Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Lorenz Mac
With new diets emerging regularly, it can feel overwhelming trying to find one that best suits your lifestyle.
But compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD), just about any other way of eating is an improvement. The health of our country is at risk because of the poor food choices we make regularly and it’s causing an obesity epidemic.
The primal diet focuses on eating natural foods that made up the bulk of our ancestors diet, long before processed carbs ever existed. Sound like paleo? The primal and paleo diets are not one and the same. We’ll get into how they differ later on in this article.
If you’ve never heard of this way of eating before, in this article we’ll talk about:
The primal diet is based off the book, “The Primal Blueprint” written by Mark Sisson. It focuses on what humans ate long before the agricultural revolution.
This includes the elimination of processed carbohydrates and emphasizes eating natural foods like fruits, nuts, vegetables and grass fed meats.
Before having readily accessible foods at a moments notice, our ancestors had to travel to find food and were constantly moving around looking for their next meal.
When agriculture became the new norm, travel and movement was no longer needed. Civilizations were established with the availability of food year-round, the population exploded and humans began to settle in one location instead of having to hunt and gather.
Because we don’t have to hunt for our food anymore, humans have become physically stagnant and it has become a detriment to our health.
We’re no longer twisting, sprinting and pushing our bodies to the physical limit. And due to the lack of strenuous exercise, our population is suffering from several health and weight related diseases.
That’s what the primal diet aims to fix.
The primal diet prioritizes foods that are as close to natural as possible. If a certain food wasn’t available before the agriculture and industrial revolution, then it should be avoided on the primal diet.
Here is a list of approved foods:
A typical day can start with a black coffee (no sugar) paired with scrambled eggs and spinach.
Your lunch could consist of a green chicken salad containing seeds with olive oil and vinegar as a dressing. A common dinner on the primal diet would include grass fed steak with the occasional sweet potato.
A good way to determine whether you can eat a certain food on the primal diet is to consider whether our ancestors had the option to eat it or not. This disqualifies processed carbohydrates like french fries, Pop-Tarts, chips and candy.
You should also avoid foods that have been introduced to us after the agricultural revolution. Like the ketogenic diet, this means wheat, whole grains, oatmeal and corn are prohibited.
Other foods to stay away from include:
- Processed foods of any kind
- Refined vegetable oils (soybean, corn, canola, grapeseed, hydrogenated).
The primal and paleo diets have a lot of similarities and both diets are based off of evolutionary science. They both believe the diet humans had 100,000 years ago before the agricultural revolution, was healthier than the Standard American diet.
Our ancestors had a much leaner, healthy looking physique compared to the average human today.
Both diets recommend you keep carbohydrate intake to a minimum and you consume the majority of your calories from organic proteins and fats alongside vegetables.
With all similarities aside, there are three key differences between the two.
#1: Paleo Restricts Dairy, Primal Doesn’t
Paleo restricts dairy and considers it toxic. Those who adopt a paleo diet think that since we’re the only species on the planet that drinks milk from other animals, it can’t be healthy.
People who follow a paleo diet believe dairy to cause inflammation and increase your insulin levels.
On the contrary, the primal diet considers dairy to be an excellent source of healthy fats, protein and calcium.
#2: The Paleo Diet Restricts Nightshade Vegetables
Another food group allowed by the primal diet but frowned upon by the paleo group are nightshade vegetables. This includes eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes.
The paleo group speculates that nightshade vegetables are responsible for inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. They’re especially against white potatoes.
Primal dieters believe there should be room in your diet for potatoes every so often. This is because potatoes are a whole food that doesn’t require too much processing aside from simple heating.
#3: Opposing Views on Saturated Fats
Paleo dieters typically like to avoid saturated fats and opt for leaner cuts of meat like chicken breast and turkey. They strongly support the research connecting saturated fats with increased cholesterol levels and heart disease.
Primal dieters on the other hand are free to eat as fatty meats as it gets, with the belief that saturated fats and cholesterol are crucial building blocks for optimal hormonal function.
There are a lot of striking similarities between the ketogenic and primal diet.
The main difference between the two is how they treat the consumption of carbohydrates. The primal diet allows a slightly higher intake of carbs through starchy tubers, wild rice, quinoa, potatoes, fruits and even red wine on occasion.
Adopting a ketogenic diet restricts carb intake. The sole purpose of eliminating carbs is to transition your body into a state of ketosis where your body begins to burn fats for energy rather than carbohydrates.
Both diets follow a high fat, moderate protein protocol with the biggest difference being the ketogenic diet’s emphasis on consuming as little carbohydrate as possible.
On the primal diet, you can consume up to 100 – 150 grams of carbs whereas the ketogenic diet restricts you to 50 grams maximum, preferably under 30 grams.
Mark Sisson breaks the primal diet down to a few core principles. By keeping these notions in mind, it’ll be easier for you to grasp what you can and cannot eat.
#1: Fats are the Preferred Source of Energy
Just like the ketogenic diet, you should heavily rely on healthy fats as your main source of fuel. Dating back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we’ve evolved to prioritize and burn fat as our main source of energy.
Fat burns more slowly and at a more even pace compared to carbohydrates. This provides your body with steady energy levels rather than the constant ups and downs from a heavy carb load.
Of the three macronutrients — fats, carbohydrates and proteins — carbs are the only “non-essential” macro. This means it is the only food source that isn’t required for your body to live.
Against popular opinion, a large study recently published concluded that those with a higher fat intake had a 23% lower risk of early death compared to the people who consumed more calories in carbohydrates[*].
The primal diet focuses on shifting your body’s epigenetics back to a fat burning mode rather than depending on carbohydrates.
