Primal vs. Paleo: Which Is the Better Diet?

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If you’re going to eat like someone from the Stone Age, is there a better way to do it?
paleolithic painting

Photo Modified: Flickr / Arian Zwegers CC BY 4.0

Primal vs. Paleo: Which Is the Better Diet?

paleolithic painting

Photo Modified: Flickr / Arian Zwegers / CC BY 4.0

 Paleo has been so well-received by health and fitness communities that you can find a wide range of foodstuffs labeled as paleo-friendly. We recently reviewed one such paleo-friendly snack, protein bars by RXBAR, and found them to be not only nutritionally sound but altogether quite delicious. This goes to show that just because these diets are ancient doesn’t mean that they don't include delicious foods.

Click here for our best paleo-friendly recipes.

The primal lifestyle can be attributed to The Primal Blueprint, a guideline to living like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago. This guideline is based on the idea that we are in control of how our genes express themselves if we provide them with the proper environment. Food, activity, rest, and sunlight are all part of the edicts guiding followers of the primal lifestyle, and they’re encouraged to avoid stress and partake in both physical and intellectual expression. By doing so, our genes can express themselves in a way that discourages modern ailments from taking over. Paleo dieters are basing their food choices on a list prescribed by Dr. Loren Cordain in The Paleo Diet. This diet is also supposed to serve as a remedy for common afflictions experienced by many modern humans.

Can Cavemen Imbibe? With a Note on Gluten and Sugar

Can Cavemen Imbibe? With a Note on Gluten and Sugar

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Paleo and primal dieters are supposed to completely eliminate gluten. They can, however, enjoy alcohol in moderation. While gluten-free alcohol is preferred, a moderate amount of any alcohol seems to fit into both diets. Like gluten, sugar is also a no-go for paleo- and primal-dieters, making it important that drinks be made with virtually sugarless mixers. Everyone's body can benefit from this approach to cocktail-making, seeing as many sugary cocktail ingredients can make you feel like dirt.

Dairy: A Paleo “No” and a Primal “Sometimes”

Dairy: A Paleo “No” and a Primal “Sometimes”

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Some paleo followers make an exception for grass-fed butter, but while on a paleo diet, all dairy products are supposed to be off limits. Milk made the earliest humans sick, and experts estimate that humans couldn’t digest milk until about 7,500 years ago. Primal-dieters can enjoy dairy every now and again, but it must be raw and fermented (such as probiotic-rich kefir).

Everyone Should Eat Vegetables (Excluding Corn)

Everyone Should Eat Vegetables (Excluding Corn)

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Both diets require the consumption of heaping piles of vegetables. Many vegetables are labeled as superfoods, and eating as much as them as possible will help introduce an incredible amount of valuable, calorie-sparse nutrients to your diet. While some people think that GMO foods like drought-tolerant corn can help save the world, corn itself is considered unhealthy and unacceptable on primal and paleo diet plans. Why? It’s low in nutrients, often genetically modified, and high in phytic acid.

Fitness (Featuring Slosh Tubes)

Fitness (Featuring Slosh Tubes)

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The primal lifestyle encourages increasing our muscle mass alongside (and in order to) retain(ing) the vitality of our organs. One way to do so in an incredibly primal fashion is to build a slosh tube. Carrying these wobbly tubes (usually made of PVC pipe) in varying fashions mimics the act of relocating a fresh kill, and it fits into the primal pillar of lifting heavy things. Those leading the primal lifestyle are also encouraged to run very quickly every once in a while (think of high intensity interval training here), but the majority of movement is supposed to be done slowly, mimicking the pace at which humans foraged, scouted, and gathered thousands of years ago. While many members of the CrossFit community follow a paleo lifestyle, paleo guidelines seem to be more diet-based and less lifestyle-oriented.

Legumes Are a Dividing Foodstuff

Legumes Are a Dividing Foodstuff

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Paleo Leap lists plenty of reasons why beans and legumes aren’t allowed on a paleo diet. Basically, it comes down to nutrient deficiencies inspired by legume-based diets. Primal-dieters are allowed the occasional intake of legumes. If hummus changed your life and you can’t imagine living without it, you may want to choose primal over paleo.

Limiting Eggs

Limiting Eggs

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While you probably don’t know everything about eggs, we’re sure that you can imagine one of our Stone Age ancestors capitalizing on a feast by sneaking up to a nest and pilfering an egg or two. Many people on the paleo diet limit their egg intake because pre-agricultural humans would have only been able to enjoy eggs seasonally. Paleo-dieters, we’ve got a tip: Try one of our 7 Paleo Breakfast Recipes if you’re looking for a yummy way to start your day. Primal-dieters, however, enjoy unlimited access to these delicious, nutritious breakfast foodstuffs.

Processed Foods Need Not Apply

Processed Foods Need Not Apply

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Want to be more scared than you would be with a perturbed, hungry velociraptor chasing you down? Try this out: More than half of the American diet is “ultra-processed foods,” meaning that, generally, most Americans eat trash-quality foodstuffs. Scary, huh? Both paleo and primal forbid processed foods. There were no multicolored chocolate-coated candies thousands of years ago.

Relaxing in a Primal Fashion

Relaxing in a Primal Fashion

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Paleo-dieters have no instructions on how to properly rest. Primal-followers, however, are instructed to invoke the body’s natural relaxation response in order to cut back on things like stress and to improve inflammatory conditions and chronic pain. Ways to tap into your natural mode of relaxing include yoga, breathing exercises, tai chi, and more. Here are the Best and Worst Foods for a Yoga Lifestyle as told by modern humans, but be warned: Not all of them fit into the parameters set by these ancient modes of eating. In addition to yoga and breathing exercises, sleep is prescribed by The Primal Blueprint in large quantities.

So What, Soy?

So What, Soy?

Photo Modified: Flickr / United Soybean Board / CC BY 4.0

Soy made the list of our 8 Most Genetically Modified Crops. With this in mind, soybeans and soy products are avoided on a paleo diet — soy is a legume, after all. Primal-dieters can enjoy soybeans, but they should eat the organic kind (does it get trendier-sounding than “organic edamame?”). Primal folks can also enjoy fermented soy products like miso and tempeh.

Sunlight’s Role

Sunlight’s Role

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Primal women and men are encouraged to get out of their cave (which is probably an office building) and embrace the sun frequently. The sun provides our bodies with vitamin D, a vitamin that our ancestors couldn’t easily obtain from food. Paleo guidelines include no mention of the sun.

What About Saturated Fats?

What About Saturated Fats?

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In the battle of whether or not fatty meats are healthy, paleo and primal are split. Paleo-followers are supposed to avoid saturated fats and limit their intake of fattier meats but can enjoy lean cuts of meat without much reserve. Primal, on the other hand, allows for saturated fats to be enjoyed freely. The strictest paleo-dieters avoid some fats considered healthy (read: coconut oil), while primal followers can have them. More and more science shows that saturated fats aren’t that bad, and, often, paleo-followers will sneak in a bit more fatty grass-fed beef than a true Paleolithic human would have had access to. When it comes to bacon, many paleo-dieters swear by the stuff, making an exception for it fairly frequently.