We’ve come a long way since the stone age, but some argue that our nutrition needs haven’t changed that much, so why should our diets?
It’s no secret modern technology has increased access to calories from heavily processed, convenient foods, playing a role in increased diet-related chronic disease, but is going back to our roots the answer?
Learn more about the popular paleo diet, how it works, and whether or not it’s worth trying for yourself.
What is Paleo?
Paleolithic or “paleo” eating is a fairly modern lifestyle approach based on the eating habits of our Paleolithic ancestors. It is also commonly referred to as the caveman diet or stone-age diet.
Supporters of this dietary approach believe that our DNA and basic nutrition needs have not changed much since the Paleolithic era, so our eating habits should not either. Thus, we should be consuming only foods that were available to our hunter-gatherer predecessors and avoid all modern processed foods.
This theory is rooted in the fact that modern-day diet-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease did not exist in the stone age. And it is clear that modern-day diets can strongly contribute to health concerns like high blood pressure and uncontrolled blood sugar. However, our ancestors only lived to be around 30 years old, so it’s hard to say whether or not their diet was sufficient for good long-term health.
Paleo Diet Rules
Paleo diets are centered around unprocessed foods (whole foods) available to cavemen and restrict nearly all modern-day foods, many of which traditional diets would still consider healthy options - like beans, legumes, and dairy.
Basically, if you were unable to acquire the food through hunting and gathering 2.5 million years ago, you shouldn’t be eating it today.
Foods you can eat on the paleo diet include:
- Grass-fed meats
- Sustainably-caught fish
- Free-range poultry
- Cage-free eggs
- Nuts and seeds
Foods that are restricted from paleo eating plans include:
- Conventionally raised meat, fish, and poultry
- Legumes - including peanuts, peanut butter, and soy-based foods
- Potatoes - with the exception of sweet potatoes
- Processed oils - with the exception of olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil
- Refined sugars
- Soft drinks and soda
- All other processed foods ingredients
Does the Paleo Diet Work?
While there are clear nutrition benefits to following a well-balanced paleo meal plan full of nutritious whole foods, there is no research suggesting that all modern foods are harmful to our health and need to be avoided.
Additionally, eliminating nutritious options like beans, legumes, whole grains, potatoes, and low-fat dairy might put you at a nutritional disadvantage since you are eliminating easy sources of essential vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D, thiamine, folate, niacin, and riboflavin.
Potential Benefits and Considerations
It can be easy to get lost in the debate around nutritional theories like why we should be eating like our ancestors when we really should be asking ourselves - does this style of eating provide any real advantages to our health and nutrition? And do you have to follow a strict paleo diet to reap these benefits?
Here’s what the science says:
Paleo Health Benefits
Because a paleo diet encourages higher intakes of fresh fruits and vegetables, heart-healthy nuts and seeds, fish, and lean meats and restricts foods high in added sugars, trans fats, and processed ingredients, it can be one way to improve nutrition intake and support health when included as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
However, the factors that make a paleo diet nutritious, are not radically different from what a generally healthy diet should look like.
Going paleo has been linked to improved heart health markers like reduced cholesterol and improved blood pressure, along with favorable impacts on blood sugar control.
However, these studies are extremely limited and far from conclusive - all of which only look at a sample size of 40 people or less and a short time period of fewer than six months (1,2,3,4).
Much more long term, peer-reviewed studies on larger sample sizes are needed to make any health claims around a paleolithic dietary approach for improved health.
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Paleo Diet for Weight Loss
While commonly used to promote weight loss, paleo diets are not required to be calorie-controlled or macro-balanced. In order to lose weight on paleo, portion control is essential.
Some smaller studies have linked paleo eating to improved weight management, but this has been a result of decreased overall calorie intake (5,6). There are no studies implying that eliminating paleo-restricted foods increases your ability to lose weight more effectively.
What we can take away from this limited research is similar to what we understand about improving dietary choices in general - eating more nutritious foods, especially diets high in fiber and protein, may result in improved energy levels and decreased appetite which in turn make reducing calorie intake feel easier (7,8). Paleo eating can support this with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and quality proteins to choose from.
In other words, the healthier you eat, the easier it becomes to control your portions because you are feeding your body the fuel it needs to thrive.
The advantages of paleo eating do not seem to outshine or outweigh the advantages of following any basic healthy diet, other than the fact that it is another way to assist people in emphasizing more nutritious, whole foods in their diet.
Based on the existing, limited research, you do not need to follow a strict paleo plan to see benefits.
Ultimately the best diet for you is one you can stick to, meaning the one with foods you enjoy eating and the one that supports your health from the inside out.
If you enjoy eating beans, legumes, and dairy and they fit into a healthy lifestyle approach for you - then don’t eliminate these foods.
On the other hand, if you feel great following a paleo plan, then go for it! Just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t adhere to the paleo diet rules perfectly.
Who Should Try Paleo?
Because paleo naturally emphasizes a high protein, moderate carb balance, this style of eating is typically best for less active individuals looking to lose weight.
If you work a desk job or are looking to take your nutrition and fat loss up a notch, it may be worth a shot.
Contrarily, if you are more active and rely on carbs as a source of fuel for your workouts, paleo might be a little too restrictive or low carb for your needs.
The best way to tell is to try it out for yourself and see how you feel! Or take our free diet quiz to see if paleo is a perfect fit for you.