J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Why Going Paleo Is Easier Than You Might Think

The Standard American Diet … looks nothing like this.

In transitioning to a paleo diet from either a vegetarian diet, an industrial food/Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), or a conventional low-fat “healthy” diet (dry whole wheat toast with skinless chicken breast, etc.), following three simple guidelines during meal preparation will get you most of the way there:

  1. Replace a grain-product (like bread or pasta) with a vegetable.
  2. Replace a sweet beverage with a non-sweet beverage.
  3. Slightly increase “good fat” content.

You might replace a cereal+milk+OJ breakfast with a vegetable-cheese omelet and coffee. For lunch, a sandwich and a soda might get replaced with sauteed salmon and vegetables and a salad, with either water or tea.

What are the “good fats”?

  • Butter from grass-fed cows (high in Omega-3’s and vitamin K2)
  • Coconut oil (medium-chain fatty acids that increase metabolism)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (monosaturated fats, which are associated with lower BMI for some genotypes — specifically one or two G’s at rs1801282 [23andme account required])
  • Fresh nuts and seeds (which contain protein as well as fat, and are loaded with minerals and vitamins)

If you follow those three rules, you’re most of the way there.

What Are The Benefits?

If you’ve been eating a Standard American or vegetarian diet for twenty or thirty years and you’re in perfect health, good for you. Don’t change a thing. Why are you even reading this blog post?

For myself and many other people, neither of those options led to perfect health. As a vegetarian, I was lean, but found it impossible to put on muscle (I realize this is NOT true for many vegetarians — I’m speaking for myself only). I was also hungry all the time, never feeling satisfied after a meal. I also had bad gas and other digestive issues.

Adding meat again, my digestion improved, but in my thirties I gained weight, and began to experience asthma symptoms which continued for many years.

Switching to a more-or-less paleo diet, I experienced the following:

  • fat loss, waist back down to 29″
  • strength gains — I’m not a gym rat but I can do several pullups while my 40lb daughter is holding on to my legs — at age 43 this is the strongest I’ve been in my life
  • cessation of asthma symptoms (paleo + supplement vitamin D)
  • fewer colds and flu, on average once a year instead of three or four times a year
  • more restful sleep

Does the same hold true for everybody? Nope — everyone’s different. But many people experience positive results from reducing gluten, sugar, and starch, and increase vegetables, and modestly increasing protein and good fats.

Hybrid Diet

The last few years I’ve relaxed my diet a bit, adding back some gluten-free grains (brown rice mostly) and well-cooked beans. If I consume these foods in small amounts then I don’t notice any negative health consequences. If I eat too much starch then I’ll put on a little fat around the middle, but cutting back quickly gets me back in shape. I’ve also cut back on red meat somewhat, especially since I learned I carry one of the mutations for hemochromatosis (risk of accumulating too much iron). Since I only carry one mutation I don’t express the disease, but since my iron levels are usually slightly high when I give blood, I’m erring on the safe side.

I follow the a principal of “minimum effective strictness” — what’s the broadest, most varied, easiest diet I can get away and still be in great health? Lately my  way of eating has veered in the direction of a Mediterranean diet, or a paleo-med hybrid.

There are benefits to being more paleo even if you don’t go full paleo (impractical for most people, since it would involve reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle). Most recent interpretations of the paleolithic diet are really paleolithic-neolithic hybrid diets (including some agricultural products — not pure hunter-gatherer fare). Mark Sisson’s “Primal Diet” and “The Perfect Health Diet” are hybrid diets that are generally grouped in with “paleo”.

Below is video of ducks who have never seen water getting into water for the first time. I think going “more paleolithic” is a similar experience for humans — at first it feels a little weird but we quickly get used to it. What does a “more paleolithic” lifestyle entail?

  • diet based on vegetables, fruits, animal products, nuts and seeds, much less refined starch and sugar
  • less artificial light and screen time, more sleep, earlier to bed, more “quiet wakefulness
  • short bouts of intense exercise, lots of walking and playing, less “pain exercise” (pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion, either with cardio or strength training)
  • lots of time with friends and family (your tribe), as little social hierarchy and as much freedom as you can get away with, teamwork and cooperative effort

And here’s the duck version — exercise your evolutionary prerogative!

What else to consider, in terms of diet?

There are a few common questions that come up when people are considering moving more in the direction of a paleo or ancestral diet. I’ve already weighed in on beans … here are a few other common questions, and my take on them. My answers are based on my understanding of the latest reputable clinical research, not on the “would a caveman eat it?” hypothetical question.

