What Is The Paleo Diet
The paleo diet is a dietary approach based around foods similar to those eaten by early humans during the paleolithic era, dating from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Other names for the paleo diet include paleolithic diet, stone age diet, hunter-gatherer diet and caveman diet.
The underlying theory of this dietary approach is that the typical western diet is a major contributor to the rise of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. Eating in a way that more closely aligns with what early humans ate will help prevent these conditions and allow us to function more optimally.
The diet is designed to resemble what our human hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago before the advent of widespread agriculture and farming. Farming and agriculture changed the way people ate, establishing dairy, grains and legumes as additional staples in the human diet. This relatively late and rapid change in diet, according to the hypothesis, outpaced the body’s ability to adapt.
Proponents of this dietary approach claim that our genetics and anatomy have changed little since the stone age, and the human body is genetically mismatched to the typical modern diet. It is this mismatch that contributes to the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune disorders today. Eating in a way that resembles what our ancestors ate is more aligned with our genetics and optimal for good health. They claim it can reduce inflammation, increase energy, help with weight loss, stabilise blood sugar, and reduce chronic disease risk.
So What Did Our Ancestors Eat?
Paleolithic humans thrived on various diets depending on their geographical location and the food available in different seasons. Scientific evidence shows that some ate low-carb diets high in animal foods, while others followed a more plant-based high-carbohydrate diet. Although it’s impossible to know exactly what human ancestors ate in different parts of the world, there is no doubt their diets consisted of natural whole-foods.
They consumed only what they could hunt and gather, consisting mainly of wild vegetation, game, and fish, with little fruit or sugar. Foods such as grains, legumes and dairy products only became common in the human diet after the emergence of farming and agriculture.
Foods You Can Eat on the Paleo Diet
A simple way to think about what you can eat on a paleo diet is; If your ancestors could hunt or gather it, it is allowed.
The basics are meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, healthy fats and oils.
Let’s take a further look.
Meat & Seafood
Most meat and seafood fits on a paleo diet. Meat is an excellent source of lean protein, the building block of all cells and tissues. Protein also helps keep you full.
Eating grass-fed meat is recommended. Paleo diet enthusiasts point out that agriculture was not widely practised in paleolithic times, so any meat consumed would have come from pasture feeding animals. Grass-fed meat is typically leaner than meat from grain-fed animals and contains more omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats reduce inflammation in the body and protect your heart.
Sourcing chicken and other poultry raised without added steroids, hormones, or antibiotics are best. Likewise, choosing wild, sustainably-caught seafood over farm-raised will generally be better both for you and the environment.
Watch out for any marinated and cured meats that may contain added sugar or other undesirable ingredients.
Processed meats, such as deli meats and processed bacon and ham, are not true paleo foods. These meats did not exist in our paleo ancestors’ diets and often contain sodium nitrates and other unnatural preservatives.
Common meat and seafood choices include:
- Lean cuts of beef, pork, and poultry, preferably grass-fed, organic, or free-range selections.
- Game meats such as venison and kangaroo.
- Fish and seafood such as salmon, trout, tuna, prawns, shellfish, etc. Choose wild-caught if you can.
- Organ meats such as liver and kidneys. These can be a great source of vitamins and minerals. Again, look for grass-fed where possible.
- Many paleo followers also love their bacon. Whether bacon is paleo or not is sometimes debated. However, any bacon you do include should have no nitrates or nitrites and be free from added sugar, so be careful where you source it.
Eggs are a staple on the paleo diet. They are high in protein, healthy fats, B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also affordable and easy to prepare in many ways. Free-range eggs are best as they generally have a higher omega-3 content than eggs from chickens raised in cages.
Fruits & Vegetables
There is little argument over the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. They are packed full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. Sourcing organically grown produce whenever possible is best to limit any unwanted toxin and pesticide intake.
Many of the vegetables consumed by early humans resemble the green, leafy, fibrous vegetables we eat today, like lettuce, spinach, kale and broccoli. These vegetables are low-starch and low on the glycemic index.
Vegetables not consumed in amounts like they are today include starchy vegetables like potatoes, and corn, which is a grain. Depending on the version of paleo you’re following, it may not include starchy vegetables, and some higher sugar fruits like bananas may also be ruled out.
You can consume frozen vegetables without added sauce on a paleo diet for their ease of use. However, canned vegetables are not considered paleo due to their high sodium content and the presence of other preservatives.
The majority of fruit consumption during the Paleolithic era consisted of small berries when they were in season. Berries are lower in sugar and higher in antioxidants than other sweet fruits. Higher sugar fruits such as bananas and melon are generally not considered true paleo foods. However, many people who follow a paleo lifestyle consume them in moderation. Low-sugar fruits like avocadoes are considered paleo and can be a good source of healthy fats.
