Confused about The Paleo “Rules”

The truth is simple: there is no single, absolute Paleo diet.  There is no particular food plan that every person from the Paleolithic era followed, beginning 2.5 million years ago up until the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago.  Sure, way back in the beginning most people were probably at least in the same general area – Africa – and therefore probably eating similar foods.  But as we spread out over the globe over time, food options and macronutrient ratios became different.

Some of our ancestors ate really high protein diets and some ate way more carbs.  Some had bountiful food and some didn’t, so they fasted more.  Some found a lot of starchy roots to eat, and those living around the equator probably had more fruit than, say, people in the north or south.  The people living by water maybe ate more seafood, and those living inland ate less.  Their diets all looked different.

There’s no way to know for sure what exactly they ate, though.  In a lot of places, it’s impossible to know what plants and animals were available back then. It’s kind of funny that people can be considered “experts” in the Paleo way of eating when the passing of so much time makes it impossible for us to really know what their diets were.

What we do know are basic things – they didn’t eat many grains or legumes; it would have been inefficient for them to do so.  They weren’t capable of turning corn into high fructose corn syrup, so they didn’t eat that either, and there wasn’t much honey for the taking, so they didn’t have much dense sugar – at least not the 142 annual pounds per person that we eat now.  And they probably weren’t drinking milk except for their mothers’, since it would have been difficult and possibly deadly to try to do so.

Couple the guidelines above with some modern science to back up the fact that grains, legumes, large amounts of sugar, and often dairy are not so great for us, and you have a vague sense of what “Paleo” means today.

However, there’s more to the story. We all have our own set of genes that are expressed depending on our upbringing and lifestyles, and that means that a food might be fantastic for your friend but not for you.  For instance, some Paleo people can tolerate nightshades, dairy, nuts or even white rice sometimes.  That doesn’t mean that you can, though. Your own body might react with joint pain, bloating, or blood sugar spikes with those foods.

If we’re striving for the optimal diet by going Paleo, we have to consider our own specific needs when creating that diet – the needs we’ve created not only through millions of years of evolution, but through one lifetime of poor eating habits.  We can’t just directly mimic what some researcher says the average hunter gatherer person may or may not have eaten and think it will be the best diet for us.

Besides knowing what our bodies like, we also have to consider what will make us happy while still keeping us healthy.  I personally love ketchup, and furthermore, I eat it sometimes. It has cane sugar and vinegar in it, and both of those ingredients will provoke the more rigid Paleo people among us to rise up and contest my loyalty to this diet.  I’m ok with that because, like I said, I really like ketchup: it makes me a happier person. You decide what those things are in your life.

Here are the basic guidelines in my opinion.

  • Most of us are not well equipped to eat grains or legumes as staples.
  • Refined sugar will wreak havoc on anyone’s body if it’s consumed too often.
  • Dairy is tolerated by some, and it’s WAY better for you if it’s raw, the way it comes out of moms.
  • Modern chemicals used for preserving, coloring, and artificially flavoring foods are generally undesirable.
  • Meats, eggs and fish that lived in their natural environments and ate the food they were designed to eat (their own Paleo diet, per se), are way better for us than the factory farmed alternatives.

Here are some really good articles I’ve read recently on this topic.  Let us know your thoughts!

The Healthy Skeptic – Beyond Paleo – Moving from a Paleo diet to a Paleo template.

J. Stanton – The Paleo Identity Crisis: What is the Paleo Diet, Anyway?


  1. I’d add most thickening starches (modifed food starch), anything partially hydrogenated, and heavily processed oils (soybean, canola, etc.)

    1. Good call. A lot of those are covered in the grains and legumes guideline, but the hydrogenated part is a good catch. None of that, paleo people! :)

  2. Hi,

    So I’m pretty new to all of this, and while I’m still getting my feet on the ground and researching, I’m working on bacon and boiled eggs for breakfast apples for snack and snacking on meat and salads for dinner. Can you give me some pointers on salad dressing and a list of “good” and “bad” fruits. I printed off all the weekly plans you had posted and went shopping, but is there any just “basic” things I can start with…


    1. Hi Marianna,

      Keep using the meal plans to give you good snack and meal ideas. No fruit is bad fruit if you’re eating the whole fruit (as opposed to just the juice). Here’s our Paleo Plan food guide for more information if you haven’t seen it. And here’s an article on salad dressings. There are also dressing recipes in the recipe section. Hope this helps.

  3. Awesome – thanks – last question, I saw the article about salad dressing to include vinegar…so are pickled items, like pickled okra and pickles out/in moderation?

    1. In moderation. Some people do better with pickled things than others, especially if they have leaky gut. Just watch for bloating, etc. Those things sure are delicious!

    1. Well, the best suggestions I’ve seen come from Mark Sisson at Here’s a link. Basically, 100-150gm for weight maintenance and below 100gm for weight loss. Make up the loss in carbs with fat and protein, though – don’t starve yourself.

Leave a Reply