From fast food and instant coffee to candy that never goes off, food is different than it used to be. We use processes, methods, and additives that weren’t available to our grandparents, let alone to people from even earlier times.
Some people believe that all these processed foods are unhealthy, as they are so far removed from the more ‘natural’ diet of our ancestors. They maintain that the modern diet contains many substances that the human body has not evolved to handle, which they believe can cause various health conditions. This inspired the creation of the Paleo diet.
Proponents of this approach hold up ancient hunter-gatherer societies as their favored example of how humans should be choosing what they eat. They claim that eating like hunter-gatherers can help with weight loss, blood pressure reduction, and more.
Scientists and doctors have brought up many concerns about this diet. These experts object to the somewhat simplistic interpretation of how human evolution works. They also stress the fact that there has been very little research to see whether the claims made by Paleo diet enthusiasts are true. It’s not clear yet whether the diet works and whether it might be harmful.
What Is a Paleo Diet?
The name of the diet refers to the Paleolithic era, also known as the Old Stone Age, which was the period in which humans learned to use stone tools. It covers a period of about 3.3 million years, so nailing down an exact diet to match what people ate during this time frame is understandably tricky.
This is why it is also known as the caveman, hunter-gatherer, or Stone Age diet. There has been some research that suggests that our less technologically advanced ancestors ate a diet that consisted mostly of whole foods, and things that they could either catch or find. So, a combination of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and lean meat encompasses the Paleo diet, and you’re supposed to avoid anything that necessitates agriculture or processing.
It’s hard to narrow it down more than that because the rather unhistorical approach to what we used to eat has led to a wide range of different interpretations. Paleo recipe recommendations vary quite a bit, depending on who you ask.
Foods You Can Eat on a Paleo Diet
The first thing you should consider when trying to follow a Paleo diet is whether a food requires any farming or processing. If it could be caught or found growing in the wild, then the diet’s proponents would say that you’re good to go.
Here are some foods that are allowed:
- Non-starchy vegetables – onions, peppers, gourds, leafy greens
- Fruits – bananas, apples, pears, strawberries, mangos
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and shellfish
- Lean cuts of beef, pork, and poultry
- Meat from game animals – turkey, duck, hare, rabbit, boar
- Up to six eggs a week
- Fruit or nut oils
- Herbs and spices
Paleo diet proponents often suggest that if you are going to have meat in your diet, you should be aiming for free-range and grass-fed meats, as they will have fewer chemicals and processing as part of the packaging process.
Foods You Should Avoid on a Paleo Diet
The diet requires you to avoid anything that wouldn’t have been readily available to cave-dwelling ancestors. This includes foods like dairy (as cavemen didn’t have cows), processed grains, and legumes. Here’s an idea of the sorts of foods you’ll need to cross off the grocery list:
- Sugar, honey, and artificial sweeteners
- Candy and sweets
- Soft drinks or juice with added sugar
- Processed or cured meats – salami, bacon, bologna sausage, hot dogs
- Legumes – peanuts, beans, peas, lentils, soy
- Grains – wheat, barley, oats, rice, rye
- Starchy vegetables – corn, potato, parsnips
- Dairy – milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, cream
But not all versions of the diet are so strict, as there isn’t one unified Paleo diet. You might find some versions that allow for dairy or legumes.
Many supporters of the diet suggest that you should get regular exercise as part of the regime, which makes sense if you’re emulating the “hunter” part of hunter-gatherer.
Possible Paleo Health Benefits
At the moment, there’s not much evidence to prove the numerous health benefit claims associated with the diet plan. Let’s have a look at what science says.
There are a couple of small studies that have shown that there are links between the Paleo diet and improvements in weight loss. However, larger and more recent studies have indicated that the smaller waistlines produced by Paleo are similar to other diets that introduce a caloric restriction, and that the effects are relatively short-term as a result.
In terms of weight loss, there isn’t enough evidence to show that the Paleo diet is more effective than other diets that restrict your food intake and encourage exercise.
Reduces Risk and Effects of Diabetes
This is one of the main proposed benefits, and there are some indications that there is truth to it. Again, the studies are small, but there are two sets of data that show a connection between the diet and improvements in insulin sensitivity. This means that it can potentially help people avoid developing the condition, as well as help sufferers improve their control over their blood sugar levels.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Many Paleo supporters say that it can help to reduce blood pressure. Having high blood pressure puts you at a greater risk of developing heart disease, so finding ways to reduce it is a good idea. The early evidence suggests that the Paleo diet help reduce blood pressure, but again the studies were all small. Some didn’t even have a control group, which calls into question the results.
If You Can Smack It Over the Head with a Club, You Can Eat It
The takeaway from the science side of things is that, while there are some signs that it might have real benefits, there’s very little proof that the Paleo diet is exceptional in any way. As with any fashionable food fad, take it with a pinch of pink Himalayan rock salt…
So, what is a Paleo diet in a few words? If you can imagine a caveman eating it, you’re probably good to go. Just remember that cavemen didn’t have farms, ranches, or McDonald’s.