Diet 101: The Paleo Diet

by in Diets & Weight Loss, June 3, 2010


The Paleo diet (a.k.a. the Hunter-Gatherer or Caveman diet) has been around for 40 years and has recently resurfaced with a vengeance. But should we be reverting back to what caveman ate thousands of years ago? Here’s the need-to-know about the oldest diet around.

The Paleo diet suggests eating like our early ancestors did during Paleolithic times — the period before the birth of modern agriculture (about 10,000 years ago).  It doesn’t advocate that men hunt for meat dressed in loin cloths; rather, the diet advocates eating fewer processed foods and loads of fruits and veggies.

The creators of the book (including the grandnephew of “godfather of fitness” Jack LaLanne) claim that by following this diet you’ll get rid of acne, increase your athletic performance and become naturally lean.  They also claim that increased fruit-and-veggie intake will improve symptoms of diseases like asthma, osteoporosis and high blood pressure.

The Plan
The Paleo diet encourages followers to eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies, lean meats and seafood — foods high in soluble fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, omega-3’s and monounsaturated fats.

The diet identifies certain foods that contributing to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes and discourages dieters from eating them. These foods include refined sugars and grains (like high fructose corn syrup and white flour), saturated and trans fat, salt processed foods and yeast (like in baked goods and pickled foods). Dairy and grains (even whole grains) are also discouraged and should be replaced with fruits and veggies.

The diet gives you alternative suggestions to replace some of the discouraged foods:

  • Salt: Replace it with spice combination made from ingredients such as powdered garlic, powdered onions, lime juice, salt-free lemon pepper, cayenne pepper, black pepper and oregano.
  • Vinegar: Substitute with lemon or lime juice
  • Butter and Fat: Instead of margarine, butter, shortening and lard, use oils such as olive, flaxseed, canola, walnut or avocado.
  • Sugar: Use fruit purees flavored with lemon juice and spices (like cinnamon, ginger, vanilla) instead of any type of sweeteners. Agave nectar and honey are considered healthy substitutes, but should be eaten sparingly.

The Costs
You can pick up a copy of the Paleo Diet book for about $15. The accompanying Web site is not very helpful in creating a meal plan, and can overwhelm you with tons of scientific jargon. A free Paleo diet newsletter is also available on the site.

The real cost of this diet is the food. Although your shopping list will contain fewer processed foods, you’ll need to visit the market frequently to stock up on fruits and veggies. If you’re visiting a restaurant or flying out of town, you’ll find it very challenging to find items on the menu that meet the criteria for this plan. You’ll also have a tough time during parties and will probably have to bring your own food.

The Good

  • The diet recommends fewer processed food and lots of fruits and veggies.
  • It promotes eating lean meats.
  • Exercise is a must with this diet plan.

The Not-So Good

  • This is a tough diet to follow — avoiding all flours and refined sugars is a challenge.
  • The elimination of entire groups of food (like grains, milk and legumes) also eliminates essential nutrients from the diet.
  • This plan would be very tough to follow while traveling, eating out or socializing.
  • Too much scientific jargon, much of which is controversial, such as the elimination of milk from the diet.

The Bottom Line: There are many other proven ways to lose weight that don’t involve eliminating most of the foods found in your supermarket. Although this plan promotes lots of fruits and vegetables, other foods like whole grains, legumes and dairy should be part of a well-balanced diet. The impractical nature of trying to follow this diet will leave dieters stressed and impede their ability to follow this plan for the long haul.

TELL US: Have you tried the Paleo Diet?

Read up on other diets:

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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Comments (24)

  1. ray says:

    I've been on the Paleo diet for a month. It is easy and seems to have a lot of science and logic behind it.

  2. dfeder says:

    I always get a kick out of this diet when it makes its cyclical rounds. Nobody ever seems to snap to the fact that cavemen didn't live much past their 30s or 40s, dying usually painful deaths and leaving corpses riddled with disease.

    David Feder, RD
    Food & Nutrition Director
    FIRST for Women magazine
    Bauer Publishing USA
    270 Sylvan Ave.
    Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632

  3. utility guy says:

    Mr Feder, the problem with your statement is that was an average age. they lived as long as us and were very healthy bit did have a tough , dangerous life. the low average is because many died at birth or within the first 5 years of life. they did not have doctors and medicine was not around back then. this diet is what man has lived on for 3/4 or more of his existence.

  4. Lou says:

    I just took a class involving this, and many people have the entire concept incorrect. First, Mr. Feder, you make the mistake that many people make when speaking about early humans. Most deaths in the Paleolithic era were due to accidents and trauma from activities such as hunting and gathering, not from disease; the diseases they did die from were usually parasitic or infectious and not due to diet. Second, humans would benefit from altering our diets to be similar to those of even modern hunter-forager groups (that are rare but have been studied), which include less sodium, carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables rather than refined processed foods or grains, and less saturated fats from farm-produced meat and processed foods. Game is a healthier choice of meat. Humans have evolved culturally in a way that does not allow us to go back to a Paleolithic diet effectively. There are so many people on the earth now that we can only modify our diets in healthier ways available to us. Milk is another issue, but simply put, our bodies are not made to digest lactose properly but dairying over the years has led for a small population to develop tolerance for it in certain areas of the world. The majority of the world's population actually does not tolerate lactose (this is straight milk, not fermented as in yogurt or cheese).

