The How To Go Primal cheat sheet

August 20th, 2011  |  Published in Eating, How to eat  |  9 Comments

Inspired by reader comments on How To Go Primal (without really trying), I’ve created a handy HTGP cheat sheet that lays out the options for three types of diets (and by “diet”, I mean “eating routine”, not “thing you do to get skinny”).

>> Download the sheet in PDF

The premise here is that there are three very general types of categories of diets, based on human technological and cultural changes.

1. Modern diets are generally characterized by things like:

  • industrial and mass production
  • highly processed food
  • food generally divorced from context
  • a focus on taste, “nutrients” and chemical properties of foods
  • food information transmitted by “experts” and external “authorities” (such as labels)

For more on the characteristics of modern diets, see Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

2. Traditional diets are generally characterized by things like:

  • small-scale, mostly local production
  • some processing and agriculture, which varies depending on group, region, and food type
  • food eaten generally in context (e.g. region, season, within a community, etc.)
  • a focus on sustenance, maintaining traditional/ancestral practices, and community norms
  • food information from hands-on transmission (e.g. from parent to child) as well as some cultural/community norms (e.g. religious observance)

Traditional diets are an intermediate step between industrial food production and primal-style eating. For more on traditional diets that bridge this gap, see Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price.

3. Primal diets are generally characterized by things like:

  • hunting and gathering mostly what one can eat in a given situation (with some small attempts at preservation, e.g. by air-drying meat)
  • almost no processing beyond basic butchering and cooking; any fermentation is naturally occurring
  • food always eaten in context (e.g. region, season, according to eaters’ needs, within a symbolic relationship to the land, etc.)
  • a focus on sustenance and survival
  • food information from hands-on transmission (e.g. from parent to child)

For more on the characteristics of primal diets, see The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain and the materials at Also see this excellent piece Eat Your Habitat by Josh Leeger.

The dietary continuum

There is no specific timeframe given, as various regions have adopted food technology and production methods differently.

These diets are on a continuum; there is no hard-and-fast division between them. For instance, some traditional diets may have elements of primal diets, or pre-modern diets.

Likewise, to transition from modern to primal can involve many steps, and blending the best elements of all diets, as you see fit.

The only underlying truth is that the farther away you get from a “modern” diet, the healthier — mentally, emotionally, and physically — you will probably be. So even if you only stop the bus at “traditional light”, that’s still an improvement.

I’ve laid out the available options for animal- and plant-based protein. So whether you hang your hat as carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore, you should be able to figure out how to transition your eating away from modern-style eating. (See also How To Dump Sugar… For Good)

Don’t sweat the small potatoes regionally varying tubers

Don’t get up all up in my grill about the details, e.g. whether this sheet is perfectly historically accurate, or when rice was domesticated, or that fungi are not “veggies”, or “where is beer?”, or whether So-and-So still makes tofu the traditional way.

Focus on the big picture here, folks. Grasp the overall ideas and fill in the blanks yourself.

This is a set of general concepts only, which you can use to decide where and how you might want to make changes to your eating habits and approach.

And ya know, as a printout, it sticks nicely on your fridge. Or yurt. Please share. (However, you will need to produce your own cuneiform or orally transmitted version.)

>> Download the sheet in PDF


  1. Roland says:

    August 20th, 2011at 9:16 am(#)


    I love your post! Many [of us] can get so caught up in preaching the “perfect diet,” but if it’s so overwhelmingly perfect that no one can (or will) start it, where are they?

    We probably make the biggest gains from getting the modern nonsense out of our diets. Those who don’t start because they can’t afford all organic or grass fed are losing out on the HUGE benefits that they’d get from fewer processed foods, grains, and seed oils, even while eating regular veggies and grocery store beef.

  2. Josh says:

    August 20th, 2011at 9:52 pm(#)

    Krista, truly great!! This PDF is fantastic. I’m sending you an email!
    PS thanks for the link!

  3. Mary-Ann says:

    August 30th, 2011at 3:36 am(#)

    Thank-you for the great info you always put out – We all certainly need to simplify our lives somewhat-so relaxing many of the strict “rules” many of us put on what, when & how we eat is a great place to start! As they say “don’t sweat the small stuff” just do the best you can with what you’ve got & can afford – K.I.S.S & put it (all) in perspective!

    Yours in Health & Happiness
    Mary-Ann :)

  4. Amanda says:

    September 23rd, 2011at 5:00 pm(#)

    I have a question. How do you do a no grains diet like this without going nuts? I tried this for a couple weeks it seriously messed up my hormones. I had horrible mood swings.

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    September 24th, 2011at 7:13 am(#)

    @Amanda: Did you try to go low-carb at the same time?

  6. Burchard says:

    September 25th, 2011at 5:13 am(#)

    I actually found this more etnrteaining than James Joyce.

  7. Jennifer says:

    November 10th, 2011at 8:08 pm(#)

    This is great! However, I do have a question that keeps creeping in the back of my mind:

    What about the apparent ‘wisdom’ of traditional Chinese medicine or ayurvedic medicine, where there are lots of warnings about consuming too many animal foods and how it can damage the harmony of the body. Now, I realize these are based more on ‘intuitve’ sciences rather than concrete fact, but I can’t help but question Primal living for the fact that it’s removing a very large food group (grains, legums, beans etc.) from our diets. Could this (unintentionally) create nutrient deficiencies like say, Vegan diets, by removing a large food group?

    To me, Primal living makes sense but I always feel it necessary to question ‘diets’ where a whole food group is removed. Then again, maybe I just love oatmeal too much.

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    November 11th, 2011at 7:48 am(#)

    @Jennifer: Be aware that Primal living isn’t just about eating giant piles of meat. It’s about eating fresh, whole, unprocessed, REAL food. So that’s important to note.

    Regarding nutrient deficiencies, there is abundant evidence that a grain-based diet CREATES deficiencies and dysfunction, through three mechanisms:

    GI tract irritation and malabsorption; destruction of absorptive structure (such as enterocytes)
    Stimulation of an immune system over-reaction
    Antinutrients that either bind to valuable nutrients (such as phytates that bind to the minerals we need, and carry them out); or that inhibit appropriate enzyme action (e.g. the trypsin inhibitors in soy)

    Remember that just because a food contains a nutrient will not mean we absorb and effectively use that nutrient.

  9. Nasty Monday | CrossFit NYC says:

    December 21st, 2011at 12:05 pm(#)

    […] All about deadlifting What are dense carb sources on a paleo diet? How to break into daily training Mechanics vs. technique The how-to-go-primal cheat sheet […]

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