What Is the Paleo Diet — And What You Should Know About Going Paleo

updated Jan 23, 2020
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Would we all be healthier if we ate like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago? The answer is yes, according to Loren Cordain, Ph.D., the creator and author of The Paleo Diet. Though Cordain wasn’t the first to recommend the hunter-gatherer eating approach, his book, which was first published in 2002, popularized the notion.

The Paleo Diet continues to be one of the most popular diets today — and also one of the most controversial. But what exactly does following the Paleo diet entail? And why do people love it — and love to hate it — so much? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the theory behind the Paleo diet? 

The Paleo Diet is based on the assumption that, although our society has become highly industrialized, our bodies have not evolved at that same rate. In fact, we’re not that different physiologically from our caveman ancestors, says Cordain, and this is where many health problems stem from. Our bodies haven’t had time to evolve to properly digest the modernized food most people now eat: highly processed and refined foods such as vegetables oils, processed foods, and added sugars that are part of the majority. Cordain argues that those foods trigger inflammation in the body and cites this inflammation as the root cause for most of today’s major health issues like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even autoimmune conditions.

What can you eat on the Palo diet? 

The Paleo diet is an attempt to mimic what was eaten in the Paleolithic Age: It focuses on animal proteins like fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, and eggs (preferably organic, local, and grass-fed to limit chemical intake); natural fats sources like nuts and seeds, avocados, and oils like coconut, olive, and flaxseed; and nutrient-dense produce.

The list of foods to avoid is a bit longer: Legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils, as well as peanuts), grains, dairy products, potatoes, and alcohol, as well as processed foods and foods that contain refined vegetable oils or added sugars, are excluded from the diet. The diet favors natural, less refined sweeteners like honey. Similarly, if you choose to drink alcohol on occasion, wine (which is less processed) is considered more Paleo-friendly.

What does science say about the Paleo diet?

It’s safe to say that the response of the scientific community to the Paleo diet has been… relatively negative. Studies have been done, books have been written and the upshot is a thorough debunking of some of the diet’s most basic premises: We are not identical to our Neanderthal brothers, their way eating (and living) is not the paradigm for good eating, and there is very little actual knowledge of what Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate. It’s actually quite probable that our stone-age ancestors ate carbs. So it’s hard to say that the modern Paleo diet is rooted in much actual evidence and critics range from ridiculing it as silly to claiming it is dangerously limiting.

Why does the Paleo diet have such a following? 

Whether or not our ancestors ate potatoes or not, the Paleo diet can trigger some pretty significant changes in both weight and health. Although the diet wasn’t developed for weight loss (at least not as its sole purpose), many people start — and continue — following the Paleo Diet as a way to lose weight.

Soon after adopting a Paleo lifestyle many followers notice a decrease in appetite and cravings — which leads to less overeating. One reason for this is the change in macronutrient proportions. Though it’s not considered a high-protein diet, a Paleo intake is typically lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein than the typical American diet. Another reason is the removal of refined carbohydrates and added sugars. Together, these two factors help to stabilize glucose and insulin fluctuations which minimizes cravings. The better regulation of blood glucose also tends to provide a more steady level of energy. 

Another benefit is the reduction in low-grade chronic inflammation, which is increasingly considered to be the root cause for a wide variety of chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, some cancer, and the growing obesity rates. One of the best ways to reduce chronic inflammation is to consume a diet of minimally processed foods, and the Paleo diet’s approach is one way to do that. 

Should I try the Paleo diet? 

One thing almost everyone can agree on is that cutting out processed foods is a step in the right direction. But it’s also a somewhat restrictive approach to food, and it may not provide enough flexibility or nutrients for everyone. Give Paleo a try if you’re interested and intrigued to see what the sustained popularity is all about, but also consult your doctor to make sure it aligns with your lifestyle, your health needs, and tastes. 

More Paleo Resources

Start with These Paleo Recipes

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD. Carolyn Williams is a 2017 James Beard award-winning dietitian who has contributed to sites such as Cooking Light, EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health, AllRecipes and Prevention. She has written three cookbooks, including Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less. You can find more about her on her own site as well as follow on her Instagram and Facebook.

Your turn: Have you tried the Paleo diet? What did you think? Tell us in the comments, below!

Credit: Kitchn