What Everybody Ought to Know About the Paleo Diet

caveman with tablet

Ah, the good ole’ days. Somewhere between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago (aka the Paleolithic period), people lived as hunter-gatherers—plucking berries from bushes, digging for tubers, stalking mammals for miles and miles, learning to fish, and scavenging meat, fat and organs wherever and whenever possible. Sounds delightful, right? Kidding aside, the diet (and lifestyle) of our ancestors did offer some advantages. Modernly coined the “Paleo diet” or the “Caveman diet,” this ancient way of eating has become a popular nutrition trend. But what is the Paleo diet, and should everybody simply eat more like a “caveman?” Do you just eat tons of meat (mostly in drumstick form)? Are there any health drawbacks?

Before you pursue the Paleo diet, here’s some information worth gathering:

salmon and avocadoWhat is the Paleo diet anyway?

The Paleo diet encourages consuming the same foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate: fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and nuts. While current Paleo proponents do not hunt and gather for the majority of their dietary needs, they do routinely avoid certain foods, such as dairy or processed grains of any kind (as humans didn’t invent these foods until after the Paleolithic period). That means no milk, cheese, lentils, beans, peas and other legumes (including peanuts). Other things Paleo enthusiasts keep off the menu include refined sugar or artificial sweeteners (honey is advocated as a sweetener), refined vegetable oils (e.g., canola), salt and processed foods. Alcohol is also frowned upon.

healthy lifestyle signWhat’s the theory behind the Paleo diet?

Generally speaking, the Paleo diet is based on the theory that our digestive systems weren’t equipped to handle refined sugars, starchy carbs, grains, legumes and dairy products (all things that are readily found in most diets today). As a result, chronic disease incidence has risen and our waistlines have grown. In the 1970s, a gastroenterologist first hypothesized a solution: eat things that aren’t farmed, canned, sugared, refined, fried or otherwise homogenized. The thinking is that because our ancestors didn’t suffer from many of the dietary-related health issues we’re dealing with now, we might be able to sidestep these issues by adhering to Stone Age-like eating.

paleo mealPaleo Diet Food List: What Can You Eat?

  • Meats (e.g., poultry, turkey, steak, bacon…sweet, sweet bacon); grass-fed meats are preferable
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Fresh fruits (organic is preferred)
  • Fresh vegetables (organic is preferred)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Healthy oils (e.g., olive, coconut, walnut, flaxseed)
  • Raw honey (in limited amounts for sweetening)

milk jug and cowWhat Can’t You Eat on the Paleo Diet?

  • Dairy products (some Paleo groups say it’s okay to use butter and heavy cream if raw, full-fat or fermented)
  • Cereal grains (e.g., barley, wheat, rye, oats)
  • Legumes (including peanuts)
  • Refined sugar or artificial sweeteners
  • Potatoes (sweet potatoes are okay)
  • Processed foods
  • Salty foods
  • Refined vegetable oils (e.g., canola oil, margarine, sunflower oil)

If you follow the Paleo diet, you should also forgo soft drinks and all packaged juices (including fruit juices). Alcoholic beverages are not on any published Paleo diet list; however, if you’re going to drink alcohol, go for something that comes from fermented fruit and water it down. Remember, most beer is made from grain (barley), and alcohol is also high in sugar.

Check out this handy Paleo diet food list for more information. Already pro-Paleo, but feel like you’re in a rut regarding what to eat? Check out Paleo Magazine’s Best Paleo Recipes on the Web.

examples of good fatsWhat are the pros and cons of the Paleo diet?

So how do you know if the Paleo diet is right for you? First, as with any diet, it’s best to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist before digging in. Second, we’ve compiled some pros and cons to help with your decision-making:

Pro: put down the processed foods

Most nutritionists would agree that the Paleo diet is right about one thing: putting down processed foods. Processed food includes anything modified from its raw state through various means of preservation. Examples include white bread, artificial cheeses, certain cold cuts and packaged meats, prepackaged meals, potato chips, and sugar-filled, boxed cereals. Processed foods provide less protein, fiber and other nutrients when compared to whole foods, and some are packaged with added sodium and preservatives that may increase your risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, as well as certain cancers. (Note: According to the Harvard School of Public Health, almost 75 percent of the average American’s sodium intake [almost double of what’s considered ideal] comes from commercially prepared foods.

