Ultimate Paleo Diet Guide: History, Rules, Recipes & Benefits
In recent times there has been a surge of interest in what is referred to as “Paleo dieting”. In fact, it’s become pretty much a cult-like way of life for many gym-goers and health enthusiasts alike. It’s not surprising to see the advocates of Paleo diets increase like it has, given certain individuals fear or hatred of things like gluten, genetically-modified foods, and hormone-infused meats.
In a nutshell, Paleo dieting is basically dieting like early humans (hence the “Paleo” notation); some people might refer to it as “caveman” dieting or “primal” dieting, which is probably somewhat accurate actually. This guide will take an impartial look at what Paleo dieting actually is, its history, its health benefits and ramifications, what the literature says about some of the ideologies it purports, supplements to consider, and even some tasty Paleo recipes to whet your appetite.
Complete guide to the Paleo diet
Paleo dieting—where does it come from?
If you haven’t put two and two together yet, the term “Paleo” is shorthand for “Paleolithic” which is an era of human prehistory (e.g. somewhere between 2.5 million to 20,000 years ago) sometimes also referred to as the “Stone Age”. It is said that this period entailed the earliest widespread use of human technology. The reasoning for referring to the Paleo era as pre-historic is due to the fact that there are no written records from humans of those times.
Paleo food history
As early humans evolved, so did their lifestyles and methods of survival. Much of the Paleo dieting ideology is founded on the basis of what “hunter-gatherers” ate. It is said that hunter-gatherer humans of the Paleo age derived nearly 60-70% of their energy intake from animal foods. Moreover, without much of the agricultural developments like modern humans have established, it is likely they consumed minimal grains and carbohydrate-laden foods, as well as little dairy. We will get into more specifics about the nutritional habits of Paleo dieters later in this guide.
Who or what started the Paleo dieting “movement”?
When putting a name to the “Paleo face” most people probably assume that Robb Wolf (who wrote the ever-so-popular “Paleo Solution” book) was the instigator of the modern Paleo movement, but modern humans have actually been researching and advocating Paleo dieting habits for decades.
It’s wise to consider that low-carb dieting is not necessarily synonymous with Paleo dieting, but the concepts behind both dieting methods are similar. Many people attribute Paleo conception back to the 1800s and an obese patient of Dr. William Harvey’s—William Banting. It was suggested that he greatly limit his intake of refined carbohydrates and avoid sugar. While this wasn’t specifically referred to as “Paleo dieting”, Banting and Harvey were still early pioneers of many similar Paleo concepts.
Moving on, one of the most prominent advocates of actual “Paleo dieting” was gastroenterologist Dr. Walter Voegtlin. He published a book in 1975 called “The Stone Age Diet” that insisted human health could be optimized through dieting strategies of the Paleolithic era. In the decades following Dr. Voegtlin’s work, Paleo dieting saw slow but steady increases in interest/following, with a large surge coming in the early years of the 21st century.
It’s hard, if not improper, to pinpoint one individual as a sort of ringleader of Paleo dieting, but it is safe to say that Banting, Dr. Harvey, and Dr. Voegtlin’s work were held in high regard in their time and are still prestigious to this day.
What is Paleo dieting?
In a nutshell (and this probably isn’t a shocker to most people) Paleo dieting is pretty much just eating the same types of foods that early humans ate. Now where it gets a bit blurry is how we categorize certain foods and determine what really fits the bill, so to speak, of something that would be in the diet of prehistoric hunter-gatherer humans.
Given that modern techniques of food production often include some sort of alteration to the product, whether it’s genetic modification, enrichment/fortification, hormone infusion, etc., people who are “hardcore” Paleo often eat a diet comprised of foods that are “organic” and “natural”. This generally includes the following:
- Vegetables, especially root vegetables and green leafy varieties
- Fruits, with an emphasis on berries
- Meats/Poultry, and quite preferably free-range, hormone-free types
- Seafood, pretty much any type, but fresh is preferred over canned products
- Nuts/Seeds (except peanuts), these are crucial on a Paleo diet for their unsaturated fatty acid content
- Eggs, many people think eggs are a dairy product, but they are in fact dairy-free
- Oils, olive and coconut oils are often advocated as part of a Paleo diet
- Tea, this is optional but some people use these as alternatives to water while Paleo dieting
Some gray areas do exist when it comes to Paleo dieting since some people make their own “exceptions” or “approved” foods. For example potatoes, despite being vegetables, may be omitted from a Paleo diet due to their inherently high starch content. Certain high-sugar fruits, especially dried fruits, are another case of foods that may be omitted from a traditional Paleo diet.
Furthermore, artificial sweeteners and foods/liquids that contain them are generally a no-go on Paleo diets. It would seem somewhat contradictory, if not ironic, to say you’re “eating and drinking like a caveman” while slamming a few diet sodas.
