How To Go Primal (without really trying)

August 16th, 2011  |  Published in Eating, What to eat  |  34 Comments

From a reader comment — “I’m interested in trying Paleo/primal-style eating. How do I start?”

Good question. Here’s my advice, expanded from earlier comments.

Start small. One step at a time.

In this order:

  1. Add more fresh fruits and veggies to your diet. Expand the variety that you do eat. Get some diversity in there. Make them colourful if possible — dark leafy greens, blueberries, purple beets, etc.
  2. Make sure you have a good roster of lean, ideally animal-based protein sources: chicken, turkey, duck, fish, eggs, seafood, lean red meats, game, etc. Get accustomed to having a bit of this protein with every meal.
  3. Eat only whole, unprocessed foods — again, fresh fruit/veg, fresh meats/fish/poultry, etc. Get used to eating these foods. Make sure you know how to shop for, prep, and make them taste good. (Not hard to do, luckily.) Learn where your food comes from.
  4. Once you have #1-3 solid, THEN remove ALL sugar. For carbs, have fruit or starchy veggies such as yams or butternut squash. I’m a hardass about sugar; some folks will say honey or maple syrup is “primal”, but unless you’re willing to climb a tree and stick your hand into a beehive, or suck on tree sap, I’m not buying that argument. (Here is a step-by-step guide to dumping sugar.)
  5. Remove ALL processed vegetable oils (e.g. corn oil, safflower oil, soy oil, cooking spray, margarine, etc.). Replace with small portions of good fats from whole foods: whole avocados, butter, fresh coconut, extra-virgin cold-pressed coconut oil (not the hydrogenated/refined crap), fattier cuts of grassfed/pastured meats, fattier fish, olives and extra-virgin olive oil, high-fat raw dairy, raw nuts, etc. But keep your portions moderate — one or two “thumbs” of fat per meal. Many a primal eater has “mysteriously” packed on a few pounds after heeding the siren call of cashews and bacon.
  6. Once you nail steps 1-5, only THEN remove ALL wheat and wheat gluten. (Read labels. But if you’re eating whole foods, there should be no labels.)
  7. Once you’re comfortable with both the no-wheat groove and carbs from veggies/fruit, take out all other grains — oats, rye, barley, etc. (Rice is usually well tolerated so the occasional sushi probably won’t break you.)
  8. Take out all non-fermented or non-raw dairy (e.g. raw milk cheese). Some purists say “all dairy” — I say take it all out, add fermented stuff back in slowly, and see if your skin breaks out or you get sniffly. Butter is usually OK, as is real whipping cream (read the label — often it contains milk.)
  9. Optional — take out beans and legumes such as lentils, soy, black beans, chickpeas, and peanuts. Personally, I find a few lentils or a bit of hummus now and again is no big deal, especially if the beans and legumes are soaked, sprouted, and/or fermented. So it’s your call on this one. But definitely chuck out soy.
  10. Add some fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.

I suggest doing it this way because it’s easier to add first, then take away. It’s also easier from a practical standpoint to learn one small step at a time. I suggest one week per step. If you need more time, take it.

Understand that you won’t really be rocking “primal” till step 7, but that steps 1-6 are a “primal warmup”, if you will. And understand that you will see improvements with each step, but usually not massive changes until you get rid of grains, sugar, and dairy.

Still, if you only ever do steps 1-5, you’re way ahead of most people.

Don’t get too hung up on fiddly details. Get it in the ballpark for now.

Other folks advise just leaping in and going full-on primal for a month. They argue that you need to remove all the crap right away so you’re hooked on how good you feel, and you get a lot of the junk out of your system immediately.

I don’t dispute that; I just prefer the one-thing-at-a-time method because it works better for the vast majority of my coaching clients.

It can be so overwhelming to learn, prep, cook, and live on a new diet, it’s easy to go off the rails. Then you feel like a screwup. Or you start nurturing a nascent eating disorder. Not really what we’re going for. So let’s keep it real, go slow, and make this work!

