What is the Paleo diet?

  • By
    Roxanne Fisher - Health editor - bbcgoodfood.com

If you've ever considered following a diet make sure you have all the facts first. Our health editor and nutritional therapist take a look at the Paleo diet...

What is the Paleo diet?

The history of Paleo

A way of eating that truly goes back to basics, Paleolithic diets are all about eating like our ancestors did. While you may not be inclined or even required to chase down a wildebeest, Paleo fans aim to eat as naturally as possible, opting for grass-fed meats, an abundance of fruit and veg and other wholefoods like nuts and seeds. Some relaxed versions of the diet allow taboo foods (that were not necessarily available during that era) like low-fat dairy products and potatoes, while others shun even fruit or veg that is considered to contain too much fructose.

Paleolithic living as a dietary concept was first promoted by gastroenterologist, Dr Walter L Voegtlin. His book, The Stone Age diet, was published in 1975 and paved the way for a plethora of different Paleolithic approaches, all similar in their core principles but with varying rules and restrictions. Common terms for these types of diet include the caveman diet, the hunter-gatherer diet and of course, the Paleo diet.

While there are many ways to practice, three of the most popular and respected Paleo ‘gurus’ around are:

Dr Loren Cordain
A professor at Colorado State University specialising in health & exercise science. Dr Cordain is considered by many to be the authority on Paleolithic living. His book, The Paleo diet, published in 2002 talks about the benefits of Paleo for weight loss and health.

Robb Wolf
A former biochemist, Wolf studied under Dr Cordain and is author of The Paleo solution, another popular resource, first published in 2010.

Mark Sisson (Mark’s daily apple and The Primal Blueprint)
An ex-athlete, Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint is a slightly different version of the Paleolithic approach and a popular online resource.


The dietPaleo diet

The Paleolithic era was pre-agricultural for the most part and certain foods that we consume in abundance today were unsuitable for consumption in their raw form. Many Paleo followers believe our digestive systems have changed little since then and therefore the following foods put a strain on our gastrointestinal tract:

  • Legumes
  • Cereal grains
  • Refined sugar
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Salt
  • Dairy
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Root vegetables

As mentioned, different forms of the diet vary in their restrictiveness so in some cases low-fat dairy products and root veg are allowed. All versions of the diet encourage lean proteins, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats from whole foods such as nuts, seeds and olive oil and grass-fed meat. 


Nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens says:

AvocadoDescribed as a “lifetime programme …. and not a quick fix weight loss diet” the Paleo diet is said to promote a ‘cleaner’, more natural way of eating with low levels of sugar, salt plus the elimination of processed foods. The idea is that this is more in tune with how our bodies have evolved and how over the centuries we would have fuelled ourselves. As a consequence the plan omits dairy foods, cereal grains, starchy vegetables as well as sugar in favour of wild, lean animal foods, non-starchy fruit and vegetables and honey. Healthy fats are encouraged such as the unsaturated varieties and specifically oils like olive, flax, walnut and avocado.

As a consequence, the diet is relatively low in carbs but rich in lean protein and plant foods, which contibute all-important fibre, vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals. Unlike certain other low-carb diets, the Paleo diet doesn’t promote high-fat foods and salty, processed meats and it encourages the inclusion of certain fruit and vegetables that have a beneficial alkalising effect. The elimination of such a wide range of foods like grains, dairy, processed foods and sugar with a minimal intake of saturated fats means the diet is more than likely going to lead to some weight loss.

The Paleo diet ignores the health benefits of consuming whole-grains as well as beans, legumes and starchy veg.  Numerous studies have reported a reduced incidence of heart disease in those who regularly consume three servings of whole-grains a day. The low GI (glycaemic index) properties of beans and legumes make them especially useful for those with blood sugar issues and starchy veg are a great source of nutrient-dense energy. All of these foods supply B vitamins, which among other things help us unlock the energy in our food. Finally, omitting dairy has received much criticism in that it may limit the intake of minerals like calcium.

