The Paleo diet has exploded in popularity in the last five years, primarily due to the success of low-carb diets, celebrity endorsements and success stories, and emerging research that proves that Paleo can lead to better health.
Health benefits of the Paleo diet can include:
- Reduced body fat
- Reduced cholesterol
- Improved digestion
- Defense against chronic and degenerative diseases
- Protection against heart disease and diabetes
Principles of the Paleo Diet
Unfortunately for modern America, the typical diet that our culture embraces is destructive and far from health-sustaining. The Standard American Diet—or SAD, as it is referred to—leaves eaters sad for multiple reasons, not the least of which includes a higher proclivity to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, dementia, digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, thyroid problems, and obesity.
Eating a Paleo diet isn’t embracing a fad food plan that will leave you feeling worse than before you started. No, a Paleo diet is all about investing in your health and your future. Paleo prioritizes foods that nourish the body and avoids foods that cause digestive and inflammatory problems.
What Paleo Is Not
Critics of Paleo love to hate it. They like to claim that it’s a fad diet, that it’s no different from the Atkins diet or other low-carb fads. In reality, however, there are no “tricks” with Paleo. It’s about simple nutrition that equips your body to do its job effectively.
Paleo, for example, doesn’t even have to be low-carb at all. While some might thrive on restricted carbohydrates, others (like me) need more carbs to have energy and proper hormone production (which is going to include a majority of women).
Few other diets can claim such individualized potential as Paleo can. There are several versions of the Paleo diet that have become popular in their own right, and that means that you can choose the specific incarnation of Paleo that best meets your needs. Your needs may change over time, too. I’m going to explain each of the variations, but first, I’m going to give you a brief evolution of my Paleo journey.
A Nutritionist’s Paleo Journey
I started eating gluten-free about ten years ago thanks to some unfortunate inflammatory symptoms that I would later find out were primarily due to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The photo of me on the left is when I was truly miserable, depressed, and clueless that food could have anything to do with my eventual path to wellness.
While I noticed some improvement after cutting out gluten (I had already been dairy-free for years), I saw some seriously dramatic results after I quit all grains, including the gluten-free ones. Chronic migraines, gone. Weight I was incapable of losing, gone. Depression that never seemed to lift, gone. The photo of me on the right is about a year after I went fully Paleo. I was happy, healthy, and wearing a size that I never knew could be intended for me.
My first dabble into a strictly Paleo diet was completely void of all sugars, sweeteners, and high carb foods. I primarily ate meat and vegetables. I lost a bunch of weight in six months, but I also lost even more energy from the little that I had. I started to add in more carbs, initially fearful that I would gain weight back. I had been overweight for most of my teen years and early twenties, and I assumed I would always be a heavy person. Losing 80 pounds felt like gaining a whole new world, and I didn’t want to lose it before I had even started to enjoy it.
Adding carbs turned out to be exactly what I needed to regain energy, and no, I didn’t gain any weight. I started eating more fruits, and very occasionally used maple syrup or raw honey in some almond flour baked goods.
Fast forward a few years to when I am finally pregnant after suffering numerous miscarriages. I maintained my strict Paleo diet until I was able to conceive, but then, morning sickness did a number on me. All those foods I had eaten for so long suddenly turned disgusting to my hormone-addled brain. Desperate for some protein when most meats seemed gross, I started adding in some quality cheese. Typically cheese makes me sick, but pregnancy is a magical land where reality is suspended and new rules take over. My Hashimoto’s went into full remission, and I was suddenly able to digest cheese without getting heinous sinus infections. Of course I still ate vegetables, meats, fats, and fruits, but cheese became a pregnancy staple.
I had a very healthy pregnancy in spite of being high risk due to Hashimoto’s and clotting disorders. I only gained 40 pounds (which is average for someone who gets pregnant at a healthy weight), and lost all but 10 of it in the first few weeks after giving birth.
Once my son was born, I didn’t want to give up the cheese. But when I noticed that it gave me a headache, I knew that if I didn’t stop eating it, a sinus infection would come to stay. The old pre-pregnancy rules had resumed their place. My postpartum pregnancy diet has switched to more of an AIP Paleo as I don’t seem able to digest eggs or most nightshades as easily as I did. Eventually, I’m sure my body will adjust and will require new parameters.
That’s the beauty of the Paleo diet. It adapts to whatever you need from it. It serves you, not the other way around. You aren’t a slave to a diet, but instead, you make it work for your phase of life and your particular health goals.
Paleo can be low- or high-carb, low- or high-calorie, and low- or high-maintenance. Even for those who can’t cook or don’t have time to, Paleo is doable.
Variations of the Paleo Diet
One of the best aspects of the Paleo diet is that it can be customized to your specific health needs or conditions as well as dietary requirements, such as food allergies, religious protocols, or conscientious restrictions. As I mentioned above, it can adapt to whatever nutrient demands your body needs in each phase of life, and it can ultimately help you succeed. Here I’ve broken down each of the main variations of a Paleo diet.
