While you may never want to live like a caveman (Who regularly lives in fear of animal attacks?), many people aim to eat like one and follow the Paleo diet. The gist is you only eat what cavemen did, which to proponents means no grains, legumes, dairy or sugar and lots of meat, coconut, vegetables and fruit.
A lot of the beliefs about why you should eat this way have been debunked by research, but there may be some benefits to going Paleo. Before you make the change, consider what registered dietitians have to say.
While there is research on the Paleolithic diet, the studies have been small and short. According to a 2016 review of controlled clinical trials comparing the diet to others, the strongest of the studies found no long-term differences between people following a Paleo diet and those on a control diet after two years. “Discuss with your doctor or dietitian to ensure you’re following the Paleo diet correctly and meeting your nutrition needs and that it’s right for you,” recommends Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Although many restaurants and meal kit services have Paleo offerings, “relying solely on ordering out gets expensive quickly,” says Sidney Fry, RD, a James Beard award-winning food and nutrition author. “Choose the less expensive but more time-consuming route and cook.”
Many people think Paleo is all about meat, but fresh produce should be the focus of your plate. “If we really are emulating the diet of hunter-gatherer ancestors, the foundation of the diet should be fiber in the form of fruits and veggies,” Hultin says. “Or if we’re simply using the Paleo diet as a low-carb plan to cut out grains and processed food from the diet … the foundation should be fiber in the form of fruits and veggies.” So when you think Paleo, think veggies.
Most Paleo plans recommend more meat than the current USDA guidelines. Choose high-quality animal proteins, says Fry, who recommends reasonable portions of grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs and sustainably raised seafood.
The “avoid” list for Paleo includes processed foods, sugar, soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, margarine and trans fats. “Avoiding processed sugars and sweeteners is a good thing, Paleo or not,” Hultin says. “Cutting out these types of foods and opting instead for a whole-food based diet could be beneficial for many people.”
The Paleo diet nixes grains, believing they cause inflammation. “Research actually shows the opposite to be true,” Hultin says. “Legumes and whole grains show up again and again as beneficial in heart health studies. Whole grains contain many nutrients like B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, and a diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.”
Because the Paleo diet cuts out dairy, beans and tofu, it may be difficult to get adequate calcium, Hultin says. In one study, people on the diet consumed 53% less calcium than the daily recommended intake. This could increase the risk of fractures and osteoporosis, so talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to be sure the diet is appropriate for you and you are getting enough calcium.
“There are lots of Paleo recipes that aren’t very ‘ancestral,’” Hultin says. How about Paleo angel food cake, brownies or lemon bars? “The sweeteners and flours used for baking like dates, honey, coconut flour and tapioca starch can still add up in calories and cause undesired weight gain,” Hultin says. A dessert once in a while is fine, but focus on vegetables, fruit, lean meats and healthy fats.
“Despite its popularity and social media fame, U.S. News & World Report ranked Paleo as number 32 of 40 on its annual list of Best Overall Diets,” Fry says. “The experts couldn’t accept that entire food groups, like grains and dairy, are excluded, labeling it as ‘only somewhat complete nutritionally.’”
“Referring to the Paleo diet as a ‘Paleolithic Era’ dietary pattern is not quite correct,” Hultin says. “There is evidence that people at that time inhabited many geographical areas. They ate what they could get their hands on, including a ton of fiber. I think that we could refer to Paleo as ‘low carb’ or ‘unprocessed low carb’ rather than calling it an ancestral diet.”
There are benefits to eating a Paleo diet, such as consuming whole, unprocessed foods and lots of produce and being aware of the importance of high-quality meats. However, Fry and Hultin dislike that the diet eliminates healthy foods such as legumes, whole grains and high-fat dairy. “I wouldn’t recommend following the Paleo diet because I think there is a more balanced way to eat healthfully,” Hultin says.