#2: Grains are Unnecessary
All of the nutrients grains provide can be found in other natural food sources.
Carbohydrates in grains can be replaced by fruits and fiber can be replaced by vegetables.
Humans have gotten by perfectly fine without grains and the primal diet believes there’s no real reason to incorporate grains into your diet.
From a micronutrient standpoint, incorporating leafy greens is far superior and the need for carbs can be replaced with sweet potatoes and berries.
#3: Cholesterol and Saturated Fats are Good for You in Moderation
The negative stigma behind saturated fats and cholesterol stem from the belief that they cause heart disease, make you fatter, and clog your arteries.
Saturated fats also help you absorb nutrients from food more effectively[*].
Cholesterol is a crucial fatty substance that assists in thousands of bodily functions in the body including optimal brain health, building cell membranes and helps metabolize fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D, A, K and E.
Research has shown that people who consumed more saturated fat were not more likely to experience heart disease, stroke, or any cause of mortality compared to those who ate less saturated fats[*].
Both dietary cholesterol and fats are vital for the optimization of your sex hormones such as testosterone.
#4: Drink Clean Spring Water
Everyone knows the importance of staying hydrated. But the primal diet takes it one step further.
A recent study by the Environmental Science & Technology Letters have concluded that millions of Americans may be drinking water with dangerous levels of industrial chemicals. These chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs are associated with obesity, hormonal disorders, and cancer[*].
Researchers have discovered that 16.5 million Americans have one of six types of PFASs in their drinking water above the maximum Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit. This means the water supply had concentrations higher than the recommended chemical ceiling.
While removing these harsh chemicals from the water supply altogether may not be practical, there are several options when finding alternative, healthier water options.
Drinking bottled water is not the safe substitute and an estimated 25% or more of bottled water is actually tap water.
The effective and economical way to begin drinking clean water is to buy and install your own water filter. Reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and carbon block filters are three of the most common water filters designed to purify water of contaminants.
#5: Eat More Berries
Fruits are considered to be nature’s “candy” and while some diets prohibit them due to high sugar content, the primal diet focuses on incorporating berries.
While several fruits have been genetically modified to enhance sweetness and preserve shelf life, blackberries, blueberries and cranberries are three fruits you can enjoy on the primal diet.
Berries in particular have not been genetically manipulated which allows you to enjoy the benefits of the fruits nutrient density without the excess sugar.
Some fruits to avoid include melons, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples.
#6: Eat Large Amounts of Leafy Greens
The vitamin and mineral content in leafy greens make them a staple for the primal way of living. Minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium are abundant in leafy greens that are otherwise difficult to obtain in other foods.
Magnesium in particular is one of the most important minerals. Many people supplement magnesium instead because it’s hard to get the recommended amount without large amounts of green leafy vegetables.
Over 300 processes in your body requires magnesium to function, one of them being the production of energy. Your mitochondria uses magnesium in order to produce ATP (the body’s energy source). Incorporating leafy greens will ensure you have proper amounts of magnesium in your body.
Leafy greens to add to your primal diet include:
Adding leafy green vegetables to every meal is a great way to provide your body with all of the essential nutrients and minerals to function optimally.
#7 Eat High Quality Meats
Incorporating grass fed meats is highly superior to its grain fed counterpart.
While most cows are raised in grain fed feeding operations pumped with hormones and antibiotics, cows that are properly taken care of and raised on a pasture and forage diet produce far more nutritious meat[*].
Switching to high quality grass fed meat will provide you with higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and even contains less overall calories.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be “healthy fats” and come with several benefits like helping with depression, increasing mental clarity and even alleviating arthritis.
CLA is touted as one of the strongest nutrients to defend against cancer.
While converting to grass fed may be more expensive, the benefits to high quality, grass fed meats can do wonders for your body and the primal diet is a big proponent of it.
Since the diet focuses on high-quality, natural foods, many people have seen lasting results in weight management and mental well-being.
People with diabetes can benefit greatly from this way of eating due to the elimination of virtually all sugars aside from fruits. This makes it a great option for anyone who needs to monitor their blood sugar levels frequently.
Those who have a food allergy such as Celiac disease can also benefit from the primal diet because it eliminates several sources of food.
Here is a list of benefits you can expect:
- Helps alleviate anxiety and depression. Following a primal diet eliminates all of the unnecessary processed food that worsens your mood. Less carbohydrates and more fats can decrease inflammation in the body which is directly correlated to your mental well-being.
- Decreased hunger cravings. Because the diet focuses heavily on fats, your body won’t have the constant craving for carbohydrates. The diet helps regulate blood sugar levels which means you can go for longer periods of time without getting hungry.
- Mental clarity. The brain is made up of 70% fats. By eliminating process carbs and replacing it with healthy fats, you’ll experience a sense of smooth, clear focus not attainable with a high carbohydrate diet.
One of the only downsides that might steer you away from this way of eating is that it’s more expensive compared to other diets.
Eating organic and grass fed meats on a regular basis can rack up your grocery bill.
The Primal Diet is a Lifestyle That’s Here to Stay
Mark Sisson has created a movement behind the primal diet and it has grown to become a lifestyle for thousands of people.
As opposed to the several fad diets designed to help people lose weight — only to gain it back months later — the primal diet focuses on a holistic approach that has lasting effects.
Focusing on high quality foods including grass fed meats, green leafy vegetables and clean spring water should be a priority for people who want to adopt the primal diet.
You can expect many of the same benefits from the primal diet to that of the ketogenic diet which is a big reason why many believe that the diet isn’t going anywhere for quite some time.
Any diet that focuses on eliminating processed carbs, sugars and prioritizes organic natural foods will improve your overall health in the long term. And the primal diet hits each criteria plus more.