What Is The Paleo Diet?

A look at the benefits and potential risks of the paleo diet, plus what foods to eat and avoid. So you can decide if this trendy diet is the right one for you...

What Is The Paleo Diet?
8 min. read 2/9/2022, 6:00 PM

Every few years there's a new dieting method that becomes widely popular to the point it's hard to escape. The paleo diet is one of them. Unlike other fad diets, the Paleolithic diet has seemed to stick around for the long run, and maybe for good reason...

The paleo diet is also known as the caveman diet and the Stone Age Diet because it essentially mimics what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era. That's nearly 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago! So, knowing that you can already tell that your food list is going to be limited.

So, why would someone want to follow a diet like this? Are the other benefits besides weight loss? Well, let us give you the facts on the paleo diet so you can decide if it's the right diet for you and your goals...

Why would someone want to follow a paleo diet?

The main reason the paleo diet became trendy was because of the weight loss benefits. So most people want to follow this diet for weight loss purposes, but there's a little more to the paleo diet than just that...

The main goal of a paleo diet is to return to the way of eating as our hunter-gather ancestors did. The claim is that the modern diet and our sedentary lifestyle have played a major contributing role in obesity, heart diseases, and diabetes. By eliminating foods that emerged from farming practices you'll automatically eliminate high-fat and processed foods with little to no nutritional value, thus promoting weight loss while helping you build healthy eating habits! It also helps to increase your intake of whole foods which are packed with more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. So, since the diet is nutrient-dense, it has the following potential health benefits:

  • Weight management, or weight loss.
  • Improved cholesterol balance.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Promotes healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Improved satiety, meaning you'll be full for longer.

What does the research say?

There are a handful of randomized controlled trials that compare the Paleo diet with other similar popular diet plans, like the Mediterranean diet, but there doesn't seem to be concrete scientific evidence that it helps fight off chronic diseases. However, not all hope is lost. The studies that have been conducted, although short-term, support some of the benefits the diet claims to provide.

One particular randomized controlled trial showed the paleo diet to produce greater short-term benefits that include some of the benefits listed above - weight loss, reduced waist circumference, improved cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity, and decreased blood pressure.[1] A larger study that was conducted over a period of two years, followed 70 women with obesity who were placed on either a paleo diet or a Nordic Nutrition Recommendation diet. The diets are fairly similar, they both prioritize whole foods, except the NNR diet has a slightly higher percentage of carbohydrates due to allowing low-fat dairy products and whole grains. Both groups decreased in fat mass at 6 and 24 months, but the paleo diet produced greater fat loss at 6 months and not at 24 months. The group following the paleo diet also experienced a decrease in triglyceride levels more significantly than the NNR group.[2]

As you can see, research does show positive short-term effects of following a paleo diet, but there are not enough long-term studies to see the long-term effects of this eating approach.

What to eat on a paleo diet

In its purest form, you're only supposed to eat foods that cavemen did, but the eating plans can vary. Some paleo diet plans are stricter, while others allow for more leeway. Either way, the basic guideline to follow is to load up on whole foods.

Here is a list of the best paleo-friendly foods:

  • Meat: This includes chicken, beef, tuna, pork, turkey, and game animals (quail, venison, bison). If you can, get grass-fed, organic, or free-range selections for leaner cuts.
  • Seafood: Cod, salmon, trout, haddock, shrimp, shellfish, and more. If you can, choose wild-caught seafood over farm-caught because it contains more omega-3 which is a healthy fat that is linked to several heart-healthy benefits.
  • Eggs: Aim for free-range, pasture-raised, or omega-3 enriched eggs.
  • Fruit: Apples, strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, mango, figs, oranges, pears, and more.
  • Vegetables: Asparagus, broccoli, kale, onions, peppers, carrots, spinach, Brussell sprouts, and more. Some paleo diets restrict starchy vegetables, but some allow sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and other tubers.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more.
  • Healthy fats and oils: Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil.

You basically want to stick to foods that are as minimally processed as possible, but there's a bit of leeway if your cravings kick in... If you want to indulge a little, enjoy a glass of high-quality red wine, it's high in antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients. Want something sweet? Choose dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content! High-quality dark chocolate also contains beneficial antioxidants and nutrients.

What to avoid

What to eat on the paleo diet basically involves eating unprocessed foods, or anything that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. So, any foods that were not easily available way back in the day are off-limits in this diet. This includes almost every processed food you can think of, including dairy products.

Here is a list of non-paleo foods you should avoid:

  • Dairy products: Milk, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, and butter.
  • Grains: This includes cereal grains, crackers, rice, pasta, bread, and beer. Even whole grains are off-limit since they weren't around when cavemen were.
  • Legumes: All legumes are off-limits, including, beans, lentils, peas, tofu, soy foods, and even peanuts (yes, peanuts are a legume).
  • Starchy vegetables: Strict paleo diets don't allow for any starchy vegetables including potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and more.
  • Highly processed foods: This includes anything that contains refined sugars (this even includes honey), high in sodium, refined vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners. And anything labeled "low-fat" or "diet".
  • Processed and cured meats: Bacon, deli meats, and hot dogs.
  • Sugary soft drinks and fruit juices: Stick to water, coffee, and tea!

However, remember, that some paleo diets are more strict than others. Some may allow dairy products, peanuts, and starchy vegetables. This makes it easier for you to follow a paleo meal plan that better suits your lifestyle and goals.

Potential pitfalls

Despite the benefits of following a paleo diet, there are some cons you should be aware of before deciding if this is the diet for you...

  • It can get expensive: The paleo diet requires you to eat like our ancestors, right? Our ancestors hunted for their food, meaning it wasn't farmed, and because of this, it's recommended to buy fresh produce, grass-fed, organic, free-range, and wild-caught foods. Fresh meats, fish, and produce (especially organic) tends to be more expensive than other processed versions people may buy for convenience, like frozen or canned foods.
  • Requires a lot of time: Following any diet plan requires a significant amount of time planning meals, but this diet doesn't make it any easier. The rules of the diet make it difficult for you to go out and enjoy take-out or brunch at your favorite spot. This means you'll need to make a big-time commitment to planning and preparing your home-cooked meals.
  • Excludes important food groups: This is the biggest pitfall, and potential risk factor, of following a paleo diet... it excludes food groups with important nutrients. Since you have to avoid dairy and whole grains, you may increase the risk of a deficiency in calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins. A short-term, small study found that healthy participants had a 50% decrease in the recommended calcium intake level after following a paleo diet for three weeks.[3]

Should you follow a paleo eating plan?

The answer is up to you! Based on research and the rules surrounding the diet, this method of eating is best short-term. So, if weight loss is your main goal or if you simply want to clean up your eating habits to live a healthier lifestyle, then give it a try! Just go about it carefully and prepare beforehand, meaning make a list of paleo foods to buy, plan your meals, and take a vitamin D, calcium, or B vitamin supplement if needed or recommended by your doctor. And most importantly, make your paleo diet fun! Look for paleo recipes to try at home, maybe you'll discover something new that you love, or have your family or friends join you on the diet!

In summary, the paleo diet can help you achieve your weight loss goals and establish better and healthier eating habits. Just remember that it's best to follow this eating plan for the short-term, rather than the long-term… so you don’t have to say goodbye to your favorite foods forever! And don't forget to work out regularly! If your main purpose for following this diet is to achieve a fitness goal, then working out is a must.

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