You’ve likely heard of the Paleo Diet before – this back-to-basics way of eating has gained a lot of fans in recent years. Avoiding processed foods and cereals, the Paleo Diet aims to replicate the diet of our ancient ancestors and focuses on good quality meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit.
Supporters of the Paleo Diet claim that it is the way of eating most natural to our bodies. From aiding weight-loss to battling inflammation, the Paleo Diet makes some big claims about what it can do for our health and wellbeing. Does it work? That is the question this article sets out to answer. Let’s have a closer look at this popular diet and whether it can really revolutionise our health.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The name ‘Paleo’ comes from Palaeolithic, or ‘Old Stone Age’, the term archaeologists use to describe the earliest period of human history, from 2.6 million years ago to around 10 thousand years ago. This is the period when anatomically modern humans first evolve, appearing in Africa around 250 thousand years ago.
In this pre-farming era, humans were reliant on what they could hunt or gather for food, eating plants, meat, and fish. The earliest cereal grains weren’t domesticated until around 8 thousand years ago, which makes them a relatively recent addition to the human diet. Dairy from cows, goats, and sheep also doesn’t appear in the diet of our ancestors until around 6 thousand years ago. That gives us thousands of years of human evolution where dairy and grains weren’t eaten by humans. Proponents of the Paleo Diet argue that our systems are not really designed to cope with these foods, which is why so many people experience gluten or lactose intolerance.
The Paleo Diet attempts to replicate the diet of our early ancestors, but in the modern-day world. So you don’t have to take up hunting or foraging, or cook all of your food over a fire, in order to eat Paleo.
As well as bringing human diets back to basics, the Paleo Diet is concerned by the diet of the animals we eat. Many livestock are now fed on grain, rather than their natural diet of grass. Since one of the core tenets is to avoid cereals and grains, those eating a Paleo Diet opt for grass-fed meat wherever possible.
Although many people go on the Paleo Diet to lose weight, it is also thought to tackle digestive issues and inflammatory diseases. It does this by cutting the foods that cause inflammation out of your diet and encouraging you to eat more nutritious fruits and vegetables.
What you can eat on the Paleo Diet
There are a few variations of the Paleo Diet, so not everyone who follows it will be using the exact same rules. Fundamentally, the Paleo Diet aims to eat as closely as possible to the diet of Palaeolithic man, which means that anything that is associated with farming is out.
Those on the Paleo Diet will usually be avoiding:
- Cereals – this includes wheat, barley, corn, rye, maize, oats etc. Since these are ubiquitous in baked goods, the Paleo Diet excludes bread, pasta, couscous, breakfast cereals, porridge, cereal bars, biscuits, cakes and many other common foods.
- Other Grains – as well as cereals, the Paleo Diet forbids other grains such as rice, since they also weren’t eaten during the Palaeolithic.
- Refined Sugars – refined sugar has to be processed before it can be eaten and wouldn’t have been available to our Palaeolithic ancestors. Since many processed foods are high in sugar, the Paleo Diet takes a lot of commercial snack foods and sweet treats off the menu.
- Dairy – on the Paleo Diet, people don’t eat any dairy from cows, goats, and sheep. That means no milk, no yoghurt, and no cheese, as well as no processed foods that contain milk derivatives.
- Legumes – like cereals and grains, legumes weren’t on the menu for people in the Palaeolithic. This means that lentils, beans, and chickpeas aren’t allowed on the Paleo Diet. It also cuts out peanuts, which are actually a legume, and soy products such as soy sauce, tofu, and tempeh.
- Refined vegetable oils – it takes a lot of processing to extract oil from things like corn, rapeseed, soybeans, or sunflower seeds. These oils also contain a lot of Omega-6 fats, which are thought to cause inflammation. For both these reasons, refined vegetable oils aren’t allowed on the Paleo Diet.
- Processed foods – avoiding cereals, dairy, refined sugar, and refined oils cuts out most processed foods anyway, but for the avoidance of doubt, the Paleo Diet forbids processed foods. To eat Paleo, you need to eat foods in a form that is as close to natural as possible. That means a lot of cooking from scratch!
In addition to these main foods, some people who are eating a Paleo Diet will also avoid:
- Potatoes – potatoes have a high glycaemic index and are often found in very processed forms, such as chips and crisps. They are also a member of the nightshade family, which means some people can have difficult tolerating them. Many people following a Paleo Diet will exclude potatoes or only eat them very occasionally. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are usually allowed.
