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What is the Paleo diet?

If you've ever considered following a diet make sure you have all the facts first. We asked a nutritionist to take a look at the Paleo or 'caveman' 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.

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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.

Sliced steak on a board with rosemary

The 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 (including peanuts)
  • 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. 

Nutritionist Kerry Torrens says:

Described as a “lifetime programme …. and not a quick fix weight loss diet” the Paleo diet is said to promote a more natural way of eating with low levels of sugar, salt plus the elimination of processed, refined 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 typically (but not always) 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.

The diet is relatively low in carbs but rich in lean protein and plant foods. These plant foods contribute all-important fibre, vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals. Unlike certain other low-carb diets, the Paleo diet doesn’t promote salty, processed meats and it encourages the inclusion of certain fruit and vegetables. The diet is not low fat but instead promotes the inclusion of natural fats from pasture-fed livestock, fish and seafood as well as nuts, seeds and their oils. The elimination of such a wide range of foods like grains, dairy, processed foods and sugar means the diet is more than likely to lead to some weight loss. However, many followers of the Paleo way of eating do so not to lose weight but to address a digestive or inflammatory health issue. In fact, a number of small studies have suggested that those following a Paleo diet report positive health outcomes including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and a reduction in the risk factors for heart disease.

However, the logic behind the plan does have its faults. What our ancestors ate would have been dependent on where they lived in the world, making avocados an unlikely dietary staple for us Brits. Our ancestors were also far more physically active, having to hunt and gather for their food. The Paleo diet also 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. As a consequence, those who have been diagnosed or who are at risk of medical conditions, including osteoporosis, or who have particular dietary requirements should consult their GP before making changes to their diet.

Those following a diet restricting certain food groups may experience:

  • Nutrient deficiencies (when meals are not properly planned) because of the restricted food choice – for example, calcium
  • Problems sticking with the diet especially when socialising and eating out because of the 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…

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


This article was last reviewed on 8 July 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

A nutritionist (MBANT) 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).

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