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)

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  2. Primal Diet says:

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  3. Danny says:

    I've been eating Paleo for over two years now for health, not weightloss, and find this article (and many of the comments) very misguiding when it comes to what the paleo diet is. It's not about "eating like a caveman" but studying our evolution to solve what it is we should be eating in the modern world to be healthiest. After struggling with my weight for many years and reading many of the major diet books Paleo came to my attention through my MIT network. I graduated from MIT and like to say that while most MIT grads don't have six-packs, all the one's that do eat paleo. If you study the diet most questions are finally answered with peer-reviewed biochemistry, or at least mainstream biochemistry theory and an archaeological explanation of what in our evolution led to these processes. True paleo also goes beyond what you eat, delving into how to sleep and work out for optimal health.

    Critique (1) The diet doesn't encourage lots of fruit. It allows fruit but views it as candy and recommends lots of moderation the more fructose the fruit has. (2) It doesn't recommend foods high in soluble fiber directly. If you're eating paleo properly and cutting out non-paleo foods then fiber is not considered. Sure I eat plenty of vegetables high in fiber but I don't seek it because I'm not eating anything that makes my body NEED fiber. (3) Same critique with the statement regarding mono-unsaturated fats because it suggests you should stay clear of saturated fats (it doesn't) and doesn't address polyunsaturated fats beyond Omega-3 which is a major concern in Paleo nutrition. Paleo encourages a diet replete with saturated fats as long as they come from grass-fed animals and wild-caught fish. This extends to some dairy products like pastured butter and cream (two delicacies you can have very liberally in a paleo regimen). It discourages any fats/oils high in the polyunsaturated fatty Linoleic Acid (or Omega-6) because of it's highly inflammatory qualities. A great amount of modern paleo is avoiding this fat found in grain-fed animals/dairy, many nuts/seeds, and almost all vegetable/nut/seed/bean oils except for avocado, coconut, and olive oil. So again, it doesn't encourage "lean meats" if they are grass-fed or wild-caught. If you are eating grain-fed animals THEN you would want a leaner cut because you want to avoid their fats high in Omega-6. (4) It fails to tell you that innert gluten-free (and other anti-nutrient-free) starchy foods such as potato, yam, white rice, whole corn are considered acceptable to eat as long as you're not trying to lose stored fat due to their insulinogenic properties. (5) Salt and vinegar intake is not monitored closely as the system of an individual eating correctly and exercising will be good at managing these substances in the body. (6) THE MOST INCORRECT STATEMENT is under the "Butter and Fat" section where the writer rejects butter and advises canola and walnut oil. Canola oil is a substance shunned by the Paleo diet due to it's incredibly high concentration of Omega-6 and brings me to my major problem with this summary. The writer is clearly not approaching it from a scientific/chemical direction; if they were there would be no chance of this error occurring. There is no food as "butter" because it is a fat and grass-fed and grain-fed butter have very different chemical profiles. Grass-fed butter is a high in Omega-3 and CLA while low in Omega-6 which makes it THE ideal cooking fat (I know athletes that put it in their coffee instead of cream). Furthermore it recommends cooking at high heat with coconut oil because of it's high smoke-point and consuming olive oil raw because cooking with it degenerates the PUFAs causing them become inflammatory. (7) You don't need to buy anything to educate yourself about the diet. The brightest minds post all their knowledge for free on their websites such as Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and my personal favorite Dr. Kurt Harris. (8) Legumes aren't completely cut out, in paleo you understand WHY you're cutting something out. In legumes case it is the anti-nutrient lectin we are avoiding but recognizing that soaking many legumes in baking soda removes high amounts of the lectins form the legumes (~95% in lentils for example) it renders them innert and can be consumed like other innert starches (potato, corn, white rice).