Examples of fresh produce to eat on a paleo diet:
- Non-starchy Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, cabbage, pumpkin, brussels sprouts, capsicum, onions, etc. (these should make up the bulk of your vegetable intake)
- Tubers and root vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, etc. (these should be eaten in moderation, potatoes may be excluded entirely depending on the version of paleo you are following)
- Fruits: Apples, berries, pears, avocadoes, bananas, melons, citrus fruits, stone fruits, tomatoes etc. You should include fruit in moderation because of its high sugar content.
Nuts & Seeds
It’s believed that humans consumed nuts and seeds minimally during the Paleolithic era. However, they are often consumed by paleo diet followers because they contain healthy fats, fibre, and protein. Nuts and seeds are also low in carbohydrates and high in energy, making them a great addition to a paleo diet.
Nut and seed butters are not proper paleo foods because they are processed but are often included in a paleo diet. Keep in mind that peanuts and peanut butter are categorized as legumes and are not considered Paleo.
Examples of paleo nuts & seeds
- Almonds, Cashews, Pistachios, Walnuts, Macadamia nuts, Pecans, Hazelnuts, Pine nuts, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), Chia seeds, Sunflower seeds, Flax seeds
Certain oils are a great source of healthy fats on a paleo diet; however, not all oils are created equal. When cooking, it is ideal to use oils or fats with a high smoke point like avocado oil, butter or ghee. Beef tallow or duck fat can also be suitable to use for cooking.
Avoid any refined vegetable oils; this is good advice no matter what diet you’re on. Oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and other hydrogenated oils are highly manufactured and add unwanted chemicals and toxins to the body.
Examples of paleo oils
- Olive oil, Walnut oil, Flaxseed oil, Macadamia oil, Avocado oil, Coconut oil
When eating paleo, the key thing to remember is that you want to base your diet on unprocessed, whole foods. Vegetables and fruit should make up the bulk of your diet. Try to choose grass-fed, pasture-raised meats and organic produce wherever possible. If not, make sure to select the least-processed option.
Herbs and spices
Most individual herbs and spices are suitable on a paleo diet. Herbs and spices are a great way to add flavour to your food and many also provide some health benefits. Be mindful that some herb and spice mixes may contain unwanted preservatives or other ingredients such as sugar, maltodextrin, MSG, wheat or soy.
So now that you know what you can eat on a paleo diet, more important is what you’re not allowed to eat.
Foods You Can’t Eat on a Paleo Diet.
When following the paleo diet, you’ll cut out most processed foods. You will also need to cut out all grains, legumes, and dairy. A simple way to think about foods not allowed on this diet is; If it was made in a factory, don’t eat it.
Keep in mind that a few versions of the paleo diet exist, some less strict than others. While strict paleo rules out dairy products and legumes, some allow small amounts of dairy and legumes such as peanuts.
Avoid these foods and ingredients:
- Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup: soft drinks, fruit juices, table sugar, candy, pastries, ice cream and many other processed foods.
- Grains: Includes breads, cereals, pastas, corn, wheat, rice, rye, barley, spelt, etc.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, etc. Some also include peanuts.
- Some vegetable oils: Soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil and others.
- Trans fats: Found in margarine and various processed foods. Usually referred to as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.
- Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, cyclamates, saccharin, acesulfame potassium. Use natural sweeteners instead.
- Highly processed foods: Cereals, protein bars, chips or boxed snacks, desserts, etc. If it comes in a packet, it probably shouldn’t be included.
- Processed and cured meats: deli meats, hot dogs and bacon.
Depending on how strict you want to be with the paleo diet, many followers also omit:
- Dairy: Avoid most dairy, especially low-fat (some paleo versions do include full-fat dairy like butter and cheese, and small amounts of milk).
- Starchy vegetables: such as potatoes, pumpkin.
- High sugar fruits such as banana and melon.
Let’s take a further look at some of the reasoning behind excluding these products.
Grains are a product of modern agriculture, are high in carbohydrates, and can spike your blood sugar. Many grains are calorie-dense and nutrient-deficient, and we tend to overeat them. Grains also often contain different compounds and proteins like gluten, lectins and phytates. Paleo proponents claim these compounds cause inflammation and block other nutrients from being absorbed into the body.
Gluten is a protein found in things like rye, wheat, and barley. It is now believed that a significant portion of our population may be gluten-intolerant. Those who are gluten intolerant can develop a variety of medical conditions from consuming gluten.
