What is the Difference between the Paleo Diet and the Atkins Diet?

The paleo diet – ie. the low carbohydrate hunter-gatherer diet consisting of primarily meat, eggs, veggies, nuts, seeds, and some fruit – is all the rage these days. People are loving it! They’re clearing their skin, curing their IBS, building muscle without even trying! Diabetics are getting off their insulin, and people are losing weight like mad!

I’ve personally been slowly transitioning into trying out the paleo diet, and I can now say that I am consistently eating ‘primal style’ (I use the words paleo and primal synonymously). As you know, I’m doing a candida cleanse right now, and it’s pretty well the same thing.

So far I’m loving it!

My acne prone skin is looking fantastic, the eczema on my hand is clearing up, I have plenty of energy, I’m advancing easily with my exercise, and best of all…. it’s very satisfying! I eat delicious food all day (that is generally full of fat), and it’s GOOD FOR ME. Amazing. And it’s really not as difficult to eat this way as I had imagined, once I just went ahead and tried it.

It’s not surprising that this way of eating seems to be really helping people feel great. Logically it makes perfect sense to me – we ate this way for thousands of years. Only in the last couple thousand years have we had access to agricultural foods like grains and beans, let alone processed food. If this way of eating was fundamentally bad for you, then humans never would have made it this far, since this is what we were eating for the majority of our existence.

Okay, great… but what about the Atkins Diet?

Remember the Atkins Diet? It was insanely popular in the early 2000s amongst people on the weight loss train. It’s also a low carbohydrate diet, and it seemed fantastic at first because people really did lose crazy amounts of weight. But then it turned out that many people ended up with some serious problemos, and now it’s actually touted as being one of the most unhealthy diets ever.

So what’s the difference between the Paleo and Atkins? They’re both low carbohydrate and the foods allowed on it are pretty similar. How could Paleo be SO healthy, yet Atkins so unhealthy?

Here’s why:

In the beginning stages of the Atkins Diet, very few carbohydrates are allowed (less than 50 grams per day), which leaves hardly any room for healing fruits or vegetables. So you’re basically left eating lots of meat and dairy products all day, which is very constipating and unhealthy if not balanced with alkalizing vegetables and plant foods.

While more carbohydrates are allowed later in the diet – which does allow more room for veg – the other problem is that there is no emphasis on quality of foods eaten. People are free to eat hormone and antibiotic laced meat, all sorts of pasteurized dairy products and cheeses, battery cage chicken eggs, damaged and trans fats, and preservative laden lunch meats. Plus there is no emphasis on quality of carbohydrates eaten – so for their small allotment of carbs, people are likely to to have a piece of scratchy toast instead of a plate of vegetables. In other words, processed foods are not excluded.

I also find that Atkins is very reliant on carb counting, calculating, and other things that most people can’t be bothered with long term. I think this is one of the biggest reasons the majority of Atkins Dieters end up back where they started.

This isn’t healthy.

On the other hand, paleo’s emphasis actually is not on meat and protein, and most dairy products aren’t included. The emphasis is actually on vegetables with small amounts of meat and plenty of good fats. Quality is also heavily emphasized in all aspects of the paleo diet – no processed food, no trans fats, and no hormone laden meat. It also isn’t dependent on counting or calculating anything – more carbohydrates are allowed because the idea is just to eat as much paleo food as you want until you’re satisfied and leave it at that. This means plenty of room for all that healthy non-starchy, low carb veg that Atkins doesn’t seem to notice!

The biggest difference is the mindset. Atkins tends to be a fad diet that people will go on with one goal in mind – to lose weight. That is why quality on the Atkins diet doesn’t seem to be important… they are achieving the end goal, without paying attention to what they had to do to get there. There will be consequences!

On the other hand, with the primal/paleo diet, the goal is actually to become as healthy as possible. It’s much more of a lifestyle than a diet because primal eaters tends to include the other areas of health in their life as well. It’s a well rounded holistic approach on exercise, sleep and stress reduction as much as the diet itself.

Of course, weight loss, decreased insulin load, and clear skin are just natural by-products of a healthy body. ♥

photo by Michelle Meilejohn

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  1. Sampson says

    The Paleo Diet (Diet in the original definition of the word meaning what you eat, not eating to lose weight) is also good in one other way that really convinced me to eat a Paleo-like Diet (keeping Growth Hormone levels up, the benefits of which are countless.) I say Paleo like because I still include some Paleo foods that depending on who you ask, they might not consider it fully Primal.

