The Paleo diet, or Caveman diet, is a relatively new way of eating that attempts to mimic what ancient hunter-gatherers would have eaten. It is high in protein but tends to avoid carbohydrates.  It incorporates foods such as vegetables, lean meats, and nuts, while avoiding grains, processed foods, and starches.  Like any new diet, it has been under relatively intense scrutiny and has both enthusiastic fans and avid dissenters.

What Foods are Allowed in a Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet focuses on foods that are believed to have been available to our ancestors.  The foods that are allowed are generally all-natural and unprocessed.  Some items have additional caveats, such as lean meats.  Foods that are allowed include:

  • Lean meats (preferably grass-fed, free range, or wild)
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Seafood/Fish
  • Eggs
  • Healthier oils (i.e. olive oil, coconut oil)

Foods that are not part of the Paleo diet include:

  • Grains
  • Legumes (beans, peanuts and peas)
  • Processed foods (including refined sugars)
  • Dairy
  • Alcohol
  • Potatoes
  • Salt
  • Refined vegetable oils (i.e. canola oil)

People on the Paleo diet might have a day of meals that look something like this:

  • Breakfast: egg and vegetable stir-fry
  • Lunch: chicken and steamed vegetables
  • Snacks: fruit and/or nuts
  • Dinner: salmon and broccoli

Benefits of Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet has several clear benefits.  If followed closely, it can vastly lower the saturated fat and refined sugar intake of an average person.  These two categories of foods are widely considered to be two major negative features of the modern diet.

  • In general, all of the foods allowed by the Paleo diet are considered to be beneficial by major health organizations.
  • Those who question the diet typically do not question what is allowed by the Paleo diet, but rather what is not allowed.
  • The same major health organizations that agree with the foods allowed by the Paleo diet also typically endorse the inclusion of low-fat dairy, whole grains and legumes to make the diet complete in terms of nutrition.

Many people who begin eating the Paleo diet experience weight loss.  This may be due to the fact that the Paleo diet is made up of largely natural, unprocessed foods, or it may be due to the fact that people eat less on a more restricted diet.  However, weight loss is not a guarantee and not everyone who begins eating this way will lose weight.

Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet
Although the Paleo diet generally includes only foods that are believed to be healthy, it stops short of including many other foods that significant research has shown are healthy as well.

  • Whole grains can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as provide several important vitamins and minerals.
  • Beans are known to lower cholesterol, provide cancer-fighting antioxidants, and help manage blood sugar levels.
  • Low-fat dairy is an important source of calcium.
  • Complex carbohydrates are an important source of energy in the body, therefore some nutritionists caution again leaving them out entirely.
  • Simple carbohydrates are the body’s ‘quick’ source of energy and are readily available for exercise needs.
  • Protein and fat are slower to metabolize, which may leave some people feeling sluggish and tired when it comes time to exercise.

Because the Paleo diet is relatively restricted, nutrient imbalances can occur when people don’t eat all varieties of foods necessary for health. Not everyone likes every vegetable, fruit, fish, or meat.  If undesired foods are cut from the diet, the remaining portion may not provide enough vital nutrients for overall health and wellness.

The weight lost while someone is on the Paleo diet is likely to be regained when the diet is stopped.  To successfully maintain weight loss while reintegrating other foods, people must control their overall calorie intake.  The vast majority of people who go on any diet and lose weight have a tendency to gain it all back if they stop exercising and/or stop the diet that they were following.

The Big (Paleo) Picture
Opinions of the Paleo diet are decidedly mixed.  No one claims that the foods endorsed by the diet are negative, and it is probably decidedly healthier than the average American diet. However, some people believe that this diet is too restricted, and that a healthier diet for any individual would include all Paleo foods plus complex carbs, dairy and legumes.

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Author:  Jackie Borst, PA-C