The Paleo Diet for Beginners (with Vegetarian Options)

The paleo diet is based on hunter-gatherer principles. Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia.

Looking For A Paleo Primer?

Since I started writing for Paleo Diet News, I’ve had numerous requests for a beginner’s guide to eating paleo.  So, consider this my “Paleo 101“.

Do bear in mind, however, that it can’t be a definitive guide. Even amongst significant paleo diet luminaries such as Loren Cordain, Mark Sisson, and Robb Wolf, there are some variations in approach (usually centering around the consumption of lean vs. fatty meats, or whether to include dairy products).

This, then, is a synthesis of the information I’m aware of, and is my perspective on the paleo diet.  If yours is different, please do join the discussion and comment below!


The Basics of Paleo Eating

The paleo diet - also referred to as the caveman diet, the Stone Age diet and the hunter-gatherer diet - is a way of obtaining nutrition based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various human species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era.

The Paleolithic was a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture.  Paleo dieters eschew Neolithic foods such as agriculturally produced grains, as well as more modern processed foods, including all junk foods, on the basis that human beings didn’t evolve to eat these “manufactured” foods.


Red meat is favoured, not feared, on the paleo diet. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Diet Guidelines

  • The Paleo diet should be proportionately high in naturally occurring fats, moderate in animal protein and low to moderate in carbohydrates.
  • Stable saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, tallow, and lard are favoured for cooking.  Animal fats should come from healthy, grass-fed animals where possible.  Mono-unsaturated fats such as olive, avocado and macadamia oils are also good for use in salads but should be minimally heated.
  • Industrially produced seed oils (sunflower, soy, safflower, canola) are damaged in the processing and cause inflammation in the body.  These - and the products containing them, such as so-called “healthy” low-fat spreads - should be strictly avoided, as should hydrogenated vegetable oils which contain extremely dangerous trans fats.
  • Eat generous amounts of animal products that are composed mostly of protein and fats. These include red meat, poultry, pork, eggs, organ meats (such as liver and kidneys), wild fish and shellfish. Fatty cuts are to be favoured over lean meats, and pastured animals are to be favoured since these will contain better balance of Omega 3 and 6 fats, and fewer toxins.  The optimal n-3:n-6 ratio in nature is close to 1:2 or less, yet in modern diets - particularly those high in seed oils - it will be more like 1:17.  If it is not possible to obtain pastured meats, choose leaner cuts of meat and supplement these with high-quality fats such as coconut oil, and grass-fed butter or ghee.
  • Learn to cook with as many of the animal parts as possible - eat the skin of poultry, for example, and use bones in the form of stocks and broths.
  • Eat a wide variety of cooked and raw vegetables, served with good-quality fats to assist with the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. Non-starchy vegetables are often favoured, but the paleo diet is not necessarily a strictly low-carbohydrate one.  Therefore, some starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams are also great as a source of non-toxic carbohydrates.
  • A basic premise of the paleo approach is that grains and legumes are toxic and to be avoided.  Therefore, cut out all cereal grains and legumes from your diet.  If you do choose to consume grains and legumes, ensure these are properly prepared in traditional ways, such as soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, in order to minimise anti-nutrients.
  • Eat low to moderate amounts of fruits and nuts. Choose fruits low in sugar (fructose) and high in antioxidants, like berries or stone-in fruits such as plums and apricots as well as nuts high in omega-3, low in omega-6 and low in total polyunsaturated fat, such as macadamia nuts.
  • Completely eliminate all highly refined products such as sugar and refined-grain products (e.g. bread and pasta).  Also eliminate soft drinks, sweets, and all packaged products and juices.  This includes natural fruit juices which are a refined food, and proportionately too high in fructose to be considered safe.  High levels of fructose are known to be disease-promoting.
  • Eliminate or minimize dairy products other than butter and maybe heavy cream (if this doesn’t cause weight-gain). Dairy isn’t essential to health, but if you do consume it, make it full-fat and preferably unpasteurized (raw) and/or fermented dairy.
  • Eat when hungry and don’t worry if you skip a meal or even two (provided you don’t feel any ill-effects). You don’t have to eat three square meals a day, or snack in between meals.  Do what feels most natural to you and your appetite.  Consider fasting intermittently to improve health markers and stimulate enhanced metabolism of fat.
  • Consider supplementing with vitamin D (markedly deficient in the Standard American Diet) and probiotics in order to ensure a healthy level of gut flora.  Levels of magnesium, iodine and vitamin-K2 may also need to be optimized through diet or supplementation.


Busting Some Myths About The Paleo Diet

If you’ve just stumbled across this article, and have been previously unaware of the paleo diet, it’s quite possible you’re coming out in hives at the thought of these recommendations.  All that fat!  All that meat!  Oh my God, all that CHOLESTEROL!!!  Surely, eating like this is a one-way ticket to furred-up arteries and the morgue.

Not so.  There is a growing body of evidence that the paleo diet is extremely healthy.

If you need further reassurance, watch this video by Robb Wolf, former research biochemist and author of The Paleo Solution - The Original Human Diet, in which he discusses some common myths about the role of fat, meat and cholesterol in human health:


Some Additional Lifestyle Practices

  • Mimic hunter-gather physical activities: keep your training sessions short and intense (cardiovascular sprints and lifting heavy weights) and do them only a few times per week.
  • Get optimal rest periods, and observe natural rhythms in resting and sleeping.  Eliminate as much stress as possible, and sleep as much as your body requires. Try to go to bed when it’s dark, and wakeup without an alarm clock.
  • Finally - remember to play, and get some sunlight every day if possible.


