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.

Salad with kitchen scales

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.

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).

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.

Comments, questions and tips

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Huda Taqi's picture
Huda Taqi
9th Aug, 2019
Thank you for the article! Very well written, but I find that it is sooo hard to start! A friend of mine wanted to start but to be honest it´s hard when you don´t know where to begin. We searched many sites and found just the right place! The information on there is fantastic and the instructions is so easy to follow. She actually lost around 10 pounds in a month! She of course worked out (HIIT and strength training) as well while she was on the diet! Here is the link if anyone is interested https://bit.ly/2MRDSb6 I hope it will help others as it helped her!
26th Mar, 2015
I don't leave comments either but have to this time. Highly recommend paleo diet as a lifelong habit for good health. I was suffering migraine twice a week with headaches the rest of the time and diagnosed wi chronic migraine, I also have IBS and was struggling to shift the excess baby weight. I tried restricting calories and that just had a negative effect all round. I witnessed the transformation, in shock, of family members with chronic autoimmune conditions as they self treated through cutting grains, legumes and eating no processed food. As a scientist I couldn't get over the dropping of so much carbohydrate, it's been nailed in for so long about carb good and fat bad. looked up Gary Taubes and others to see what they had to say, highly recommend watching Gary Taubes lecture on YouTube based on his book 'Why we get fat'. It flicked a lightbulb on, went to my biochem books and... he was telling the truth! I had the information about fat cell control all along! So just losing my excess weight was enough to get me paleo, I have lost 20 lb in 12 weeks, about 10% body fat! and gained muscle! without calorie counting! without doing major exercise ! And without feeling hungry! And the IBS is gone and the migraines are gone, I just have a few headaches now and again when I don't keep my water intake high enough. On my journey I also discovered that the nightshade family of veggies wasn't good for me, so they've gone too. I also bed that my vitamin and mineral intake is much higher than it was! Just also want to reiterate that paleo is not low fat. It is high fat, but natural fats, including saturated fat. There is no evidence of a direct link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Look up Dr Attia for a concise lecture going through the history. The fat should come as clean a source as possible. And for those who think going out is difficult, I went to an Italian last night, oh yes, and had a quick chat with the knowledgeable waiter and he brought me a beautiful meal of steak with lovely mushroom sauce made with meat juices (on the menu it had tomatoes in but he left those out for me because of my sensitivity to nightshades) and loads of veggies including carrots and broccoli . I was delighted and he was delighted too that he had helped me. Also I was satiated by my meal that I had no desire for desert at all. But if that's too much to ask, have carbs and sugar, your body will be able to deal with it pretty well if it's only once in a while and get back to normal the next meal. Look up Mark Sissons, Marksdailyapple, very helpful website, although his primal blueprint does allow dairy, IF you tolerate it.
16th May, 2014
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.
22nd Oct, 2013
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.
22nd Oct, 2013
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.
9th Sep, 2015
After 30 days on the Whole30 we started reading about the Paleo diet and here we both are 6 weeks in with no diary no wheat no legumes and grains just meat, fish, chicken eggs and nuts from good sources we even found paleo sausages and sugar free bacon. we have both lost about 7 pounds in weight and feel great, never hungry getting much more fat than before. The Tom Naughton film 'Fat Chance' explains the nonsense saturated fat= heart disease. There is also a short update from him on youtube. Have a look it is entertaining and infuriating that we have been lied to for so long. .
13th May, 2014
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.
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