The Truth Behind the Paleo Diet—And Whether It’s Worth Trying

Flickr via Natasia.Causse

Flickr via Natasia.Causse

Have you heard people throwing the word “paleo” around lately? Seen the #30daypaleochallenge hashtag trending on Twitter or Instagram? Whether you’ve never heard of this diet before or have been curious about what all the fuss is, here’s a basic guide.

The Basics

Paleo is short for Paleolithic, referencing the Stone Age. That’s why the diet, which attempts to emulate the way our ancestors ate, is also known as Caveman Diet or the Real Food Diet. Because there’s no way of actually determining what our ancestors ate, the diet encourages eating whole and unprocessed foods.

What you can eat: The Paleo diet includes meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds—foods that are easiest for our bodies to digest and that contain the most nutrients. With vegetables, it’s best to buy seasonally and locally, while fruits should be low in sugar (like berries). With animal products, quality is key, which means getting protein-filled meat and eggs from grass-fed and organic sources, and aiming for wild-caught (not farm-raised) seafood that’s low in mercury content. Finally, you’re encouraged to get your dose of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats with a variety of nuts, seeds, and oils (think: avocado, coconut, and olive oils).

What you should avoid: Whole eating means cutting out processed and packages foods. A good rule of thumb is to avoid food with any ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Refined and artificial sugars are a no-no; honey and maple syrup are good and natural sweetener alternatives. And while legumes like beans and soy contain protein and vitamins, proponents of the Paleo diet say these foods aren’t “nutrient-dense,” due to their high concentrations of carbohydrates and phytoestrogens (which some say is linked to cancer). Finally, according to the diet, you should also avoid common allergens like dairy (or opt for grass-fed and organic dairy products) as well as grains, especially wheat and wheat flour.

Again, this is just a basic guideline. There are many more specifics about what constitutes a Paleo diet. We like the Only Paleo app as a resource for more questions.

The Appeal

So what is the benefit of eating this way? Much of the diet follows the general advice nutritionists and doctors have been giving recently. Lots of fruits and vegetables give you the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. And while the diet eliminates processed and refined sugars, as commonly advised, it goes a step further and reduces natural sugars—which is said to lead to decreased inflammation in the body and better gut health.

The Paleo diet is also popular among people with food sensitivities, because it cuts out many foods that often cause problems. Grains, for example, can cause autoimmune flare-ups. Another commonly cited benefit of the Paleo Diet is weight loss—due to the low-carb nature of the diet, the body turns from carb-burning to fat-burning, and many people claim to have lost significant weight. (The high intake of healthy protein also reportedly increases muscle, which in return means a faster metabolism.)

The Controversy

Critics of the Paleo Diet worry that it eliminates foods that can be part of a healthy diet, such as dairy and legumes. Others make the point that despite the Paleo diet’s aim to return to our ancestor’s way of eating, the food available today is nothing like what it used to be—much of the meat today have been fed artificial diets and given hormones and antibiotics. At the same time, the environment that we live inand the elements that we’re exposed to are also drastically different than those cave-dwelling times.

Economically the diet isn’t practical for everyone. It recommends grass-fed and organic meat, which is often quite pricy. Additionally, the Paleo diet can be difficult for vegetarians and vegans; not only is it meat-heavy, it excludes alternative sources of protein like beans.

The Verdict: No singular diet works for everyone

It’s really important to remember that there is no “perfect” diet. The best way to eat is by listening to your body and figuring out what works for you. Trying out the Paleo diet may uncover hidden food sensitivities for you, or you may find that you feel better on a high-fat and low-carb diet. You might discover that you really do need more carbohydrates in order to have enough energy for the day. Experiment with different amounts of a certain type of food, and see whether the change makes you more sluggish or gives you more energy. And, remember, you can always adopt parts of a diet that works for you without following the diet to a tee.

Resources

Interested in trying out the diet or learning more? Robb Wolf and the Ultimate Paleo Guide are great places to jumpstart your research. And if you tend to cook yourself, these blogs have fantastic recipe ideas: Civilized Caveman CookingThe Spunky CoconutEveryday PaleoElana’s PantryRubies and Radishes.

Finally, here’s a one-day meal plan, for a look into what following the diet would look like in practice:

  • Breakfast: vegetable omelette; homemade nut granola; or coconut/almond flour pancakes, muffins, or crepes
  • Lunch: salad with a protein or lettuce wraps with sandwich fixings
  • Dinner: vegetable and protein stir-fry; grilled chicken or fish and vegetables; or vegetable stews with protein