The paleo diet is considered one of the strictest diets out there today yet it continues to attract a growing legion of passionate followers. Can this caveman-inspired diet really help you lose weight and live a healthier life?
The concept behind the paleo diet is to eat the same foods as early humans (think: cavemen) who inhabited Europe and West Asia about 200,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era. What did they eat? Presumably animal protein and plants.
Although these cavemen did not have higher-order cognitive abilities as as we do, their cellular and metabolic needs were likely similar to that of modern, active humans. That is, the modern humans whose metabolic rate have not slowed due to the sedentary lifestyle many of us live today.
Overview and history of the Paleo Diet
So how exactly did this current nostalgia for the past—in the form of the paleo diet—begin? Well, the roots of the paleo movement actually span as far back as 1939, when dentist Weston Price traveled the world making extensive observations about the diets and health of indigenous cultures.
According to Price, whenever an indigenous society transitioned to a Western diet, their health significantly declined. He turned his findings into the timeless nutritional health resource Nutritional and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects.
Indeed, the modern Western diet is a break from the traditional, indigenous diets of the past and present. Beginning in the early 20th Century, manufacturers began learning how to process, preserve, and package “food” that looked nothing like what could be found in nature.
For the first time in history, people began eating conveniently packaged foods. But this convenience came at a price.
Like other researchers of his time, Price did not understand the mechanisms by which food created health and disease; he could only observe that certain foods led to health or disease. The how has only been recently discovered.
Soon after, the focus turned from modern indigenous cultures to past indigenous cultures. In 1952, Arnold DeVries built on Price’s work in his book Primitive Man and His Food. Walter Voegtlin followed suit in 1975 with The Stone Age Diet.
Then in 1985, Dr. Stanley Boyd Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner published a foundational paper entitled Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications. Perhaps Eaton and Konner got the paleo diet’s ball rolling when they declared:
“The diet of our remote ancestors may be a reference standard for modern human nutrition and a model for defense against certain ‘diseases of civilization.’ “
But it wasn’t until 2002 that Dr. Loren Cordain’s book The Paleo Diet popularized these ideas. As a result, in 2010 the paleo diet became one of the most popular eating plans in the world, and Google searches for the words “the paleo diet” skyrocketed.
Main purpose and goal of the Paleo Diet
- Gain Muscle Mass
- Melt Away Fat
- Decrease Risk for Chronic Disease
- Increase Energy Levels
- Optimize Functioning
These are the five main goals of anyone who goes on the paleo diet, which must be achieved by eating like our ancient ancestors. Paleo junkies view any divergence from the presumed Paleolithic-era diet as a divergence from our ancestral-based nutritional needs and an opening for disease.
Why should we go back to eating like Paleolithic humans? Well, for starters, they were healthier. If you look past their short lifespans, you would find that they lived their lives with more zest and vitality than the average human today.
Paleolithic humans were not as sheltered from the elements as we are today, and death from an acute disease or animal attack was much more common. But chronic disease was likely not a thing. After all, has anyone ever discovered an obese, arthritic caveman?
Here’s Dr. Cordain himself explaining the purpose and benefits of the paleo diet in this in-depth video interview:
Who is the Paleo Diet ideal for?
This diet will only work for people who are serious about losing weight/getting fit and willing to make personal sacrifices to do so. The paleo diet is one of the strictest diets, limiting you to only what Paleolithic humans presumably ate.
The only difference is the Paleolithic humans didn’t have to face all of the temptations that we find at the supermarket each week. They simply ate what was in front of them. For them, the “paleo diet” was not strict or limiting. It was whatever they could find and eat to survive.
As outlined in Dr. Cordain’s 2005 book The Paleo Diet for Athetes, anyone who engages regularly in sports and other athletic activities can also benefit from the paleo diet as a large component of the diet is animal protein.
Animal protein helps rebuild muscle that has been broken down by the stress of exercise. It can also increase energy and iron levels.
But athletes must be mindful of their carbohydrate intake. Because the paleo diet completely bans any and all grains, athletes will need to substitute other carbs, like starchy vegetables (i.e., sweet potatoes, beets, etc.).
Anyone who has tried and failed other less-strict diet plans may turn to the paleo diet as a solution. Because the paleo diet is so strict, it tends to produce results quickly.
For example, the simple elimination of gluten and high sodium packaged foods from the diet (which is a requirement of the diet) can decrease bloating and water weight.
