The word “primal” in the context of diets generally refers to eating habits that are based on those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The Primal Blueprint, a book by Mark Sisson, is probably the best-known example of this approach (19). Our ancestors are believed to have had lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes than we do. They also didn’t have access to processed foods, so their diets were naturally higher in protein and fiber and lower in sugar and refined carbs. A primal diet is based on whole, unprocessed foods. It’s closely related to other “real food” diets like the Paleo Diet, the Slow-Carb Diet, and the Mediterranean Diet. The Primal diet is neither a fad diet nor a weight loss scheme. Rather, it’s a way of eating that you can choose to follow for the rest of your life.
What Do You Eat On The Primal Diet?
The primal diet is a high protein, high-fat way of eating that’s also low in carbs. It’s designed to resemble the diet of early humans.
Your diet should include:
- Organic vegetables: Leafy green vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms, peppers, onions
- Fish and shellfish: Salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, shrimp
- Meat (preferably grass-fed): Beef, lamb, chicken, turkey
- Poultry (preferably pasture-raised): Chicken, duck, turkey
- Eggs (preferably from pasture-raised chickens): 2-3 per day
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds
- Healthy fats and oils: Olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil
- Organic fruit: Berries, apples, pears, etc
- Milk alternatives: Coconut milk, almond milk
Foods To Eat In Moderation On The Primal Diet
Some foods aren’t considered “primal” but can be eaten in moderation on the diet. These include:
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese
- Coffee and tea: unsweetened with whole milk or black
- Legumes: Black beans, lentils, kidney beans (limit to 1 cup per day)
The primal diet also allows for occasional treats such as:
- Dark chocolate: Choose a bar with at least 70% cacao
- Alcohol: Red wine, vodka, tequila
- Cheese: goat or sheep, raw, grass-fed
What To Avoid On The Primal Diet
There are a few things you should avoid on the primal diet, including:
- Grains: Wheat, barley, rye, oats, rice
- Processed foods: Chips, crackers, cookies, cakes, candy
- Sugar: Honey, agave nectar, molasses, maple syrup
- Vegetable oils: Canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil
- Trans fats: Margarine, shortening, hydrogenated oils
- Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin
The Primal Diet Meal Plan
Here are a couple of meal options to get you started on the Primal Diet:
Primal Diet Breakfast
- Scrambled eggs, bacon, avocado, and tomato
- Omelet with ham, spinach, and cheddar cheese
- Smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber on whole wheat toast
- Greek yogurt with berries and almond butter
Primal Diet Lunch
- Chicken salad with grapes, celery, and mayo
- Tuna salad with hard-boiled eggs and avocado
- Beef and vegetable stir-fry
- Grilled chicken, vegetables, and feta cheese salad
Primal Diet Dinner
- Pork chops with roasted potatoes and vegetables
- Beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach
- Roasted chicken with sweet potato and broccoli
- Grilled salmon with rice and steamed vegetables
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Is A Primal Diet Healthy?
Yes, it can be. In fact, following some of the principles of the primal diet is thought to help improve markers of health, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar control.
Here are some of the key principles of the Primal Blueprint:
Primal Blueprint Principle 1: Eating To Achieve Optimal Gene Expression
Gene expression refers to the way our genes are turned on or off. Our diet and lifestyle choices can influence which genes are turned on or off (6).
For example, a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in sugar and refined carbs might lead to the genes that contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes being turned on (4).
Conversely, an active lifestyle and a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods might lead to the genes that contribute to good health being turned on (12).
Eat Whole, Unprocessed Foods
Whole, unprocessed foods are the foundation of the Primal Blueprint. These are foods that our ancestors would have eaten, such as meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Processed foods are any foods that have been altered from their natural state. This includes things like bread, pasta, cereal, snacks, and desserts. Highly processed foods are often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. They can also be low in nutrients (3).
Recently, more people are turning to whole foods through diets like Keto, Paleo, Atkins, Clean Eating, and some forms of veganism. This is because research has shown that diets based on whole, unprocessed foods, especially plant-based ones, are associated with better health outcomes (10).
Eat For Energy
Modern-day energy boosters like coffee, energy drinks, and candy bars are usually loaded with sugar and other refined carbs. While these may give you a quick boost of energy, they can also lead to an energy crash later on.
On the other hand, foods like protein, fats, and vegetables are slowly digested and provide a steadier source of energy. This is why it’s important to include these foods in your diet.
The primal diet eliminates grains and sugar because our ancestors didn’t have access to these foods. This means that you’ll need to find other sources of energy, as well as protein and healthy fats.
Protein is an essential nutrient for many reasons. It helps to build and repair tissues, produce enzymes and hormones, and support immunity (13).
Our ancestors valued protein. On the primal diet, you can have any source of protein, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and moderate amounts of dairy and legumes.
Prioritize Vegetables And Enjoy Seasonal Fruits In Moderation
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. These nutrients are essential for good health (8).
The primal diet recommends that you eat at least 3 servings of vegetables per day. This can be in the form of a salad, cooked vegetables, or juiced vegetables.
Fruits, such as berries, apples, and bananas, are also a part of the primal diet. However, you should eat them in moderation because they are high in sugar.
Eat Healthy Fats
Unlike what we’ve been told for years, fat is not bad for you. Healthy fats are essential for good health.
