The Paleo Eating Basics: An Interview with Free the Animal Creator Richard Nikoley

by Robert Fure on February 29, 2012

via Banksy,

Depending on who you ask or what you type into Google, you’ll get a wide variety of answers to the question “What is paleo?” In its most simple form, the answer is that it is a way of eating that attempts to mimic how we believe early (paleolithic) man ate. While there is some debate over what and how he would have eaten, we can rest assured he wasn’t deep fat frying food, making bread, consuming doughnuts, chowing down on Snickers, scarfing down Cheerios, or doing any of the things that require some level of technology to go from “not food” to “food.”

In more complex answers, people will tell you it is either the greatest revolutionary step forward in nutrition (by stepping backwards) or an unsafe fad because it eliminates an entire food group!

I generally fall somewhere in the middle ground. I don’t practice a full paleo diet, as on the daily I consume diet soda and whey protein, while I also indulge once a week on decidedly non-paleo foods like pizza and will have a bit of candy here and there.

That said, I don’t believe paleo is unhealthy or necessarily a fad diet (all diets are a ‘fad’ to some degree, as they wane and surge with popularity). I’ve given up bread and most carbohydrates 6 days of the week and have no ill effects, just a smaller waist line.

However, since I am not a paleo eating expert, I decided to find and share more information with everyone. Richard Nikoley runs the popular paleo eating blog Free the Animal and was kind enough to shed some light on the paleo phenomenon.

So tell us a little about who you are.

I’m an entrepreneur who managed to get my company to the point where I could step away and have someone else run it. I subsequently began doing things like trading options, investing in real estate right at the height of the market, and other things that did not work out well, caused a lot of stress, and ill health. In 2007 I was about 60 pounds overweight and had dangerously high blood pressure. That’s when I began to take charge, along with blogging about it at

You can read my bio here:

Could you describe the paleo diet in a nutshell?

It’s an approach to eating that contemplates human evolution prior to the advent of agriculture.

  1. It’s mainly proscriptive. Eliminate grains, legumes, processed food, excessive sugar, vegetable & seed oils and in the strictest forms, dairy as well.
  2. In terms of prescriptive: Eat meat, organ meats, fish, shellfish, fowl, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

And why is this healthier?

Most people, including myself, experience fat loss if overweight and improvement or elimination of health problems like high blood pressure, high blood glucose, allergies, autoimmune conditions, digestive issues and so on.

It’s hypothesized that agriculture brought changes to our diet that are too rapid for us to adapt to genetically and then on top of that, modern massive industrial processing has introduced many substances into our food supply that are completely foreign to our bodies and in many cases, cannot even reasonably be called food.

How long have you been practicing a paleo diet and how has your health/life improved from it?

Since 2007. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, I lost 60 pounds, normalized my blood pressure, and got off allergy medication as well as medication for acid reflux (GERD). Beyond that, I experience very nice levels of well being, my clothes fit, I sleep well, am alert when awake, and so on.

What role does exercise play in your approach to fitness?

I like brief and intense. So I go to the gym an average of twice per week for about 30 minutes or so each and try to do compound movements pushing, pulling, lifting and pressing heavy things. When I turned 50 last year is when I had worked up from dead lifts at about 180 pounds to 325 for 5 reps. I’m pretty satisfied with that level and don’t intend to try to push much beyond it unless it just comes natural to do so.

What kind of workouts do you focus on?

Beyond what I mentioned above, I have just a few core exercises: dead lift, overhead press, squat or leg press, bench press (keeping it reasonably light for rotator cuff sake – like a 10-12 rep range), and weighted chin-ups.

What is your favorite paleo breakfast? Dinner?

I never get tired of simple fried eggs, bacon, and fruit for breakfast. For dinner, just about nothing beats a grilled ribeye steak and some sort of vegetable, typically roasted, or a starch like potato or sweet potato. Contrary to what some folks claim about paleo, it’s not necessarily low carb. Humans migrated to all corners of the globe and in some environments fruits and starches are more plentiful than game. There are healthful hunter-gatherers, such as the Kitavans, who eat very high carbohydrate intakes. Essentially, it comes down to you figuring out for yourself over time what sort of mix of foods are going to work best for you, be it low, moderate or high carb.

If you go out to eat, what do you order?

For breakfast it’s almost always bacon or a burger patty and eggs, with fruit instead of hash browns. For lunch and dinner, I try to stick with grilled meats or grilled/broiled fish, so as to avoid things they might use in the kitchen like vegetable/seed oils I like to avoid. I’ll usually have vegetables along with that and a side of butter, or I might have a baked potato with butter and sour cream. I don’t do a lot of salads because I just don’t trust what’s in the dressings.