However: if you absolutely love the “cold turkey” approach, go for it! Check out and grab the Quick Start guide. Mmmm turkey.

In any case, give yourself time to “warm up”, learn the ropes, and prepare. Check out Everyday Paleo and Paleo Comfort Foods for recipe ideas.

Then let ‘er rip. Set yourself up for success with this experiment!

Handy tips

Don’t be intimidated — you’re probably farther ahead than you think. If you already eat pretty healthy, then you only need to make a few small changes and substitutions.

Keep a food journal as you do this. You don’t have to be obsessive. (In fact, you shouldn’t be obsessive with your food, ever, and if you are, UR DOIN IT RONG.)

Just write down what you’re eating and how you feel. The point here is to connect food with experiences and feelings.

You might discover things like “trigger foods” for health issues such as allergies, joint pain, migraines, depression, GI upset, etc. Notice how you feel after eating — even the next day. See if you observe any connections.

Keep it real. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of “Paleo products” just yet. Eat real, whole, fresh, unprocessed foods. Whatever your ancestors could have hunted, gathered, or dug up counts. (But it’s OK to cook things. Our ancestors had much tougher stomachs than we do.)

Portion size still matters. Ignore the folks who say you can eat anything you like and get ripped on primal eating. Folks who say that are usually 22-year-old dudes who are Crossfitting 15 times a week. The laws of thermodynamics still apply, so if you’re looking for fat loss, eat slowly and only until you’re just satisfied (not “full” or “stuffed” or “in a groovy bacon coma”).

Use this project as a way to connect with your own food history. Quite likely your family heritage involves traditional recipes that can easily be modified to suit a primal way of eating, and/or ancestral cooking techniques such as making real bone broths (soup stocks) or oven roasts. Heck, take the kids berry picking or something.

Above all: HAVE FUN! Don’t make this about restricting or controlling or being “perfect”; make it into a fun game and self-experiment.

Old school, baby!


  1. Kati Behind the Plate says:

    August 16th, 2011at 5:24 am(#)

    I love that you encourage the use of a food journal! This can be so important, especially when learning something new.

  2. KicknKnit says:

    August 16th, 2011at 5:29 am(#)

    I’m a bit confused about #8. What is a fermented dairy?

  3. Mary-Rose Agius says:

    August 16th, 2011at 8:18 am(#)

    Thanks for posting this! Paleo-style eating has become a topic of heated discussion with my husband and I – he’s very much the skeptical type when it comes to any “diets”.

    Though we both think there’s a benefit in eating more wholefoods (we’ve switched to lentils instead of rice for some meals – pasta is very much a special occasion food), there are some aspects that worried him (namely saturate fats, and the somewhat large amount of protein effecting the kidneys).

    Can I ask, what’s the harm in soy? Is it just tofu products, or soy milk, what about the actual beans themselves? The other half consumes a lot of soy milk since he can’t half dairy (it’s always at the back of his mind since he’s worried about the estrogen levels).

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    August 16th, 2011at 8:23 am(#)

    Fermented dairy = anything transformed by good bacteria or moulds, e.g. bacterially fermented cheese (most real cheese is like this), plain yogurt, kefir, etc.

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    August 16th, 2011at 9:14 am(#)


    1. Naturally occurring saturated fats are not “bad”. Humans did not evolve eating skinless chicken breasts.
    2. Protein does not harm healthy kidneys. We are made mostly of proteins, which are constantly turned over and rebuilt. The building blocks have to come from somewhere.
    3. For more on soy, see: The Whole Soy Story.

  6. Mistress Krista says:

    August 16th, 2011at 9:14 am(#)

    Additionally, ancestral-style eating is not a “diet” or a “fad” — it’s the way humans have eaten for millions of years. It’s simply taking out junk and replacing it with stuff your body actually uses and wants.