- Pseudo-grains – grains like quinoa, millet, amaranth, and buckwheat are sometimes referred to as pseudo-grains. Although they are often touted as healthier alternatives to cereal grains, especially for those on a gluten-free diet, many of those who are on a Paleo Diet will avoid pseudo-grains too, both because they weren’t available in the Palaeolithic and because they contain lectins and saponins which are thought to cause inflammation.
- Alcohol – many alcohols are made from grains, including beer, whisky, and other spirits. Some people will continue to drink limited amounts of other types of alcohol while on the Paleo Diet, such as wine, which is made from grapes. Others cut alcohol out altogether.
With these foods excluded, the Paleo Diet concentrates on vegetables, fruit, eggs, grass-fed meat, fish, honey, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils such as avocado oil or macadamia nut oil.
Does the Paleo Diet work?
There are two main reasons that people go on the Paleo Diet – to lose weight, or to tackle health issues caused by inflammation, such as digestive problems, joint pain, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
Can the Paleo Diet help you lose weight?
The Paleo Diet is high in protein and plant-based foods, and low in carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. This means it works well to regulate blood sugar and keep us feeling fuller for longer. By cutting out sugar and highly processed foods, the Paleo Diet helps to reduce calorie intake too.
Studies into the effectiveness of the Paleo Diet in various groups, including people with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, have found that it is an effective way to lose weight – participants in all three studies lost weight and waist circumference. It works for healthy people too; a three-week trial with healthy volunteers found that they too lost weight, as well as seeing a reduction in blood pressure.
Whether the diet will work for you will likely depend on your existing diet and lifestyle. Many people who adopt the diet go from eating a typical Western diet, which is high in processed food, saturated fat, and sugar, to eating Paleo, which includes far more vegetables and fruit. So if your diet is already high in plant-based whole foods, you may see less of an effect.
Does the Paleo Diet help to manage chronic disease?
One of the aims of the Paleo Diet is to eliminate foods that contain compounds known to cause inflammation. Gluten is a big one here, but the Paleo Diet is also concerned with other lectins, especially the ones found in legumes and grains. Lectins are a type of protein that is known as an ‘anti-nutrient’ because they can prevent the absorption of minerals and irritate our digestive systems. Part of the reason that legumes, cereals, and other grains are not allowed on the Paleo Diet is because of their lectin content.
This all sounds very logical, except for one thing – issues are only caused by active lectins and soaking and cooking deactivate most lectins. So if you soak beans overnight and then cook them, you are unlikely to experience any issues, as long as you are generally healthy. Some people have more sensitivity to these foods than others, especially people with underlying digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, or Crohn’s disease.
While lectins may not be a major issue for many people, the Paleo Diet does contain a lot of foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as vegetables and fruits. Antioxidants reduce inflammation and oxidative stress by combatting the harmful effects of free radicals. A diet that is high in antioxidants can help to prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The vegetables and fruit that make up a big proportion of the Paleo Diet are also high in dietary fibre. Fibre is important to your digestive health and supports a well-balanced gut biome. It also helps to prevent inflammation, so may reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
A 2019 meta-study looked into the effects of the Paleo Diet and concluded that it shows promise for the management of chronic diseases. In conclusion; yes, the Paleo Diet can help to reduce or prevent the symptoms of chronic disease.
Should you go Paleo?
A major advantage of a Paleo Diet is that it has clear guidelines to follow. There is no need to count calories, track macros, or weigh out portion-sizes. This can make it easier to follow than some other diet plans. However, it can be difficult to find Paleo-compliant food if you are out and about, so if you aren’t already a comfortable home cook, there may be quite a learning curve.
The Paleo Diet is also hard to follow if you are vegetarian and impossible if you are vegan, as it eliminates many of the best sources of plant-based protein. So, if you don’t eat meat or fish, the Paleo Diet is unlikely to be suitable for you.
If you like a high amount of protein in your diet, are a confident cook (or are willing to learn), and are more comfortable cutting out certain foods than having to keep track of calories or portion-size, then the Paleo Diet may be a good choice.
If you are interested in starting out on the Paleo Diet, these resources can help you get started:
The Paleo Diet won’t be for everyone. But science shows that it can be an effective way to lose weight and prevent or manage chronic disease. For those who eat meat, eating the way our ancestors did may be a good choice.