The Primal Diet is an eating pattern that’s high in protein and fat, low in carbs, and designed to closely resemble the presumed diet of early humans.
Like the paleo diet, the Primal Diet is based on the idea that Western dietary and lifestyle habits diverge too greatly from those of traditional hunter-gatherers.
Proponents of this diet claim that it improves weight, inflammation, brain fog, sleep, and heart and skin health. However, some people worry that the diet is overly restrictive and not realistic for everyone.
This article reviews the Primal Diet, explaining how it affects your health and whether it aids weight loss.
Diet review scorecard
- Overall score: 3.6
- Weight loss: 3.0
- Healthy eating: 4.0
- Sustainability: 4.0
- Whole body health: 5.0
- Nutrition quality: 5.0
- Evidence-based: 2.0
BOTTOM LINE: The Primal Diet’s emphasis on whole foods likely provides several benefits, including improved heart health. However, it is expensive and restricts certain food groups.
The 2009 book “The Primal Blueprint” was written by fitness writer and former endurance athlete Mark Sisson. It outlines the diet of the same name.
Like the paleo diet, the Primal Diet asserts that early humans had lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions due to differences in diet (
As a result, both diets are comprised largely of whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and poultry. They discourage grains, heavily processed foods, and refined oils.
Yet, the Primal Diet differs from paleo in its attribution of these health differences to overall lifestyle rather than diet alone. In fact, the Primal Diet includes recommendations for physical activity, mental stimulation, sleep, and exposure to nature and sunlight.
It also tends to be less restrictive than the paleo diet, allowing for moderate amounts of coffee, nightshade veggies, and raw or fermented whole fat dairy.
The Primal Diet is based on Mark Sisson’s book “The Primal Blueprint.” It claims to improve your health by aligning your diet and lifestyle with those of premodern humans.
Designed to improve overall health — not just support weight loss — the Primal Diet is meant to be a long-lasting lifestyle change.
Instead of having you count calories, the diet focuses on food quality.
It encourages whole foods while discouraging grains and processed foods. What’s more, the diet is generally high in fat and protein but low in carbs. In fact, Sisson recommends limiting carbs to fewer than 150 grams per day.
Some proponents also combine the Primal Diet with the keto diet, which is much lower in carbs — generally under 50 grams per day (
Furthermore, you’re supposed to avoid or limit your exposure to potential toxins in foods, including pesticides, herbicides, added sugars, and hydrogenated oils. As a result, organic and minimally processed foods are encouraged (
The lifestyle component of the diet is known as the Primal Blueprint Laws. These guidelines recommend getting plenty of sleep and sunlight, keeping your mind active by engaging in creative activities, and reducing sedentary time as much as possible.
Exercise tips include:
- at least 2 but ideally 3–5 hours of low intensity aerobic exercise per week, such as walking, hiking, swimming, yoga, or dancing
- lifting weights for 30–45 minutes, 2–3 times per week
- 6–8 short, intense sprint bursts several times per week (you can add interval training on a bicycle if you desire)
The Primal Diet involves a low carb eating plan consisting mostly of whole, organic foods and a lifestyle rubric for exercise, sleep, sunlight exposure, and mental health.
The Primal Diet promotes mostly whole foods, such as vegetables and meats, while limiting grains, sweets, and processed foods.
Foods to include
The bulk of your diet should comprise whole, unprocessed foods, such as:
- Vegetables: avocado, broccoli, cabbage, kale, zucchini, etc. (preferably organic)
- Fish and shellfish: salmon, halibut, trout, tilapia, shrimp, scallops, lobster, etc.
- Meat: bison, elk, and venison, plus grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, etc. (preferably organic)
- Poultry: chicken and turkey (preferably organic)
- Eggs: whole eggs and egg whites (preferably organic)
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamias, pine nuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and natural nut or seed butters
- Fruits: all fruits (preferably organic)
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, and lard
- Some milk alternatives: unsweetened almond, coconut, cashew, hemp, and flax milks
- Spices and herbs: basil, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, cilantro, sage, rosemary, etc.
