The Lowdown on Popular Diets: Paleo Edition

The Paleo Diet initially gained its popularity with CrossFit enthusiasts, but is now a mainstream diet with a fervent following. There are hundreds of websites and food blogs dedicated to paleo-style eating, and #paleo has garnered 14.5 million posts on Instagram at the time this article was posted. Though the diet was initially promoted as a way to ward of modern diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, followers of the diet claim many other benefits including weight loss, more energy, and better workout performance. 

If you’re considering going Paleo, here’s what you’ll want to know. 

What is the Paleo Diet?
Based on the premise that we should eat like our ancestors from the Paleolithic era over 2 million years ago, the Paleo diet is a traditional “hunter and gatherer” diet. It emphasizes whole foods over processed foods, particularly those that could be hunted (meat and fish) and gathered (vegetables). The principles of the diet are based on the idea that the human body is not genetically designed to digest and metabolize more modern foods like grains, legumes, and dairy. 

What can I eat on The Paleo Diet?
Fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat, fish, and eggs. Olive oil and nut and seed oils such as walnut oil are the oils of choice. There is some debate about whether or not potatoes are allowed, but many followers consider them within limits. 

What’s off limits?
All grains, legumes, and dairy (except ghee or clarified butter); sugar, salt, any processed foods including artificial sweeteners, and vegetable oils. Alcohol and coffee are also a no-go for strict Paleo followers. 

How strict are these rules?
It depends on who you ask, but there are many people who follow a more modified Paleo diet, allowing certain gluten-free grains like rice and some coffee, wine, and other gluten-free alcoholic drinks. It’s not uncommon to find processed meats like bacon and Paleo-approved baked goods on the plates of Paleo dieters — though that wasn’t the initial intention of this diet. Some allow ghee, grass-fed butter, and some fermented dairy. It’s also common to allow for a “cheat” day or two, as some say this can increase compliance with the diet. 

Is there anything else to consider?
This diet is founded in eating all whole foods — a premise that has lots of promise. However, with the popularity of the diet, many food companies have introduced paleo-friendly products that are considered by many to be processed foods, which may not fit within those with the purest view of the diet’s guidelines. While the high protein, lower-carb nature of this diet is appealing for some (eat all the meat you’d like!), eliminating entire food groups like dairy, grains, and legumes, is too restrictive for many to follow long-term. 

Lastly, there could be risk of nutrient deficiencies, specifically calcium and vitamin D with the elimination of dairy and soy foods paired with the lack of processed foods (some packaged foods are fortified with these nutrients), so it’s important to pay close attention to those nutrients and aim for a varied diet. 

If you want to know the science…
Several small, short-term (less than 6 months, but often only a few weeks) studies have shown promise for this eating pattern. One review of four studies found short-term improvements in metabolic syndrome when following the Paleo diet while another very small study (only 27 participants) reported better blood sugar control than a typical diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. However, a 2-year study suggests that the benefits may not be sustainable long term as the fat loss and metabolic improvements seen at 6 months were not sustained at 2 years. Authors of this study attribute this partly due to lack of diet compliance past 6 months. Newer research has also suggested that following the Paleo Diet long term may result in negative changes in gut bacteria and elevated levels of TMAO, which has been linked to higher risk of heart disease. 

Most of the research supporting the Paleo Diet is based on participants following the strictest guidelines, so the benefits may not be seen with the more liberal versions of the diet. More research is needed regarding any concerns with following the diet long term. 


Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be medical advice and if you are considering starting a new diet, work with your healthcare team to find the best approach for you. 


Read about other popular diets in this series:

The Mediterranean Diet

Whole 30

If It Fits Your Macros

The Ketogenic Diet