Paleo Explained: The Primal Lifestyle in a Nutshell

Last Update: September 28, 2022

As a paleo/primal coach, the first questions I ask new clients is, “If a stranger asked you what paleo or primal meant, what would you tell them?”

Typical answers range from “Paleo means eat more meat,” to “Paleo is a higher carb version of The Atkins Diet,” to “Paleo means gluten-free and eating whole foods.” All of the above are misconceptions.

For starters, the terms paleo, primal, ancestral health, evolutionary health, caveman diet, and hunter-gatherer diet are all synonymous. Anyone can Google a list of primal foods and adjust their grocery list accordingly — and they would be better off for it.

But adopting a primal life is more than adhering to a list of foods — it is a way of honoring the primal, genetic blueprint all of us were born with in order to achieve optimal health and a lean, strong physique.

Can you remember the last time you went six or more hours without eating and didn’t have a noticeable drop in mental focus and physical energy? Are you ravenous first thing in the morning and always hungry after exercise? Do you struggle with energy levels and keeping weight off? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then most likely you are a sugar-burner, which means that your body is primarily burning glucose to fuel itself.

Becoming paleo involves reprogramming our ancestral genes back to their original function — burning fat to fuel the body. When one becomes paleo and fat-adapted by retraining the body to burn fat as it’s primary fuel, energy drops and cravings become a thing of the past. Food addictions fall by the wayside. I have never experienced a faster, more sustainable and efficient way to lose excess body fat, cure food addictions, and eradicate sugar cravings than by adopting a Paleo lifestyle.

One of the most common objections to the Paleo lifestyle is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t live long, so they can’t possibly be healthy role models. Contrary to poplar belief, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived very long, healthy lives – that is, the ones who made it past birth, puberty, and managed to escape a lion attack.

Hunter-gatherer dietary habits can be evaluated from stool samples dating back 50,000 years, as Gary Taubes, the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, explained in his book. The nutrient-dense plant and animal diet of our ancestors is in sharp contrast to the modern diet of regimented meals that are wildly excessive in processed carbohydrates.

In a nutshell, adopting a paleo lifestyle honors the genetic blueprint we were all given in order to sustain a happy, healthy body.

So how do you get started? There are two main components to adopting a primal lifestyle and transitioning into a fat-burner: diet and exercise.


High fat, moderate protein, and low carb (less than 150 grams of total carbs per day, unless you are an athlete). No grains, no legumes, limited dairy.

Humans have been evolving for more than 2 million years. Experts have studied the remains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived 60,000 years ago and claim that modern diseases like cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, thyroid conditions, and more arrived on the scene when humans unknowingly strayed away from our naturally intended fat-burning diet.

The human body is designed to burn fat as the primary fuel. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors naturally functioned this way before the advent of grains 10,000 years ago, dairy 7,000 years ago, and sugar 250 years ago. This is why grains, sugar, legumes (and most dairy) are not a part of the paleo eating strategy.


Mainly exercising between 55 to 75 percent of maximum heart rate with occasional all-out efforts, such as a sprint session or intense workout once a week.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived an existence dependent on burning fat, not carbohydrates, and cavewomen didn’t attend hot yoga classes. If you eat more than 150 carbohydrates per day and you are not an athlete, it is likely that your body and brain are dependent on glucose for fuel. If you attend hot yoga classes daily or run for an hour daily, you are likely on the hamster wheel of sugar-burning.

When we exercise above 75 percent of our maximum heart rates, we start to burn glucose (sugar), and the body can only store about 200 to 300 grams of glucose in our organs. Therefore, if you are an avid daily runner or chronically exercise above 75 percent of your maximum heart rate, you are regularly depleting your glucose reserves. This process ignites cravings, which leads you to eat more sugar, which ignites the production of insulin, which ignites fat storage.

In contrast, when we exercise between 55 percent and 75 percent of our maximum heart rates, we are primarily burning fat (which is usually the intention of the exerciser to begin with). Sprinting once or twice a week and going above 75 percent of our max heart rate is healthy in small doses, while going all out on a daily basis can be harmful and counter-intuitive to health goals.

Photo credit: Sandis Grandovskis via Flickr

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Elle Russ

Elle is a certified paleo/primal coach who is passionate about spreading the ancestral health message and educating others on how to live a happy, healthy life...with ease. Learn more at

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