The Paleo Diet: What is it and why is it so popular?
The paleo diet is one that is used most often for those with autoimmune concerns, gut symptoms, pain, fatigue, or inflammation. This diet promotes the consumption of high quality foods, and a balanced way of eating for overall health. Those with addictions to processed foods and sugar, as well as those with food sensitivities or allergies, may also find benefit in this eating style. Paleo eating focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and simple principles to follow.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when assessing if this might be a beneficial diet for you:
- Do you regularly crave or consume sugar, processed foods, fast foods, dairy, or bread?
- Do you eat less than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day?
- Do you wish to eliminate processed foods, sugar, dairy, and flour to improve your overall health or help improve your symptoms?
- Are you looking to give your body a reboot that will lead to a renewed path of wellness?
If you answered yes to one or more of these, then the paleo diet might be right for you!
In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of the paleo way of eating, benefits of the diet, pitfalls to look out for, and how it compares to the ketogenic diet and anti-inflammatory diet protocol (AIP).
What is the Paleo diet: Definition
The paleo diet is based on the foods that our prehistoric ancestors ate thousands of years ago. Many call it the “caveman” diet due to its primal style of eating. It includes foods that, in the past, could be obtained by hunting and gathering, such as meats, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It emphasizes high quality foods and limits foods that became more common when farming emerged, such as dairy products, legumes, and grains.
The goal of the paleolithic diet is to return to a primal way of eating that is similar to what early humans ate. The belief is that the human body is better suited to those foods than to the modern, more processed diet. It is hypothesized that the relatively late and rapid change in diet outpaced the body’s ability to adapt, and is believed to be a contributing factor to the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, and heart disease today.
What can and can’t I eat on the Paleo diet: the complete food list
Foods to Eat
- Vegetables (all non-starchy vegetables)
- Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, parsnips, beets, and winter squash
- Nuts and seeds
- Poultry and meats especially from grass-fed animals, wild game, and without added antibiotics or hormones
- Fish, especially from sustainably or wild caught sources
- Fats from plant-based sources such as such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil, olives, avocado, or shredded coconut
- Herbs and spices
- Natural sweeteners in moderation, such as honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or dates
Foods to Avoid
- Grains, such as pasta, bread, wheat, oats, barley, and rice
- Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas
- Dairy products
- Refined sugar and artificial sweeteners
- Refined vegetable oils (canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, palm oil)
- Corn, white potatoes
- Processed foods in general, including chips, candy, and hot dogs
- Alcohol, soda, sweetened beverages
Although legumes, whole grains and dairy can be considered whole foods, the paleo diet food list eliminates these in order to decrease any type of food related inflammation. The argument is that for a variety of different reasons, these foods can cause digestive symptoms and trigger inflammation in some people.
Paleo Diet Rules
- The paleo diet emphasizes high quality foods. Preferably, choose all-natural, or grass fed, or free range meats and poultry, without any added hormones or antibiotics.
- Choose organic produce when possible, to decrease overall toxic load.
- Eat a variety of foods, and when possible, choose local and seasonal produce. Fresh or frozen produce is allowed!
- Aim for balanced meals with protein, healthy fat, non-starchy vegetables, and complex carbohydrates such as root vegetables, to keep blood sugars stable.
- Don’t forget about exercise and stress management as part of a healthy lifestyle!
Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet
The paleolithic diet benefits cover a wide range of symptoms and health concerns. As with any diet, these benefits can vary from person to person. These benefits include:
- Improving inflammation and autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, Hashimoto’s, joint pain, and neurological concerns
- Improving gut symptoms
- Improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Improving blood sugar control
- Enhancing recovery from viral infection
Weight loss can also be achieved on this meal plan due to the focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods and cutting out processed foods and sugar. It is a balanced style of eating that can help to improve body composition, promote satiety and shed unwanted weight. The results will vary depending on your unique medical history and starting point when beginning a paleo diet plan. Since there is not one diet plan that is guaranteed to help with weight loss for everyone, consult with a Registered Dietitian or Doctor to find what works best for you and your body.
The emphasis on eating whole foods provides the body with essential nutrients needed for health and vitality, while decreasing foods that can impair the body’s ability to function optimally.
Antioxidant and polyphenol-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables are at the forefront of the paleo eating plan. Antioxidants and polyphenols help to fight inflammation and help to improve digestion, the gut microbiome, the gut lining, and immune health. The paleo diet eliminates many foods that can contribute to inflammation, such as sugar, processed foods, refined oils, and wheat. These foods can have a negative effect on gut health, alter the gut microbiome, and cause blood sugar spikes which contribute to inflammation, negatively impacting immune health.
Short Term Paleo Eating to Reduce Symptoms and Reboot the Body
Not everyone needs to eliminate the healthy foods avoided on this diet, because not everyone is sensitive to these foods.