  5. David Feder, RD says:

    I actually agree with all of those comments — just enjoying a bit of the acerbic b/c the folks who write of these caveman diets rarely approach them with the science and logic you guys have. But there is a slight correction to make: diseases of a poor diet WERE rampant throughout the paleolithic, as evidenced in dental and bone analyses. (I was an archaeologist before I got into nutrition.) And the average age conundrum, while indeed inclusive of infant mortality, still applies because the bell curve even with infant mortality removed still is compressed compared to ours. Everything you guys write in your comments are exactly spot-on with the known science, so it's enjoyable to keep the dialogue running in an informative and mutually supportive fashion as it is here. Many thanks!
    David Feder, RD (Please check out my new book, The Skinny Carbs Diet – Rodale, 2010.)

    • Corey says:

      Check out Dave Asprey and his Bulletproof Diet. It's the upgraded paleo diet, and they take a much more scientific approach. Also there's many factors at play when considering the average lifespan of a caveman. After the 1800s when people started bathing, and weren't at a constant struggle for life, and not getting eaten by lions and whatnot they started living much longer.

  6. "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • Aylin says:

      You can not get your vitamin D and calcium from your vegetables and fruits which is found in dairy products and its necessary for bone health.

      • Investigator says:

        Vitamin D can be found in cod liver oil or just simply by exposing skin to sunlight. As for the calcium, there is plenty of it in broccoli and other non-diary products. You might want to keep it in mind:)

      • David Feder, RD says:

        vitamin D is in mushrooms

  7. paleoworks says:

    Paleo Works!
    As i started to read your post I was encouraged by the way you wrote about the Paleo Diet as I neared the end it appeared you either have questionable resources or you are advocating another diet. May I say that the only reason anyone would find it hard as I did by the way is due to the addiction to sugar that a diet based on processed foods brings. This is a real addiction that most people don't even realise they have until of course you stop.
    The other reason it may appear difficult is that yes you do need to shop regularly as it is the carb's aspect of this diet come from fresh fruit and vegetables and not.
    This said there is proven scientific evidence to show this really is what we all should be eating. This really is the answer to the worlds obesity pandemic as it only involves the consumption of real foods the body has evolved to recognize as food. For this reason Insulin production is at normal levels and thus fat storage is normal and weight gain is not an issue. Further more this goes far beyond weight loss, it has been shown to cure many illnesses associated to the modern diet such as type II diabetes, asthma, heart disease etc etc..the list is very long indeed.
    My personal experience is one of being over weight suffering from heart burn and asthma…after discovering the power of paleo I am now lean, have the six pack back I had in my teens, no longer take medication for either asthma or heart burn. The change has been phenomenal to say the much so I along with my wife and all the family are now promoters of this lifestyle…try it you will be amazed! Take a look at our blog, website coming soon. PaleoWorks!

  8. angela says:

    freda you should check out western a he research primitive groups of people all around the world. and documented what he found. there are great pictures that show primitive groups and there strong bone structure in jawlines. straight healthy teeth. and then as he saw groups that had been exposed to a westernised lifestyle the the structure changed drastically. check it out.. amazing

  9. Hmmm says:

    Alright, this article is bogus! It got so many of the facts about the Paleo diet wrong. Paleo does not really discourage saturated fats; in fact it encourages eating naturally delicious foods that happen to be high in saturated fats. And fatty meat too, is often recommended, not just lean as this article says. The summary of Paleo diet barely mentioned anything about the (non/limited-)dairy aspect of the diet, which is important and different for each person depending on their sensitivities to dairy. It hardly gets to the heart of what Paleo is. In this article, fruits and veggies and emphasized, but hello, it's also about meat. Meat that is not grain fed and contains no weird add-ins if possible. And egg is important, good cooking fats and oils, and avoiding most boxed food. The diet, which is more of a lifestyle I guess, is about getting back to basics and eliminating grains and sugar, as well as the nasty, foreign ingredients we find in packaged goods. These things are said to contribute to weight gain and disease in the general population consuming a standard American diet, and sometimes sickness in people with stomach sensitivities. Who knows which of the thousands of diets is best for each body, but this article had a lot of misinformation, then totally and unceremoniously dissed Paleo, man. And then it has the nerve to recommend a good dose of whole grains at the end, just to spite it. Research, people!

    • drew says:

      exactly, that whole bit about the olive oil I thought was ridiculous. Grass fed butter is like the main cooking fat of paleo.

  10. Foodie01 says:

    I enjoy this discussion a great deal, but I'm not sure this post accurately represents the eating recommendations. From articles and friends who follow this I've gleaned that certain kinds of fruit and even veggies are discouraged, and that fruit in general should be kept to a minimum; and that canola is an undesirable oil due to its highly refined nature. I view those ideas, particularly the fruit limitations, somewhat skeptically, I must admit.

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