Those following a diet restricting certain food groups may experience:

  • Lack of energy, fatigue and dizziness because of lower levels of carbs
  • Nutrient deficiencies because of the restricted food choice
  • Problems sticking with the diet especially when socialising and eating out because of its restriction on grains and dairy

Please note, if you are considering attempting any form of diet please consult your GP first to ensure you can do so without risk to health.

More information...

If you want to read more about the Paleo diet you can do so at:

Weight loss and good health can be achieved by following a healthy, balanced diet. Our nutritionist approved plan helps you find your perfect portion size, guideline daily amounts and nutritionally balanced breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks:
A balanced diet for women
A balanced diet for men

Want facts and information on other diets? Read more from our health editor and nutritional therapist on other popular weight loss plans:
The Atkins diet
The Dukan diet
The 5:2 diet


A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

 All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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kath_232's picture

I can definitely vouch for the paleo diet too - sure it takes a bit of getting used to but I've stuck with it for the past 6 months (after a failed first attempt) and have seen some really good results too. Here's my advice to anyone who wants to get started quickly without spending hours researching what to eat etc. http://mirandasjeans.com/quickstart-paleo

jwerner's picture

We have been following the paleo 'diet' since September 2013, after my husband was told he was insulin resistant with alarmingly high blood sugar levels. After 3 months his blood sugar was back to normal and he'd lost almost 3 stone. I lost just over a stone. I echo dandares's comments and highly recommend the cook book Well Fed and Well Fed 2 to give a great introduction to cooking this way. We are never hungry and enjoy full fat 'clean' foods wholeheartedly. Can't say enough about it and encourage those interested to read "Why We Get Fat" by Gary Taubes.

dandares's picture

I love this diet, but the low fat element has since been quashed and it's generally accepted that full fat organic is the way to go.

dandares's picture

I don't normally have the patience to write comments on the web but I felt compelled to say something regarding the Paleo lifestyle. Both my partner and I have been going Paleo for a couple if months now. I say "lifestyle" because diet implies its a quick fix which it isn't. I must admit its been amazing, we have both lost weight, loosing our "muffin top" which I think is largely linked to the elimination of refined sugar from our diet. Firstly not everyone is 100% strict, we can tolerate lactose so we include good quality organic full fat dairy (high fat is important as the fat slows down the absorption of sugars into the blood, reducing insulin production and subsequent fat storage) insulin is the fat storage hormone! Its quite difficult getting your head around the fact that butter and double cream is healthy and vegetable oils aren't (too much omega 6 to 3 ratio) but when you start seeing the kgs drop off you have to believe it. I was a great fan of locally produced English Rapeseed Oil before but now I've had to switch back to extra virgin Olive Oil which has a more healthy omega 3-6 ratio. Also is quite difficult to be 100% strict all the time as your do have to be quite prepared and enjoy cooking which you end up doing a lot of but there are some great cookery books out there such as "well fed" "fitter food" and my favourite "the paleo chocolate lovers cook book" The low fat element has since been quashed since Paleo inception and it's generally accepted that as long as it's good quality organic produce the fat element is okay.

One good website that explains the reasoning behind the high fat low carb way of Paleo is dietdoctor.com (a Swedish GP) but I love reading nomnompaleo.com and thespunkycoconut.com for some great food ideas so there's no reason to get stuck eating steak and broccoli all the time.

I just wish BBC Good food took more notice of this lifestyle which is picking up quite a lot of traction in the USA and Sweden and provide some recipes as I used to enjoy sifting through the website trying out different recipes. I do love "fitter foods" paleo scotch eggs, I eat them until they're coming out my ears.

linamb's picture

I live over seas and have been on this diet for over a year. It helped my husbands autoimmune disease A LOT! It is proven we need fats to stay slim and fit, I consume coconut oil and olive oil daily with lots of avocado and not poisonous mass produced oils and grains. "Marks daily apple" is my go to website along with nomnompaleo.