Additionally, you may eat certain packaged foods like salad dressings that only include Primal-approved ingredients.
Foods you can eat in moderation
While the bulk of your diet should consist of the foods above, the Primal Diet allows several other foods that aren’t considered “primal.” These foods should only be eaten in moderation — and as long as they don’t cause you to exceed your daily carb goals.
- Coffee and tea: unsweetened coffee or tea (plain or with whole fat milk or creamer)
- Dairy: raw or organic full fat dairy, including unsweetened yogurt, kefir, full fat cream, and milk
- Legumes: soaked or sprouted lentils, edamame, dry roasted peanuts or peanut butter, and fermented whole soy products like tempeh
- Natural sweeteners: honey and real maple syrup
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
The Primal Diet also allows for occasional treats, often referred to as “sensible indulgences.”
- Alcohol: whiskey, scotch, brandy, cognac, light beer, and red or white wine
- Cheese: goat’s or sheep’s milk cheeses, Gouda, Cheddar, blue cheese, feta, etc. (preferably raw and grass-fed)
- Dark chocolate: 70% cocoa content or higher (preferably organic)
Foods to avoid
The Primal Diet limits these foods and ingredients:
- Sugar and high fructose corn syrup: soda, fruit juice, table sugar, candy, pastries, cake, cookies, milk chocolate, ice cream, etc.
- Grains: whole grains, refined grains, bread, spelt, rye, barley, pasta, muffins, pancakes, cereal, etc.
- Some vegetable oils: soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, etc.
- Trans fats and hydrogenated fats: margarine, shortening, and any foods containing partially hydrogenated oils
- Processed foods: chips, pretzels, crackers, convenience meals, frozen dinners, fast food, granola bars, etc.
- Artificial sweeteners: aspartame, cyclamates, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, etc.
Natural sugar substitutes, such as stevia and monk fruit, are considered better options than artificial sweeteners — but they’re not necessarily recommended.
The Primal Diet recommends whole foods like meat and vegetables alongside moderate amounts of organic, raw dairy. You should limit or avoid all grains, processed foods, processed oils, and high sugar foods and beverages.
Several aspects of the Primal Diet may support weight loss.
Dietary and lifestyle factors
The diet encourages regular physical activity and a high protein intake, both of which are associated with appetite regulation, weight loss, and fat loss (
Additionally, it limits processed and sugary beverages, which are often high in calories. In fact, observational studies consistently link regular intake of processed foods and sweetened beverages to an increased risk of obesity (
The Primal Diet hasn’t been studied specifically, but limited research suggests that the related paleo diet is promising for weight loss — at least in the short term.
A study in 70 postmenopausal women with obesity found those on the paleo diet lost 2.5 times more weight after 6 months than those on a low fat, high fiber diet (
While both groups regained some weight after 2 years, those on the paleo diet still lost about 1.6 times more weight overall (
Similarly, a review of 11 studies noted that individuals on the paleo diet lost an average of 8 pounds (3.5 kg) in studies lasting 2 weeks to 24 months (
Although these results are promising, more long-term, large-scale studies are needed.
Keep in mind that the Primal Diet differs from the paleo diet in certain regards, so its effect on weight loss may not align completely.
Given that the Primal Diet restricts processed foods while pushing whole foods and protein, as well as regular exercise, it may boost weight loss. However, more research is necessary.
The Primal Diet may benefit several aspects of your health.
May boost heart health
Limited research suggests that eating patterns like the paleo diet, such as the Primal Diet, may help reduce risk factors for heart disease — the leading cause of death worldwide (
Short-term studies reveal that the paleo diet may significantly improve HDL (good) cholesterol levels while reducing triglyceride, total cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
While the Primal Diet hasn’t been examined specifically, it may have similar benefits for heart health, as it’s similar to the paleo diet in its emphasis on whole, minimally processed foods (
All the same, more studies are needed.
