The Paleo Diet: How to Know if It's Right for You
Will eating like a hunter-gatherer help you lose weight and stay healthy? Here’s what the experts say, plus a dozen-plus recipes to get you started.
Our Paleolithic ancestors ate very differently from modern humans. Some scientists have been suggesting we try to eat more like them for decades, but the idea of a “paleo diet” didn’t take hold until about 20 years ago, when Loren Cordain, Ph.D., published a book by that name. These days, the fad is among the most popular eating plans, but the jury’s still out about its actual effect on your health. Which is why U.S. News and World Report put it at #31 out of 39 diets in its annual expert-based rankings.
The research does suggest that you’ll lose weight on the paleo diet, and it may offer some health benefits, too. Before you decide whether or not to try it, let’s take a look at what we know.
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Paleo diet FAQs
The first step in making an informed decision: Getting answers to your questions.
What is a paleo diet?
Picture a caveman. What did he eat? The paleo diet starts with the idea that humans mostly stopped evolving during the Paleolithic era, between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, so whatever they had access to back then would be best suited to keeping us healthy today. Those early people were hunter-gatherers — that means a diet of 100% whole foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, wild or free-range animal proteins, nuts and seeds, and certain oils. Formal agriculture didn’t exist yet, so the diet excludes refined grains and sugars.
Who is the paleo diet for?
If you’re looking for weight loss, a Stone Age diet might be a good fit for you. Although there hasn’t been much scientific research (just a handful of clinical trials), what does exist suggests a Paleolithic diet can help you lose weight — at least in the short term. Because it can reduce obesity, it may also lower your risk factors for heart disease.
How does a paleo diet work?
Unlike with a diet plan that focuses on calories or macronutrients, the paleo diet guides you towards some foods and away from others. (In that way, it’s similar to the Mediterranean diet.) Basically, if a certain food was part of the caveman diet, it’s fair game. So in terms of a paleo diet food list, say yes to grass-fed meat, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats that might have been available back then, like olive oil. And no to added sugar, legumes (think lentils, peanuts, soy products, and beans), most grains (including whole grains), most dairy products, and virtually all processed foods. You wind up with a diet that’s high in protein and leaning towards high-fat, with fewer carbohydrates than most modern diets, but there’s no prescribed ratio. And because there’s no wheat, it’s naturally gluten-free.
What are the health benefits of a paleo diet?
Proponents of a hunter-gatherer diet say that it helps reduce inflammation and lowers both blood pressure and blood sugar levels, conditions linked to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But as we said earlier, the research to support these claims remains relatively slim.
What are the potential risks of a paleo diet?
Critics of the diet point out that limiting dairy products can lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies, which can risk your bone health. And because you’ll eat so many animal products including red meat, you’re likely to take in more saturated fat than is recommended, which may increase your chances of developing heart disease or stroke.
Is the paleo diet safe?
As long as you maintain a healthy balance including a wide variety of paleo-approved foods, there don’t appear to be any genuine dangers. But double-check with your doctor and possibly a dietitian before starting — especially if you already suffer from any chronic diseases or metabolic conditions.
Paleo diet breakfast recipes
Even cavemen needed to fill their bellies at the beginning of every day.
With just six ingredients (including salt!), these naturally sweet, portable bars give you the energy you need to power your morning. The food processor whirs ripe bananas, walnuts, coconut flakes, and a bit of vanilla into a hearty base, which gets topped with (paleo-approved) strawberry jam, more coconut, and more walnuts for crunch.
Plantains are sort of like starchy bananas, and ripe ones (with black spots) are an excellent base for simple, cinnamon-scented pancakes. A combo of baking soda and apple cider vinegar helps them puff up, much like the traditional pancakes you grew up on. Serve them with plenty of fresh fruit.
Cavemen didn’t eat oatmeal, so how can this be paleo? Simple: Substitute chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts; finely ground, they’ll absorb your favorite plant-based milk overnight and achieve a cozy, oatmeal-ly texture. Drizzle with one of the paleo sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, if you like things sweet.