Is The Paleo Diet Low Carb?

A common misconception exists that the paleo diet is akin to low-carb approaches such as the Atkins Diet.  Whilst there are similarities - and the paleo diet is certainly likely to be lower in carbohydrates than either the Standard American Diet or indeed the diets advised by the USDA or various low-fat adherents - there are significant differences.

Here’s a useful chart comparing the differences and similarities between low-carb, paleo, and the “traditional diets” approach favoured by the Weston A Price Foundation:

Courtesy of Click to enlarge


What About Vegetarians?

Is it possible to be vegetarian on the paleo diet?  I’ve written about this subject previously, when I examined a possible role for vegetarianism on the paleo diet.  Whilst it may be challenging, it’s certainly not impossible.  Here’s Robb Wolf’s take on the subject:

In addition, here are some guidelines for vegetarians as outlined in the Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet:

    • First and most important, it is extremely desirable to eat eggs and whole-fat dairy.  Without these foods it is difficult to obtain balanced nutrition.
    • We strongly recommend respecting the advice to eliminate toxins: no grains; no vegetable oils; minimal omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA); limit fructose - 4 fruit portions per day is a reasonable maximum.
    • In the absence of food toxins from grains and vegetable oils, it is possible to obtain a large share of calories from “safe starches” such as taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and white rice without much risk of diabetes, obesity, or heart disease.  The experience of the Kitavans supports this.
    • Certain beans become reasonably low in toxins if soaked overnight and then thoroughly cooked.  Vegetarians should become familiar with traditional methods of food preparation.  The cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig may be useful.
    • Coconut oil or coconut milk should be a central part of any vegetarian diet.  It is an excellent oil and low in omega-6 fats.
    • In general, the more tropical the plant, the healthier.  Macadamia nuts are the healthiest nuts, and coconut oil the healthiest oil.
    • Fatty dairy products are excellent ways to obtain fat without PUFA, and to improve the macronutrient ratio of the diet.  We recommend drinking whole-fat milk or cream, preferably unpasteurized.
    • Inclusion of microalgae oils, fish eggs, or other long omega-3 sources is more effective than flaxseed oil at raising tissue long omega-3 levels.
    • Supplementation is strongly recommended for vegetarians. Choline, vitamin-B12, and fat-soluble vitamins commonly obtained from animal foods (such as vitamin-K2) should be supplemented.


Abundant quantities of vegetables can be consumed on the paleo diet. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


There you have it - now, isn’t it time to get started?


If you found this article useful, please click the ‘LIKE’ button below to share on Facebook. We also invite you to leave comments, and join the Paleo Diet News discussion!

Brian Cormack Carr is a charity CEO, coach, writer, and advocate of a real foods diet.
His home on the web is where you will find more articles, a free newsletter, and information about his online career-creation programme You can follow Brian on Twitter: @cormackcarr


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7 Responses to The Paleo Diet for Beginners (with Vegetarian Options)

  1. Geri September 22, 2011 at 5:18 am

    This is a great page of information, Brian. I will come back to get more info. I think you have done a good job of explaining the diet.

    • Lila Solnick September 22, 2011 at 6:17 am

      Welcome and thank you Geri! We strive to be informative here. Please come back any time and also, please tell your friends about us!

    • Brian Cormack Carr September 26, 2011 at 1:44 am

      So glad you found it useful, Geri - it’s hard to encapsulate everything in a single article, but I wanted to give readers as many “jumping off” places as possible. There’s always more to learn, which is one of the pleasures of paleo!

  2. Delicious Paleo Meals September 25, 2011 at 1:15 am

    OMG, I am so excited that you are doing this!! I am a vegan as well and have also been reading/hearing lots about the paleo diet. Due to the difficulty with removing grains from a vegan diet, I haven’t attempted yet, but I am really interested in how you are doing and how you are eating. Describe some meals!

    • Lila Solnick September 25, 2011 at 9:21 am

      Well, it’s really hard to go Paleo while being vegan. The premise behind Paleo is to eat the foods that our paleolithic ancestors ate, and they would not have been vegan. Or really even vegetarian. So the Paleo meals I can describe will always include some animal protein. I do believe it’s possible to limit animal products to fish and eggs and still be successful on the Paleo diet. So a typical meal might be grilled salmon with sauteed vegetables and a salad. Perfectly paleo. Or you could make an omelet with onion, mushrooms and peppers. Yum! I love canned fish like red salmon or mackerel so I will make a salad with chopped up raw veggies (onions, celery, carrots, cabbage) mix in a can of fish (with the bones mashed up) and add either paleo mayo (made with coconut oil and olive oil) or a ripe avocado to make the salad creamy. Add what ever spices and herbs you like. Then dish it up with romaine lettuce or red peppers. Awesome food!

      • Brian Cormack Carr September 26, 2011 at 1:40 am

        I agree with Lila’s recommendations (my mouth is watering!) but if you’re really focused on being vegan and paleo, I’d recommend re-watching the Robb Wolf video above and also Googling for some articles he’s written on the subject, in which he directs you to further sources of information. Care will have to be paid to identifying sources of safe starches and also protein, and you should also carefully consider where supplementation will be required. There is information out there and it would be worth gathering as much detail as you can before making a switch, so that you’ve got your nutritional bases covered. Enjoy!

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