May support blood sugar control
By reducing your carb intake and limiting high sugar foods, the Primal Diet may help people with type 2 diabetes manage blood sugar levels (
While no research currently exists on the Primal Diet, several studies show the paleo diet lowers blood sugar and levels of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) — a marker of blood sugar control — in adults with type 2 diabetes (
In a 12-week study, 32 adults with type 2 diabetes following the paleo diet experienced significant improvements in blood sugar levels (
Similarly, a small, 3-month study in 13 adults found that the paleo diet was more effective at lowering HbA1c levels than a traditional diabetes diet (
Nonetheless, a review of four studies noted that the paleo diet was no more effective at lowering fasting blood sugar and HbA1c levels than low fat, moderate carb diets like the Mediterranean diet (
Thus, more studies are needed to determine whether the Primal Diet is any more effective than other healthy diets that also emphasize whole foods over processed ones.
May manage stress levels
The Primal Diet’s focus on lifestyle factors, including physical activity and adequate sleep, may help alleviate stress.
Research demonstrates that regular physical activity and adequate sleep of at least 7 hours per night may reduce perceived levels of stress throughout the day (
Furthermore, regular exposure to sunlight and engagement in creative or social activities have also been associated with improvements in mood, plus reduced levels of stress and anxiety (
While more research is needed, the Primal Diet may benefit heart health, blood sugar control, and stress levels.
As the Primal Diet encourages individuals to buy primarily organic foods and grass-fed meats, it can be quite expensive.
Additionally, its emphasis on animal products, such as meat and eggs, and limitations on plant-based protein makes it difficult for vegans and vegetarians to follow.
While one of the major criticisms of the paleo diet is that it eliminates several nutritious food groups, the Primal Diet is less restrictive. It doesn’t restrict nightshade vegetables, includes moderate amounts of dairy, and even allows small amounts of certain legumes.
Still, the diet restricts your intake of whole grains, which are rich sources of fiber and essential nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and magnesium. That said, these can also be found in many other foods, including meat, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
In fact, many studies associate whole grain intake with a reduced risk of several chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and certain forms of cancer (
Finally, as with any restrictive diet, the Primal Diet can make dinner parties and dining out more difficult, as dishes may contain ingredients that you’re trying to avoid.
As the Primal Diet is expensive and heavy in animal products, it may be unrealistic for some people. It also bans certain healthy foods like whole grains, which are important sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Here’s a sample 3-day meal plan for the Primal Diet:
- Breakfast: eggs, spinach, and peppers cooked in coconut oil, plus coffee with a splash of cream
- Lunch: chicken salad with lettuce wraps, plus a side of mixed fruit
- Dinner: baked salmon topped with pesto and served with a side salad
- Breakfast: Primal no-grain “oatmeal” made from blended coconut flakes, almonds, pecans, and raw whole milk, topped with cinnamon and blueberries — plus green tea to drink
- Lunch: a large mixed green salad with tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, pine nuts, and a bison burger patty, drizzled with a homemade vinaigrette
- Dinner: roasted pork tenderloin with baked sweet potato and roasted Brussels sprouts
- Breakfast: veggies fried in a skillet with coconut oil, topped with two poached eggs — plus coffee with a splash of cream
- Lunch: a burrito bowl with cauliflower rice, grilled grass-fed steak, and roasted peppers and onions topped with guacamole and salsa
- Dinner: a bison burger with a lettuce wrap and roasted vegetables
While you can find recipes for Primal-Diet-approved snacks in Sisson’s book or online, nuts, fruits, and vegetables are all easy options.
This sample menu provides several hearty, low carb, fat-rich meals you can eat on the Primal Diet.
Said to be based on the diets and active lifestyles of early humans, the Primal Diet recommends eating mostly whole foods, eliminating processed foods, engaging in regular physical activity, and reducing stress levels.
While its supposed benefits haven’t been studied, research suggests that similar diets aid weight loss, heart health, blood sugar control, and mental health.
The Primal Diet is less restrictive than the comparable paleo diet, but it isn’t for everyone. It’s not only expensive but also limits carbs — even healthy options like whole grains — and may be difficult for vegetarians and vegans to follow.