Since the first paleo diet book hit store shelves nearly two decades ago, this eating plan has skyrocketed in popularity. On paper, the paleo diet, (aka the “caveman” or “stone age” diet) encourages consumption of foods that would have been hunted or gathered by our ancestors during the Palaeolithic era. That means following a diet rich in meats, fish, eggs, veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Grains, legumes, and dairy are discouraged—the theory is that since these items were not a regular part of our daily menu until about 10,000 years ago, our bodies have not evolved to utilize them effectively; hence, they may have helped contribute to high rates of obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes.
Pros of Paleo. This specialized diet has its merits and drawbacks. Encouraging people to focus their eating efforts on nutrient-dense whole foods like wild salmon and sweet potatoes at the expense of processed foods rich in refined grains and sugary calories is something to be celebrated. For some individuals, this is enough to spur weight loss (eliminating food groups often leads to an initial drop in calorie intake) and there is evidence that it can improve blood sugar control, especially in those with type 2 diabetes. The diet also advocates careful food label reading which can make people more cognizant of what ingredients they are buying. The food industry has certainly taken notice, releasing a constant stream of new packaged products ranging from meat bars to pancake mixes to grain-free granola that meet paleo standards. The diet also trumpets consuming less industrialized types of protein such as free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and wild fish, which may bring more nutrition to the table.
Pitfalls of Paleo. Of concern, whole grains, beans, lentils, dairy—all eliminated by most paleo followers—are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can contribute to overall dietary needs. Indeed, by eliminating entire food groups, paleo devotees are at heightened risk for certain dietary deficiencies such as fiber, magnesium, and vitamin D unless they choose their “allowed” foods wisely to make sure they get what they need. It should be noted that the vast majority of research shows that diets rich in whole grains and legumes helps in the battle against many chronic diseases. And without grains, very active individuals may have a hard time eating enough carbohydrates to power their workouts (although paleo is not technically a low-carb diet). For some people, being hyper focused on eating “clean” paleo foods can set the stage for an unhealthy relationship with food and eating disorders.
The Bottom Line. All in all, the paleo diet may work for some people, while others will find it unsustainable. An ever-growing body of evidence suggests there’s no such thing as a single “best” diet—and you need to determine what works best for you, whether or not you choose to eat like a caveman.
—Matthew Kadey, MS, RD