The traditional, normal, no-fluff Paleo diet excludes grains, dairy, soy, and refined and processed foods. It also skips fake fats, as well as vegetable oils that are overly processed. Our PaleoPlan meal plan offers a completely done-for-you version of the basic Paleo diet.
This is probably what some would consider “old-school Paleo.” When Paleo was first becoming popular, several proponents discussed being Paleo 80% of the time, while leaving room for 20% of your favorite non-Paleo foods. This can work for people who are eating Paleo because they’re supporting other family members in it, or who have already achieved their health goals.
The autoimmune protocol (also known as AIP) is a version of the Paleo diet that gets rid of specific foods associated with inflammatory responses, especially in people with chronic and autoimmune disorders like fibromyalgia, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, IBS, and Crohn’s disease. Nightshades are avoided (including potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers), along with seeds, nuts, and eggs. People who know they’re sensitive to these foods can succeed on the AIP, as well as anyone who is starting out on Paleo and dealing with disease, poor digestion, or inflammation. Some people will perpetually live on the AIP diet, while others will eventually transition to basic Paleo.
The Primal Diet
The Primal diet is similar to the Paleo diet except that the Primal diet allows organic, raw dairy products, fermented soy products, and some legumes. Other than that, Paleo and Primal follow the same principles of whole foods that are as unprocessed and locally sourced as possible.
The ultimate in low-carb, the ketogenic diet gets the body into a state of ketosis where fat is the primary fuel instead of glucose. Ketogenic eating can be completely done within the confines of a Paleo diet, but just because something is keto doesn’t automatically make it Paleo. Ketogenic Paleo is primarily utilized by those who have large amounts of weight to lose, diabetics, or body builders. It can also be used to maintain a wellness plan for epilepsy.
The Pegan Diet
Pegan is short for “Paleo Vegan” and is exactly what it sounds like: a Paleo diet that excludes all animal-based foods and is completely vegan. While basic Paleo principles are based on the health-supportive benefits of animal products that have been ethically raised and sourced, this version of Paleo focuses on plant-based protein, fats, and produce, and is primarily for those who feel principally or religiously opposed to eating animals. As a whole, Paleo experts don’t recommend a Pegan diet, especially for autoimmune or chronic health problems. One of our other nutritionists, Kinsey, was a long-time vegetarian who didn’t experience major health relief until she transitioned to an animal-based Paleo diet. You can read more of her story here.
Even if you have food allergies or sensitivities, Paleo can be fully customized to your dietary requirements. Paleo already excludes common allergens like peanuts, gluten, corn, soy, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. It can easily be customized, however, to be free from tree nuts, coconut, eggs, shellfish, and more.
As the mom of a peanut-allergic son, I fully appreciate the serious need for people who have food allergies to find a nutritious diet that won’t put them at risk from their various allergens. Not only has Paleo been healing for my own food allergies (corn, soy, gluten, dairy), it has helped me to get my son on a healing food plan that won’t jeopardize his health and allows him to get all of the nutrients he needs to fully thrive.
How Do You Know Which Paleo Diet To Follow?
If Paleo eating is completely new to you, start by following a basic Paleo diet. This will give you time to adjust to the new restrictions that, for some, can be quite a culture shock. Quitting dairy and grains can often feel huge, and I know that. So instead of getting ultra-restrictive to begin with, just get your toes wet with a basic Paleo diet. (This is precisely why we designed our Paleo meal planning service: so that those who are new to Paleo don’t have to get overwhelmed by changes.)
If you follow a basic Paleo diet for a few months and don’t notice as many positive improvements as you’re hoping for, maybe you need to specialize a little more. You could considering implementing the AIP, or maybe just removing some common allergens from your diet (like eggs or tree nuts).
Because we know that even more specialized diets are difficult, we have made our meal-planning subscription fully customizable. I really hate sounding salesy, but this is how much I believe in what we do here at PaleoPlan: we make Paleo fully work for you. You can remove allergens from your food plan. You can design meals to fit your needs only, or the needs of your entire family. Your shopping lists are still customized so you don’t have to meticulously plan trips to the grocery store and end up forgetting ingredients anyway (something that used to regularly happen to me).
Why Paleo Works
Paleo works as a health-supportive, therapeutic diet because it focuses on the whole body. Regardless of what your health goals are, Paleo can help you reach them because it is anti-inflammatory, nourishing, and enables your digestive system to work efficiently.
Humans are all uniquely different from one another, and no “one size fits all” approach is ever going to be truly perfect. Paleo pairs ancient principles of diet with modern nutrition science, making it a long-lasting, sustainable way of living.
Once you’ve reached your health, fitness, or weight-loss goal, you can safely continue eating a Paleo diet without actually being on a diet. Instead, you’re actually just eating to live to your body’s fullest potential.