  • What about fruit? Eat it if you like it, but avoid too much sweet fruit, dried fruit, and fruit juice. Fructose stimulates insulin secretion and fat storage, and suppresses leptin (you need leptin to feel full). But there’s no reason to avoid eating reasonable amounts of berries, apples, and whatever other fresh fruits you enjoy. They’re packed with vitamins and healthful phytonutrients.
  • What about organic? I think eating only organic foods is too restrictive, especially if you want to eat out at restaurants. But generally buying organic produce is worth the extra money. Here’s the latest on the Stanford study that is getting so much attention. I buy mostly organic produce because it tastes better (for fruit especially, you usually get a smaller, less sweet, crisper, more flavorful item). And why wouldn’t you want smaller amounts of chemicals in your body that have been shown to disrupt both hormonal and neurological functions?
  • What about grass-fed/humanely raised animal products? This is even more important than organic, for both ethical and health reasons. It’s cruel to raise animals under industrial/factory conditions, and as consumers we have the power to stop it. Eggs from pastured chickens can cost up to five times more than factory eggs, but even then they are a relatively inexpensive source of high quality protein and vitamins. Food products from grass-fed/pastured animals are higher in omega-3 fats and many vitamins. And the animals live happier lives. It’s the right thing to do!
  • Cured meats? I say limit cured meat consumption. There is kind of a “bacon is health food” trend among paleo bloggers, like this post from Chris Kesser (who otherwise offers excellent health advice). The jury is still out on nitrates and nitrites (which are found in many vegetables), but processed and cured meats are higher in sodium, heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and advanced glycation end products (all implicated in inflammation and/or cancer). Cured meats are delicious, but potentially not-so-great for health.

What to expect if you make a fast dietary change?

If you go cold-turkey on gluten and milk, expect a few days of grumpiness and aches and pains, and maybe a slight headache. This is exorphin withdrawal, and it should resolve after a few days.

If you don’t start feeling good after a week or two, then change something up. It just doesn’t make sense to stick with any diet for months on end hoping that you’ll eventually feel better.

A final thought … social friction and food attitude

How much social friction do your dietary choices generate? Gluten-free and grain-free are at least as mainstream as vegetarianism these days. Veganism, on the other hand, consists of going to special restaurants and either being very picky or high maintenance at dinner parties, or having mostly vegan friends. Same goes for raw foods diets, strict paleo, zero-carb, strict kosher, 100% organic, etc.

You have to ask yourself, if your diet is that strict, is it worth the social cost, and the willpower expenditure? Food is such a huge part of life — our experience of food should be broad and adventurous, not narrow and fearful.


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Steven Pinker — Violence Is Down (But What About Oakland?)


  1. nekurahn

    Great post as always.

    As someone who’s used and promoted Paleo for half a decade now, I will leave this important public service announcement here:

    Although Paleo is possibly the healthiest nutritional lifestyle known, the quality of our food supply has plummeted. An apple today is not the same as an apple 50 years ago.

    This being said, many of my clients, including myself, have seen many positive effects from switching to paleo, but we didn’t initially get the fat loss and muscle gains we expected.

    The reason for this is that even if you remove all the industrial garbage, you can still have mineral and vitamin deficiencies. I lost 15 lbs in the first 3 months of going paleo, and then I stalled for 3 years. Not cool.

    After fixing my nutritional deficiencies, I lost 100 lbs in a few months. And this pattern applied to many of my clients as well.

    The bottom line is this: do it, but don’t assume it to be magic.

    • Thanks! Which nutritional deficiencies did you correct that allowed you to continue losing weight?

      • nekurahn

        It took a long time to assemble the pieces together, but for me personally it was: Zinc, Copper, Iron, Selenium, Iodine, Manganese, Sodium (Sea Salt), Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium & Folate (B9), Vit C and Vit D.

        Part of the problem that most people are unaware of is that you can have an element in your nutrition and still be deficient of it if the antagonists are too high. I have maybe 20% of my clients who can spend a whole night without waking up. Of the 80% who do wake up, some have to go to the bathroom because of electrolyte imbalance (kidney function affecting bladder) and some just randomly waking up at 0200 and/or 0400 because of undiagnosed low-grade anemia from B9/B12 imbalance or other causes of anemia.

        I already had all of the previously mentioned elements in my nutrition, but everything was imbalanced. When I started losing weight again, it was very rarely less than 1 lbs per day. Sometimes up to 10 lbs per week. And that’s not because I was obese. Even at 5’9 & 170, I still maintained that rate well into the 150s’.

      • nekurahn

        Your reply to my 2nd post doesn’t itself have a reply button, so I am replying to your original reply. 😉

        I have some bad news. I had actually gotten a SpectraCell prior to discovering all this. A few issues:

        The test doesn’t work with ratios. For example, having low Manganese and low Vit C is better than having normal or high Vit C and low Manganese, but there is no relationship drawn within the test results themselves. This means you have to rely on someone to interpret the results correctly (aka not just reading you what it says on the paper).

        My results were that I needed more B5 and Glutamine, except neither of those have ever helped me solved my health issues at the time. They helped for other issues that were minor to me, and that I wouldn’t have paid over 500$ to solve.

        I think it’s still a test worth getting, but only after going Paleo and doing a lot of research on your own.

        • Interesting … mixed results for you for Spectracell.

          I’ve lengthened discussion threads globally on the blog to fix the Reply button issue.

    • Oliver

      Choose organic, the nutrition is much better.

      • nekurahn

        I had been eating organic long before even learning of Paleo.

        Two issues come to mind. First, trusting the organic label. Second, the quality of the soil. Organic does not mean that what you’re eating has godly mineral/vitamin content. It just means that’s it’s MAYBE not genetically modified and has had limited exposed to pesticides.

