The Stone Age brought us the discovery of fire and metal tools, but it also gave rise to the modern-day Paleolithic diet or paleo diet.
You may have heard about this caveman-type diet, but how much do you know about it? Read on to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of the paleo diet and if it’s right for you.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet, which takes inspiration from the Paleolithic era that spanned between 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago, is a plan that focuses on lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables. Because this diet focuses heavily on foods that could be hunted and gathered by our ancestors ("hunter gatherer diet"), certain foods aren’t allowed when following the diet, such as legumes, dairy and grains.
“The main purpose of this diet is to take us back to how people during the Paleolithic era used to eat, which is believed to be the ‘correct’ way to eat, before farming and processed foods were readily available,” said Bailey Shupe, a registered dietitian at Banner Health. “The reasoning behind this diet is that our bodies haven’t been able to adapt to the modern diet and it is speculated that it has contributed to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
The paleo diet is sometimes called the Stone Age diet or caveman diet. No matter what you call it, this diet has evolved over eons, coming out of caves and into the mainstream.
What you can and can’t eat on a paleo diet
Recommendations on what you can and cannot eat can vary. In general, paleo diets follow these guidelines.
What to eat
- Meat: Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, pork and bison and seafood like shrimp, salmon, mackerel and albacore tuna
- Fruits and vegetables: Fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower and spinach
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts and cashews
- Oils: Oils from fruits and nuts like olive oil and walnut oil
What to avoid on the paleo diet
- Grains: Wheat oats and barley, which are found in cereals, breads, pastas, pastries and quinoa
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes and corn
- Dairy products: Milk, yogurt, cheese or ice cream
- High-fat meats: Salami, bologna, pepperoni, hot dogs and ground meat
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, peanuts, garbanzo beans and peas
- Sugar: Soda, honey, jellies and jams, syrup, candy, cakes and cookies
- Processed foods: Chips, French fries, macaroni and cheese
Recipes to try
If you want to dip your toe in paleo, here are some recipes you can try:
Does this diet seem appetizing or extreme? Here are the pros and cons and why you should check in with your health care provider first before going all in on this caveman diet.
Benefits of the paleo diet
This way of eating may seem extreme, however, our caveman ancestors weren’t battling obesity or dying of diabetes or heart disease. The paleo diet is a step up from the typical American diet, which includes a lot of highly processed and refined foods.
So, what happens when you swap a burger and fries for a salmon and salad? For starters, you’ll feel lighter.
“When you cut out added sugars, processed foods and empty calories, you’ll start to lose some weight, especially water weight at first,” Shupe said. “Studies have shown that the paleo diet can be more effective than other low-fat diets for short-term weight loss.”
The benefits may extend beyond your waistline. “One study found that when compared with other diets, the paleo approach led to small improvements in blood pressure, fasting blood sugar and triglycerides (fat in the blood that can increase your risk for stroke, heart attack and death),” Shupe said. “Studies have also shown it to reduce some risk factors for chronic diseases.”
The diet is also helpful for those who are gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free.
Risks with the paleo diet
Although there are many health benefits to following this way of eating, you may run the risk of missing out on consuming enough fiber, vitamins and other key nutrients.
“If you aren’t getting dairy, legumes or whole grains, you may be at greater risk of deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins,” Shupe said. “Over time, this could put you at risk of developing osteoporosis and bone fractures .”
Fresh meats, fish and produce tend to be pricier than processed versions, such as frozen or canned, and it can be more difficult to meal plan if you have to rely heavily on fresh foods.
“Another thing to watch for is the low-carb flu, more commonly known now as the ‘keto flu’,” Shupe said. “Some people may experience flu-like symptoms, like a headache, fatigue and nausea as their bodies transition to a lower carbohydrate diet.”
The paleo diet isn’t for everyone
Even though the paleo diet can help you trim down and works for those with some dietary restrictions, you should consult with your health care provider or a registered dietitian.
The paleo diet may help you lose weight and provide other health benefits. However, there are no long-term studies about the benefits and potential risks of the diet.
If eating like a caveman interests you, talk to your health care provider before taking the plunge.
“It’s possible you could achieve the same health benefits without cutting out things like whole grains, legumes and dairy simply by eating a balanced, healthy diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough exercise,” Shupe said.