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What Is The Paleo Diet? A Comprehensive Guide

Along with other popular diets like keto and intermittent fasting, the paleolithic (paleo) diet has gained widespread popularity in recent years.  In fact, it’s currently amongst the most googled diet-related search terms on the internet.    

While there is a great deal of interest in the paleo diet, there’s still some confusion about what it actually entails.  From what is and isn’t on the menu to the pros and cons, we’re covering everything you need to know about going paleo.  

What is the Paleo Diet?

The modern paleo diet is based on the nutritional habits of our paleolithic ancestors who lived 10,000 to 2.5 million years ago, before the introduction of modern-day agriculture. 

 Without the farming capabilities we’ve come to rely on today, our paleolithic predecessors depended on the resources that were available to them in their geographic location, which means that eating patterns varied significantly from region to region. (1) Some of them consumed mostly meat or fish in their daily diets, while others relied more heavily on vegetables to meet their caloric needs.   

While there was a lot of variation amongst our ancestors’ diets, one consistency is that there were certain things that none of them ate -- things like grains and dairy products, which comprise much of the contemporary North American diet, weren’t around in prehistoric times.       

With the rise of modern-day foods that weren’t available to our ancient ancestors, our eating patterns have changed considerably.  While there may be a lot more variety and abundance when it comes to the foods of today, the contemporary North American diet has also been closely associated with a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease just to name a few.(2)

What Can You Eat on The Paleo Diet?

The modern-day paleo diet is centrally based around the idea of consuming healthy, unprocessed foods like the ones our ancient ancestors relied on. (3) While there was a good deal of variation as to what they ate, their diets were generally higher in protein and fat and lower in carbohydrates.

Whole foods like meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils were what was on the menu during the paleolithic period.(4)

List of Paleo-Friendly Foods

Food Type Examples
Meats Chicken, Turnkey, Beef, Pork, etc.
Eggs (unprocessed) Range free, organic eggs
Fish/Seafood Talapia, salmon, tuna, seafood etc.
Vegetables Tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, etc
Fruits Avocado, apples, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, oranges, etc.
Nuts Walnuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, pecans,  cashews, Brazil nuts, etc. 
Seeds Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, etc.
Healthy Oils Olive oil, coconut oil, safflower oil, avocado oil, etc.

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What Can’t You Eat?

Processed foods of any kind are off the menu on the paleo diet, even those that are advertised as “healthy”.  On top of eliminating foods that include additives or other artificial ingredients, with the paleo diet, you’ll also be avoiding certain foods that weren’t available to our ancient ancestors. 

You’ll be cutting out things like refined fats and sugar, grains, and dairy, which only become staples in our diets following the advent of modern-day agriculture.(5) In addition, you’ll also be limiting your salt intake. (6)

List of Foods to Avoid on the Paleo Diet

Food Type Examples
Grains Pasta, rice, bread, oats, etc. 
Dairy Milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, etc.
Vegetable oils Corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, etc,
Refined Fats Hydrogenated oils
Processed foods Cereals, granola bars, dried fruit, margarine, 

What Should You Drink?

In terms of what beverages are on the paleo menu, like with most other healthy diets, water should be your main source of hydration.  While they weren’t exactly available to our ancient ancestors, many people on the paleo diet also drink coffee and tea.  

When it comes to what you can’t drink, you’ll need to stay away from soda and other drinks that are packed full of refined sugar.  

Does the Paleo Diet Work For Weight Loss?

Because of its relative ease of use and the fact that you don’t have to count calories on the paleo diet, it’s popularly used for weight loss.  And to make things even better, it’s backed by research; several studies have demonstrated that it can be an effective tool for shedding fat and reducing your waist circumference.(7)

For example, a 2008 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the effects of a paleo diet on healthy volunteers over the course of 3 weeks. (8) At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that study participants lost an average of 2.3 kg, which is about 5 lbs. 

Another study published in the journal of Cardiovascular Diabetology in 2009 investigated the effects of the paleo diet on subjects with type 2 diabetes over the course of 3 months.  Following the dieting period, researchers found that participants saw an average reduction in waist circumference of over 4 cm. (9)

What Other Benefits are Associated With the Paleo Diet?

Reduce The Risk of Diabetes

On top of promoting weight loss, the paleo diet may also help to reduce several other factors related to type 2 diabetes.   Research shows that subjects who ate a diet of only lean meat, fish, eggs nuts, vegetables, and fruits showed significant improvements in glycemic control and insulin sensitivity.(10)

Research also shows that even in the case of short term interventions, the paleo diet helps to improve lipid profiles, glucose tolerance, and blood pressure, as well as decrease the secretion of insulin in sedentary individuals.(11)

In comparison, other research shows that individuals who followed a standard North American diet, did not see the same improvements in glucose tolerance even though they saw significant decreases in weight.(12)

Promote Heart Health 

The paleo diet, which is high in monounsaturated fats as well as vegetables, and nuts has been shown to have preventative effects against cardiovascular disease. (13) In comparison, the standard North American diet, which is high in saturated fat, grains, and dairy, has been linked with a number of heart-related conditions.   

Help You Feel More Satiated

Another benefit to going paleo is that you feel more satiated per calorie in comparison to a diet high in grains and processed foods, which for most people, means you’ll be taking in fewer calories per day.  

For example, a 2010 study published in Nutrition and Metabolism assigned subjects to one of two groups. (14) The first group ate a paleo diet high in meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit, and nuts.  

The second group ate a Mediterranean diet high in grains, fish, dairy, oils, and margarine.    

 The researchers ultimately found that after 12 weeks, those in the paleo group reported feeling just as satiated as the Mediterranean group, however, the paleo group on average consumed significantly fewer calories per day. 

Are There Any Downsides to the Paleo Diet?

May Impair Gut Health 

One of the potential downsides to the paleo diet is that long-term adherence may impinge on your gut health.  More specifically, some research shows that the paleo diet may disrupt the balance of microorganisms in your digestive system.(15)

Whole grains contain microbiota that plays an important role in everything from your immune system to your mental health.  Eliminating them from your diet may ultimately lead to intestinal problems and gut inflammation over time.(16)

Could Cause Iodine Deficiency 

In addition to affecting your gut health, the paleo diet may also not provide you with enough iodine, which is an important micronutrient your body needs to stay up and running. (17)

Iodine can be found in high concentrations in dairy products, which aren’t on the paleo menu.  It plays an important role in the production of thyroid hormones, and a deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism. (18) If you are going to follow the paleolithic diet, supplementation is recommended.  

It’s More Expensive

The unfortunate reality is that heavily process food products are less expensive than healthy, whole foods.  Ultimately that means that if you’re following a paleo diet plan, you’re going to have to spend more money on the food you eat.  

A 2011 study published in Nutrition Research estimated that it cost 9.3% more money to buy paleo-friendly foods, in comparison to processed food products.(19)

Wrap Up

The modern paleo diet is modeled after the eating habits of our ancient Paleolithic ancestors.  It is based around the idea of consuming healthy, unprocessed meats, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and avoiding things like grains, dairy, and refined sugar in your daily diet.

Several studies have demonstrated that it is an effective method for weight loss and calorie for calorie, it helps you to feel more satiated in comparison to the standard North American diet.  On top of that, it may also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  

Although there don’t appear to be any life-threatening side effects associated with the paleo diet, adhering to it in the long term can potentially disrupt the balance of your gut flora and lead to certain micronutritional deficiencies.  

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