Medically reviewed by Kelly Van Gorden, MS, RD, CD
What Is the Paleo Diet?
You might have heard about the paleo diet and may be curious about whether or not it is a good option. Before jumping onto the paleo train, it’s important to ask yourself: What is the paleo diet, and is it right for me? It’s not just about fads but whether what you eat is going to churn out positive results for your health. Certain foods and nutrients won’t work well for some people’s genetic makeup while they work wonders for others. Let’s learn more about the paleo diet so you can make your own decisions about what to put into your body.
What Is the Paleo Diet, Exactly?
The paleo diet is a nutrition plan that focuses on eating in a similar style to how early humans ate during the Paleolithic era. Also known as the “caveman” or “paleolithic” diet, it is modeled after what people may have eaten from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago and includes foods that could have been hunted or gathered in nature.
Dietitians hold different views over whether modern humans should eat foods similar to what prehistoric humans were eating. Historians know that many prehistoric humans experienced nutritional deficiencies. Today, we have many options available that can help us avoid nutritional deficiencies. The key benefit of the paleo diet that most dietitians agree on is that it reduces consumption of processed foods, which have been linked to many modern health problems.
The paleo diet typically limits the kinds of foods that became more common once farming began. Below, discover which foods are recommended by the paleo diet and how to determine if this approach to food is right for you.
What to Eat While on the Paleo Diet
Switching to a paleo diet means eating—or cooking with—whole foods in their most natural form. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are very common ingredients for snacks and meals. Individuals on the paleo diet also eat a lot of lean meats, eggs, and fish. It is worth noting that legumes are not a part of the paleo diet, so keeping up with a vegetarian or vegan meal plan is more challenging on the paleo diet—it would become very difficult to consume enough nuts and seeds to reach daily recommended protein intake levels.
What NOT to Eat While on the Paleo Diet
Some foods you will want to avoid when adhering to the paleo diet are the following:
- Dairy products – Including cheese, and yogurt, and butter, as prehistoric humans did not milk cows
- Grains – Such as oats, wheat, rice, and barley
- Legumes – Including lentils, beans, peanuts, chickpeas, soy, and peas
- Refined sugar – Refined sugar comes from a process unavailable to prehistoric humans, so the only sugar that individuals on the paleo diet consume comes from nature (fruits, raw honey, etc.)
- Potatoes – This particular food has caused a bit of a divide within the paleo community, but the general consensus is that white potatoes are not paleo but sweet potatoes are
- Highly processed foods – Many processed foods include a variety of ingredients that are “banned” from the paleo diet
- Alcohol – Hardcore adopters of the paleo diet will argue that because alcohol is a toxin and highly processed, it does not belong on the list of paleo-approved foods. However, others allow themselves the occasional drink—as long as it is not grain alcohol, as grains are also restricted on the paleo diet. Non-grain alcohols include wine (made from grapes), tequila (made from agave), and rum (made from cane sugar).
What Are Some Benefits of the Paleo Diet?
Consider some of the promising benefits of the paleo diet—from improved blood pressure to heart health and beyond.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Coronary heart disease is unfortunately the leading cause of death in the U.S., with stroke coming in third. Hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure, is the main modifiable risk factor for coronary heart disease and affects as many as 43 million Americans today.1 These conditions, as well as congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, and end-stage renal disease, are thought to be reduced, in part, by eating certain foods.
Researchers have studied the connection between potassium and lower blood pressure, for example, and believe that these healthful effects could stem from higher amounts of fruits and vegetables—food groups that people on the paleo diet depend on. Eating more of these wholesome foods tends to lead to an increase in dietary consumption of essential vitamins, such as vitamins C, A, and E.
And, because paleo-style eating discourages excess salt, blood pressure may be reduced in some individuals. In fact, people who eat reduced sodium on any diet may see results in as little as 12 weeks.
Doctors are beginning to focus on the fact that avoiding processed or very refined foods has helped some people with chronic inflammatory problems. Aside from the physical discomfort inflammation causes, continuous bouts of inflammation can lead to major diseases—including arthritis, cancer, diabetes, depression, and even Alzheimer's.
Therefore, healthcare professionals are excited to study more about the benefits that can come from avoiding some of these unhealthy ingredients while on the paleo diet. This meal plan could have the potential to significantly benefit people suffering from chronic inflammation and help them cut down on the drugs they are taking for a more holistic and less caustic approach.
Improves Insulin Sensitivity
Studies have shown that people on a paleolithic diet experience improved glycemic control. When cutting out processed foods, those that follow the paleo diet are less likely to be binging on extra sugary foods.
Foods that contain excess sugars can increase inflammation. This, in turn, can affect insulin sensitivity, which could increase your risk of diabetes.2 Whether you follow specific food guidelines or not, reducing your sugar intake may help your body regulate insulin better and lower your chances of becoming diabetic.
What Are Some Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet?
Just as it’s a good idea to explore the possible benefits of taking on the paleo diet, it’s important to also consider the potential negatives so you can make an informed decision.
Lacking Certain Ingredients—and Thus, Nutrition
Keep in mind that people on the paleo diet are not eating any grains, dairy products, or legumes. This could put your health at a disadvantage because you may be missing out on specific nutrients and the value those nutrients could have offered your bodily systems. For instance, cutting out dairy could mean you’re getting less calcium and vitamin D in your meals.3 These nutrients are crucial to bone health, muscle contractions, key muscle function, and supporting your immune system.
In the same vein, a lack of grains and legumes means fewer critical sources of fiber and vitamins like B, magnesium, iron, and selenium. These are important in regulating the digestive system, cell growth and development, and more.
High Intake of Saturated Fats
Saturated fats have been connected with an increase in the incidence of heart disease. These “bad” fats are often obtained through meat consumption. Since people typically eat more meat while on the paleo diet, it is important to choose lean meats if following this nutrition style. The meat that our ancestors ate contained significantly less fat than the meat commonly found in our markets. Saturated fats, especially those in red meat, can have negative metabolic effects due to the high caloric content—as in, there could be up to twice as many calories per ounce as carbs.
Despite the research of long-term effects of full-fat foods pointing to less-than-ideal outcomes for our health, we do not have to stay away from them completely. A lot of it has to do with moderation.4 If you control your portion sizes of saturated fats, space out the times you eat them, and adjust the way you cook, you can still enjoy meat, dairy, and more. Another major component is that the way a person's body reacts to fats has to do with their genetic makeup. Someone whose genes indicate they would do better on a low-fat diet may not do so well on the paleo diet, for instance.
Try the following substitutes to avoid the potentially more harmful side effects of the paleo diet:
- Instead of red meats, try fish or skinless chicken for a few days each week.
- Use olive or avocado oil rather than some of the heavier oils for your food prep and toppings.
- Eating more fruits, vegetables, and other foods containing low amounts of—or no—saturated fat can help keep you at your healthiest while trying your hand at this trend.
Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?
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