Some people benefit from a short-term reboot and slow-paced food introduction to assess for tolerance. The goal is to use the diet as a tool to find what foods, if any, might be contributing to current symptoms, and learning the least restrictive style of eating to maintain optimal health.
The paleo-friendly food plan is often used as a first step to:
- Rid the body of foods that can potentially cause inflammation
- Identify food sensitivities, intolerances, and triggers
- Provide nutritional support for the body’s natural immune and detoxification systems
First, follow the paleo diet strictly for 4 weeks (no cheating!). It takes about 4 weeks for the immune system and gut microbiome to reset and rebalance. Next, introduce one healthy food at a time such as lentils, beans, rice, oats, yogurt or cheese for a three day period, and track the symptoms that occur. For example, eat at least one portion of lentils on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and track symptoms for those three days. It can take up to 72 hours for the body to show a reaction to food. What you ate on Monday can affect you on Wednesday! If you feel anything worse from your baseline symptoms, stop eating that food as it could be a contributing factor. If you feel the same as your baseline or better, you can keep that food in your diet. Once you reintroduce the healthy foods, you can stick with a modified paleo diet for more variety and diversity. For optimal results, it is best to do this under the guidance of a Registered Dietitian.
Paleo compared to the Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic (keto) and caveman diets can be frequently confused so let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between them.
The similarities of these diets include the focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods, exclusion of grains and most legumes, and the elimination of refined sugars. Both diets emphasize eating healthy fats and non starchy vegetables such as leafy greens. Benefits of both eating styles can include decreasing inflammation, promoting weight loss, improving blood sugar, and optimizing overall health and energy. Both of these diets, however, achieve these outcomes through different paths.
The paleo diet is based more on principles to rebalance the body such as consuming high quality, nutrient-dense foods with minimal processing, and following the specific food list of things to eat and avoid. The keto diet is based more on macronutrients to achieve a metabolic, fat burning state, called ketosis to gain benefits. The keto diet is higher in fat, lower in carbohydrates, and allows dairy and the option to use alternative sweeteners such as erythritol and xylitol. The paleo diet allows for some starchy vegetables, honey, maple syrup, and dates. As long as the macronutrients fall under the correct numbers, the types of foods eaten on the keto diet often do not “matter”. Of course, for optimal benefits, it is best to choose whole, nutrient-dense foods instead of processed keto foods with additives and preservatives, or for bacon and cheese to be the primary foods on your keto diet!
Both of these diets are a little more restrictive in food options but can be beneficial for overall health. When choosing either diet, it is important to stick to it’s style of eating for all meals and snacks to gain maximum benefit.
Paleo compared to the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
AIP aims to reduce inflammation and other symptoms of autoimmune conditions. It is a version of the paleo diet, but it eliminates several other foods that can potentially cause inflammation in the body. Both diets can be beneficial for autoimmune concerns, helping to improve inflammation and gut health.
AIP is more of a therapeutic diet that is comprehensive in the foods it removes and foods it emphasizes, in order to compensate for the complexities of autoimmune disorders. The AIP diet avoids all the same foods as the paleo diet but also removes all nuts, seeds, eggs, chocolate and nightshades, a family of plants that includes tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, white potatoes, and any spices that are derived from these.
AIP is typically followed for a specific amount of time and then foods are reintroduced to test for symptoms, similar to the short-term paleo approach described above.
It is important to remember that the foods we eat matter significantly for overall health, but so do quality sleep, moving our bodies, and stress management. When looking to heal an inflammatory condition, don’t forget about the other pieces of the puzzle!
What a Balanced Paleo Diet looks like
The main focus is on the types and quality of the foods you eat. You don’t have to count calories or macronutrients (i.e. the percentage of fat, carbohydrate, or protein you eat), but you do ideally want balanced meals for optimal health.
Contrary to popular belief, the primal diet does not consist primarily of meats and proteins. Our ancestors actually ate a lot of plant foods! Make sure to plan your meals with plenty of plants such as leafy greens, broccoli, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
In general, paleo diet meal plan should include a protein food along with non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus and green beans, and optional complex carbohydrates such as sweet potato, root vegetables, and winter squash. Top with healthy fat to promote satiety and hormone balance. Your plate should look like 25% protein foods and 75% plant foods.
When choosing LifeChef paleo meals, this would look like one protein food component such as fish, chicken, beef, mushrooms or shrimp, and two of your favorite vegetable sides.
Pitfalls of the Paleo Diet
Paleo can be a fairly restrictive diet when it comes to making food choices and eating out. It can be hard to follow this style of eating long-term, and it cuts out healthy food groups that your body might tolerate just fine. The paleo diet can be difficult for vegetarians and vegans as it cuts out legumes and soy as protein source options. You will have to plan more to stick with a balanced paleo style diet, but it can be done, and the results are very rewarding!
There is no one size fits all with the paleo diet, so it is important to first consult with a Registered Dietitian to find an individualized plan that works for you.
By Amy Laessig, RDN, LDN, CHC