How To Go Primal (without really trying)

A reader asks:

“I’m interested in trying Paleo/primal-style eating. How do I start?”

Good question.

Feel free to skip to the step-by-step guide below, if you want. Or check out the How To Go Primal Cheat Sheet.

If you haven’t been living in a cave recently (Ha! See what I did there?), you probably know about Paleo / primal style eating, and seen all the claims for it.

Some claims are pretty solid.

Like: Adopting a Paleo / primal style of eating:

  • will give you more fresh foods and fewer processed ones.
  • will probably get you thinking more about what you’re eating and where your food comes from.
  • will probably cut down many of the foods that many people are intolerant to, which means less stomach upset or symptoms of systemic inflammation, and probably feeling better overall.

Other claims, not so much.

Like: Adopting a Paleo / primal style of eating:

  • means you should be paranoid as fuck about everything you put in your mouth.
  • means cutting out all naturally occurring carbohydrates (i.e. sugars and starches).
  • means coming up with weird substitutes for existing processed foods.
  • means you’re a better human being.
  • means every disease you’ve ever had or will had will be magically cured or prevented.

Luckily, you can reap the benefits of simple improvements to your food choices, using the concept of ancestral-style or primal-style eating as a guide, without having to go into the crazy, culty or obsessive parts of this eating pattern.

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.

Primal eating isn’t just about WHAT you eat. It’s HOW you eat too.

Joyfully. In tune with your physiological signals.

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. Thriving. Vital.

Screw everything else.


Here’s a simple step-by-step guide.

Start small.

One step at a time. In the order I suggest below.

There’s no rush.

I suggest you spend 1-2 weeks on each step, just getting the hang of it.

If you want this to be a long-term, sustainable project, then go slowly.

(A 30-day challenge is fine, if that’s how you like to roll, but people who do that often end up with a crazy rebound on Day 31, eating every Oreo in sight from days 31 through 60, then vowing to do another 30-day challenge… and so on. Still, give it a try if that’s your preference.)

Step 1: Spend a week or so noticing what you do eat right now, without trying to change it.

Make some notes about what processed foods you typically eat, what’s in your pantry and fridge, and how you typically cook and prepare food.

Just get a baseline.

Also notice and write down any problems with your health or energy, such as chronic pain, skin problems like acne or rashes, painful periods, joint inflammation, stomach upset, migraines, and so forth.

I’m not saying primal eating will fix all of these, but getting a baseline will help you track any changes that do occur.

Step 2: See if you can identify what is most negotiable, and what you’d benefit most from changing.

Think about why you’d want to make changes.

After several days of data gathering, perhaps you’ll see that some foods don’t seem to agree with you, or that you’re fairly certain you shouldn’t make a dinner out of gummi worms and Eggo waffles.

I recommend you don’t look at primal-style eating as a way to get skinny quick. You may lose some fat. You may not. Don’t expect a six-pack just because you added some salmon to your life.

Keep it real. Be sane. Be a grown-up.

This isn’t magic.

Don’t be crazy. Don’t make it weird. Don’t treat this like your white knight coming to save you.

Think about what pace of change might suit you.

Again, you don’t have to do this all at once. You can take a year or more to shift your patterns, if you want.

Step 3: Start with low-hanging fruit.

So to speak.

Begin by adding more fresh fruits and veggies to your diet.

Make them colourful if possible — dark leafy greens, blueberries, purple beets, etc.

Expand the variety that you do eat.

Get some diversity in there. Try some new fruits or veggies that you haven’t tried before. Look at this as a fun experiment.

Some primal-eating hardasses will tell you that you should only eat certain types of fruit, or no fruit at all, or nothing from the nightshade family, or whatever.

Ignore this for now. You probably never need to be that detailed or strict unless you have a specific intolerance.

Remember: Don’t be crazy.

Step 4: Build a roster of lean, ideally animal-based protein sources.

That means:

  • poultry such as chicken, turkey, duck, etc.
  • fish
  • seafood like shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari, etc.
  • eggs
  • red meats such as beef, pork, bison, lamb, wild game, etc.

Get accustomed to having a bit of this protein with every meal.