Bet you didn’t think you could make an English muffin breakfast sandwich without the English muffin. This clever rendition uses the eggs themselves as “bread,” by cooking them inside stainless-steel biscuit cutters to keep them round. Add some bulk breakfast sausage and guacamole, pick it up, and dig in.
Paleo diet lunch recipes
Paleolithic humans didn’t have a formal lunch hour, but modern humans definitely need a midday meal.
Speaking of paleo sandwiches… This ingenious recipe combines ingredients like almond butter, eggs, and coconut flour to make a moist, sliceable loaf. Use it to hold lean meats and plenty of veggies, and you’ll be full until dinner.
Avocado lends its smooth, creamy texture to canned tuna, chopped cucumber and red onion, and a healthy dose of cilantro, no mayo required. Chop the veggies small enough, and you can spread some between two slices of that Paleo sandwich bread!
Bright and colorful, with tons of flavor thanks to mango chunks, zingy spices, and a healthy squeeze of lime juice, this one is a great make-ahead option to stow in the fridge. Grab the chicken mixture and some crunchy lettuce leaves, assemble, and eat.
On a chilly day, what’s more appealing than a steaming bowl of chili for lunch? This bean-free version cooks in less than an hour, thanks to the Instant Pot, and offers quite a kick thanks to fresh jalapeño and chili powder.
Paleo diet dinner recipes
Dinner might be the easiest meal on the paleo diet, thanks to all the possibilities with lean meats, seafood, and vegetables.
Bone-in pork chops get a nice coating of spice before they’re roasted on a sheet pan with your favorite mix of vegetables. This takes way less work than any caveman’s dinner.
Loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is perfect for the paleo diet. Spice it up, grill it, and top with a yummy, lime-scented avocado salsa. You definitely won’t think you’re on a diet with this dinner.
Going paleo doesn’t necessarily mean giving up cherished favorites. You just have to find smart substitutes, as in this luscious meatloaf. Instead of breadcrumbs, it mixes lean ground beef and pork with almond flour as a binder. But don’t worry, you won’t taste the almonds — just the comforting, juicy, old-school flavor.
Dried shiitake mushrooms add an umami wallop to crisped-up chicken thighs, while loads of garlic, ginger, and sliced shallots add aromatic flavor. With so much going on you’ve got a complete meal in one skillet, but Asian Cauliflower Fried Rice makes a heck of a side.
Paleo diet snack recipes
Ancient man may not have planned for between-meal snacks, but the hunter-gatherer lifestyle would’ve encouraged eating whenever possible.
You won’t miss gingerbread cookies when you’ve got this crunchy granola nearby. Almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and coconut flakes meet cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, maple syrup, and molasses. Grab a handful whenever you need a boost.
While you can’t just walk into a store and buy any old muffin when you’re following the paleo diet, you can absolutely make your own — in about 40 minutes. Made with purely paleo-approved ingredients, these yummy treats are practically magic.
Cacao — where chocolate comes from — is a seed, which makes its simplest products paleo-friendly. Here, raw cacao powder combines with non-dairy milk, maple syrup, and chia seeds to create a creamy, chocolatey pudding every bit as comforting as the traditional version.
Energy bites — balls made from dates, nuts, and other whole foods — could be the poster child for paleo snacks. These chewy, sweet, satisfying nuggets add dried apples and a hint of cinnamon to the dates and raw almonds in the food processor. The end result tastes like apple pie, with none of the added sugar, butter, and wheat.
Add paleo recipes to your Yummly Meal Plan
Paleo diet meal planning just got a lot easier! With the Yummly Meal planner, you can create a personalized plan just by clicking the “plus” sign on any Yummly recipe.
What’s the best diet for you?
At Yummly we’re committed to helping you be your healthiest self, whatever that means in terms of your personal diet. Learn more with our special series of diet articles. And if you’re ready to give paleo a go, don’t miss our story on paleo baking with tips and recipes from an expert.