In terms of volume, or say a paleo food pyramid, where should make up the bulk of the paleo diet?

I think that’s highly individual but for me, being of northern European genetic stock, a highish fat diet seems to work best, so 60-70% calories coming from fat (coconut oil, coconut milk, butter, lard, the fats in the animal products I consume, and extra-virgin olive oil, nuts) and the rest is protein and carbs, with no particular ratios, i.e., some days might be low protein and high carb and other days (or meals) the reverse.

Does paleo put a limit on fruit consumed? It seems to share a lot in common with low carb diets, but those try to limit exposure to the sweetest fruits.

Not in my view, and especially if one eats the whole fruit such that fiber is a limiting factor in consumption for most people. Then again, at about 17g of sugar per pop if I recall, I’d not advocate pigging out on dates. And don’t juice. You might reasonably enjoy 2 or even three oranges, but it’s unlikely you’ll eat the dozen it takes to make a tall glass of OJ. Back in the day, people were sensible about this sort of thing; a breakfast juice cup [was] 4 ounces or so.

In short, if you eat plenty of natural fats and proteins as I’ve talked about I suspect that for most people fruit consumption will fall right in line on average. And if you do feel like you overindulged one day, then skip fruit for a few days and don’t sweat it.

I’ve always thought paleo would make the most sense as a meat first diet, followed by vegetables, and then last fruit – after all, in much of the world fruit is seasonal and without farming, fairly sparse, is this thinking logical or … ?

Yes, probably for most people. Some genetic stock evolved in more tropical regions where fruit was available year round but that’s probably the exception. So one strategy might be to focus [on] fruit in the summer and fall, and vegetables and starches (potato, sweet potato) in the winter and spring.

Should people limit calories on a paleo diet? It seems a lot of people want to say “Oh you can eat as much of this as you want…”

I’ve never counted except in some short term experiments. I think the primary goal ought to be to reset your hunger mechanism. This starts by eating appropriately in the first place. It’s well known that most people spontaneously reduce caloric intake on a paleo diet, so, in a sense, they’re eating both fewer calories and as much as they want.

Another thing I have used to great effect in reseting my own hunger mechanism is the use of intermittent fasting.

What do you think about the rise of “paleo recipes” that must certainly stretch the boundaries a little. I’m sure we can forgive some seasonings, but did paleo man really make paleo brownies or cookies? It seems like people are always looking to take a good idea and find a way to cheat it a bit and then, oh well, it doesn’t quite work as well as everyone says!

Yes, I’m a bit troubled by the “candy cigarette” phenomena, to quote Dr. Kurt Harris. I’m sure some paleo pancakes now and then are fine, but it seems that for a lot of folks, their main focus is on replacing sweets and baked goods with paleo versions. I’ve done plenty of recipes of various sorts, but they have always been focused on a meal, such as spaghetti using spaghetti squash, or lasagna using egg plant for the layers, or “meatza,” using ground beef for the “crust.” Things like that.

I’m also concerned with what I perceive as an inordinate amount of almond flour or meal that lots of folks use. That’s pretty concentrated (going back to the idea of fruit juice) and as such, has super high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats that might oxidize under cooking conditions. I no longer use almond meal. If I want some nuts, I grab a handful of nuts & eat them.

Do you eat on a regular schedule, say three meals a day and snacks or something similar? Have you put thought into fasting periods or practice them? Some would argue a paleo man would have gone for stretches without meat, or without this or that, or without food in general for an extended period of time.

All of that. I’m a big time faster. Dinner is usually sometime in the 7-8pm range, but other than that, there’s almost never ay schedule. I might skip breakfast entirely and just go for meat & veggies at 12-2pm, or I might haver some breakfast, but almost never before 10am. I almost never snack. The most I’ll do is some nuts or fruit in the evening after dinner while taking in some TV.

My posts at free the animal on fasting, including working out fasted, are here:

Final thoughts on why someone should adopt a paleo lifestyle?

Chances are it’s going to work for you marvelously, as it has for thousands of others who read my blog and others. Give it a shot for 30 days, see how you feel.

Where can our readers learn more about you or paleo dieting?

I have recently published a book: Free the Animal: How to lose weight & fat on the paleo diet.

Also, there are about 3,000 posts and 45,000 comments on my blog,

Any upcoming plans, books, other releases?

Nothing solid yet. I am considering implementing a subscription-based forum but that’s not firm yet.



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