Lectins are natural toxins in grains that defend against consumption and can cause disturbances and inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
Phytates or Phytic acid can bind to essential minerals and nutrients like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. This binding can remove them from our bodies or make it harder for the body to absorb.
Legumes belong to a large family of plants with a seed or pod and includes all beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy and foods like tofu. Legumes are not allowed on paleo because of their high content of lectins and phytic acid. The carbohydrates found in beans and grains also raise insulin levels in the body.
Excess sugar consumption is one of the main issues with modern diets that the Paleo diet tries to address. Sugar, especially in large amounts, is toxic to the body and is linked with a host of mental and physical issues. A wealth of evidence exists, showing that many lifestyle diseases can be reversed or reduced by cutting out sugar and other processed foods.
Processed foods are often full of refined sugars, salt, refined vegetable oils and artificial sweeteners. It’s fair to say that our ancestors didn’t eat foods like this. There is little argument in the scientific community that refined sugars and excess salt contribute to obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Human consumption of cow’s milk and other dairy products coincides with the agricultural revolution. Many experts agree that we started consuming milk only about 10,000 years ago. Hence, paleo followers believe our bodies are not designed for massive dairy consumption.
Dairy is one of the most common food allergies, with many adults having a sensitivity. According to some estimates, about 65% of the world’s population do not produce lactase, the enzyme required to breakdown lactose in milk or dairy products. When these people consume milk or dairy products, it may cause bloating, gas, stomach discomfort and even indigestion.
Strict paleo followers will say no to all sweeteners. However, you can use stevia and honey in moderation for adding to baked goods or other items that need a sweet touch. Some people also use dates.
What Are Some of the Pros and Cons of Following a Paleo Diet?
One big positive of the paleo diet is that it improves your health by eliminating most of the sugar and processed foods with little nutritional value and excess calories. Any diet that eliminates these foods will go a long way to lowering your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
The paleo diet also emphasises consuming plenty of vegetables and fruits packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and fibre, that promote optimal health.
Although paleo is not primarily a weight loss diet, its focus on lean protein, vegetables and fruits, over calorie-rich, nutrient-poor processed foods can contribute to weight loss. These foods will fill you up faster, meaning you will generally eat less. Because you are restricting food groups, your calorie intake will also tend to be lower, which will also help with weight loss.
It can be simple to follow. You eat acceptable foods and avoid those not considered paleo. There is no weighing of food or counting calories as long as you are eating the right foods.
Plenty of resources
The paleo diet has become very popular over the years. You won’t have any trouble finding available resources of paleo-friendly recipes both online and in print.
It can be difficult to maintain
The paleo diet is a restrictive diet that eliminates entire food groups such as grains, legumes and dairy. This can be hard to maintain, especially over the long term.
It can be expensive
Fresh meat, fish, and produce are often more expensive than processed versions such as frozen or canned products. Likewise, because proponents of the diet recommend eating organically grown foods and grass-fed meats, following it properly may cost more than a standard diet.
Not suitable for plant-based eaters
With a big emphasis on meat and fish, the paleo diet is practically impossible to follow when following a plant-based diet. Excellent vegetarian protein sources such as beans and other legumes are not allowed.
Because the diet relies heavily on fresh foods, it may require more time to plan, prepare and cook meals. It may be challenging for those with busy lifestyles or those less experienced with cooking. It may also require frequent label reading in restaurants and supermarkets to make sure your food choices don’t contain unwanted ingredients.
Potential nutrient deficiencies
Some experts highlight potential nutrient deficiencies, such as calcium and vitamin D, when following this diet over the long term.
What Are Some of the Dietary Concerns?
While proponents of the paleo diet advocate cutting out grains, legumes and dairy, this has caused controversy among many experts and scientists. Despite what paleo followers believe, these foods are considered healthy by many. They can be good sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Nutrition evidence is regularly reviewed and scrutinised by organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the National Health and Medical Research Council to develop healthy eating guidelines. Whole grains and legumes are generally associated with reduced risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer by both of these groups. There is also a significant amount of nutrition research linking high consumption of red meat, especially processed meats, to conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
The paleo diet can be a healthy one when done right and focusing on nutrient-dense whole foods. However, many people, when following this diet, tend to focus more on animal proteins and less on fresh produce. In this case, there is a risk of consuming too much saturated fat and too little fibre and essential micronutrients.
When cutting out fibre sources such as whole grains and legumes, most people will need to make a concerted effort to meet the recommended daily intake of fibre. Vegetables and fruits contain fibre, but not as much as grains and legumes, so it can be a lot harder to meet the recommended intake of 25-30g a day. They are also a great source of essential vitamins and minerals. Focusing on different colours and varieties of fruits and vegetables will help people following this diet to get all their essential nutrients and provide the most health benefits.
