The paleo diet is an eating plan based on the foods humans might have consumed during the Paleolithic Era, which dates back approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
A modern paleo diet includes fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds – foods that early humans could obtain through hunting and gathering. It excludes foods that became more common with the advent of small-scale farming around 10,000 years ago, such as grains, legumes, and dairy products.
Other names for the paleo diet include the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, hunter-gatherer diet, and caveman diet.
The primary aim of the paleo diet is to align with the dietary patterns of early humans. It is grounded in the belief that our genes are ill-suited for modern diets that evolved from farming practices.
The introduction of farming made foods like grains, legumes, and dairy more readily available, changing the diets of people and the animals they consumed. The paleo diet theory posits that these dietary shifts outpaced the human body’s ability to adapt, potentially contributing to modern health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Why You Might Choose a Paleo Diet
People may opt for a paleo diet for various reasons, including:
- Weight Management: To lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
- Reducing Cardiovascular Risk: To lower the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular issues.
Details of a Paleo Diet The specific recommendations for a paleo diet can vary among different sources. However, in general, paleo diets adhere to the following principles:
What to Eat
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean meats, particularly grass-fed animals or wild game
- Fish, especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, and albacore tuna
- Oils from fruits and nuts, such as olive oil or walnut oil
What to Avoid
- Grains like wheat, oats, and barley
- Legumes, including beans, lentils, and peanuts
- Dairy products like milk and cheese
- Refined and added sugar
- Added salt
- Starchy vegetables such as corn, jicama, peas, and white potatoes
- Highly processed foods like chips or cookies
A Sample Menu for a Day on the Paleo Diet
Here’s an example of what you might eat during a typical day following a paleo diet:
- Breakfast: Broiled salmon and cantaloupe.
- Lunch: Salad made with romaine lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado, walnuts, and lemon juice dressing.
- Dinner: Lean beef sirloin tip roast, steamed broccoli, salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, onions, almonds, and lemon juice dressing, followed by strawberries for dessert.
- Snacks: An orange, carrot sticks, or celery sticks.
Results In general, a paleo diet shares several features with recommended healthy diets, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and the avoidance of processed foods. However, research on paleo diets is limited compared to studies on more diverse diets.
Most studies on paleo diets involve small sample sizes and short durations, making long-term effects uncertain. The definitions of the paleo diet also vary between studies, further complicating conclusions.
Short-term studies suggest that a paleo diet might help with:
- Weight loss
- Blood pressure reduction
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Lower triglyceride levels
A large study focused on self-reported long-term dietary patterns in young adults from Spain found that the paleo diet was associated with lower cardiovascular risk factors. This reduction was primarily due to avoiding highly processed foods and consuming ample fruits and vegetables.
However, more extended trials involving larger groups are required to understand the long-term health benefits and potential risks associated with the paleo diet fully.
Questions About Paleo Diets Some individuals question the idea that the human body did not adapt to foods introduced with farming, and others express concerns about the exclusion of certain foods in the paleo diet.
The primary concern regarding paleo diets is the absence of whole grains and legumes, which are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, proteins, and other essential nutrients. Additionally, low-fat dairy products provide protein, calcium, vitamins, and other vital nutrients. Following a paleo diet may result in insufficient intake of these nutrients.
Whole grains, legumes, and dairy products are generally more affordable and accessible than foods like wild game, grass-fed animals, and nuts. Consequently, a paleo diet may be less financially viable for some individuals, leading to unintentional nutrient deficiencies.
The long-term risks associated with paleo diets are not yet fully understood. Data from various studies on popular diets suggest that the Mediterranean diet is the only one offering numerous benefits without potential harmful effects. The Mediterranean diet includes fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy products.
Additionally, the potential benefits of a paleo diet may not outweigh those of other healthy diets. A long-term study of self-reported dietary patterns indicated that closely adhering to either a paleo diet or a Mediterranean diet resulted in similar reductions in cardiovascular risk factors.
Questions About the Paleo Diet Theory
Some experts argue that the paleo diet’s foundational concept is incomplete. Arguments for a more nuanced understanding of how human nutritional needs have evolved include:
- Various factors, not just farming, influenced changes in human dietary needs. Early human diets were diverse due to geographical, climatic, and food availability differences.
- Archaeological evidence suggests that humans used tools to grind grains 30,000 years ago, well before farming practices were established. Microfossil studies also reveal that Paleolithic and Neanderthal diets included wild grains.
- Genetic research indicates ongoing evolutionary changes beyond the Paleolithic era, impacting genes related to starch and lactose digestion.
The Bottom Line A paleo diet may assist with weight management and potentially offer other health benefits. However, there is a lack of long-term clinical studies assessing the diet’s advantages and potential drawbacks.
Achieving similar health benefits might be possible through regular exercise and a balanced, nutritious diet that incorporates plenty of fruits and vegetables.
It’s worth noting that the paleo diet isn’t just for health-conscious individuals; many celebrities also choose to embrace this eating plan to maintain their fitness and well-being. Their endorsement of the paleo diet has contributed to its popularity in recent years.