The Paleo diet: 5 key principles

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If you want to know anything about Paleolithic or Paleo-style eating – that’s sticking to foodstuffs not far removed from those available to our mammoth-hunting ancestors – Robb Wolf is the go-to guy. He’s a research biochemist with a national powerlifting title under his belt and is the author of the internationally best-selling book The Paleo Solution. But he’s not fanatically evangelical about Paleo eating. Here he explains how you can use the principles of the diet to your advantage without binning carbs forever.

Take stock

First, decide what your needs are. I work with athletes, but I also help unfit or sick people. If someone has type 2 diabetes or stomach inflammation, or some other kind of medical problem related to food, they normally do really well by limiting carbohydrate intake. On the flip side, a hard-training athlete, particularly someone who wants good muscle mass, usually does much better with a higher carb intake. That means there are two approaches: one for people who don’t move around that much, and one for athletes.

So what carbs should a hard-training athlete eat? Well, potatoes and sweet potatoes, but you can eat grains that fall outside the definition of Paleo if they still keep gut irritation to a minimum – like white rice.

See what works

Bread and gluten-based pasta are my two biggest problems with most people’s diets. My sales pitch is this: just pull those out of your diet for 30 days and see how you look, feel and perform. And then reintroduce if you want. Usually that’s enough time for people to experience that difference.

If you aren’t super gluten-intolerant, and don’t get distress from eating bread and pasta, you can go back to it and have it to any degree you want to. But it’s worth the experiment.

Stop worrying about carbs

People think of the Paleo diet as low-carb, but I like to call it ‘macronutrient agnostic’. At the end of the day, the aim is to get the most nutrient-dense and least inflammatory food possible, and then slice and dice the macronutrient ratios based on the needs of the individual. A shot putter or rugby player, for instance, needs more protein than an endurance athlete, but less carbs – they can get their energy from fats.

Think nutrient density

As everyone knows, people tend to eat too many calories. But why? One theory is that our appetite isn’t turned off until we meet the minimum requirement for not just protein and essential fat, but also vitamins and minerals. So when we eat foods that are refined and low in nutrients, we tend to eat more of them because we’re trying to hit those daily requirements. Basically, it’s neuro-regulation of appetite.

It’s a compelling argument, because when people eat things that are more nutrient-dense – chicken breasts, broccoli, potatoes – they get full rather quickly. It’s reasonably hard to overeat that stuff, as opposed to nutrient-poor, low-fibre processed food. The message? Eat natural, and you’ll naturally eat the right amount.

Find middle ground

Typically the people who have most success with Paleo are the ones who see how it works for one to three months and then figure out what’s appropriate for them. Then maybe Monday through Friday, they eat Paleo, and at the weekends they kick their heels up – they’ll have some bread, some beer, some dairy. They find a level of adherence they’re happy with, and they can always be more strict if they want better results. 

Partial Paleo

Aren’t quite ready to go full hunter-gatherer? Try these easy changes

Eat green bananas

Yes, really. ‘Slightly under-ripe bananas tend to be more starchy and less sugary than the overripe kind,’ says Wolf. ‘Save the overripe ones for after a workout, when you need the glycogen.'

Drink tequila

Steady there, chief – it’s now your main booze, not a chaser. ‘I recommend people stick to hard liquor,’ says Wolf. ‘It’s a killer because I love beer, but if you’re wickedly gluten intolerant, tequila is better.'

Mix your meats

If nothing else, make sure you’re getting a variety of animal proteins in your food. ‘Mix lamb, chicken, fish and beef,’ says Wolf. ‘They all emphasise different nutrients.’ Mixed grill it is.

Former web editor

Between 2014 and 2015, Andre Jackson was the web editor of Men’s Fitness UK, which predated and then shared a website with Coach. A love for climbing ropes and boarding slopes, he doesn’t have the most traditional of workout plans but he’s obsessed with finding out how much protein he can get from everything. His favorite gym move is double wave battle ropes, his favorite sports are football and snowboarding, and his personal best is conquering a V6 bouldering climbing wall.