Finally, people with food allergies/sensitivities may find the paleo diet to be perfect for their unique needs. The paleo diet completely removes many of the most common food allergens from the diet, which is the most effective way to manage allergies/sensitivities.
Is the Paleo Diet easy to do?
Because the paleo diet is so incredibly strict in a society filled with all sorts of “prohibited” foods, the paleo diet is not easy to use. If you are in search of a diet to follow casually, the paleo diet may not be for you.
In fact, it can be said that since the paleo diet is so strict, it becomes a lifestyle. Paleo adherents have to plan in advance what they will eat throughout the day because many common staples of the everyday Western diet are forbidden.
This means that eating out at restaurants is a chore for paleo followers because a restaurant in no way resembles a cave. Chefs may add forbidden ingredients without your consent, and you will need to interrogate your food server every single time just to find out whether you can order a particular dish.
If you must eat at a restaurant while on the paleo diet, stick with a slab of meat and a side of veggies. But avoid the alcohol at all costs (cavemen had no hops, vineyards, or wine cellars).
The one remedy to the problem of inconvenience is that there are an over-abundance of cookbooks and online blogs devoted to paleo living.
Many paleo recipes are relatively simple to follow because you can’t add many condiments to the food (most aren’t allowed); you must keep it simple like the cavemen did. Eventually, your taste buds will adjust, and you may begin to recognize and appreciate the natural flavors of food.
If you have a paleo friend, you may have heard the all-too-common term “cheat days.” Some paleo followers have one binge day of freedom per week or month, while others have one to three “open” meals per week in which they can eat some prohibited items.
In fact, different levels of paleo seriousness have emerged—the entry level diet allows more cheat days than the pro diet. It is best to start at the entry level, and slowly transition to more restriction.
The other thing to note about the paleo diet is that it requires a significant financial investment. Granted, you won’t be buying expensive processed, packaged foods (not allowed), but you will likely buy more animal protein and organic fruits and veggies, which can be expensive.
That’s right, the paleo diet is not just about what you eat; it is also about quality.
Foods that are part of the Paleo Diet
On the paleo diet, you increase animal protein and produce consumption and eliminate grains. Specifically, you should eat:
- Humanely-raised meats
- Wild-caught fish
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Eggs from free-range chickens
- Healthy fats (i.e., coconut oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, avocados, etc.)
In addition, many people consider the occasional use of natural sweeteners (i.e., honey and agave) to be acceptable on the paleo diet.
Even though it may look like the paleo diet’s severe food restrictions will ruin your love for delicious meals, there are a wide variety of great dishes that can be created with the limited types of food allowed on the paleo plan.
Diane Sanfilippo’s popular New York Times bestseller Practical Paleo, for instance, contains over 150 great, easy-to-prepare recipes: from lunch options like Cilantro Cauli-Rice to delectable desserts such as Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins.
Filled with plenty of useful tips and colorful photos, Practical Paleo gives a very detailed overview of the paleo diet and how you can customize it to fit your body and lifestyle. It also provides 30-day meal plans for a wide variety of health conditions and goals, including liver detox, fat loss, blood sugar regulation, and thyroid health.
Foods that are to be avoided on the Paleo Diet
Unfortunately, this list is much longer than the list of allowed foods. On the paleo diet, you should not eat:
- Any grains, especially gluten-containing grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- White Potatoes
- Processed foods
- High sodium foods
- Refined Vegetable Oils (i.e., canola, soybean, etc.)
- Foods high in sugar (even high-sugar fruit consumption should be limited)
- Most condiments (especially soy sauce as it usually contains gluten)
- Most salad dressings (vinaigrette may occasionally be used, especially when made from healthy oils)
Remember that most paleo followers (especially those who stick to the diet for long periods of time) have cheat meals (or even entire days)! These cheats can help ease the mental burden of such a strict diet.
How effective is the Paleo Diet overall?
Hard workers reap the rewards of their labor, and nowhere is this truer than in the paleo diet. Sure, you may have to sacrifice part of your social life because you can’t drink alcohol or eat out at restaurants, but your body will respond to these important nutritional changes.
Nutrition exerts an even greater impact than exercise on body composition. That is, you can run on that elliptical all day long, but if you eat poorly, you will likely maintain your current weight.
On the other hand, many people have lost weight and improved physical fitness simply through dietary modification and no change in exercise habits.
While there are potential pitfalls to the diet (below), when followed correctly, the paleo diet is effective. For one thing, paleo followers tend to reduce carb intake because they can’t consume grains. Many studies have shown that low-carb dieting reduces body weight.
