might bring. Yet you must remain watchful, for an insidious parasite feeds on your pride and saps your strength:
Step 6: Never Stop Hunting
- Push yourself harder and in new ways.
It’s easy to get stuck in an ‘exercise routine’. Explore someplace new. Learn a skill you’re bad at. Throw and catch with your off hand. Try a team sport if you’re a soloist, or a solo sport if you’re a team player. Set goals you’re not already sure you can achieve.
- If you’re going to cheat, cheat with something delicious and portion-limited, or too expensive to eat often.
I’ll eat a Reese’s or drink a Coke before I’ll eat pasta or bread, because they’re individually packaged. Once you open that package of goldfish crackers, they’re all going down the hatch, and we both know it. And I’ll be damned before I’ll completely give up sushi, because I care about toro more than I care about that last 0.1% of bodyfat.
- Be suspicious of all diet advice.
Anyone can write a diet book—and most of them make nutrition complicated so that you’ll keep buying books and going to meetings. Remember that observational studies don’t necessarily tell you whether something is healthy to eat: they tell you whether the healthy people in that study ate that food. Abstracts and conclusions often misrepresent the data. And the comparisons are usually between ‘absolutely terrible’ (refined grains, sugar, trans fats) and ‘less bad’ (whole grains)—which doesn’t mean ‘less bad’ is actually good for you, nor that the culprit in ‘absolutely terrible’ is what they say it is.
- Listen to your body.
Once you’re functioning at a high enough level to tell the difference, you’ll understand what’s helping you and what’s hurting you—not just what’s feeding your addictions. Make individual changes and evaluate their effects before moving on: don’t change too many things at once, or you’ll never know what’s doing what. If you’re physically active, you’ll need some glucose (starch) in your diet to keep your weight stable and your energy level high during severe exertion. And if your body craves a random vegetable, eat it! You might need some micronutrients.
- Your life and health are your own.
You are responsible for them in every respect. Don’t let breathless ‘news’ articles tell you that a new industrial product is your key to better health, or that what humans have eaten for millions of years will kill you. Be suspicious when your government, which spends billions of dollars each year subsidizing agribusiness to grow corn, soy, and wheat, tells you to eat more corn, soy, and wheat. And always remember that ruminants are far better at converting plants into essential fats, complete protein, and bioavailable nutrients than humans—or our factories.
Conclusion: Living Like A Predator
Fatty meats are, quite literally, what made us human. The DHA, complete protein, and sheer calorie density of fatty meat allowed little 65-pound savanna apes with tiny 350cc brains, just smart enough to make rocks sharper by banging them together, to grow into modern humans—with huge 1400cc brains that use a full 20% of the calories we ingest! And we didn’t get fatty meat just by scavenging, because the lions, tigers, wolves, giant hyenas and saber-toothed cats got to it first. We got it by being the most effective predators on Earth.
Now that you’ve been eating like a predator for some time, you are discovering that when you eat like a predator, and play like a predator, you start thinking like a predator. Stupid people aren’t annoyances: they’re profit centers. Fat people are no longer disgusting: they’re delicious. And nothing is more important than being able to trust your packmates, so it’s time to cut loose all the leeches, layabouts, whiners, and malcontents—and it’s long past time to start valuing the solid, dependable people whom you can trust.
You will stop giving your time, love, and strength to those that demand it, and start giving it to those who deserve it. You will understand that ‘love thy fellow man as thyself’ doesn’t apply to someone with his hands in your pockets or his gun in your face, no matter whose authority they claim. You will have compassion for the herd as it moos and bleats, for you were so recently one of them yourself. And you will share your knowledge, because you understand that our real enemies are the predators who hoard this knowledge for themselves, the predators who profit so handsomely from our fear and ignorance—and from our indiscriminate love, whose endgame is the crazy cat lady dead in her condemned house, corpse devoured by the creatures she fed in life.
Now clear those frozen pizzas and Weight Watchers out of your freezer and give them to your fat neighbor, because you are going to the supermarket right now. And you will take a shopping cart, not one of those demure little baskets, because you are going to fill it with heavy, fatty, delicious MEAT.
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
(Your next step is to read my “Paleo Starter Kit”, so you’ll know what to do with all that meat.)
Postscript: More Information
The first objection I hear is always “But…but…you’re eating so much arterycloggingsaturatedfat!” We’ve been lied to for decades: grains and grain products are what’s making us fat, saturated fat is good for you, and cholesterol has been framed for crimes it didn’t commit. Tom Naughton’s “Big Fat Fiasco” (also on youtube) handily debunks these myths, but the science would fill an entire book. (Which Gary Taubes wrote: Good Calories, Bad Calories contains a long history of how the erroneous fat-cholesterol hypothesis took hold of science and government policy—and while I don’t agree that carbohydrates are solely responsible for making us fat, his debunking remains first-rate.)
For more books that explore ‘paleo’ in depth—and the science and philosophy underlying it—visit my Recommended Reading list. If you have a specific topic you want to look up, try Primal Blueprint 101 at Mark’s Daily Apple.
Wondering what to cook? Here’s a quick and simple starter meal: The Paleo Scramble. Moving on, you can get inspired by Melicious’ tasty list of paleo recipes, and the endlessly mouthwatering photos and recipes at Chowstalker. For a giant list of paleo recipe sites, go here (and make sure to click the “order by popularity” or “order alphabetically” buttons).
I hate to link just a few paleo weblogs, because there are so many excellent ones…though for the science behind ‘paleo’ I must give special mention to the following:
- The Drs. Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet
- Jamie Scott’s That Paleo Guy
- Chris Masterjohn’s The Daily Lipid
- Miki Ben-Dor’s Paleo Style
- David Evans’ Healthy Diets And Science
- Prof. Dr. Andro’s SuppVersity
- Ned Kock’s Health Correlator
- Peter Dobromylskyj’s Hyperlipid
- Dr. Emily Deans’ Evolutionary Psychiatry
- Anastasia’s PrimalMedEd
Finally, there is a wealth of solid information right here at gnolls.org. I’ve organized my articles by topic in the index…
…and that should be enough information to keep you busy for weeks.
Important! I must note that there is not universal agreement, even among those I’ve linked, on what exactly constitutes ‘paleo’, let alone ‘healthy eating’. I call my approach “functional paleo”—and I define it in detail here, in “What is the Paleo Diet, Anyway?”
Did you find this guide useful, educational, or inspiring? Then you will most likely enjoy my “Funny, provocative, entertaining, fun, insightful” novel The Gnoll Credo. Read the glowing reviews, read the first 20 pages, and buy it directly from the publisher or from Amazon for just $10.95. (Outside the USA? Click here.)
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