The Paleo diet made a shy comeback in 1985 after scientists reported that one of the reasons why modern society is affected by a myriad of health issues is that we’ve strayed very far from the diet our remote ancestors used to consume 1.
As the name suggests, the Paleolithic or Paleo Diet is all about the nutritional habits of our Stone Age ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. But why should you care about ancient nutrition when you live in a digital era and have high-tech medicine as standard? Because no matter how much we’d like them to be, our bodies are not a smartphone. You can’t update the software or upgrade to the latest model.
Our bodies are essentially, as they have always been for thousands upon thousands of years. Juxtapose this with the massive and rapid changes in our eating habits in recent times, and you know we’re heading for trouble. And guess what? Our bodies are failing to keep up.
Skeptical? Then picture the average human in the Paleolithic era. They would have been physically robust, fit, lean and athletic. Today for every person of “healthy” weight there are two people who are overweight or obese.8
How the Paleo Diet Works
It all boils down to our genetic code. According to Paleo diet pioneer Dr Eaton, our nutritional needs are determined by our genetic make-up which has been shaped partly by the foods our ancient ancestors consumed.2 DNA research shows that, unlike our diet and lifestyle which has changed massively in recent times, our human genome has remained primarily the same since the agricultural revolution 10 000 years ago.2, 3
Scientists believe that the environment in which we live has changed too fast for our genes to catch up.3 And research suggests that it is this mismatch between our Paleolithic genome and our modern dietary habits and sedentary lifestyle that is behind the escalating incidence of inflammatory conditions, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.3, 4
Furthermore, research on cultures that until recently consumed traditional diets and transitioned to Western eating habits seems to back this up.7 With research suggesting that these peoples boasted a low incidence of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and type 2-diabetes until switching to a more Westernized diet.
What foods can you eat on the Paleo diet?
The basic principle of the Paleo diet is that we need to stick to foods for which our DNA is ‘programmed’.2 In a nutshell, the Paleo Diet revolves around the concept that our overall health would improve if we consume foods the cavemen ate.
So that means eating fruits, veggies, wild lean meats and seafood, nuts and seeds as well as healthy fats – while steering clear from foods our ancestors wouldn’t recognize.
In a nutshell, the Paleo diet promotes the consumption of natural, whole foods and the avoidance of dairy, grains, legumes, alcohols and processed foods.
Paleo Approved Foods
The following foods are allowed within the Paleo diet framework. Where possible opt for organic produce and organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised meat.
- Healthy fats and oils
- Herbs and spices
The Paleo diet is about eating minimally processed whole foods, it isn’t about going crazy on meat. On the Paleo diet about two thirds of your diet should come from veggies, fruits and some healthy fats.
The following foods are not allowed on the Paleo diet:
- High-fructose corn syrup (found in products such as soft drinks, pastries, and ice cream)
- Artificial sweeteners
- Some vegetable oils
- Trans fats (also found in margarine)
- Highly processed foods
Is the Paleo Diet Healthy?
There has been a lot of debate about whether the Paleo Diet is safe and healthy.
Several studies have suggested that a myriad of health benefits may be gained by following the Paleo Diet.
According to research, a short-term adherence to the Paleo diet may:
- Reduce blood pressure and improve blood circulation in the body 3.
- Increase insulin sensitivity 3.
- Improve blood lipid profile – subjects experienced a drop in triglycerides, total and “bad” LDL- cholesterol levels 3.
- Promote weight loss – during a 3 week trial, volunteers lost an average of 2.3kg and their waist circumference decreased by 0.5cm 5.
However, many of these studies were very small and short. Therefore, more research is needed to draw definitive conclusions about the Paleo diet.
That said, many health professionals worry that the diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies since it excludes dairy and grains.
A study from Australia suggests that the Paleo Diet may negatively affect our gut bacteria and microbiome, which may in turn have an adverse impact on heart health.9 The study’s scientists believe this may be due to eliminating whole grains.
