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If you’ve tried and failed to follow the Paleo diet because a) you don’t do CrossFit and b) so 👏 many 👏 rules 👏 , you might be intrigued by its hunter-gatherer cousin, the primal diet.
The primal diet is based on the Primal Blueprint, an eating plan developed by Mark Sisson in 2009. Sisson, a former elite athlete, was searching for a way to stay healthy once his competitive days were over (but without having to endure a ridic training schedule).
He was also focused on healing the chronic inflammation he experienced after years of rigorous training. Through his research, Sisson determined that eating more like our ancient ancestors did might be the key to living a healthy and fit lifestyle.
That meant avoiding sugar and other processed foods while focusing on the high quality stuff, like protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
Our ancient ancestors probably survived by eating foods they could hunt and gather — a seasonal menu, if you will. And research has found that this style of diet may help lower the risk of many diseases often associated with poor diet quality.
The main focus of the primal diet is high quality whole foods that are minimally processed (if at all) and organic (when possible). The primal diet encourages eating only the foods our primal ancestors may have had access to, including:
- raw and fermented dairy
Processed foods are out (sorry, no burgers and fries in the wild), along with grains (like wheat and corn) and low fat dairy products.
The primal diet is not that different from Paleo, but it is for sure less rigid (we’re listening…).
Both the Paleo and the primal diet are built on the idea that our modern-day food habits, particularly in Western cultures, are anything but good for us.
They both insist we wouldn’t have so many chronic health conditions running rampant if we simply avoided processed foods (yes, even the “healthy” processed foods). And both claim that if we ate more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, we’d be way healthier.
While primal has some flexibility, Paleo is definitely more strict in its rules. Here are the biggest differences between the two plans:
|Paleo diet||Primal diet|
|Dairy||no||raw and fermented full fat dairy in moderation|
|Grains||no||wild rice and quinoa only|
(tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and spices sourced from peppers, like paprika and cayenne)
|Legumes||no||yes, in moderation, if you can tolerate them|
Primal foods to nosh on
In general, going primal means eating low carb (or at least lower carb). On this diet you completely eliminate foods like bread, pasta, cereals, baked goods, snack foods, and other packaged foods.
The primal diet focuses on minimally processed, whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, protein, raw and fermented dairy, and healthy fats.
Don’t worry — there is room for some indulgence (although a reservation at Carbone may not be an option). Alcohol is allowed, as is dark chocolate (70 percent cacao or higher).
Here’s what’s on the EAT list when going primal:
- all fruit (especially berries!)
- all vegetables (with more focus on nonstarchy vegetables)
- grass-fed meat
- wild-caught fish
- eggs (preferably cage-free/free-range)
- nuts and raw nut butters
- seeds and raw seed butters
- olives and olive oil
- grass-fed butter or ghee
- raw, fermented full fat dairy like yogurt, raw cheese, raw milk, and kefir (as well as full fat dairy that’s organic and free of hormones and antibiotics)
- natural sweeteners like raw honey and pure maple syrup
- coffee and tea
- unflavored seltzer
- wild rice
- beans and legumes (originally a no-no but now allowed in moderation if well tolerated)
Say buh-bye to these foods
The original primal diet eliminated all processed foods, grains, and legumes. But the opinion on beans and legumes has since changed, and they’re now recommended in moderation.
Anything that comes in a can or box or has a shelf life longer than we do is out too.
Here’s what’s on the DO NOT EAT list:
- refined vegetable oils like canola and soybean
- sugar (except the sugar naturally found in fruit, honey, and maple syrup)
So, what can you expect from this diet? Here are the deets on the good and the bad of going primal.
With a focus on whole foods, the primal diet feeds you high quality, minimally processed foods with plenty of antioxidants. In fact, eating like our ancestors may provide serious health benefits.
A small 2009 study found that this way of eating may help improve blood pressure and decrease LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglycerides — but this study included only nine people. A 2014 study of 70 postmenopausal women with obesity also found that a Paleo-style diet improved cholesterol levels.
And according to a 2015 study, this type of diet may also help regulate blood sugar levels in people who have type 2 diabetes.
There’s no calorie counting, weighing, or measuring here, which means no stressing out over grams of anything.
This diet is all about flexibility (and its guidelines sometimes change). The goal here is to live that 80/20 lifestyle. If you (and your diet) are on point 80 percent of the time, the other 20 percent is reserved for a few conscious deviations from the plan.
The primal eating plan can be pricey and inconvenient, and the necessary foods may not be easily accessible to everyone. Foods like grains, beans, and legumes are often inexpensive diet staples for folks with a smaller food budget.
Lots of saturated fat
While some people might think saturated fat is A-OK, full fat dairy is controversial and may not be a great option for everyone to eat on the regular. Too much saturated fat can be bad news for your cholesterol and could be harmful to those with heart disease.
How much saturated fat is too much?
The American Heart Association still recommends consuming less than 10 percent of your total daily calories from saturated fat. That’s 20 grams or less of saturated fat on average. If you’re a primal diet fan, it’s a good idea to consume saturated fats in moderation.
While the diet has changed its tune on legumes since the original plan came out in 2009, those who follow the initial recommendations may unnecessarily eliminate good-for-you nutrients like B vitamins and fiber.
Raw dairy is the biggest caution sign here. Raw milk may carry harmful bacteria that would have otherwise been killed off in the pasteurizing process.
Those looking to lose weight and keep it off will fare well on the primal plan.
The higher protein and fiber intake from high quality animal protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds means primal diet followers tend to feel satisfied on less food. The natural tendency toward consuming less means fewer calories and more potential weight loss.
Those with type 2 diabetes may also find this way of eating beneficial. Again, the focus on high quality protein and increased fiber naturally lends itself to consuming fewer calories (and thus weight loss) and to eating fewer starchy carbohydrates. Both of those changes can help lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.
Really, though, anyone who wants to eat more whole foods can benefit from this plan. If you currently eat a lot of processed and packaged foods, this is a great way to introduce more high quality foods.
A day of primal eating
So, what might a day of eating be like on the primal diet? With a focus on fruit, vegetables, high quality protein, and healthy fats, let’s take a look at what a typical menu could look like:
Breakfast: Two-egg omelet cooked in 1 tablespoon of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and filled with spinach, mushrooms, and onions. Top it off with 1 to 2 tablespoons of shaved Parmesan. Need more fuel? Add a side salad of tomato and cucumbers.
Lunch: Spaghetti squash Bolognese over wilted Swiss chard
Optional snack: Full fat yogurt mixed with berries and a little almond butter
Dinner: Roasted salmon topped with pesto and a side of roasted broccoli and roasted sweet potato “fries”
Optional dessert: If dessert is your thing, you can grab a cup of berries or a square or two of 75 percent cacao dark chocolate or sip on a glass of red wine.
The primal diet, similar to its predecessor Paleo, promotes eating more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.
Eating this way helps you cut out processed foods and eat more whole, unprocessed foods like fruit, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and other healthy fats.
Unlike Paleo, the primal diet is fluid and intends to be a guide for healthy living instead of a rigid rule book.
Some possible downsides of the plan are its reliance on saturated fats (like full fat dairy) and the lack of some foods that have beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The diet emphasizes good-for-you fats. But if you have high cholesterol or any type of cardiovascular disease, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider before trying the primal diet since it includes some high fat foods.
It’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before starting any new diet to make sure it’s the best plan for you. A registered dietitian can help tailor the diet to your specific needs and health conditions.