Uncovering the Paleo Diet: What You Need to Know

grilled chicken

The paleo diet, often referred to as the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet, is based on the premise that genetically you are almost identical to your stone-age ancestors. The paleo diet plan is set up accordingly: if your caveman ancestors did not eat it, then neither should you, hence the name paleo diet—short for paleolithic diet. This popular primal eating style has influenced how many people fill their plates these days as well as brought forth an array of scientific study and health conversation along with some hesitation and contradiction.

While the premise for the paleo diet plan is still controversial (how much do we differ from our stone-age ancestors?), this hunter-gatherer type of eating has gained many fans.

Here are the nuts and bolts of paleo eating, along with some facts and myths to help you uncover what you need to know about the paleo diet plan.

What Is the Paleo Diet?

Based on the primal eating habits of your stone-age ancestors, the paleo diet strives to mimic a pre-industrialized revolution approach to eating. Pre-industrialization refers to the time (dating back many centuries, preceding 1750) before there were many machines and tools to help with the mass of tasks people and civilizations face today. This directly affected how food was grown, harvested, and eaten.

This is evident in the paleo diet food list where you notice the absence of grains, legumes, commercial dairy products, and refined sugars, all of which became more commonly grown, harvested, and eaten as technology has grown and evolved.

Paleo followers avoid:

  • Processed sugar
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Commercial dairy

Paleo followers eat:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Unprocessed meats
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Why Paleo?

There are some major shifts in how you eat today in comparison to your more primal lineage. Research shows that many of today’s common foods include a hefty dose of refined flour products and massive amounts of refined sugar in the form of on-the-go type meals such as fast-food burgers and pizza. Studies also show that many of these modern refined foods are associated with the most prevalent health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The essentials of the paleo diet plan are healthy, whole, pure, and fresh. While there are only a handful of short-term studies that address many of the benefits of the paleo diet, the results trend toward more health, energy, and vitality than what many modern-day foods provide.

1. Anti-inflammatory

You have likely heard of the epidemic where chronic (ongoing) inflammation is linked to an array of health disorders. From GERD (gastroesphageal reflux disorder) to arthritis and psoriasis to heart disease, inflammation is said to be linked to many of today’s most common health conditions.

Notably, inflammation plays a large role in your body’s health. Using diet to manage inflammation is a powerful and worthwhile endeavor. While there are many factors to consider when incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet, there are a few consistent strategies to note. With the onset of highly refined sugars and carbohydrates in the typical American diet, there is a link between blood sugar and inflammation. If your blood sugar and/or insulin levels are chronically high, a series of biochemical reactions directly lead your body to inflammation. 

The paleo diet plan—low in sugar and completely void of refined sugars and flours (along with other highly refined foods)—has been shown to lower chronic inflammation. One study looked at a group of 70 post-menopausal women eating the paleo diet plan for 24 months. While the study looked only at a specific population, it concluded that there was a direct relationship between the paleo diet and a significant decrease in chronic inflammation.

Eating the paleo diet may be an effective way to lower chronic inflammation.

2. Weight Loss

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affected more than 93.3 million adults in the United States in 2015-2016. Obesity is linked to numerous health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and infertility. While diet is not the only contributing factor, diet is said to be a primary piece of the puzzle. 

The paleo diet plan includes a consistent strategy for taking in high-quality whole foods, unprocessed proteins, and high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients (cellular protective compounds found in plant-based foods), while avoiding many of the culprits associated with weight gain and chronic obesity. One study showed a significant decrease in mean weight, body mass index, waist circumference, and systolic blood pressure in a group of healthy people who ate a paleo diet over a three-week period.

3. Cardiovascular Health

Did you know a paleo diet plan can be good for your heart? It is a myth that the primary cause for heart disease comes from eating too much fat; one cause of heart disease has been shown to be due to an over-consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar. Consequently, the paleo diet plan can be a noteworthy approach to a healthy heart.

The paleo diet is often considered a meat-heavy diet but in actuality, there is a hefty focus on vegetables and fruit along with the high quality “clean” animal protein such as wild-caught fish, grass-fed meat, and organic cage-free poultry.

One small study showed a significant decrease in several cardiovascular risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes after eating the paleo diet plan for a three-month period. 

4. Autoimmune Disease

Affecting more than 50 million Americans, autoimmune disease refers to a variety of conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks organs, tissues, cells, or glands, creating inflammation (and various other symptoms) in the body.

While the paleo diet plan has a direct impact on inflammation, a modified approach to the paleo diet, known as the autoimmune paleo diet (AIP), is known to have a substantial effect on both the inflammation as well as relief of symptoms related to autoimmune disease such as pain or a weakened gut lining (a symptom often linked to autoimmune disease) while also resetting the immune system.

