What is the paleo diet?
Does the 'caveman diet’ work for weight loss, or is its focus on unrefined food better for our digestive system? Our expert nutritionist shares the science.
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 buffalo, paleo fans aim to eat as naturally as possible, opting for grass-fed meats, an abundance of fruit and vegetables and other wholefoods, like nuts and seeds. Common terms for these types of diet include the caveman diet, the hunter-gatherer diet and, of course, the paleo diet.
The diet was first promoted in the 1975 book The Stone Age Diet by gastroenterologist, Dr Walter L Voegtlin. This paved the way for a plethora of different paleolithic approaches, all similar in their core principles but with varying rules and restrictions.
While there are many ways to practice, three of the most popular paleo ‘gurus’ to follow are:
Dr Loren Cordain – considered by many as the authority on paleolithic living. Dr Cordain’s 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, published in 2010.
Mark Sisson – an ex-athlete, his The Primal Blueprint is a slightly different version of the paleolithic approach and a popular online resource.
Discover our full range of health guides and read more about popular diets such as the Dukan diet and Atkins diet. Also check out some of our delicious paleo recipes, from seared steak and baked salmon to ratatouille with poached eggs.
How does the paleo diet work?
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 and 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. The diet is not low fat but instead promotes the inclusion of natural fats from grass-fed livestock, fish and seafood as well as nuts, seeds and their oils.
How to follow the paleo diet
This diet is relatively low in carbs but rich in lean protein and plant foods. These plant foods contribute fibre, vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients. Unlike some other low-carb diets, the paleo diet doesn’t promote salty, processed meats.
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Over the years the diet has evolved and as a result some more modern foods like butter from grass-fed cows and grains like rice, can be included. However, other versions shun even fruit or vegetables that are considered to contain too much fructose.
What foods can I eat on the paleo diet?
- Meat (lean, grass-fed)
- Fish and seafood (preferably wild-caught)
- Eggs (free range)
- Green vegetables such as broccoli, kale
- Fruits, including berries, tomatoes, avocado
- Nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices
- Fats and unsaturated oils, such as olive, flax, walnut and avocado
Foods to avoid on the paleo diet
Many paleo followers believe our digestive systems have changed little since that time and therefore the following foods put a strain on our gastrointestinal tract and should be avoided:
• Legumes (including peanuts)
• Cereal grains
• Refined sugar and artificial sweeteners
• Potatoes and other root vegetables
• Processed foods and meat
• Refined vegetable oils
• Soft drinks
As mentioned above, different forms of the diet vary in their restrictiveness, so in some cases low-fat dairy products and root vegetables are allowed. All versions of the diet encourage lean proteins, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats from whole foods such as nuts, seeds and grass-fed meat.
What’s the evidence behind the paleo diet?
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, type II diabetes and obesity. However, the level of evidence remains weak because of the limited number of studies and the low sample sizes involved.
Is the paleo diet healthy? Our nutritionist’s view…
Although the paleo diet may bring some health benefits (such as reducing your risk of obesity), 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, for instance. Our ancestors were also far more physically active, having to hunt and gather for their food.
The paleo diet ignores the health benefits of consuming wholegrains as well as beans, legumes and starchy vegetables. Numerous studies have reported a reduced incidence of heart disease in those who regularly consume three servings of these wholegrains a day. The low GI (glycaemic index) properties of beans and legumes make them especially useful for those with blood sugar issues and starchy vegetables are a great source of nutrient-dense energy. All of these foods also supply B vitamins, which among other things help us to unlock the energy in our food.
Finally, omitting dairy has received 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.
Finally, your ability to comply with the diet over the longer term may be an issue because of the restriction on grains and dairy which may be problematic especially when socialising or eating out.
Does the paleo diet work for weight loss?
The elimination of such a wide range of foods (including grains, dairy, processed foods and sugar) means the diet is more than likely going to lead to some weight loss. This may also involve a favourable reduction in waist circumference and improvements in fat storage.
The paleo diet doesn’t specifically restrict calories but the dietary ‘rules’ result in fewer carbs and more protein being eaten, which tends to result in a spontaneous calorie reduction. It’s also worth saying that many followers of the paleo way of eating do so not to lose weight, but to address a digestive or inflammatory health issue.
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.
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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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