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What Is the Paleo Diet? A Beginner's Guide

Imagine this is your daily menu: Coffee, a couple of scrambled eggs and half a cantaloupe for breakfast; a tossed salad with shrimp and avocado for lunch; baked salmon and steamed broccoli for dinner, with perhaps a bowl of fruit or one of these 10 recipes for dessert. Sounds pretty reasonable for a weight-loss plan. But did you notice? A few common foods are missing: whole grains and dairy.

This is a basic day on the Paleo diet, according to Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet and professor emeritus at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, who pioneered research about the eating plan. With the program rapidly rising in popularity, should fit girls stock up on staples or skip it?

The Background

Only our cave(wo)man ancestors can know for sure when the Paleo diet came into existence, but the modern hunter-gatherer-inspired plan began in 1985 with a research study in the New England Journal of Medicine, says Cordain. From there, a few other scientists—Cordain included—began investigating and writing papers and books on the topic. The Paleo diet really picked up steam in 2008 thanks to the Internet, and the rise of old-school workout programs like CrossFit and a desire to eat in a similarly classic manner. "It spread like wildfire as people saw positive results and shared them online," says Cordain.

The Benefits

About 70 percent of the average American's diet consists of processed sugars, grains, dairy and vegetable oils (often hidden in favorite items like bagels, ice cream, and pizza, among other foods). Processed foods of all kinds are pooh-poohed on Paleo, and of course they have to be replaced with something. "This forces people to shop the perimeter of the grocery store for real, living foods like our ancestors ate. The Paleo diet is very sustainability-minded, since it's all about eating what's naturally available," explains Cordain. While conflicting research exists related to nearly all health claims about the diet, proponents credit these as some of the main reasons to eat up:

Weighing Your Paleo Plate

While the items allowed are wholesome, some dietitians are on the fence about Paleo. "All of the foods allowed are nutritious—it's some of what's not allowed that worries me," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of The Flexitarian Diet. "I love the focus on eating fruits and vegetables, giving refined sugar the ax, and ditching processed food, but restricting whole grains, potatoes, legumes and dairy isn't healthy." If you're interested in trying the diet, Blatner suggests modifying your Paleo program with a more general "clean eating" focus, incorporating legumes (plant-based protein!), low-fat dairy (probiotics!) and whole grains (fiber!).

The 10 Commandments of the Paleo Diet

  1. Thou shalt not eat processed foods.
  2. Honor thy egg, nut and (grass-fed) meat.
  3. Thou shalt refuse refined sugars and grains.
  4. Thou shalt give up gluten.
  5. Remember thy natural sweeteners (raw honey, dates, maple syrup).
  6. Thou shalt bypass beans and legumes—yes, that means you, peanut butter!
  7. Thou shalt avoid most alcohols. (Non-colored spirits, like vodka and gin, are best.)
  8. Honor thy coconut (flour, oil, water, etc.).
  9. Thou shalt vary thy veggies.
  10. Thou shalt not sip sugars.