  7. Nicole says:

    August 16th, 2011at 12:07 pm(#)

    We’ve been doing paleo for a few months now (seems like it’s what we’ve been slowly working our way toward for the past few years!) and I found that adding in sauerkraut (homemade is delicious and easy!) really helped with killing sugar cravings.

  8. KicknKnit says:

    August 17th, 2011at 4:19 am(#)

    sooo.. I can keep my blue cheese! BONUS!

  9. Kate says:

    August 17th, 2011at 6:18 am(#)

    Any tips on managing step 4? I have a serious sweet tooth and sugar cravings (particularly at, uh, certain times of the month) keep tripping me up. I think I’m a sugar addict!

  10. Solennel says:

    August 17th, 2011at 8:46 am(#)

    Honestly, I’ve been half-assing my Paleo. I was a whirlwind getting rid of “bleh,” in my kitchen when I went cold turkey. Here and there, I’ll indulge myself, but any dairy (other than butter), or gluten, and I feel ‘bleh’ pretty quickly. That’s just me, though!

    Potatoes were a big thing for me, however.. when I finally tried cauliflower mashed “potatoes,” I literally shouted “EFF POTATOES,” much to the chagrin of my dinner companions.

    I’m a fan of, good for recipes, info, and laughs. Also, the avatar on the site, sold as a tee, etc, is awesome. XD

  11. Man Bicep says:

    August 17th, 2011at 8:52 am(#)

    Great post! I’ve been doing primal for about a year now and I love it!

    If you are interested in starting Primal check out Mark Sisson’s blog He also has a book called Primal Blueprint. These two things really helped me!

    I’m now trying to convert everyone at my gym!

  12. Michelle says:

    August 17th, 2011at 9:47 am(#)

    Hello Krista! I rarely comment here but I wanted to say that I’ve been following your stuff for a long time (since I was in grad school in ’07 or so trying to keep off all that stress weight gain!) and it’s always been helpful.

    I knew about paleo sort-of-kind-of from Crossfitting friends, but I never really looked into it until you posted an interview with Robb Wolf. I was really impressed with his site and his podcast so I gave it a shot cold turkey and it was amazing. That was back in November. I’ve since lost 30 pounds (even more than what I gained in grad school!) and I feel awesome. This is undoubtedly how I’ll eat for the rest of my life.

    So thanks for helping me and so many others!

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    August 17th, 2011at 11:59 am(#)

    @Kate: You can either phase back or go cold turkey. I suggest — for sugar — going cold turkey. Grit your teeth, prepare in advance (remove all sugar from vicinity — do NOT rely on willpower — treat yourself like a toddler and “child-proof” your environment for at least 3 weeks), and let it rip. Get support from everyone around you who might push sugar on you. Make it into a bet if you need to. Whatever it takes. Be your own best friend and set yourself up to succeed. You really do need to detox from sugar just like you do from drugs.

    Commit to going sugar free for 3 weeks. Those 3 weeks will suck hard. Stuff will taste like shit for 3 weeks and you’ll jones like a mofo, but… at the end of that 3 weeks you will be free. And you will feel awesome. Free of the sugar monkey, full of new energy, revised taste buds.

    Throw away your chains!


  14. psi*psi says:

    August 17th, 2011at 10:04 pm(#)

    I’d add to the list of handy tips: LEARN HOW TO COOK! It sounds obvious, but a lot of people decide Paleo food is boring and bland and monotonous because they don’t prepare it effectively. There are so many delicious plants and animals out there that you really don’t have to stick to a comfort zone of a few dishes. Experiment! Spices are your friends!

  15. KicknKnit says:

    August 18th, 2011at 6:03 am(#)

    Sugar cravings are a bitch.. but once you shake them, man do you open up a whole list of possibilites.. also? you can taste your food… I’ll never forget my first cherry tomato after being off sugar for two weeks.. I’d never realized how naturally sweet they are.

