What is the Paleo Diet?
The paleo diet traces back to the diet of stone age hunter-gatherers and cavemen. It is founded on the idea that if we eat like our ancestors, we will be healthier and our risk of heart disease, obesity and other health conditions will be reduced. The diet requires you to eat foods that were present before modern farming and agriculture, dating back from around 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
How to Follow the Paleo Diet
Because it excludes “modern” food, the paleo diet only includes food that can be hunted, fished or gathered; this consists of lots of fish, meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, roots, and fruits. However, it does not include grains (no bread, pasta, oats, rice, etc), legumes (no lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas, etc), dairy, sugar, and salt. It has no specific requirements, therefore, it can be low fat, high carb, or high protein, depending on your personal preference. While the diet is seemingly straightforward, supporters of the paleo diet have interpreted it in different ways. You will see some who indulge in “paleo” cake, “paleo” bread or even “paleo” protein powder, claiming that the ingredients are still paleo, while others will wholeheartedly avoid these foods, claiming that they have been processed and altered from their natural form.
Benefits of the Paleo Diet
1. Eliminates Processed Foods
Given that the paleo diet’s entire motto is to eat real, whole foods, eliminating processed food is one of the most significant benefits of the paleo diet. Processed foods come with a lot of synthetic chemicals, added sugar and unhealthy amounts of fat. While these ingredients do make the food we eat taste better, it also makes them addicting and consequently, dangerous. Too much of such ingredients can lead to health issues from diabetes to obesity to even heart disease. They also lack any nutritional value and are stripped of fiber, which is why they are also known as “empty” calories.
In one controlled experiment, 20 healthy adult volunteers, 10 male and 10 female, were put on two diets, ultra-processed foods and meals of minimally processed foods–each for two weeks. Both diets, the ultra-processed and unprocessed meals, had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates, and participants were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted. It was found that on the ultra-processed diet, people ate about 500 calories more per day than they did on the unprocessed diet. They also ate faster and gained weight on the processed diet whereas they lost weight on the unprocessed one, reinforcing the benefits of whole foods.
2. It’s Simple to Follow
The beauty of the paleo diet is that it’s flexible: you don't need to eat exactly like a caveman diet. The point is, paleo is less about adhering to a strict diet plan and more about eating in a way that will promote health as suggested by our evolution and biology. If you choose to eat beans or rice one day, it’s okay! The paleo diet should not be a one time diet to shed off the pounds–it should be a lifestyle. In fact, many followers of the paleo diet experience benefits without going 100% paleo. In fact, the 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the paleo diet 33 in Best Diets Overall. However, the Mediterranean diet, being a largely plant-based diet, was ranked number 1.
3. Weight Loss
By simply switching over to a paleo diet, you may experience weight loss as a result. This is because you are eating meals that are whole and natural and cutting out junk foods. In addition, the paleo diet is naturally higher in protein and fat and lower in carbohydrates, so it becomes easier to be in a caloric deficit. More specifically, most Americans consume unhealthy amounts of carbohydrates in their highly processed forms, such as potato chips, bread and crackers which are made with multiple additives (think salt, vegetable oils, trans fats, preservatives, etc) that may adversely affect our health in a variety of ways. Hence, the elimination of all the aforementioned and instead, the emphasis on low glycemic index foods (foods that are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes) is likely to aid in weight loss.
In one crossover study by Jonsson T et al., 13 individuals with type 2 diabetes followed a paleolithic diet and a typical diabetes diet — each for 3 months. It was found that participants lost 6.6 pounds (3 kg) more in body weight and 4 cm (1.6 inches) more off their waistlines compared with the diabetes diet.
It’s important to note that carbs aren’t necessarily bad for you, but because the paleo diet restricts common carbs sources such as bread, pasta and potatoes, a great portion of your daily caloric intake decreases, helping you lose weight.
4. Avoids Wheat and Gluten
When you cut out wheat, you automatically get rid of the gluten. Hence, the paleo diet is also gluten free at the same time. While most people can tolerate gluten, those with certain health conditions including celiac disease or wheat allergy cannot.
In one clinical study, Rebecca et al investigated the effects of a gluten-free diet in 41 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The gluten free diet reduced IBS Symptom Severity Score by ≥50 points in 29 patients overall (71%). Furthermore, of the 29 patients, 21 of them planned to continue on the diet long term, experiencing greater improvements in symptoms. For this reason, the paleo diet can offer significant benefits for those with gluten sensitivity.
5. No Calorie Counting
Unlike many of the diets out there that require you to count our macronutrients, calories, or even timings of meals, the Paleo Diet is inherently simple and easy to follow. In fact, it advocates a healthy approach towards eating, the way we ate before the food and diet industry became so complicated.
6. Increased and More Stable Energy Levels
In one study, subjects received either low glycemic index (GI) or high GI foods in replacement of their usual starchy food over a period of 5 weeks. After the intervention, subjects who were on the low GI diet experienced reduction in body weight and blood pressure. The subjects of the low GI diet did not lower their energy intake significantly more than those in the high GI diet group. Hence, because the paleo diet eliminates high GI foods, the glucose from low GI carbohydrates is released slowly and evenly throughout the day. As a result, the blood sugar levels stay stable and you rarely experience energy drops.
In a similar study, two small groups of people with type 2 diabetes ate either a Paleo or Mediterranean diet over a period of several weeks. Results showed that the Paleo group had improvement in blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Despite the short duration of the studies, the diet is growing in popularity and research on the paleo diet continues.
Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet
1. Emphasis on Animal Meat
The main issue with the Paleo Diet is that it is meat-centric, where the majority of the protein comes from red meat and poultry. Research has shown that a high intake of high fat meat can increase LDL (bad cholesterol), damaging the arteries and increasing risk of disease. Also, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), adults should limit their saturated fat to 13 grams per day, which is significantly less than what would be consumed on the paleo diet, which can approach up to 50 grams per day. What's more, studies have shown that even the consumption of high quality red meat, such as organic meat ”does not diminish the carcinogenic risk, but on the contrary, it seems to be even higher, especially that associated with lamb consumption.”
Given that the paleo diet relies so heavily on meat, many believe that it can be expensive. This is especially true if you choose to follow the diet strictly, purchasing only locally grown, organic, Grass-fed, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised and wild-caught food. However, even though you cannot easily source this high quality food, you can still do paleo! It’s better to start with some version of the paleo diet than not to start at all.
The paleo diet offers many benefits which may help aid weight loss, reduce the risk of disease and improve your natural energy levels. It is fairly flexible and can be easily followed. However, you may be able to gain the same benefits from simply following a healthy diet with whole grains, vegetables, and fruits as the main focus of your meals, which would certainly boost your health.