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The Paleo Diet: What It Means to Eat Like a Caveman

The paleo diet has gained popularity for its quick weight loss results, however, it's controversial for a number of reasons.

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While much has improved since the Stone Ages, many are still interested in following the Paleolithic — or “paleo” diet. Those who adhere to paleo are permitted to eat fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds; while restricting anything that wasn’t available back then: Refined carbohydrates, legumes, dairy, processed oils and more. It’s based on the idea that the human body isn’t meant to ingest anything that comes from farming, and therefore, it only includes what its creators think hunters and gathers could get themselves.

Paleo Is Controversial, at Best

Nutrition experts have very different views regarding the paleo diet. Nutrition health coach Sam Cutler, who founded MINDFULL, tells Woman’s World that paleo’s focus on natural foods is what sets it apart from others of its kind: “The paleo diet has garnered significant attention in recent years due to its emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods that are more natural and healthier for the human body,” she explains.

Naturally, people will see a decrease in inflammation and an increase in mental clarity, energy and overall feeling of wellbeing when lowering processed ingredients and increasing whole foods.

Sam Cutler

But Destini Moody, RD, of the Athlete’s Dietitian tells Woman’s World feels differently. She saysthat it’s yet another fad diet: “Diets like this are what social media engagement salivates over, as it is an intriguing premise,” she says. After all, most Americans know that processed foods and artificial junk are bad for us and our ancestors had exclusively natural diets when chemical additives didn’t exist.

So it would make sense for this way of eating to appeal to the masses as being correlative to better health. However, there are way more factors at play and one should focus more on eating a balanced diet while keeping processed foods to a minimum. All in all, we should focus on what foods we aren’t including in our diet, rather than the ones the internet tells us we should eliminate. This promotes a style of dieting that is rooted in positive dietary changes, rather than negative dietary restrictions and feelings of deprivation.

Destini Moody

The Paleo Diet Excludes Anything That Came From Farming

Food and drink arrangement with carbohydrates protein vegetables, fruits and dairy products on rustic whited board table
The paleo diet primarily consists of meat, fish and vegetables.MEDITERRANEAN/Getty Images

The paleo diet doesn’t require actual hunting and gathering, but it restricts foods that evolved from “modern” farming. According to The Mayo Clinic, this means grains, legumes, processed sugars and oils, dairy products, alcohol, caffeine and trans fats. The theory is that humans aren’t able properly to digest farmed foods, due to genetics.

“The main benefit is minimizing the intake of processed foods, which many Americans can stand to do,” Moody tells Woman’s World. “There are many foods within the paleo diet that are nutrient rich. However, there are plenty of studies that show that our ancestors back then actually did not have robust health. So, the philosophy behind the diet itself is flawed in that way.”

Related: Keto vs. Paleo: Meat Heavy Diets, With Major Differences

The Paleo Diet Food Groups Include Foods Obtained By Hunter-Gatherers

Woman picks vegetables in her garden
As long as it was common before farming gained traction, it’s likely paleo-friendly.aquaArts Studio/Getty Images

Foods permitted in the Paleo diet include anything that could be hunted or gathered about 10,000 years ago. Per Eating Well, this includes fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. Supposedly, according to Cleveland Clinic, humans have properly adapted to eating these types of foods.

“Following a diet similar to what people ate in Paleolithic times can offer several benefits,” Cutler says, explaining with the following information:

  1. Nutrient-Dense Foods: The paleo diet emphasizes nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats and nuts, which can improve overall health and well-being.
  2. Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: By avoiding processed foods and refined sugars, the diet may lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers (something that MINDFULL also encourages)
  3. Improved Digestion: Many people find that eliminating grains and dairy can improve digestive issues like bloating, gas and other gastrointestinal discomforts. Many people consuming a diet high in gluten and dairy will notice a difference in inflammation and bloating in just a few days or lowering or eliminating them. 

But Moody says it isn’t a realistic view of what people ate during the Stone Ages. And even if it were, “cave people” weren’t at peak health. “The main benefit is minimizing the intake of processed foods, which many Americans can stand to do,” she says. “There are many foods within the paleo diet that are nutrient rich. However, there are plenty of studies that show that our ancestors back then actually did not have robust health. So, the philosophy behind the diet itself is flawed in that way.”