Direct health benefits of a Paleo diet (supported by literature)
It may surprise many people to know that little scientific literature has conclusively shown that the Paleo diet is more favorable from a health standpoint then comparative diets (under isocaloric conditions). The main conundrum is that studies that have showed favorable benefits have differing proportions of macronutrients/calories; therefore we can’t assume the effects were derived strictly from Paleo foods.[3,4,5]
This is not to say that eating a Paleo diet has no beneficial effects on health, but rather that the benefits one notices when switching from a traditional Western diet are not necessarily (or inherently) due to a reduction of grains, dairy, alcohol, and other non-Paleo foods.
Indirect health benefits of a Paleo diet (supported by literature)
The word “indirect” in this case denotes that the following evidence of health improvements from a Paleo diet vs. comparative diets are likely due to inherent lowering of calorie/carb intake when switching from a different diet, not necessarily the food types being ingested.
EFA balance and improved blood lipids [3,7]: From a health perspective, it is suggested that Paleo diets tend to be quite a more balanced in their omega-6: omega-3 essential fatty acid ratio than the standard American diet. This seems to be due to the reduction of refined vegetable oils when switching to a Paleo diet. In turn, this improved balance of essential fatty acids appears to improve blood lipid profiles (e.g. increased HDL, lowered LDL) of subjects.
Improved insulin sensitivity [4,5]: Comparative literature has shown an improvement in glucose tolerance/insulin sensitivity when subjects switched to a Paleolithic diet vs. a higher-carb/non-restrictive diet. The main drawback in these studies, as aforementioned, is that the compared diets were not isocaloric (or equal in macronutrient intake).
Reduction of energy (calorie) intake in overweight individuals : Some studies have suggested that a Paleo diet, especially when applied to overweight individuals, reduces total calorie intake (and thus body mass) of subjects who switched from a typical “Western” diet. The reduction of energy intake could be due to several factors, but likely due to the higher satiety induced by higher fat diets and increase in root vegetable (and thus fiber) intake.
Improved mineral bioavailability–>Better bone & periodontal health : Along with the inherent reduction of phytates and gluten when switching to a Paleo diet comes purportedly improved mineral bioavailability. This, in turn, may improve calcium, zinc, iron and other mineral absorption and bolster bone and oral health. Also, fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin D3, Vitamin K2, and Vitamin A all generally increase when switching to a Paleo diet.
Sample meals on a paleo diet
Just to provide some frame of reference as to what a typical Paleo meal may look like, here are a few examples to get you started:
- Breakfast—Scrambled eggs with steak, broccoli, raspberries, cup of green tea
- Lunch—Ground turkey served over romaine lettuce, almonds, apple
- Dinner—Fresh salmon, cauliflower, sunflower nuts, blueberries
Obviously you would need to adjust portion sizes to fit your dietary goals/macronutrients, but these are just some basic meal ideas on a Paleo diet.
Do supplements have a place in a Paleo diet?
Given the nature of a Paleo diet is that you avoid “processed” and “man-made” foods, it can be a bit contradictory to use a lot of the supplements that are out there given they often contain artificial additives, among other things.
One example is that whey protein on a Paleo diet would be antagonistic to the “no-dairy” rule (not to mention most protein products have added fillers, sweeteners and flavors that don’t fit the Paleo bill either).
I guess I can see a place for things like pure plant/beef protein powders on a Paleo diet, but it still seems a bit ironic to rely on supplements given the nature of this diet is a focus on whole, non-processed foods.
Sample Paleo recipes :
These are just some suggestions to give your Paleo diet some creativity and change from monotonous, bland foods. There are many ways to make appetite-whetting recipes while on a Paleo diet, you just have to be willing to experiment in the kitchen.
Entree/Main Dish – Maple-Walnut Chicken:
- 4 (4-6 oz each) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 1 Tbs olive oil
- 1 Tbs fresh thyme
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 3 Tbs pure maple syrup
- 1/2 cup water
Combine olive oil, thyme, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Rub chicken with seasoning and let stand.
In a 12″ nonstick skillet, toast walnuts over medium-low heat 4-6 min or until golden and fragrant, stirring constantly. Note: walnuts may burn quickly if left unattended.
Transfer walnuts to dish, and turn heat up to medium under the hot skillet. Add chicken to same skillet. Cook 12 min or until done, turning frequently. Transfer chicken to a clean plate.
Add vinegar to the chicken drippings in the hot skillet and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add maple syrup and water, and simmer 6-7 min until slightly thickened. Stir in walnuts and serve on top of chicken.