    (in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t eat Paleo.. but more of a whole food approach with limited grains)

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    August 18th, 2011at 6:27 am(#)

    Thanks for the inspiration everyone — I’ve just created a guide to getting off sugar:

  17. » This Weeks’s Linky Things are Linky says:

    August 18th, 2011at 9:23 am(#)

    […] 16th – How To Go Primal (without really trying) :: – I thought this was interesting – I am not really on board with the Paleo diet […]

  18. Jaime says:

    August 18th, 2011at 10:25 am(#)

    Krista, do you think cottage cheese fits into a limited-dairy paleo way of eating? I don’t believe it’s fermented, but I’ve always taken you to be a fan.

    (Also, any resources/stories about people with a history of eating disorders going toward paleo? Restriction can be *so* tricky, but making healthy choices is important.)

  19. Mistress Krista says:

    August 18th, 2011at 10:36 am(#)

    @Jaime: Actually cottage cheese and I parted ways about 10 years ago. We stopped loving each other. It’s usually not fermented, although I have made it in a way similar to yogurt.

    Primal eating is NOT about restricting. It’s about living free. Free of crap. Free of processed garbage. Free of the iron rule of manufacturers who package up shit and sell it to you as edible. Free of chemicals and substances that harm you. And it’s not just about WHAT you eat. It’s HOW you eat too: joyfully. Connected to other people, your own body, and your food origins. Connected to your ancestry and your land.

    Primal eating is a paradigm of abundance — abundant, health-promoting, fresh foods that make your body sing.

    If you’re concerned about disordered eating, put your body and your soul in charge. Not your brain. Your brain is full of “shoulds” and “rules” and all-or-nothing and moral codes. Your body prefers a continuum, and testing all ideas in the only lab that matters: your GI tract. Your soul is hooked to that gut of yours and it knows when you are going in the right direction.

    Try going one step forward at a time along the primal continuum, and living in the gray zones. Every day, every meal, observe carefully how your body and soul feel. Ignore what your brain thinks. Ignore what other people say. Your body is the only authority. Find the place on the continuum where you feel good in body and soul. Where you feel nourished. Screw everything else.

  20. Scott says:

    August 19th, 2011at 11:54 am(#)

    If you’re not buying maple syrup as primal, then you must eat all your food totally raw. Real maple syrup is just maple sap that’s had most of the water evaporated from it. I can’t believe you’re in the primal orthodoxy. This is not a historical reenactment, it’s a system of rules inspired by history, but confirmed or refuted by empirical evidence.

  21. Mistress Krista says:

    August 19th, 2011at 12:44 pm(#)

    @Scott: I refute “orthodoxy” of all types. The point here is that sugar is a lot harder to get. Yeah, honey exists in nature, but it takes work to get it, and it’s not seasonally available.

    This is a set of general concepts for organizing an eating approach that operates on a continuum — not a bunch of details that we debate like angels on the head of a pin.

  22. simma says:

    August 19th, 2011at 7:15 pm(#)

    I think a big problem with diets that have catchy names is that people tend to get caught up in the technicalities. Maple syrup is technically tree sap, so people who want an excuse to have a concentrated source of sugar in the diet give it a pass. But step back for a minute, and you have to admit that maple syrup is mostly sucrose.

    I don’t believe in keeping things raw at all, but I think that, if you can’t digest it raw and you’re not recruiting yeasts or bacteria to do some work to render the food digestible, then that should be a warning flag for you to turn on your self-bullshit filter.

    As with everything else, something like maple syrup in occasional small quantities isn’t going to cause health problems. If sugar is a trigger for someone, however, that person is fooling him/herself if s/he thinks that s/he can get away with maple syrup just because it comes from a tree.

    Sugar and molasses are made from the juice of a grass, after all. Still doesn’t make chewing sugar cane OK if sugar wreaks havoc on you.

  23. Trixie says:

    August 21st, 2011at 4:46 am(#)

    “Portion size still matters. Ignore the folks who say you can eat anything you like and get ripped on primal eating. Folks who say that are usually 22-year-old dudes who are Crossfitting 15 times a week. The laws of thermodynamics still apply, so if you’re looking for fat loss, eat slowly and only until you’re just satisfied (not “full” or “stuffed” or “in a groovy bacon coma”).

