What is the paleo diet? Foods to eat, pros and cons and which is better
While many diets follow modern fitness and nutrition trends, the paleo diet reminds its participants of the Stone Age. It offers a variety of filling foods that were thought to have been eaten in those days, “foods that you could hunt, fish, or gather,” says Caroline Susie, registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It does have the benefit of promoting multiple high-protein, high-fiber foods that are also typically lower in fat and calories. However, experts say the paleo diet is too restrictive for long-term health and weight loss and lacks solid scientific basis for many of its purported health benefits.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet, also known as the caveman diet, aims for participants to eat like people who lived in the Paleolithic. “It’s a diet that probably mimics the dietary habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors,” explains Jen Messer, nutritionist and registered dietitian at Jen Messer Nutrition. Susie says that proponents of the paleo diet “blame the agricultural revolution and the addition of grains, legumes and dairy products to the human diet for the development of chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes.”
As such, followers of the paleo diet are encouraged to consume foods that the body is “naturally” designed to digest and by avoiding “more modern supplements such as processed foods, dairy and grains,” explains Messer. “Proponents of the paleo diet believe that this type of diet can lead to weight loss, improved health, and a reduced risk of today’s most common chronic diseases,” she says, “although scientific evidence does not support these health claims.”
What foods do you eat on a paleo diet?
Nonetheless, many of the foods offered in the paleo diet are popular and important as part of a balanced diet. “The focus is on animal protein sources such as eggs, beef, poultry and fish, as well as a variety of non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds,” says Messer. The paleo diet also includes fats like olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. In short, “A paleo eating plan is high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low in simple carbohydrates, sugar, sodium, and processed foods,” says Perri Halperin, MS, RD, clinical nutrition coordinator for Mount Sinai Health System.
Foods restricted by the diet include wheat, rice, corn, and refined grains, as well as processed meats, refined oils, foods with added sugars, and legumes such as beans, peanuts, and peas. “Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are also excluded,” says Messer.
What Are the Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet?
The benefit of the paleo diet is that it recommends food groups that many people are commonly deficient in. Paleo diet foods are generally “high in potassium and high in antioxidants,” Messer explains, while also being “low in simple processed carbohydrates, sodium and sugar.” For this reason, the diet “can be a healthy eating plan because it helps meet many nutritional needs and may even contribute to weight loss and improved blood sugar and lipid profiles,” says Halperin.
That’s especially true for people who eat too many processed foods like cakes, breads, chips, cheese, microwaveable meals, pastries, breakfast cereals, and almost any menu item offered at a fast-food drive-through. For such people, “switching to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables has the potential to improve overall food intake,” says Messer. “It could also be a great way to kick-start a healthier diet.”
However, the downside of the paleo diet is that it excludes some important food groups. “If you follow this diet for an extended period of time, you’re at risk of calcium and vitamin D deficiencies, which increase your risk of osteoporosis and fractures,” says Halperin. Completely cutting out carbohydrates, especially good carbohydrates like complex carbohydrates, has also been shown to lead to health problems like low blood pressure, kidney stones, constipation and an increased risk of heart disease. Restrictive diets like the paleo diet also sometimes lead to eating disorders, Susie says.
In addition, an overly restrictive diet “can also lead to yo-yo diets, which ultimately impair health,” explains Messer. She says it’s best to approach any diet like a marathon, not a sprint. “It’s important to choose a pace that’s sustainable over the long term and avoid making changes that won’t last a lifetime,” she advises. If you are considering the paleo diet or any other approach to eating, Messer recommends “consulting with a registered dietitian to determine if it is appropriate for your individual needs and to ensure you are meeting all of your dietary needs.”
Try the following instead:Mediterranean Diet named “Best Diet Ever” for sixth year in a row. Here’s how to start it.