    It upsets me that the writer would in summary discourage readers from turning to this diet because they, who have obviously never followed it, think it sounds difficult – it is not if you're motivated and well-informed. Additionally, beyond weight-loss this is a diet about health that reduces to the greatest extent of any other diet the intake of dangerous trans-fats, inflammatory omega-6s, as well as gluten, lectin, and sugar/fructose, making you the healthiest version of yourself which in turn results in the leanest version of yourself. Finally the writer refers to other "proven" weight-loss diets but I would like to know to which she is referring as I don't know of any other diet that directly targets the elimination of insulinogenic foods, biochemically the specific way to stop your body from storing fat and encourages the natural production of progesterone through exercise, the central hormone for the biochemical process for depleting fat stores.

  4. Anika Lavan says:

    I appreciate you pointing this out for the reason that I have in no way seen like like that. For that cause I could point out a number of your points by myself weblog; Lets hope that you’re Ok with that. Do you suppose perhaps while in the long term we are able to do the job collectively someway in between our web-sites? Make me aware what you assume.

  5. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon
    on a daily basis. It’s always useful to read content from other authors and use something from other sites.

  6. Great Post! A complete guide for people who follow paleo diet! I think this list would definitely help. Thanks for putting them all together.

  7. @smart_paleo says:

    This post is awesome. You have given a comprehensive list of paleo food items. This should guide me as I plan for my weekly meal, as well as in making my paleo shopping list. Shopping list are very useful, because aside from it being a time saver, it is above all a money saver. By listing only the foods that we need to buy, we avoid to go over budget . Impulsive buying will be curtailed with the use of your shopping list.

  8. Casey says:

    How could eating organic meat, veggies, fruit, and nuts be bad for you? Diabetics are supposed to avoid sugar, and many grains (grains aren't always healthy, thank you GMOs and Monsanto) so why such hate on the Paleo diet? Is it because most recipes on this website are not paleo friendly? Is it because if everyone ate this way, companies like Monsanto and pharmaceutical companies would take a nose dive? I've never felt as good as when I eat paleo. Sure it's hard kicking that sugar addiction and it takes a great deal of planning but the mental clarity, lack of bloating, energy, and overall good feeling that results is worth it. Since I replaced 70-80% of my diet with paleo food 2 years ago, I have only been sick 1 time-thank you norovirus. #worst48hoursever. I haven't even had a cold! I'll stick to what makes me feel good, not what "professionals" think, especially when many of them are being paid by companies lobbying against organic food. Conflict of interest much?

  9. Asha-roo says:

    I think that everyone's forgetting the factors of exercise and time.

    This diet is completely impractical in that you have to shop and cook constantly. Processed food costs way less than organic, natural-fed meat and produce. "Organic" is about as useless a word in nutrition as "holistic" or "wholesome." Organic meats and fruits are commonly mislabeled, can be hard to find, and perish right away.

    Most people in America who are working to take care of a family do not have the time or money to spend on a diet like this. Cavemen didn't sit in a chair in an office 8-5, six days a week, so the whole "eat how we once ate" idea is nonsensical. I can't shop at Whole Foods or whatever organic whats-it, because I have rent and bills to pay first.

    I don't want to spend all my time out of work making food. If you have a family to provide for, on top of working, this is expensive and a pain in the @$s and you're going to give it up quickly, like any other fad diet.

    Also, socializing, traveling or eating out becomes nearly impossible. You can't eat anything anyone makes, and you become "that weird friend" that has to bring her own food, and then people assume you think you're real special, self-important, and rude. Sharing food is part of friendship and family bonding. If you refuse someone's food at a party, you become the center of attention, whether you want it or not (and not in a good way). You inconvenience everyone else as much as yourself, including your children; e.g., birthday parties. You'll have to make a bunch of paleo friends, I guess.

    More veggies and fruit? Less processed crap? More exercise? Great, got it, but that's basic; everyone knows this. It's not a "diet plan," it's just being rational. It's a paradigm shift we need in this country, a shift in how we eat, and paradigm shifts take time. Paleo is far too drastic to be useful to the masses.

    I don't buy anecdotes, I go by facts and practical applications. Anyone at the poverty line or below it (such as myself) is not going to go paleo. I'd rather have a bowl of Ramen for dinner than nothing at all, and that's often my only choice. I guess poor people just get the shaft then.

    Besides, any diet whose proponents claim this much life-changing benefit without studies or proof should remain as suspect as something like Slim-Fast diets. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

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