Eating more like our ancestors may be a prescription for regaining and maintaining our health. Here's what you should know about the basics of the Paleo diet.
The Paleo diet — sometimes called the Stone Age or caveman diet — has steadily gained attention and popularity over the past decade. The basics of the Paleo diet are based on the idea that we thrive when we eat as our hunter–gatherer ancestors did during the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age. In fact, it’s not a “diet,” but a lifelong way of eating to reduce your risk of chronic disease, which many believe is caused by the newer parts of a modern diet.
The concept of the Paleo diet emerged in 1985 as a research paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was later popularized by Loren Cordain, PhD, a nutrition and exercise physiology researcher, who published his original book “The Paleo Diet” in 2002 and an updated version in 2012. Cordain’s popular The Paleo Diet website offers information on this “ancient” style of eating along with Paleo recipes.
The diet is often described as simply sticking to meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and healthy fats — which is true enough — but an equally important goal of the Paleo diet is to get away from highly processed foods, focusing instead on nutritionally dense whole foods.
The basics of the Paleo diet
If you’re following a Paleo lifestyle, your diet consists of:
- Grass-produced meats
- Fish and seafood
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Free-range eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthful oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, avocado)
Of course, there are limitations. A fast-food beef patty wrapped in a lettuce leaf isn’t Paleo. Bacon isn’t Paleo. Although both are meat, they are also highly processed (unless you buy unprocessed meat directly from a farmer or abattoir, or you raise your own animals). Why does this matter? Unprocessed foods are much more nutritionally dense, providing significantly more nutritional bang for your caloric buck.
Emphasis is placed on eating healthful foods with beneficial nutrients like soluble fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidant vitamins, omega-3 and monounsaturated fats, and low-glycemic carbohydrates, which you digest more slowly. Eating organic as much as possible is also a fundamental Paleo premise.
The original version of the Paleo diet eliminates whole grains, beans and legumes, dairy, refined sugars, saturated and trans fats, salt, high-glycemic carbohydrates, and processed foods. Proponents claim a diet heavy with foods containing these ingredients raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers by sparking inflammation and raising blood sugar levels.
If you have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant, a Paleo diet can be beneficial. In addition, research has shown the Paleo diet can improve symptoms of metabolic syndrome, which is marked by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels — all risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
A review of different diets by an international team of researchers noted several studies have suggested the Paleo diet in its original form — strictly eliminating grains and legumes — lowers inflammation in the body. This may not only reduce cancer risk but also help prevent or treat autoimmune diseases.
Although research published in the journal Cardiology about the cardioprotective protective benefits of including specific foods in your diet and avoiding others agrees with several of the recommendations included in the Paleo diet, it disagrees with eliminating all whole grains, legumes, and all dairy products.
Talk to your doctor before changing your diet radically, especially if you have a chronic health problem or specific disease risk factors.
A modified version of the Paleo diet
Since the Paleo diet first became popular, especially with people interested in losing weight, some people following a slightly different version of the diet have modified a few of the basics of this style of eating.
For example, Michelle Jospe, PhD, a diabetes and obesity researcher at the University of Otago, and colleagues have studied and compared several popular diets (including the Mediterranean diet, intermittent fasting, and the Paleo diet). They found the “original" Paleo diets have changed over the past decade.
While proponents of eating the Paleo way originally emphasized strictly excluding all dairy, grains, and legumes from the diet, a more modified version, allowing up to one serving each day of a grain-based food and one serving of legumes, appears to be more easily adhered to, according to Jospe and colleagues.
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the University of Otago research team found people using the Mediterranean style of eating or intermittent fasting were more likely to keep up these eating styles than those on the Paleo diet for a year or more. While fewer people stuck with the Paleo diet, a significant number — 35 percent — did keep on eating the Paleo way.
If you suffer from any of the health conditions commonly associated with a Western lifestyle, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, it may be worth your while to get in touch with your inner cave dweller. You can easily find many websites, books, and articles to guide your exploration of a Paleo lifestyle and find recipes and support.
April 28, 2022
Janet O’Dell, RN