But we will mention two studies, in particular, that have examined the paleo diet specifically. A 2014 study found that people who followed the Paleo diet for two months lost an average of 9 pounds and had healthier blood pressure.
Another study found that over a six month period, paleo dieters lost an average of 14 pounds, while low-fat dieters lost an average of only 6 pounds. The trend continued; after a year, the paleo group lost an average of 19 pounds, and the low-fat dieters had lost an average of only 10 pounds.
Clearly, if your goal is physical fitness (including cardiovascular health), a paleo diet can help you accomplish it.
Potential mistakes to avoid on the Paleo Diet
The paleo diet is extremely strict and full of rules, which means that it is also very likely to make a mistake if you don’t follow it exactly as prescribed. Here are the five big mistakes you can make while on the paleo diet:
You increase calorie consumption
When you make dietary changes, it can be difficult to ensure that your calorie consumption remains the same or decreases. If you increase your fat consumption, in line with the paleo diet, you may actually consume more Calories than you did on your old diet.
The only saving grace is that fat and protein tend to be more filling than sugar and empty Calories. But be sure to use an online Calorie calculator to ensure that your new Calorie intake is in line with your target.
You eat too much animal protein
Some people go overboard with the idea of eating animal protein. The thing is that cavemen did not have a piping hot steak for every meal. After all, they had to hunt their food, and sometimes went without meat for several days while they were in hot pursuit of an animal.
We, on the other hand, can easily walk into the grocery store and grab a rather large hunk of meat for each meal.But protein poisoning (a.k.a. rabbit starvation) is a serious, disastrous consequence of eating too much animal protein and not enough fat.
It is a rare form of malnutrition that is unfortunately becoming more common due to misconceptions and faulty execution of the paleo diet. To prevent rabbit starvation, the paleo diet encourages healthy sources of fat.
If you are running low on energy and generally feel very bad (i.e., malaise), eat more healthy sources of fat and less animal protein. Don’t get carried away with your caveman tendencies.
You don’t eat enough carbohydrates
Low-carb dieting can be effective, but keep in mind that your body does need some carbs to be healthy and energetic.
Be sure to replace grains with high fiber, starchy vegetables. The added benefit is that this fiber will feed the good bacteria in your intestines!
You don’t eat enough vegetables
Remember, cavemen were hunters and gatherers. They ate dark green, leafy vegetables regularly. The paleo diet does not only emphasize meat, it also stresses the importance of vegetables.
Disease prevention and healing can only be achieved by eating enough colorful vegetables, which provide nutrition and detoxification support for the body.
You have a calcium deficiency
People who go cold turkey with dairy may suffer from calcium deficiencies, especially if they do not eat enough green, leafy vegetables.
Generally, dark green veggies have more than enough calcium to keep bones healthy, and especially when combined with strengthening exercises, can prevent osteoporosis. But when in doubt, talk to your doctor and start a high quality calcium supplement.
How healthy is the Paleo Diet?
When correctly executed, the paleo diet is much better than the Western diet in terms of disease prevention. Specifically, its focus on high quality foods and increased vegetable consumption are healthy goals.
In addition, eliminating gluten-containing grains and dairy can help reduce bodily inflammation, lowering your risk for chronic disease.
But the paleo diet’s focus on animal protein may be rather unhealthy. Studies have shown that animal protein consumption should be limited because meat is hard for the body to digest.
Many people wrongly believe that the paleo diet is all about meat. Some even think it requires you to eat raw meat, but that is absolutely incorrect. Though these are misconceptions, the paleo diet may emphasize animal protein too much for its own good.
Our Paleo Diet review conclusion
There’s no doubt about it – the paleo diet definitely works. It has been proven to help people achieve goals such as disease prevention, increased energy, and of course weight loss. When combined with the right exercise regimen, the paleo diet can also contribute to a leaner and more muscular physique.
The big problem, as we mentioned earlier, is that the paleo diet is very hard to follow. Paleo junkies attain almost mythic proportions as others wonder how it is possible to follow such a restrictive diet.
Such strict adherence requires commitment, sacrifice, and passion for the diet – a passion that is not common to many other diets. You should also make sure you read the right resources, such as The Paleo Diet (the book that launched the paleo diet revolution), if you want to get the most out of this eating plan and lifestyle.
But as it is with most things in life, the more effort and discipline you put forth, the better your results will usually be. If you’re willing to put in the work, then the paleo diet will definitely reward you with results.