The AIP modifies the paleo diet with the elimination of nightshades, eggs, coffee, alcohol, nuts, and seeds. The results of one study suggest that the AIP diet may help to diminish autoimmune symptoms and inflammation in patients with IBD (irritable bowel disorder), a common autoimmune disorder.

Why Not Paleo?

While the purity and wholeness of the paleo diet plan is a wonderful element to include in your eating, there are a few common arguments against following the paleo diet plan. Here are some controversies to consider.

1. No Long-Term Studies

While a few short-term studies on the paleo diet have proven to be informative and insightful, more long-term research is needed. As with any research-based scientific study, the short-term effects of diet and lifestyle have the possibility of changing drastically with time and duration. This may or may not have been evident within the stone-age era.

Assuming that the stone-age diet ensured health and longevity for your stone-age ancestors is an assumption that needs further inquiry. One study showed that there were some common health challenges during the stone-age. Pigbel, caused by eating meat contaminated by the spores of Clostridium perfringens type C, grossly enlarged thyroids, and advanced tumors (both benign and malignant) to name a few.

Many of these noted health issues could be related to the diet and lifestyle of the Paleolithic time, just as many of today’s more common health issues are related to modern-day diet and lifestyle. Long-term studies are needed to reveal how following the paleo diet eating plan affects the health and longevity for modern-day people.

2. Missing Nutrients from Grains and Legumes

When reviewing the foods on the paleo diet plan, you have likely noticed the absence of foods, such as grains and legumes (aka beans). While your stone-age ancestors may not have eaten grains and legumes, there are health benefits to including them in your diet.

Whole grains—the entire grain in its whole form—are known for their high fiber content and immense levels of micronutrients. And studies show a correlation between the consumption of whole grains and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Studies also show that legumes have a multitude of nutrients, protein, B vitamins, and essential minerals such as iron, copper, magnesium, and zinc. Legumes have a low glycemic index—incurring little impact on your blood sugar—and have been linked to the prevention of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Deeper investigation into the long-term elimination of these two food groups is needed and could inform if the paleo diet food list causes you to be low on essential nutrients and vitamins.

3. Meat Heavy

While the paleo diet plan has many variations, it is much harder to stick to it if you are a vegetarian or vegan. With limited options for protein—primarily nuts and seeds—there seem to be few options for those who are opting out of animal protein or products.

Furthermore, because of the heavy focus on lean proteins (in varying proportions), many believe that the paleo diet trend (depending on where the meat is sourced) could be hard on the environment. Studies show that the meat industry (specifically factory-farmed meat) has a negative environmental impact, especially with greenhouse gas emissions.

4. One-Way Approach

You are unique. You come with a unique metabolism and genetic diversity. You may exert a lot of energy in your daily life, or you may be more sedentary. Your sleep quality and length, lifestyle, prominent emotions, and thoughts are unique to you. This is often referred to as your bio-individuality. Your bio-individuality encompasses the many variables leading to your own set of metabolic needs, food cravings, and health challenges.

Choosing an eating style based on a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense when you evaluate your eating with all of these elements under consideration. The paleo diet, along with many other eating styles, does not incorporate your bio-individuality specifically when you review the restrictions within the paleo diet food list. The paleo diet list of food also does not address macronutrient ratios, frequency of meals, or how your paleolithic ancestors ate according to the season, availability of certain foods, or times of ration and scarcity.

As with most things in life, exercise caution when it comes to a one-way approach to eating. The best barometer for health and vitality is learning to listen to your body and observing how you feel when you eat according to any particular approach. 

Making small changes in your food choices to match the needs of your body, mind, and soul is a process that involves patience and practice. If you decide to make a change, consider taking small effective steps while employing simplicity and consistency. If you choose to try the paleo diet, add in some of the essentials that will lead you toward a diet higher in whole, fresh, simple meals and build your way toward the full experience, keeping aware of how you feel each step of the way, so your process is wise and well-informed.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author
SueVanRaes

Sue Van Raes

Functional nutritionist and Food Psychology Specialist
Sue Van Raes is a functional nutritionist, food psychology specialist, and author in Boulder Co. As founder of Boulder Nutrition , Sue helps people navigate how to make sustainable changes in their health and make peace with their plate. Sue uses a combination of science-based testing, clinical nutrition, holistic nutrition, natural medicine, functional medicine, homeopathy, and metabolic typing to guide folks in experiencing clarity, vitality, and body-positive living. She works with clients locally, remotely, online, and on her local and international health and yoga retreats....Read more