What Does Science Say About the Paleo Diet?
Research suggests that the health claims made by proponents of the paleo diet have some merit. Studies comparing the paleo diet to others, such as the Mediterranean diet and Diabetes diet, found that paleo lead to more significant short-term improvements in chronic disease risk factors.
Improvements such as weight loss, glucose tolerance, blood pressure control, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and appetite control were more pronounced in those following a paleo diet over the short term. However, these studies had small sample sizes and were of short duration. While these studies suggest that a paleo diet may have greater benefits over traditional diets, further research is needed to understand the long-term health benefits and possible risks of a paleo diet.
Many experts point out that there is not enough evidence at present on the paleo diet’s health benefits, especially its long-term effects and whether the eating approach is totally healthy and without risk. There is currently not enough evidence showing that you’ll see more benefits over the long-term than if you followed another healthy diet including grains, legumes, and dairy such as a Mediterranean or plant-based diet.
Critiques of the paleo diet hypothesis
Some experts don’t agree with the paleo diet’s underlying hypothesis, suggesting that it oversimplifies the story of human evolution in response to dietary changes. These experts argue that the evolution of human nutritional needs is more complex than just a transition to agriculture and should take into account the following:
- Variations in diet based on geography, climate and seasonal food availability would have shaped the evolution of nutritional needs.
- Some archaeological research shows that human diets may have included wild grains as much as 30,000 years ago, well before the advent of agriculture.
- Genetic research highlights that evolutionary changes continued after the Paleolithic era. These include diet-related changes such as an increase in the genes related to the breakdown of dietary starches.
- It is hard to know exactly what foods existed in the paleolithic era, and modern-day fruits and vegetables likely bear little resemblance to prehistoric wild versions.
Some Tips For Following a Paleo Diet
Load up on vegetables
Don’t use the paleo diet as an excuse to eat only meat and animal products. Consuming enough nutrient rich vegetables will help to make up for any nutrients you are losing from your diet by removing grains and legumes.
Make small changes
When looking at following a paleo diet, one thing to consider is how extreme you want to take it. It may be overwhelming and challenging to restrict various food groups all at once. Try small incremental changes instead.
Completely changing everything at once will make sticking to this diet a lot harder. Making some gradual changes can make the process a lot easier and will likely lead to better adherence over the long term.
Modified paleo diets
The paleo community, and the diet itself, have evolved over the years. Several versions of the paleo diet now exist. Some of them allow more modern foods that are considered healthy such as some full-fat dairy and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Rather than seeing paleo as a strict set of rules that you must follow, You can use it as a template for your diet and add other healthy foods that agree with your body.
Learn to read labels
If you want to avoid the ingredients that aren’t allowed on a paleo diet, you’ll need to read ingredient lists on packaged foods. Anything you can’t pronounce or that comes with a number next to it is probably not compatible with a paleo diet.
Plan your shopping and cooking
You’ll need to stock up on the allowed foods, and you’ll be cooking a lot of things from scratch, so plan for kitchen time.
Make a list when going shopping. A good idea is to stick to the perimeter of your supermarket when shopping there. This is where you’ll find most of the paleo-approved foods such as meat, vegetables, fruit and frozen products. Farmer’s markets can also be an excellent place to source fresh, locally grown organic produce.
Get rid of the temptation
Following paleo properly can be challenging, especially at first. Removing any foods or products from your house that will tempt you to stray from your diet will help make the transition easier.
On the whole, the paleo diet is not a bad choice if done right. If you cut out processed foods and sugary drinks, swapping them for more fruits, vegetables and unprocessed meat, you will likely see some health benefits. Regardless of how you feel about grains, it is a no-brainer that eating more natural whole foods and less processed foods will be better for you.
Whether adopting paleo or any other diet, consider your objectives. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to prevent diseases? Do you want the energy to lead an active life? Do you want to eliminate everything harmful from your diet? Answering these questions will help you decide how strict you want to be.
If you can make a few small changes here and there, you will start to see some progress. If you can apply all the rules of the paleo diet, you will likely see some pretty solid results.
If you are interested in following a paleo diet but don’t want to be so strict, you don’t have to be all in with your approach. Consider adopting some eating patterns from paleo and skipping the ones that don’t work for you. Use it as a starting point of a healthy diet but add other food items such as some dairy, whole grains or legumes if they agree with you.
Experiment and evaluate for yourself. Remember that everyone is different, and no diet will be completely suitable for every person.
AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: I am not a medical practitioner or a dietitian. The information in this blog should be viewed as educational only.