Short-Term, Paleo Often Gives Dieters Quick Weight Loss Results

For many, paleo shows quick results — which is why people flock to it. A study published to the National Library of Medicine looked at the short-term impacts of the paleo diet. A group of 20 people went on the diet for three weeks, and the majority experienced weight loss, as well as decreased BMI and blood pressure.

“The paleo diet promotes a high protein intake. This helps support a better body composition by supporting muscle gain and maintenance along with hunger control, given protein’s effect on promoting satiety and hunger control,” Moody says. “This can be an effective strategy for weight loss for some people who have not found success with other diets.”

Long-Term, Dieters May Plateau

Woman measures her waist size with measuring tape.
Although weight loss may be quick in the early stages of paleo, it plateaus long-term.B2M Productions/Getty Images

And even though continuing the diet long-term may help dieters lose more weight, the results start to plateau after a while. A study published to the National Library of Medicine looked at how the long-term benefits of the paleo diet. A group of 70 obese, post-menopausal women went on the diet. They were surveyed after six months and 24 months, and although they saw the most drastic results at six months, both check-ins showed weight loss, lowered BMI, and lowered cholesterol. At 24 months, the weight loss had mostly hit a plateau.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD said in a WebMD article that this is because the initial weight loss is mostly water weight. Evidently, almost none of it is due to fat loss. “You’re just becoming dehydrated,” she wrote. “And there’s not a lot of long-term safety data.”

Paleo Can’t Cure Autoimmune Diseases, but a Diet Based on Paleo Can Help

According to an article from Nutritional Therapy For IBD, the auto-immune protocol (AIP) diet is often used on patients with autoimmune disorders. It’s based on the paleo diet, focusing primarily on meat, fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds. However, it also eliminates additional foods that are considered to be inflammatory.

“The AIP is also known as Paleo Autoimmune Protocol because it is derived from the Paleolithic diet (which is based on meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, and seeds),” the blog explains. “Although it is a stricter version, eliminating foods that may be antigenic, stimulate the immune system, or create dysbiosis.”

Immediate Side Effects Can Cause Serious Discomfort

Although the early effects of weight loss are promising, the paleo diet may not be for everyone. An article from Diabetes UK on the side effects of paleo warn dieters of a “low-carb flu.” Similar to the keto flu, it can cause headaches, fatigue, constipation, indigestion and other unpleasant symptoms.

“For some, low-carb flu can take days to subside, but for others it can take a couple of weeks. Some may not even experience these symptoms are at all,” a note from the organization reads. “Lowering your carb intake gradually can help to ease the transition into the paleo diet and lower the severity of low-carb flu.”

Over Time, Dieters May Become Vitamin Deficient

Young woman holding her head in pain
The side effects of paleo may deter people from continuing the diet long-term.Cecile_Arcurs

A UC Davis Health blog post warns dieters of the long-term side effects of paleo, which include a variety of deficiencies. Due to a lack of dairy, people may become deficient in bone-health vitamins such as calcium and vitamin D, which can severely impact bone health. In fact, long-term, it can even trigger conditions such as osteoporosis.

Meanwhile, an influx of meat means increased levels of saturated fat and protein, which can put people at a greater risk of developing kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, and even cancer.

“People who have a history of or current nutrient deficiencies want to avoid elimination diets like paleo,” Destini Moody explains. “The elimination of entire food groups like dairy can put one at risk for calcium and Vitamin D deficiency among other nutrients of concern.”

Restrictive Diets Can Come With Mental Health Disadvantages

Like any diet that excludes entire food groups, paleo comes with mental disadvantages. Short-term weight loss from a restrictive diet can often trick the brain into thinking restriction is best. An article from USAToday explains that as a result of adhering to such a restrictive diet, people are put at risk of developing disordered eating habits, in the long run. Additionally, short-term weight loss and long-term plateaus may lead to yo-yo dieting, which is bad for both physical and mental health.