    Keeping insulin levels low helps keep GH up, but you also need an adequate amount of insulin to actually deliver GH to the muscles and body. Low-carb diets like Atkins keep insulin very low and so they’re pretty useless for increasing GH. I wouldn’t really classify the Paleo Diet as low-carb. More like moderate-carb. This moderate-carb level is better for sustaining GH levels in the body.

  2. Bruno says

    Can you give an example of a paleo day for you?
    I don’t know what happened last week, but I ate quite a lot of eggs and not that much vegetables and got acne around the chin. This is a sign of bad digestion. I was following bee’s candida diet (which is basically the paleo diet without fruit and with not a lot of nuts).

    I’m eating quinoa again now to clear this all up (it’s not that bad I went to the beach to speed everything up), but I’d like to know how you do it. I’m probably gonna cut out eggs and eat some more meat. I ate a chateaubriand last evening, I’m still daydreaming about the taste.

    • Tracy says

      I’m eating fruitless smoothies in the morning with avocados, nuts, greens and things, for lunch I eat leftovers of what I had for dinner, and for dinner I have like… some chicken or pork or something… some steamed vegetables or something…and some salad…. hahah…. yep. That’s about it. I will do blog posts and things about this in the future, I’m sure.

    • Jeffrey says

      Do you know by any chance what acne on the cheeks means? That’s where I usually get it if I do get any.

      • Bruno says

        Allergies, respiratory problems. Fortify your immune system by eating more meat, vegetables to get vitamin c, k and zinc. I found out brown rice helps me because of the magnesium. Watch out with vegetables that contain high amounts of vitamin A like carrots and sweet potatoes. Those are hard on the liver, though it’s not that big of a deal.

        A candida diet generally helps allergies out a lot. Probiotics with acidophilus and kefir and kimchee and others are superb supplements. I’ve been taking zinc for a while but I’ve noticed my acne doesn’t depend on it.

        I’ve always had acne only on my cheeks, and my only health concerns were allergies (I know now that I’m allergic to mold and grass pollen, but not to any food out there).

        If you want to know what part of the face corresponds with what health problem, check out face mapping on google. It’s very accurate for me (I was constipated due to eating 6 eggs daily without an adequate amount of fat and vegetables, got acne around my chin).

        • Jeffrey says

          My allergies have actually started acting up the last week or so because I’ve been out golfing a lot more. I’m trying not to take any medications but are there any other alternatives?
          I’m already taking probiotics and kombucha. I used to take milk kefir but once I heard about milk being a cause of acne I stopped taking it…

          • Bruno says

            Eating a lemon once in a while helps, but the best way is, like I said, following a rather strict candida diet (meat, vegetables, lemons, limes, eggs, fish, … Tracy talks about it here too). You can still eat quinoa or brown rice from time to time, but I would avoid nuts as they’re quite hard to digest (I got problems with it if I eat too much of them).

            Probiotics help but not THAT much, they take a while to really make a difference. Coconut oil helps digestion.

  3. Amy says

    I’ve been thinking a lot about a more paleo diet, and I’m not 100% sure where to begin. I get the basic concept, but I’m wondering if there’s a site or book that outlines the paleo diet that you found particularly helpful? Is quinoa allowed? I just discovered it and I’m in love.

    Oh and I wanted to say that I’ve been following your site now for almost 2 months and I am about 98% clear. Actually, I only break out now when I get stressed out to the max, or don’t get a good nights sleep a few nights in a row, or eat lots of sugary processed crap, or gluten (I’ve found I’m gluten intolerant after visiting an ND…I guess pain after eating isn’t normal haha). As I go along I find it takes a combination of those things, or a few days worth, to actually cause a breakout as opposed to an immediate effect. I’m still able to have tiny cheats here and there and enjoy life with friends and family. I’ve never felt better physically and emotionally and my skin has never been this clear. I think your site pretty much hits the source of acne for most people. If only more people read it! I swear I see someone out and about with a face full of acne and out of sympathy (since I’ve been there) it takes all my strength not to rush over and tell them to visit your site.

    • Sampson says

      thepaleodiet.com :)

      List of Paleo-friendly foods: http://altmed.creighton.edu/Paleodiet/Foodlist.html

      Quinoa is acceptable depending on which “sect” of Paleo you belong to. Quinoa is iffy because it’s not actually a real grain, it’s in the same family as beets (weird, right?)

