Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few years (ironic!), you’ve likely heard about the paleo diet. The paleo crowd pile their plates high with meat, non-starchy vegetables, and anything else that could have been found in a caveman’s diet — while turning up their noses at dairy, legumes, processed foods, and grains.
The paleo diet is also called the Paleolithic diet, after the Stone Age for which it was named. But why would anyone want to go back to the Stone Age?
What Is the Paleo Diet?
“The paleo diet is a low-carb eating plan that focuses on consuming meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds,” says Natalie Allen, MS, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University. “The premise of the diet is to mimic what cavemen ate thousands of years ago, typically foods that can be ‘hunted’ or ‘gathered.'”
Why should we eat like our paleo predecessors? Proponents say our ancestors didn’t die from heart disease and other chronic ailments attributed to diet and lifestyle. “The idea is that if we eat like them, we will be healthier and avoid chronic diseases,” explains Openfit Nutrition Manager Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD.
The problem? Our ancestors lived in caves and spent most of their time hunting and gathering wild plants and animals, many of which no longer exist. So “you really can’t replicate a true paleo diet,” she says. Furthermore, she adds that the paleo ban on dairy, legumes, and grains “places blame where it doesn’t belong.”
First introduced by a gastroenterologist more than 40 years ago, the paleo diet has been greatly modified since then, especially in the last decade. “There are so many sources of the paleo diet out there,” says Giancoli, each with their own approved foods list.
What Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet?
While our cavemen ancestors were chowing down on woolly beasts they hunted themselves, you can still eat food from your local supermarket on the paleo diet. While there are different iterations of the diet that offer slightly different foods lists, the paleo diet is generally high-protein, low-carb, says Allen, with no restrictions on the amount of fat consumed.
Here’s a list of foods you can eat on most paleo diet meal plans.
- Meat, pork, and poultry (preferably local, lean, and pasture-raised)
- Wild game
- Fish and seafood (wild-caught preferred)
- Eggs (preferably local and pasture-raised)
- Both fresh and frozen are allowed
- Includes dark leafy greens; cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli; and other veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, etc.
- Sweet potatoes, squash, and yams are permitted in moderation
- Both fresh and frozen are allowed in moderation
- Bananas and other tropical fruit
- Peaches and other stone fruit
Nuts and seeds
- Nut butter (except peanut butter)
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
- Quinoa is allowed on some paleo diets
- Honey is OK in moderation
Fats and oils that are minimally processed
Oils that come from fruit, nuts, and animals are permitted, including:
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Walnut oil
- Lard and tallow
- Herbs and spices
List of Foods to Avoid on the Paleo Diet
If you can hunt or gather a food, you can eat it on the paleo diet. But if you need to process it, the food is off-limits to paleo dieters. That includes carbohydrate foods, such as grains and beans, and dairy foods, processed foods, and sugar.
- Both whole and refined grains
- Includes rice, wheat, oats, and barley
- Beans, lentils, and peas
- Peanuts and peanut butter
- Soy products, including soy milk, tempeh, and tofu
- Milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter
- Beer and liquor
- Some paleo folks allow red wine and hard cider
- Convenience foods like frozen meals, packaged snacks, and canned soups
- Refined and added sugars, including juices
- Artificial sweeteners, including diet sodas
- Refined vegetable oils and margarine
Can You Lose Weight on the Paleo Diet?
Can you lose weight eating like a caveman? Yes and no. “It certainly can help with weight loss if you create a calorie deficit, which is likely to happen because you’re eliminating entire food groups,” says Giancoli. “It comes down to your food choices. Are you choosing the healthier options or using it as an excuse to eat all bacon?”
Cutting out simple carbs and added sugars certainly can help with weight loss. And, since protein (and fiber) can help fill you up, says Allen, “this diet can help with appetite control.” But she and Giancoli agree it’s hard to stick with — and long-term research on paleo diets is lacking.
Risks Associated with the Paleo Diet
Before you give bread the boot, there are some drawbacks to the paleo diet you should consider. (Paleo diet struggles are real!)
1. You’re cutting out entire food groups
Giancoli likes that the paleo diet bans added sugars and processed foods. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. The problem lies in cutting out whole grains, legumes, and dairy, which can mean you’re not consuming adequate calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and other nutrients, says Allen. “Remember, the best diet is a well-balanced one that allows for moderation and variety,” she adds.
“Whole grains and legumes are very healthful foods that provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, even protein,” says Giancoli. Dairy foods also offer nutrition and benefits. “If you can tolerate dairy and are choosing low-fat options, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy it,” says Giancoli.
2. You might be eating too much fat (especially saturated fat)
“On a paleo diet, some people think they can have all types of full-fat animal products,” says Giancoli. The problem? “Consuming lots of saturated fat could increase your risk of developing higher cholesterol levels. And we do know that when you compare diets high in animal products to plant-based diets, we see better health outcomes with plant-based diets.” Instead, she suggests choosing fish and seafood at least two to three times a week.
3. Your lifestyle might not be a good fit for paleo
“Pregnant and nursing women should not follow paleo, as their babies need the nutrients provided in a variety of foods,” warns Allen. And don’t go paleo when you’re training for a marathon. “Endurance athletes most likely will struggle with their sport if they do not eat carbs.”
4. Your digestion may change
While constipation is usually associated with the high-fat keto diet, increasing your protein can impact your digestion, too. “If you want to try paleo, make sure to consume adequate water, as you are likely eating more protein,” says Allen.
Is Paleo Different Than Keto?
The paleo diet rivals the ketogenic diet in popularity, and “both of these diets limit carbs,” says Allen. The difference? “Keto is high fat and paleo is high protein,” she says. “Both diets may produce short-term weight loss, but are difficult to adhere to in the long run.”
What Are Some Modified Paleo Diets?
Since there’s not one single, definitive guide to the paleo diet, Giancoli says modifications are common. But that doesn’t make them easy or healthful. Though there are paleo vegan diets, “it’s pretty darn hard to do that,” she says — since soy and legumes are off limits.
“Paleo might not be a great diet plan for vegetarians,” adds Allen. “The majority of the calories consumed come from animal products.”