It may be challenging to get sufficient folate, calcium, and Vitamin D. These nutrients are found in grains, beans, legumes, and dairy – all banned Paleo foods.
Note! Individuals who need to watch their protein intake (such as those suffering from early stage kidney disease) and those on blood thinners like warfarin should work with a dietitian to come up with a personalized plan, if they wish to follow the Paleo diet.
The Paleo Diet as a Starting Point
Recently, greater leniency has been encouraged by Paleo advocates.
There are now a number of relaxed versions of the Paleo diet. Many of these include foods that science deems healthy, but that were not necessarily part of the early palaeolithic diet.
Examples of these additions include some starches and grass-fed dairy, as well as indulgences such as dark chocolate and red wine in small quantities.
A better approach may be to view the paleo diet as the starting point – not a strict set of immutable rules.
Remember, the Paleo diet is entirely customizable. To get the most out of Paleo, you need to adapt it so that it is suited to your personal needs and preferences.
There is no such thing as a single Paleo diet. Not then, not now.
What there is, is a general premise – avoid processed foods and consume a diet rich natural, whole foods. Therefore, there are many ways to follow the Paleo diet.
For example, the Paleo diet discourages the consumption of legumes. However, research suggests that legumes were part of our ancestral diet:6 the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert used to rely on the tsin bean (and also consumed milk), while the Australian Aborigines consumed the seeds and gum of Acacia. So if you want to eat your lentils and kidney beans, just make sure to cook them properly.
If you want to adapt the diet or make it less restrictive, consider including whole grains, beans, and lentils.
A common way of customising Paleo is by including dairy. You might call them ‘lacto-paleos’. If you are skipping dairy, you can include foods that are rich sources of calcium such as dark leafy greens, tofu, soy or almond milk to your diet.
Paleo Shopping List for Beginners
This simple shopping list will help get you started on the Paleo diet:
- Wild-caught fish
- Fully pastured chicken
- Fully pastured pork
- Grass-fed beef
- Vegetables: leafy greens, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, avocados, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, carrots
- Fresh fruits: berries, apples, pears, oranges, bananas
- Dried fruit
- Nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia
- Raw almond butter
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Coconut milk
- Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha
- Condiments: sea salt, broth (vegetable, chicken, or beef), coconut aminos, Dijon-style mustard (gluten-free), maple syrup, raw honey
- Herbs and spices: your favorites!
- Flour: coconut flour, almond flour
The Bottom Line
The Paleo diet is a framework based on the diet of our palaeolithic ancestors.
There is no single Paleo diet. However, the central principle of the Paleo diet is to eat unprocessed, healthy, natural foods and to avoid highly processed, modern foods.
There are many versions of the Paleo diet and you should customize the diet to suit your health needs and preferences. That means you can include modern, healthy foods in your plan.
Read more about the Paleo diet below, get recipe ideas, and check out the complete Paleo food list.
- Eaton, S. B., & Konner, M. (1985). Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications. New England journal of medicine (USA).
- Eaton, S. B., & Eaton Iii, S. B. (2000). Paleolithic vs. modern diets–slected pathophysiological implications. European Journal of Nutrition, 39(2), 67-70.
- Frassetto, L. A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R. C., & Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European journal of clinical nutrition, 63(8), 947-955.
- O’Keefe Jr, J. H., & Cordain, L. (2004, January). Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome: how to become a 21st-century hunter-gatherer. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 101-108). Elsevier.
- Österdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., & Wändell, P. E. (2008). Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European journal of clinical nutrition, 62(5), 682-685.
- Henry, A. G., Brooks, A. S., & Piperno, D. R. (2011). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(2), 486-491.
- O’Dea K. Cardiovascular disease risk factors in Australian aborigines. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 1991 Feb;18(2):85-8.
- Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999–2010. JAMA. 2012; 307(5):491–97.
- Genoni, A., Christophersen, C.T., Lo, J. et al. Long-term Paleolithic diet is associated with lower resistant starch intake, different gut microbiota composition and increased serum TMAO concentrations. Eur J Nutr (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-019-02036-y