Practice preparing these foods and adding them to your menu.

Step 5: Shift to eating mostly / 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.

Step 6: Practice the above steps for a while.

Pause here for a while. Really get the hang of this. Experiment. Enjoy.

In fact, if you want, you can just stop here. You’ll probably feel better than most people.

Go back to your data collection and self-observation.

How are you feeling? What are you noticing about yourself?

Once you’re feeling confident and secure in the above habits, and feel like you want to move on:

Step 7: Remove ALL remaining processed sugar.

For carbs, have fruit or other starchy plants such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, yuca, taro, etc. Don’t go low-carb.

At this point, whole grains are fine too. We’ll worry about them later.

Some folks will say honey or maple syrup is “primal”, and that’s fine. Just be grown-up about how much of that you actually eat. A spoonful of honey in your tea is no big deal, but if you’re glugging maple syrup all over your coconut-flour waffles or pretending agave is a health food, it’s time for a reality check.

(Here is a step-by-step guide to dumping sugar.)

Step 8: Remove ALL processed vegetable oils.

This includes things like:

  • corn oil
  • safflower oil
  • soy oil
  • cooking spray
  • margarine
  • etc.

Replace with small portions of good fats from whole foods, such as:

  • avocados
  • butter (especially grass-fed if you can find it)
  • 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 (like a delicious stinky Quebec cheese)
  • raw nuts and seeds
  • etc.

You’re looking for fat that naturally occurs in foods.

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.

Once you’re really swinging with the above steps… then…

Step 9: Remove ALL wheat and wheat gluten.

Read labels. But if you’re eating whole foods, there should be no labels.

Do this for at least 2-3 weeks, then pause and see how you feel.

Go back to your data collection and self-observation.

Do you notice any improvements? Any symptoms still lingering?

Want to move on? OK.

Step 10: Take out all other grains — oats, rye, barley, etc.

Rice is usually well tolerated so the occasional sushi probably won’t break you. Corn (yes, it’s a grain) is also often OK for many people.

Now we’re getting down to the detail level. You’re making very significant changes here.

Go back to your data collection and self-observation.

This is the time to be very aware of YOUR data and YOUR body. Don’t follow these “rules” just because anyone says so.

If taking out oats doesn’t seem to make any difference for you after a few weeks of observation, then don’t bother.

Again: This does NOT mean go low-carb.

Keep those carbs humming with your potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, fruit, etc.

Step 11: Take out all non-fermented or non-raw dairy.

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 for people, as is real whipping cream (read the label — often it contains milk). Some folks can also do yogurt, especially if they do goat or sheep yogurt instead of cow yogurt.

Go back to your data collection and self-observation.

Check in, see what you notice.

Step 12 (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 most of the soy unless you’re eating something like natto or traditionally fermented miso in Japan.

Go back to your data collection and self-observation.

Check in, see what you notice.

Step 13: Add some fermented foods.

Stuff like sauerkraut, kimchi, traditionally fermented meats, etc. Anything with good bacteria.

(Again, if you can tolerate yogurt, keep it in.)

Step 14: Schedule some data collection in a month.

Check in with yourself in a month.

What’s changed? What’s better? What’s unchanged?

What does the data about your body and your life say is working for you, or not?


What seems to be making the biggest difference to YOU and YOUR body?

Check for crazy.

Are you getting weird about this?

Are you making up bullshit like “Primal cookies are OK!” and eating a tray of them?

Are you tipping in to OCD?

Dial it back if you are.

Find the tipping point of realistic / sane and playing in the Primal sandbox.

Better to do this partially and enjoy some small improvements than trying to do it “perfectly” and ending up cuckoo.

Understand that you won’t really be rocking “primal” till step 9, but that steps 1-7 are a “primal warmup”, if you will.

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 1-7, you’re way ahead of most people.

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

Once again:

Go slow. Practice.

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 and collect data about yourself 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.

Notice how you feel after eating — even the next day. See if you observe any connections.

You might discover things like “trigger foods” for health issues such as allergies, joint pain, migraines, depression, GI upset, etc.

Keep it real.

Don’t go down the rabbit hole of processed “Paleo products”. Don’t believe fairy tales.

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!