With all of this said, this diet also eliminates grains, dairy and legumes, and depending on the type of grains, dairy and legumes you eat, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. For instance, beans and whole grains contain a lot of fiber, and low-fat milk is rich in calcium and vitamin D (key to bone health).

Con: it’ll cost you

Following this diet can be expensive, as it encourages purchasing organic fruits and veggies, as well as grass-fed meats. Inexpensive (not to mention healthy) non-meat protein sources, like soy and beans, are off limits on the Paleo diet. Like peanut butter? Peanuts are a no-no, too, and while almond butter is tasty and nutritious, it can cost up to $13 per jar.

Pro: more fruits and vegetables

The Paleo diet is all about eating fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meat, just as our ancestors did. To limit exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals that didn’t exist in the Paleolithic period, you should, however, choose grass-fed and organic varieties whenever feasible.

Con: be prepared to plan ahead

Paleo dieters should plan to plan ahead, as well as for added prep time and mental resolve. For example, going out to eat isn’t as simple as you might think. You’ll have to consider things like, “what type of oil was my chicken cooked in?” or “were any of the items in my salad processed in any way (e.g., canned or prepackaged)?

Pro: keep moving 

Because your ancestors were pretty big on moving around, the Paleo diet advocates for plenty of exercise. Surviving in the Stone Age meant a constant on-the-go lifestyle, and thus, burning a lot of calories. And as it turns out, using food to stay on the move isn’t such a bad idea today either. For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, as well as doing strength-training exercises at least twice each week.

Con: too much meat

According to experts, our ancestors enjoyed a one-to-one ratio from calories from meats to produce. Because you have to eat a lot of salad to get the same amount of calories in a steak, Paleo dieters should consume mostly fruits and veggies. But many Paleo dabblers don’t realize this and often eat too much meat. Eating too much protein and not enough carbohydrates can cause kidney damage and boost your risk of osteoporosis. A lot of today’s meats are high in saturated fat when compared to the leaner meats of the Stone Age, so that could raise your risk of heart disease, too. When eating meat, you should strive for leaner cuts, and choose healthier options like chicken, turkey and fish.

With respect to vegetarians or vegans, they’re pretty much out of luck, as the diet still places emphasis on meat and fish.

Pro: support

One huge plus of the Paleo diet isn’t about nutrition. It’s about the support Paleo enthusiasts provide one another. There are many online community forums, Facebook pages, and Meetup groups filled with people who are living Paleo, and are eager to share insights, advice and support. Here are a few sources just to give you a taste: Caveman Forum, Paleo Hacks, and The Paleo Diet.

Con: The science isn’t quite there yet

The health benefits of the Paleo diet have yet to be proven, particularly on a large scale. Just because our ancestors didn’t suffer from some of the chronic diseases we suffer from today (or at least not nearly as often), doesn’t mean what they ate is the sole reason why. For instance, most Americans eat a lot of fast food, which isn’t exactly good for you, and yet, we as a whole live three times longer than our Paleolithic ancestors.

weight loss scaleDoes the Paleo Diet Really Help With Weight Loss?

Yes, it can, as forgoing unhealthy starches and grains, processed foods, sugars and more will likely lead to a trimmer waistline. However, the diet can be tough to follow long term due to its limitations and restrictions. Overall, a diet rich in lean protein and plant-based foods can make you feel full longer, help you maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and encourage weight loss. Eliminating processed and high-salt foods can also be good for people who have or want to avoid high blood pressure, too.

Keep in mind: weight loss isn’t the sole aim of this diet. It’s designed to be followed as a lifestyle. Going on and off the Paleo diet (as with other yo-yo dieting) can lead to big weight swings, and actually slow your metabolism and cause you to put on pounds.