      And Amy, although that might make things awkward for the other person maybe you should just slip them a little piece of paper that has the link to this website on it haha. 😛

      • Tracy says

        Haha… I guess I’m not in the Loren Cordain Paleo “sect” like that list… I prefer Mark Sisson’s primal sect in which fat is encouraged over lean protein. That’s really interesting about the quinoa… didn’t know it was related to the beet! I did know it was more like a seed than a grain though. I don’t think I plan to be crazy strict primal or anything… I dont see what’s wrong with little bits of things like quinoa or brown rice in moderation.

    • Tracy says

      Hi Amy! I would check out Mark Sisson’s blog http://www.marksdailyapple.com … he seems to be the godfather of the primal diet. You can also check out http://www.primaltoad.com … he’s a fellow acne sufferer who’s really into the primal lifestyle. I think quinoa is okay to include in small amounts, although some may say differently. It’s all about keeping your starchy carbs to a minimum.

      And that is so fantastic about your skin! I’m very pleased to hear that! And that makes me laugh about wanting to tell people in the street about my site… sometimes I feel the same way when I see a stranger with acne…. but then I think… uhh… that would be weird. I hate to say it, but I think I would probably get defensive if some random person tried to offer me acne advice! Just out of embarrassment mostly. But then I’d definitely check out their suggestion in secret :p

  4. magda says

    hi tracy! i love love love your blog! my problem is that i cant fight acne in any way! i do avoid the things im allergic to and i do follow a diet that is similar to paleo and i see no difference at all. my acne is still there and i have also lost a lot of weight.i m actually skinny now and i hate it! how can you not lose weight when on paleo?? my acne is also worse before period, so that is definetely a sign that is hormonal (high progesterone). any suggestions? i’m afraid that if i try the candida diet which is more strict i’ll lose even more weight. what do i do??

  5. RockingRedhead/Lily says

    I believe “paleo” is paleo diet WITHOUT dairy, and “primal” is paleo + “good” (raw, whole, grassfed, etc) dairy. But I’m not sure.

    I’m getting my wisdom teeth out in the end of july and the doctor is putting me on a course of antibiotics afterwards. Should I start eating fermented foods after the antibiotics? Or during? Also, what would be some good paleo-approved fermented foods? I’m afraid to try kefir because I’m worried the dairy will break me out. I’m thinking of making some homemade sauerkraut because the local grocery store doesn’t carry Bubbies. I have so far found that sticking close to the diet as outlined by Loren Cordain really helps my skin. I ate a bunch of snap peas at dinner a few days ago and am now breaking out :( and I haven’t broken out in like 2 weeks because I have been cheating extremely little.

    • Tracy says

      The primal seems to allow small amounts of dairy, but not lots. It’s not a regular part… the biggest difference seems to be that the primal emphasizes lots of good fats, including saturated animal fats… where as Loren Cordain goes for lean cuts of meat, etc.

      You can definitely eat probiotic foods while you’re on antibiotics… it will help… and especially ramp them up right afterward. Get some probiotic supplements too. Also… what’s the issue with snap peas that would cause you to break out? I thought peas in the pod, and green beans and things were allowed, since they’re ‘mostly pod’. Not that I really agree with being crazy strict about any diet, so … I don’t know… I’m just curious as to why you think it was snap peas that is causing your breakout?

  6. Amy says


    Thanks! I just peeked over to Mark’s and it looks good. I’ll look into it in more detail.

    And yes, I agree. I would die of embarassment if someone said something like that to me. It still doesn’t get rid of that small urge I have to spread the word haha. Good to know about qunioa!

    Magda: Just a few suggestions from someone who’s been there: I had (among other things) hormonal acne and irregular periods since puberty. I kept trying to get out and get some sunshine, but eventually (I live in the land of fog- Nova Scota) caved and got a vitamin d3 softgel supplement. I take 4000 IU daily for now, until it starts to get sunny here, and it regulated my cycle and helped my hormonal acne SO much. I also find if I dont get a good nights sleep my acne looked so much worse, and same goes for stress. I found for me it’s not 100% about diet, and those things really helped. Maybe they will help you too? Good luck :)

  7. magda says

    amy thanks so much for the reply! the thing is i dont think i have a vit d deficiency as i live in greece where is sunny most of the time (even in winter days) and i also dont have irregular periods. i just know its hormonal because my acne starts becoming worse from ovulation until my period hits.and then it takes ages to heal.i have measured my hormones in the past and it seems that i have high progesterone, which is rare (most women have high levels of androgens or oestrogens). i really dont know how to fix this imbalance. any ideas?

