The Paleo Diet 101: What It Is and What to Eat

Homemade Turkey Sausage

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

A Note From the Editors

The Spruce Eats does not endorse this diet; rather, we are providing some information that can contribute to your decision. Please talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet.

Paleo Diet Basics

The paleo diet is a diet that focuses on foods that humans and their predecessors might have eaten during the Paleolithic era, between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. It emphasizes foods that hunter-gatherer people might have eaten, such as meats, fish, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and avoids foods produced by farming, such as dairy products, legumes, and grains. 

The belief behind the diet is that because humans were originally hunger-gatherers, paleo proponents believe this is the right way to eat for good health. They believe that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health disorders are caused by eating a diet based on foods that are farmed, heavy in grains, dairy products, and legumes, along with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, salt, cured meats, and processed foods in general. However, this has not been confirmed with research.

Some research suggests that the paleo diet may lead to weight loss and better overall health, though researchers say that more study is needed to support these claims. At least one study found that the diet caused weight gain. And the diet is high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which studies have linked with cardiovascular disease.

Although humans ate this way for thousands of years, and earlier members of the Homo genus may have done so for millions, the diet's recent popularity can be traced to a 2002 book by Dr. Loren Cordain, a scientist in the field of health and exercise. People on the diet consume meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, all in as close to their purest, unprocessed form as possible and without keeping track of calories. Additionally, a moderate amount of healthy fats, such as olive oil, flaxseed oil, or walnut oil can also be consumed. Dairy (including milk and cheese), grains, sugar, salt, and refined oils are excluded, as are coffee and alcohol. 

While some versions of the diet emphasize lean meats as opposed to fatty meats, not everyone in the paleo community follows this guideline. Some versions of the diet limit eggs to six per week, but others don't restrict eggs at all. And some versions of the diet exclude all potatoes, while others only exclude processed potatoes, like french fries, tater tots, and chips. Moreover, some versions of the diet incorporate an "85/15" plan, where 85 percent of a person's diet is purely paleo, with the remaining 15 percent, or around three meals per week, consisting of anything they want.

Pros and Cons


  • May promote weight loss and reduction in waist circumference. 
  • May reduce risk factors in diabetics. 
  • May lower cholesterol.
  • Does not involve counting calories.
  • The "85/15" rule makes compliance easier.
  • Family dinners and nights out can fit in.


  • Lack of ready-to-eat meal options makes food prep time-consuming.
  • Meats, fish, fresh fruits, and vegetables can be expensive, making the diet more difficult for those on a tight budget.
  • While there are numerous studies on the paleo diet, most are short-term and with small groups. 
  • Eliminating dairy can result in insufficient calcium and vitamin D intake.
  • Eliminating whole grains and legumes can result in a low fiber intake.
  • Saturated fat and cholesterol intake may be excessive.
  • Excluding salt means food can be bland.
  • Not suitable for vegetarians.

What to Eat on the Paleo Diet

On the paleo diet, foods that are similar to what early humans may have eaten (as opposed to foods that are produced through agriculture and modern food manufacturing) are the central focus. Someone on the paleo diet might have a shopping list something like this:

Paleo Foods

  • Seafood: Salmon, tuna, halibut, tilapia, lobster, shrimp, trout, bass, preferably wild-caught, not farmed
  • Poultry: Turkey, chicken, duck, pasture-raised and organic
  • Meats: Grass-fed beef, bison, venison, lamb, as well as pastured pork
  • Eggs: Pasture-raised and organic
  • Vegetables: Asparagus, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, peppers, squash, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots
  • Fruits: Melon, strawberries, apples, blueberries, oranges
  • Fats: Olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts and nut butters (almond, cashew, hazelnut), sunflower seeds
  • Drinks: Water, tea, unsweetened seltzer, coconut water

Following is a one-day sample meal plan, as well as a number of recipes you could enjoy on the paleo diet. Note that most published recipes include some salt in each dish, but since salt isn't allowed on the paleo diet, following recipes means almost always having to omit the salt.



For snacks and desserts, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are acceptable. 

What Not to Eat on the Paleo Diet

Foods that are excluded from the paleo diet include the following.

Non-Paleo Foods

  • Grains (wheat, rice, oats, barley)
  • Legumes (beans, peanuts, peas, lentils)
  • Dairy products (milk, butter, cream, cheese)
  • Wine, beer, and liquor
  • Coffee
  • Sugar (including honey, maple syrup, and other "natural" sweeteners such as Stevia) 
  • Salt
  • Processed foods
  • Soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame.
  • Refined oils, such as canola.

Bottom Line

The paleo diet is limited to foods that early humans and their ancestors, who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, might have eaten during the Paleolithic age, from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. The idea behind the paleo diet is that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses are caused by eating foods produced through agriculture, like grains, dairy products, and added sugar, a claim that research has not confirmed.  

Foods on the diet include meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The lack of nutrients from dairy products, whole grains, and legumes, as well as the high amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol, may be a concern for some. Time-consuming and expensive meal prep can also be a concern, though there are paleo meal delivery services available that can make the diet more convenient.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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