“You want to avoid elimination and fad diets if you have a history of eating disorders,” Moody tells Woman’s World. “The meticulous way you might find yourself obsessing over the foods you eat can trigger those disordered eating behaviors. “

The Paleo Shopping List is Pretty Basic

Although it may not include cereal or milk, a paleo grocery haul will include many basic items you’re already used to shopping for. Take a look at a typical paleo grocery list, below:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Unprocessed meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Nuts
  • Spices
  • Coffee
  • Tea

Getting Creative in the Kitchen on Paleo Is Easy

A young woman slices a grapefruit in the kitchen
Even though paleo limits what dieters can eat, it’s still easy to get creative in the kitchen.Plan Shoot Imazins/Getty Images

Although paleo removes many modern-day staples (i.e. carbs and dairy) there are still so many incredible meal ideas for those adhering to the diet. In a paleo recipes roundup, Bon Appetit features a wide range of drool-worthy meal ideas that seem relatively easy to make.

These Popular Paleo Breakfasts Are Filling, and Easy to Make

Even though classic flour pancakes, toast and waffles may not be on a typical paleo breakfast plate, there are so many delicious paleo morning meals that will keep dieters on track, and feeling full all day. Eggs in Purgatory is one popular dish that involves cooking eggs into a stew of tomatoes and spices. Cashew Yogurt makes for a tasty, creamy meal on its own, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try mixing in some Grain-Free Tahini Granola.

Anyone Can Make These Paleo Lunch and Dinners

No sandwiches will be included in that paleo-friendly lunchbox, and it seems as though spaghetti dinners may be off the table. But for lunch or dinner, a few note-worthy paleo recipes from Bon Appetit include: Collard Greens Salad With Fried Plantain and Sumac; Obe Ata Stew With Chicken and Spinach; Tangy Vinegar Chicken With Barberries and Orange… yum.

Like Any Diet, Paleo Is Pretty Costly

Lower half shot of a person waiting in a checkout line, with a basket of groceries.
Groceries on paleo can be expensive, though there are ways to save.Peopleimages/Getty Images

We hate to break it to you, but like any other diet, paleo is more expensive than the average American’s. Without processed foods, dairy or carbohydrates, a typical grocery haul will include more vegetables, meat and fish — which unfortunately, aren’t cheap. But shopping for frozen and canned foods, buying only seasonal veggies, and opting for inexpensive proteins such as eggs and tinned fish, will keep grocery bills cheap.

Cutler Offers Tips for Saving Money on the Paleo Diet

  1. Buy in Bulk: Purchase nuts, seeds and meats in bulk to save money and reduce per-unit costs. 
  2. Seasonal Produce: Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season, as they are often cheaper and fresher. 
  3. Frozen Options: Opt for frozen fruits and vegetables, which can be more affordable and have a longer shelf life without sacrificing nutritional value. This is a practical tip for maintaining a whole-foods diet, especially in areas with less fresh options. 
  4. Plan Meals: Plan your meals and have a shopping list to avoid impulse buys and reduce food waste.

Paleo May Be Best for Only a Few Weeks

Even though many have seen positive short-term results on paleo (weight loss, lowered insulin levels, lowered blood pressure, and more), it seems that long-term, it may not be optimal. Weight loss levels out, and vitamin deficiencies can be dangerous to your health. That said, it’s important to speak to a doctor before trying any diet, but it may be best to only stay on it for a few weeks, if that, if you don’t have specific health conditions which it can benefit.

How quickly will people see results with paleo?

The rate at which people will lose weight depends on a number of factors: Body type, caloric intake and more. However, per the National Library of Medicine study we referenced earlier, 20 subjects showed weight loss results in just three weeks.

Why is paleo so controversial?

Paleo is so controversial because of how restrictive it is. The diet eliminates several major food groups, including dairy and carbohydrates. Plus, an increased fat intake can impact cardiovascular health long-term.

What are the risks of paleo?

The paleo diet can result in vitamin D and calcium deficiencies, which put people at risk of osteoporosis and other bone-related issues. Additionally, increased saturated fats can lead to high cholesterol and cardiovascular issues.

Is paleo different from keto?

Even though paleo and keto are both meat-heavy diets, they’re very different. Keto focuses on higher fat intake, while paleo focuses on protein intake. The keto diet also doesn’t restrict anything based on what people ate prior to the stone age — it just eliminates refined carbohydrates, sugars and starchy vegetables.

Is it possible to be vegetarian on a paleo diet?

Although decreasing one’s meat intake is possible on the paleo diet, cutting out meat entirely is incredibly difficult on the diet. Paleo Leap reasons that a paleo diet eliminates most plant-based proteins, which would make it hard for a vegetarian to stay completely healthy.

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