    • Tracy says

      Hi Magda! Thanks for the blog love…. unfortunately, I don’t know enough to say for sure about how to balance high progesterone specifically. But I agree with what Amy said, hormones are intricately connected and are healed holistically just like everything else… and diet isn’t the only thing that contributes to health. I don’t know how your sleep, exercise, and emotional health is, but it may be something to look at if diet is not giving you the results you want!

  8. says

    You are all headed in the right direction!! 😉

    If you read any books then be sure NOT to follow what the author says to a T. Once you pick up a different book you will discover some differences. Everyone lives a primal lifestyle different then the next person. You must still decide what is best for you.

    What am I talking about?

    Some eat no dairy, some eat little, some eat a lot. Some ditch potatoes while others say they are fine. Some include white rice since its a clean carb source with no antinutrients. Some eat some fruit while others limit it to just berries. Some don’t care about macronutrients while others do like its a religion. Some do this, some do that.

    Then there is the 80/20 rule… some dedicate one day to being a “cheat day” aka Tim Ferriss style (not many in the primal camp do this), some don’t worry about what their food was cooked in while eating out while some will ask the server 10+ questions and ask for certain demands. Some fast a lot and some don’t at all. Some will eat junk food once in a while and not care. Some will always eat peanut butter even though its not a primal food.

    Some drink alcohol while others don’t. More on alcohol… it seems as if MOST do but are EXTREMELY RESPONSIBLE about it as in the enjoy a drink or 2 on the weekend or during a special event. This is how I am. I drink a glass of wine during special events such as on Fathers Day this past Sunday.

    Read and educate yourself. Checkout my blog! Check out MDA, Robb Wolf, Free the Animal, Balanced Bites… there are DOZENS of awesome blogs out there! Actually, hundreds….

  9. says

    I found your blog while looking around for the differences between Paleo and Atkins but I do have to say you are quite mistaken about Atkins.

    I’m no expert, and Atkins isn’t perfect, but I don’t think it’s as bad as you make it out to be. It has a bad rap for the same reasons that saturated (good) fat has a bad rap. And now you know that that is false as well.

    Some things that jumped out at me in your post.
    -There is no dairy in the beginning of Atkins, it’s high in carbs.
    -Most everyone I know that is doing some form of Atkins does it with whole foods. So while Atkins himself may not have objected, today’s Atkins followers are much more conscious of these things. For example, I’ve been following Atkins for about 6 months and I do eat a lot of meat, but it’s grass-fed beef, farm raised eggs I get at the farmer’s market, many vegetables, also from the farmer’s market. Vegetables are very prominent on Atkins. Even in the induction period.
    -May many studies have been done about losing weight and Atkins is proven to be the easiest to stick with, and lose weight the quickest, so people keep the weight off. In fact, most of what I can figure out is that Paleo is basically the same thing as the final stage of Atkins, which is designed to be a lifestyle change, not simply a diet as you put it. Sadly, when he wrote the book in the 70s, nobody talked about lifestyle change, just diet, so that’s where he came from.
    -It’s true, fruits aren’t allowed in the beginning of Atkins, because they are high in sugar. And it seems a true Paleo diet would only eat fruit for 6 weeks a year when it was available in the Paleolithic era. But again, vegetables are encouraged. Toast is not however, so I’m not sure where you got that.
    – You are right about the carb counting. There is that. But after just a few months, I had a pretty good idea of how to eat without counting the carbs. But like Paleo, if one avoids sugar, pasta, starchy vegetables, and grains, you are going to be healthier by many factors.
    – On Atkins I eat until I’m satisfied as well. This comes from cutting out most of the carbs and processed foods. You simply don’t get hungry as often.
    – You say, “The emphasis is actually on vegetables with small amounts of meat and plenty of good fats” Remove the word ‘small’ and you just described Atkins.

    Having said all that. I’m all for Paleo. In fact, when I reach my desired fat % goal, or am getting close to it, I’ll be eating a Paleo diet. But for faster fat loss, Atkins is the way to go. Paleo is a long term healthy eating plan, Atkins is as well but with steps on how to lose weight when one is overweight. IMHO, the biggest detriment Atkins did is not emphasize that eating a high carb diet is bad news, even if you aren’t overweight. I’m not sure if Paleo does or not. I learned that lesson in spades from Gary Taubes’ books.

