Paleo diet food list, meal plans and what to avoid

A plate of food you can eat on the paleo diet

The Paleo diet, also known as the Caveman diet or the Paleolithic diet, works by only allowing foods that were available in the Stone Ages.  

Paleo comes from the word Palaeolithic. This diet focuses on foods that were around before the agricultural revolution. So foods that could be hunted or foraged. The thinking behind the diet is that our bodies haven’t evolved much since Paleolithic times so we are not designed to eat many of the foods that are around now.

Similar to clean eating, the diet excludes any foods with modern toxins. This limits followers to natural ingredients and whole foods - such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts - that are more filling and/or have fewer calories than processed foods.

Studies (opens in new tab) have shown that returning to the eating habits of our ancestors is a great way to lose weight, and can reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.  

The Paleo diet is a steady, long-term diet that works (opens in new tab) - so ideal if you're after a lifestyle change, rather than a quick, extreme diet.

What is the Paleo diet?

The Paleo diet follows the eating habits of Paleolithic humans thousands of years ago. 

Sophie Medlin, consultant dietitian and director of CityDietitians (opens in new tab), explains: “Typically the Paleo diet will include foods that would have been hunted or gathered by our ancestors. This would include meat and fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. What we end up with is a diet that is low in carbohydrates and processed food and high in meat but also fibre.” 

By avoiding processed foods, followers may dramatically reduce their intake of trans fats, salt, and sugar. Cutting out dairy and legumes can also help some followers with their digestion, as these foods types can often cause bloating and stomach issues.  

Sophie says: “Generally, anything processed, including ground grains, are avoided. This means that bread, pasta and many other carbohydrates are excluded. Some proponents of the Paleo diet will also exclude foods like lentils, chickpeas and rice which, of course, would have been eaten by our ancestors, but may not induce weight loss in the same way as a very low carbohydrate version of the diet will.”

In addition, the benefits of not drinking alcohol (opens in new tab) are well-documented and the Paleo plan also advises cutting it out from your diet.

A selection of foods you can eat on the paleo diet

Credit: Alamy

Researchers (opens in new tab) found that participants consumed less calories per day than those who followed a Mediterranean diet (opens in new tab). Plus it also improved glucose tolerance, which is important in the fight against type 2 diabetes.

Because the Paleo diet does not include processed foods, it is said to reduce the risk of obesity which research (opens in new tab) shows they are linked to. 

In this study (opens in new tab) as well as losing weight, participants saw a reduction in their liver fat, which can be a high-risk factor for other diseases.

Paleo diet food list

The Paleo diet food list includes whole and unprocessed food - ideally organic produce if possible. These are the foods you can eat:

  • Fresh fruit - all non-dried fruit - including apples, oranges, pears, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, kiwis, avocados, etc
  • Fresh veggies - all non-starchy veg - including sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, kale, pak choi, Swiss chard, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, garlic, etc
  • Fish - Salmon, cod, haddock, plaice, tuna, seabass, white fish, trout etc
  • Shellfish - Prawns, mussels, oysters, crab, lobster, scallops, etc 
  • Grass-fed meat - beef and pork trimmed of visible fat, but nothing processed
  • Game-fed meat - goose, wild boar, wild turkey, pheasant, quail etc
  • Lean poultry - chicken or turkey breasts, skin removed
  • Free-range eggs - limited to 6 a week
  • Unsalted and unsweetened nuts - Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, etc
  • Seeds - Chia, hemp, sunflower, pumpkin,  sesame, poppy, etc
  • Healthy oils (use in moderation - less than 4tbsp a day) - think olive, flaxseed, coconut, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil
  • Honey

Food to avoid on the paleo diet

Food to avoid on the Paleo diet includes anything that is processed. This includes:

  • Processed foods (Sweets, crisps and other processed food)
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Dairy - all processed foods made with any dairy products including butter, cheese, cream, yogurt and milk
  • Fatty meats - bacon, ribs, chicken legs/thighs/wings/skin, pork/lamb chops, etc
  • Grains and cereals - Bread, pasta, rice, oats, barley, rye, spelt, wheat, maize, etc 
  • Legumes - beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils, peanuts, soybean products etc
  • Refined sugars - Chocolate, sweets, fizzy drinks, fruit juice, ice cream, etc
  • Starchy veg - potatoes and all potato products, cassava root, tapioca pudding, yams
  • Overly salty food - salad dressings, condiments, ham, olives, processed meats, sausages, smoked/dried/salted meat, canned meats and fish, chips, pickled foods
  • Sunflower oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, etc
  • Fruit juice
  • Soft drinks
  • Alcohol

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGvJ61nBFBo

What does a typical Paleo day look like?

Due to its strict nature, the Paleo diet encourages a gradual adjustment, so a typical day shifts as time goes on.

Dr Loren Cordain is the author of The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy By Eating The Food You Were Designed To Eat is a highly-rated book (opens in new tab) on the subject. The book breaks down how you can incorporate caveman eating rituals into everyday life.

To make the transition easier, Dr Cordain has developed 3 stages to help the body adjust, giving you an idea of how your days might look.