Entree/Main Dish – Chipotle-Lime Salmon:
- 1 lb salmon fillets, skinless
- 1-2 Tbs olive oil, coconut oil, or bacon grease
- 2-3 limes (1 per salmon fillet), cut in half
- 1/4 tsp sea salt (optional)
- 1/2 tsp ground chipotle
Preheat oven to 350℉. Rinse salmon, pat dry, and place on a metal baking sheet.
Rub each fillet with olive oil or fat of choice, and squeeze the juice from one-half lime onto each fillet. Sprinkle fillets with sea salt (if desired) and chipotle, then place a half lime on top of each fillet.
Cook salmon for 12-15 minutes, or until it flakes easily with a fork.
Entree/Main Dish – Italian Veal Chops:
- 4 veal chops (4-6oz each)
- 1/2 tsp sea salt (optional)
- 2 tsp oregano
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Tbs coconut oil
- 2 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes
Season each veal chop with sea salt (optional), oregano and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add coconut oil when hot. Add veal chops and brown on both sides.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add garlic. Continue to cook until garlic begins to brown. Add tomatoes and parsley, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until veal is tender (about 2 hours).
Side/Snack – Kale Chips:
- 1 bunch kale
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1/4 tsp sea salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Wash kale and remove tough stems. Cut kale into 2″-3″ sections and place on baking sheet.
Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, if desired. Toss kale to fully coat with oil. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until kale is crispy. Serve hot.
Side/Snack – Bacon-wrapped Dates:
- 8 bacon slices, cut in half
- 16 large Medjool dates, pitted
- 16 whole almonds
- toothpicks (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 F. Open up dates gently with a knife.
Stuff each date with an almond, and wrap with half of a bacon slice. Secure with a toothpick if necessary.
Place on a shallow baking sheet and bake, bacon seam down, for about 7 minutes. Flip and bake for another 7 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
Serve warm or cold, and store leftovers in the refrigerator.
Side/Snack -Paleo Trail Mix:
- 1 cup whole almonds
- 1/2 cup whole cashews
- 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
- 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup raisins (golden raisins suggested)
- 1/2 cup dried currants
- 1/2 cup dried blueberries
Combine all ingredients and store in an air tight container. No cooking or baking necessary.
Dessert – Almond Muffins:
- 1 cup almond butter
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- 1 cup pure coconut milk
- 2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 3 eggs
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- 2 Tbs coconut sap or raw honey (optional)
- paper muffin liners
Preheat oven to 400℉. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. Combine all ingredients and pour into muffin tin.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Dessert – Paleo Ice Cream:
- 1 (403 mL) can coconut milk
- 1/4 cup coconut sap (or raw honey)
- Any other ice cream ingredients desired (cocoa powder to taste, spices, frozen fruit, nuts, vanilla extract, etc.)
An ice cream maker is needed for this recipe.
- Blend all ingredients.
- Place in the ice cream maker and wait about 25 minutes.
Dessert – Carrot Cake:
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup raw honey (or less, if desired)
- 1 1/2 cup cooked and pureed carrots
- 1 Tbs orange zest
- 1 Tbs orange juice (freshly squeezed)
- 3 cups almond flour
- coconut oil
Preheat oven to 325℉. Beat the egg yolks and honey together in a medium mixing bowl.
Mix in carrot puree, orange zest, orange juice concentrate, and almond flour.
Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff (a hand mixer is recommended for this step). Carefully fold into batter.
Pour batter into a 9-inch springform pan, lightly greased with coconut oil. Bake for about 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cool in the pan for 15 minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Hopefully this guide has given you a thorough overview of what the Paleo diet is, its history, and ways to implement into your lifestyle and health/fitness regimen. As always, be willing to experiment and try new things/approaches, especially when it comes to diet and training. Paleo dieting isn’t a magical panacea for your health issues, but it does likely have some indirect benefits over a standard American diet laden with processed/refined foods and excessive calorie intake.
1. Annecollins.com, Diet and Eating Habits in the Stone-Age. Retrieved Oct 12, 2013.
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3. Frassetto, 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.
4. Lindeberg, S., Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Borgstrand, E., Soffman, J., Sjöström, K., & Ahren, B. (2007). A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia, 50(9), 1795-1807.
5. Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B., Branell, U. C., Pålsson, G., Hansson, A., … & Lindeberg, S. (2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol, 8(35), 1-14.
6. Österdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., & Wändell, P. E. (2007). Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European journal of clinical nutrition, 62(5), 682-685.
7. Kuipers, R. S., Luxwolda, M. F., Janneke Dijck-Brouwer, D. A., Eaton, S. B., Crawford, M. A., Cordain, L., & Muskiet, F. A. (2010). Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(11), 1666-1687.
8. Price, W. A., & Price. (2003). Nutrition and physical degeneration. Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation.
9. Paleo Plan. (n.d.). Paleo Plan. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from http://www.paleoplan.com/recipes/