    Anyway, I think you at the right place in your eating, you just need to re-analyze Atkins and not accept the conventional wisdom, just like you don’t except it and follow Paleo.

    • Jeff says

      You’re right on. When I read about the Paleo diet I felt it was basically the Atkins diet with a slightly different perspective. But I do disagree with one thing you said about the Atkins diet — you said that Atkins didn’t object to processed foods, but the book I read back in the 90’s definitely indicated that he preferred you to eat healthy, non-processed foods. I remember joking that he basically wanted you to raise your own cows and other meat sources as well as have your own garden in your back yard.

    • Kim says

      I also wanted to mention, the latest Atkins book (2010) for Induction (1st phase) has you eating 20 gm NET carbs per day with 12 of those coming from the HUGE list of allowed veggies. Do you have any idea how much veggies you can eat for 12gm of net carbs? A LOT!

      Today’s Atkins is NOT the 70’s version where you just eat meat & butter.

      I have done Atkins-it works for me. I am researching Paleo.

      The main differences I see: no dairy in paleo, & higher quality leaner meats than Atkins.

      Atkins promotes whole foods as well.

  10. Artus says

    I wholly disagree with this author’s painting of the Atkins diet with such a wide brush. The prototypical low carb diet is extremely effective for weight loss, as well as keeping a number of serious health issues at bay. The state of ketosis Atkins brings the dieter to results is rapid, quality loss of fat, and avoids and often reverses the symptoms of Type II Diabetes, etc. The CLA found in the proteins most Atkins dieters has the same host of healthful issues that consuming them in a Paleo diet does.
    Where the author got it EXACTLY right is that the standard low carb diets make no mention of the disgusting, chemical-laden ingredients in much of what passes for food, particularly in the nitrates and other garbage found in processed meats, not to mention the preservatives in the dairy. This take is compounded by the offerings of Atkins various bake mixes, sweet treats, etc. It is an exaggeration to state that the problems associated with these negative ingredients outweigh the positives of losing excessive, unhealthy weight, particularly if the subject is going phase into a less intensive low carb diet once the weight loss goals are close to being met.
    The other issue this piece seed to willfully ignore is that fibrous vegetables can be eaten without restriction, provided the net carb count (total carbs minus fiber) is zero, or very close to it. Consuming most fruits, as they have a high sugar/carb count is severely restricted or completely disallowed during the induction phase, but most vitamins and minerals can be consumed up to and surpassing the RDA with the consumption of the permitted vegetables. The aforementioned fiber count of said veggies will also eliminate the alleged constipation problems the writer addressed.
    It seems that a marriage of the typical low carb, Atkins-style diet with a paleo focus would result in fast, quality weight loss, as well as addressing the results of years of poor diet. The health benefits of combining these approaches would see dangerous chemical compounds removed from the diet as well as quality weight loss from the ketogenic state entered into by a lack of sugary, simple carbs being consumed.

  11. Zahara says


    While I can see the many benefits and the logic behind the paleo diet – I must say that I beg to differ in my case. I’ve tried it, quite strictly, for more than 4 months and it just wasn’t working. I have a problem with eating animal products other than fish and eggs and some dairy – since my background is Indian, and I’m sure that I’m the first in a long line of vegetarian ancestors to eat red meat and chicken.

    I do love animal products, but apart from yogurt, fish and eggs, my body does not react well to anything else – even to the best grass fed beef and organic chickens I could find. My ancestors for the past several generations grew up eating lots of tropical fruits, several varieties of whole grains, legumes, lentils, beans, and vegetables and dairy. I suffered from mild acne and occasional bloating, so I experimented with the paleo diet, and I really wanted it to work for me, but it simply didn’t. So I had to experiment and trace my diet back to its roots and found that while our paleo ancestry is important, I believe that our recent ancestry also plays a key role. For me, the most success I’ve had from my diet is to simply cut out all the refined and processed foods out and stick to foods that closely resembel what my grandparents ate. If you come from a culture whose food traditions differ drastically from the paleo diet, I suggest it would be wise to consider whether it may or may not be suitable to your body type.

  12. Randy says

    Can you provide any credible resources to back your statement “But then it turned out that many people ended up with some serious problemos, and now it’s actually touted as being one of the most unhealthy diets ever.”

    I’ve done Atkins and read almost every book on it, but I what I’ve found is that most people that comment on it are just rehashing main stream media garbage. They really haven’t read or understood the main principles behind it.

    I don’t mean to slam your article, but I would like to read the resources from which you made your claims.


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