Stage 1 - Entry level

Dr Cordain explains that on average we eat 20 meals a week, so to start the Paleo diet he suggests leaving 3 of the meals 'open'. In other words, you can eat what you like. The open meals, he says, provide a good opportunity to taste some of the foods you may miss the most. This also helps the body adjust to the gradual removal of major food groups.

Also, during this stage you may still have salad dressings, sauces, coffee, alcohol and sugar-free soft drinks. Start using them in moderation to assist with the transition.

Stay on this stage until you feel comfortable with the adjustments and then move on.

Stage 2 - Maintenance level

For the second stage the 'open' meals are reduced to 2 per week. At this level you should restrict all transitional foods to these 2 meals.

Stage 3 - Maximum Weight loss Level

This stage leaves only 1 'open' meal per week. Dr Cordain says: 'This is the highest level, designed for true Paleo diet aficionados who wants to maximize health and wellbeing, or for individuals suffering from true obesity or high levels of chronic disease who need to maximize the therapeutic effects of the diet.'

Once you know what you can and can't eat on a Paleo diet you can make your own meals. Below, Dr Cordain has given an example of what a full day of meals might look like on the Paleo diet.

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Paleo diet meal plan

A Paleo diet meal plan should include lots of fresh, good-quality food. By replacing processed food with plenty of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as nuts, seeds and eggs, you should find yourself feeling full after meals. Here is a suggestion for a seven-day Paleo diet meal plan:

Monday

Breakfast - Poached egg (opens in new tab) and spinach Lunch - Smoked salmon and avocado salad Snack - Crispy kale (baked with salt and pepper) Dinner - Steak tartare with green salad

Tuesday

Breakfast - Green smoothie (made with coconut milk) Lunch - Omelette (opens in new tab) with red onion and cherry tomatoes Snack - Apple/Pear Dinner - Fish and broccoli tray bake (opens in new tab)

Wednesday

Breakfast - Oat-free porridge with banana Lunch - Roasted pumpkin soup (opens in new tab) Snack - Mixed berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or cherries Dinner - Rustic garlic chicken tray bake (opens in new tab) 

Thursday

Breakfast - Chia pot (mix chia seeds with almond milk and flaked almonds and leave in the fridge overnight) Lunch - Chunky English garden salad (opens in new tab) Snack - Mixed sunflower and pumpkin seeds Dinner - Bun-less beef burger with sweet potato wedges (opens in new tab)

Friday

Breakfast - Scrambled eggs (opens in new tab) and mushrooms Lunch - Honey and mustard chicken wrap (made from coconut flour) Snack - Cucumber and carrot sticks Dinner - Spiralised courgettes with cheese-free pesto

Saturday

Breakfast - Pancakes (replace flour with almond/coconut flour) with blueberries and pure maple syrup Lunch - Broccoli salad Snack - Mixed nuts Dinner - Pan-fried salmon fillet (opens in new tab) with crushed new potatoes and shoots (opens in new tab) 

Sunday

Breakfast - Red fruit smoothie Lunch - Scrambled eggs (opens in new tab) with avocado, tomatoes and spring onion Snack - Red pepper and celery sticks Dinner - Lamb with roasted radishes and leeks (opens in new tab)

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Is the Paleo diet suitable for everyone?

The Paleo diet has been proven to work and may be suitable for people who feel like they eat too much sugar (opens in new tab) or processed food. Going back to basics could help to get your eating back on track. However, while it does have its benefits, the Paleo diet may not be suitable for everyone. 

Critics (opens in new tab) of the plan point out that it eliminates entire food groups. This can mean that it could be difficult to get adequate amounts of certain vitamins and nutrients, such as fibre, calcium and vitamin D. 

Hayley Field, owner of health coaching business Food Ninja, says: “As with all diets, Paleo works due to being in a calorie deficit, which is inevitable when you cut out processed foods. For any diet to work, it needs to be sustainable and for that reason it’s not suitable for everyone.”

Likewise, the diet’s focus on meat raises concerns about the amount of saturated fat followers of the diet are consuming. Saturated fat has been shown (opens in new tab) to increase the risk of heart disease.

As a result of the restrictions, some people do find the Paleo diet quite limited. For example, it can be difficult for vegetarians to follow as it excludes some of their main food groups, such as grains and legumes.

The Paleo diet can also be expensive, as it is recommended to buy the best quality meat possible and excludes cheaper food staples, such as grains.

Sophie also advises: “Anyone who has diabetes or who is on any medication that lowers their glucose shouldn’t follow this diet without advice from their doctor or dietitian.” 

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Emily-Ann Elliott
Emily-Ann Elliott

Emily-Ann Elliott is an experienced online and print journalist, with a focus on health, travel, and parenting. After beginning her career as a health journalist at The Basingstoke Gazette, she worked at a number of regional newspapers before moving to BBC News online. She later worked as a journalist for Comic Relief, covering stories about health and international development, as well as The Independent, The i, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. Following the birth of her son with neonatal meningitis, Emily-Ann has a particular interest in neonatal health and parental support. Emily-Ann has a degree in English literature from the University of Newcastle and has NCTJ and NCE qualifications in newspaper journalism.