Healthy fats help to improve cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and support brain health (1).
On the primal diet, you can get healthy fats from avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
Lower Your Carb Consumption
The primal diet was designed as a lower-carb diet, guided by the Carbohydrate Curve. The Carbohydrate Curve is a tool that shows how many carbs you should eat based on your activity level.
The Carbohydrate Curve starts at 50 grams of carbs per day for sedentary people and goes up to 150 grams of carbs per day for very active people. More specifically:
- 0-50g carbs per day: if you’re looking to lose weight, or are a diabetic
- 50-100g carbs per day: if you’re sedentary or have a sedentary lifestyle
- 100-150g carbs per day: if you’re active and exercise 3-5 times per week
While the primal diet is lower-carb, it’s not as restrictive in this area as some other diets, like Keto. This means that you’ll still be able to enjoy some carbs, especially from fruits and vegetables.
Primal Blueprint Principle 2: Avoid Poisonous Things
This principle concerns the ingredients in our food.
The primal diet recommends that you avoid processed foods, as these are often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Processed foods can also be low in nutrients (3).
You should also avoid man-made chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, and food additives (2) (5). These chemicals can be found in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as in processed foods.
To avoid these chemicals, you can either buy organic produce or grow your food. If that isn’t possible, be sure to rinse your produce well to remove any residue.
Primal Blueprint Principle 3: Move Frequently At A Slow Pace
The primal diet recommends that you move frequently at a slow pace. This means that you should be active throughout the day, even if it’s just going for a walk.
Primal Blueprint Principle 4: Lift Heavy Things
Our ancestors didn’t have access to gym equipment. They had to lift heavy things to stay fit.
On the primal diet, you should try to do some sort of strength training 2-3 times per week. This can be in the form of lifting weights, bodyweight exercises, or even yard work.
Lifting heavy things has a host of benefits, including increased muscle mass, improved bone density, and reduced risk of injuries (14).
Primal Blueprint Principle 5: Sprint Once In A While
Sprinting is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a type of exercise that alternates between short bursts of intense activity and periods of rest.
HIIT has been shown to be more effective than traditional cardio in terms of fat loss and improving cardiovascular health (9).
On the primal diet you should try to do some form of HIIT 2-3 times per week. This can be in the form of sprinting, biking, or rowing.
Primal Blueprint Principle 6: Play
Our ancestors didn’t have access to video games or TV. They had to find other ways to entertain themselves.
Playing is a great way to relieve stress, improve brain function, and boost your mood (11).
On the primal diet, you should do some form of play 2-3 times per week. This can be in the form of sports, video games, or other activities that you enjoy.
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Primal Blueprint Principle 7: Get Enough Sleep
On the primal diet, you should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This may mean going to bed earlier or taking a nap during the day.
If you have trouble sleeping, there are a few things you can do to improve your sleep quality, such as avoiding caffeine before bed and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
Primal Blueprint Principle 8: Get More Sunlight
On the primal diet, you should try to get 20-30 minutes of sunlight per day. This can be done by going for a walk outdoors or sitting in front of a window. Don’t forget the sunscreen to avoid sun damage to the skin.
If you live in a place with limited sunlight, you can take vitamin D supplements.
Primal Blueprint Principle 9: Avoid Stress
Stress is a normal part of life, but it can have negative effects on our health if we’re not careful.
Some of the ways that stress can impact our health include (15):
- Weakening the immune system
- Increasing inflammation
- Causing weight gain
- Contributing to anxiety and depression
On the primal diet, you should try to manage stress as best as possible. This can be done by eliminating self-destructive behaviors, such as smoking and excessive drinking, and developing a keen awareness of our surroundings and the people in them.
Primal Blueprint Principle 10: Stimulate Your Mind
Mental stimulation outside of work and other daily activities can help improve our overall health and well-being.
On the primal diet, you should try to stimulate your mind 2-3 times per week. This can be done by reading books, listening to podcasts, or taking classes.
Mental stimulation has a host of benefits, including improved brain function, reduced risk or delaying of cognitive decline, and increased life satisfaction (17).
The Bottom Line
The primal diet is a return to the way our ancestors ate. It focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and limits sugar, dairy, and grains.
The primal diet might help you lose weight, improve your health, and feel your best. To make the most of the diet, focus on eating plenty of protein, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits. And, be sure to get enough sleep, sunlight, and exercise.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion (2017, biomedcentral.com)
- Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture (2016, frontiersin.org)
- Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a systematic review of epidemiological studies (2020, biomedcentral.com)
- Death by Carbs: Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in Asian Indians (2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Food Additives in Food Products: A Case Study (2018, intechopen.com)
- Food as exposure: Nutritional epigenetics and the new metabolism (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence (2006, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Health-Promoting Components of Fruits and Vegetables in the Diet (2013, academic.oup.com)
- High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Play behavior and playfulness in adulthood. (2015, psycnet.apa.org)
- Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes (2006, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Protein Function – Molecular Biology of the Cell (2002, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Resistance Training is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health (2012, journals.lww.com)
- The impact of stress on body function: A review (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Use of Physical and Intellectual Activities and Socialization in the Management of Cognitive Decline of Aging and in Dementia: A Review (2012, hindawi.com)
- Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- What is the Primal Blueprint? (n.d., primalblueprint.com)