  2. Nice write up on paleo. The duck video was pretty funny too. At the beginning you suggest a person switch to a cheese and vegetable omelet. Cheese isn’t paleo, it is primal.

    • Thanks! And agreed — dairy is excluded from strict paleo, as are salt, alcohol, coffee, and chocolate (at least according to most interpretations I’ve seen).

      Just as an aside, the evolutionary history of dairy products is fascinating. Populations that adopted dairy products showed a huge drop in child mortality around age 4 (weaning time for many non-agricultural cultures).

      • Oliver

        I hope you’re not suggesting dairy is healthy, because it ISN’T. If your mortality rate decreases from dairy, it probably means you live in the 3rd world and are about to die from starvation,dehydration,malnutrition or contaminated water.The science backing, or should I say pushing dairy, is usually funded by the dairy industry.

        • nekurahn

          Agreed. Epidemiological studies can be valuable, but context is key, as always.

        • Maybe you’ve noticed that I stay away from universal proclamations re: which food groups are healthy and which ones are not. Is it a good idea to eat wheat if you are gluten intolerant? Probably not. Is it a good idea to eat meat if you are at risk for iron overload? Probably not. Is dairy a healthful food for the lactose intolerant. In most cases, no. I could go on and eliminate EVERY food group, for a particular population with a particular health issue. “Paleo” (which has many varieties, depending on which ancestral population you are looking at as a model) maybe comes the closest to being a diet that can support health in most people, and yes, pure paleo doesn’t include dairy. However there are many varieties of dairy products, there are many venerable traditions related to dairy production (French cheese-making, for example), and there are many people for whom dairy products support health.

          Personally, I avoid low-fat homogenized non-organic milk, but I have no problem with giving my daughter organic goat’s milk. Aged and fermented cheese are high in K2, which prevents both heart disease and osteoporosis. Yogurt is not the only source of probiotics, but it’s a good source.

          In terms of this space (my blog), I would like to encourage sharing both evidence and opinions. I would like to to AVOID universal proclamations about which foods and which diets are good and which ones are bad. Here’s why:

  3. youwillneverknow

    Sorry, i do realize that you’ve closed the Post about “Cure for Asthma” but I have something to share. This might sounds too silly and stupid for most people however, trust me at first i thought the same, couple years back, one of my best friend’s girl friend had a severe case of Asthma and even needed the inhaler time to time for her asthma attack but for very odd reason she decided to start smoking the medical marijuana since her brother was prescribed for it, after not even a month, she no longer suffered from the asthma attack ever again. The only shame part on this was, after she was cured from asthma, she decided to start smoking cigarette as well…which is a very bad choice even for people who has perfectly healthy lungs. It is up to you to decide if this information is helpful or not but I am only sharing this since you went though so much researches to help yourself and the others. I hope this will help with your future researches.

    • Thanks for your comment. Some varieties of medical marijuana are high in cannabidiol (which has anti-inflammatory effects) but low in THC:

      There is a great deal of research that investigates the effect of marijuana on various aspects of inflammatory regulation. For example, one study notes:

      “Potential therapeutic uses of cannabinoid receptor agonists include the management of multiple sclerosis/spinal cord injury, pain, inflammatory disorders, glaucoma, bronchial asthma, vasodilation that accompanies advanced cirrhosis, and cancer.”


      In your friend’s case, marijuana may have led to smoking, which is unfortunate. Even if it hadn’t, there is the potential for memory problems, and even lower IQ, from regular pot smoking (see my previous post for citations). But low-THC medical marijuana, perhaps ingested orally, might be an effective asthma treatment in some cases.

      Personally I think vitamin D and an anti-inflammatory diet (paleo or something similar) is a safer and easier approach.

  4. JD –

    Great piece. I recently came upon your blog and find that I share a very similar approach to life. This past year after reading the Whole30 I went to what I call a 93% (93 was an A when I was in school) diet of no gluten, processed foods, sugar and dairy. I am an avid exerciser and while not changing that routine, I lost 13 lbs. The other 7% is for a glass of wine each night, trying everything my wife prepares, being a good guest at other houses and weekly bent spoon ice cream with my daughter. You need to live your life. Thanks for sharing.

    • 93% sounds about right. We’re going for a strict “no sugar January” to tighten up a bit after the holidays.

      • Does that mean no fruit? Or just simple sugars?

        Also loved your meditation peice. I try for 10 minutes a day and like you, I swear I can feel the blood pressure go down. Wonder if that’s true.

      • Sean Ryan

        I think you are right. I am also going to try your first thing and last thing of the day meditation versus the 10 minutes when I can find it approach.

        In our house, we definitely see that when junk is around, the kids eat it but when its not, they find healthy alternatives. But I agree that its ok to have around. I’ve lost the temptation so its fine on my end.

        Will be interested to read your blog and see how January goes.

  5. Aaron Smith

    I’ve been researching nutrition for quite some time and recently started reading about neuroscience. Do you have any information on ADHD and depression? I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that a paleo diet would improve these things.

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