    SO TRUE!!!!

  24. Diane says:

    August 24th, 2011at 6:14 pm(#)

    I have been on the interwebz since they were ARPANET — yeah, I’m a million and 23 years old. And this is the best damn post I have ever read. I have been looking for this post for a long time. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.

    (Now if I can only figure out that “don’t be intimidated” thing.)

  25. Lisa says:

    September 19th, 2011at 1:33 pm(#)

    I would suggest moving the fermented foods up from the bottom. If you’ve been following the conventional wisdom dogma of “healthy whole grains” then your gut is likely in need of repair. I found the fermented foods (I eat unpasteurized sauerkraut that I get at Whole Foods) very helpful in fighting my carb cravings. Just a couple of tablespoons on the side of your plate with each meal is all you need.

  26. Yovonne says:

    January 19th, 2012at 5:11 am(#)

    A friend quoted “Fuck Calories” and I found your site through her, for which I am grateful (I’m an old, decrepit, fat broad). I just downloaded and read the book and love it! I intend to start taking your advice, but I don’t know how I’m going to do without grains, especially rice and black rice in particular. I have been reading about the benefits of black rice, including its high levels of antioxidants, anthocyanins and anti-inflammatory properties and wondered what you thought of it. It’s pretty much the one grain I really would not want to give up).

  27. Mistress Krista says:

    January 20th, 2012at 7:30 am(#)

    @Yovonne: There is no rush. You needn’t change everything at once (in fact, I specifically advise against it). If you truly enjoy rice and notice no problems, then just stay with that. Suggest soaking the rice overnight before cooking; this will reduce the antinutrients in it (phytates that interfere with proper mineral absorption). And it shortens cooking time too.

  28. Derval says:

    February 27th, 2012at 5:57 am(#)

    Yay I did it! And I feel great!
    I tracked my progress here and picked up some paleo pals on
    the way.

  29. Megan says:

    March 4th, 2012at 5:53 pm(#)

    So…my new love of organic milk is doomed?

  30. Mistress Krista says:

    March 5th, 2012at 8:41 am(#)

    @Megan: You tell me. YOUR body is the ultimate authority. If you look and feel great inside and out, and everything works brilliantly either athletically or functionally, then keep doing whatever you’re doing.

  31. Rachelle says:

    April 25th, 2012at 5:38 pm(#)

    Hello Krista,

    Would it be bad to eat more than a “few lentils now and again”? Some die hard paleos that I’ve spoken to have suggested that if I want to combat acne and inflammation I need to do away with grains, sugar, and legumes. Do legumes present the same problems that grains do in the body?

    Thanks a ton for all of this free and extremely useful info.

  32. Mistress Krista says:

    April 26th, 2012at 5:34 am(#)

    @Rachelle: Your body is the boss. If you take out lentils and acne/inflammation improves, go with that. If you leave them in and it doesn’t seem to matter, go with that. Try a month without grains, sugar, and legumes and see how you feel. Then add them back in, and see how you feel. There’s no need to be a hardass about it when you can easily collect evidence from your own body experience. :)

  33. Sophie says:

    June 26th, 2012at 7:28 am(#)

    I’m slowly moving toward a more primal diet, just wondering if the whole low carb rap is really all it is made to be? I’m currently bulking and i imagine it would be pretty hard if I didn’t consume around 200g carbs a day?

  34. Mistress Krista says:

    June 26th, 2012at 1:34 pm(#)

    @Sophie: There is no reason to do “low carb” if you are an active athlete. “Primal” style eating does not necessarily mean “low carb”. 200 g is maybe a wee bit high depending on your overall activity level — you might find that 120-150 g, well timed around activity, keeps you in a good zone without making you too reliant on a steady stream of glucose.

    But in any case, that’s why things like sweet potatoes were invented.

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