All About Diets Series: What is Paleo?
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
"Diet" fundamentally describes typical food intake. That's it! Somewhere, somehow though, "diet" came to represent rules and restrictions and evolved into "dieting". Our society framed a healthy way of eating as something that excludes rather than includes certain foods.
"Diet" and "dieting" are truly not the same though. We need to talk about our diets but should be looking at them from a place of abundance, not scarcity. It's also important to note that specific diets can be beneficial short-term tools for long-term health (think gut healing)!
In this mini-series, we're going to break the tie between "dieting" and "diet." We'll take a look at the core concepts behind some popular diets (Keto, Paleo, Raw Food, and Whole30) and we'll go through the major pros and cons of each.
As always, it's important to remember that we all have different nutritional needs. These blog posts aren't intended to promote a certain way of eating but rather shed some light on often-talked about diets! If you're interested in taking things further and learning more about what your specific needs are, working with a Registered Dietitian might be the right next step for you! Complete our 1:1 Dietitian Nutrition Coaching Application today -Gretchen will reach out to schedule your complimentary call after you complete the coaching application.
The Paleo Diet:
What is it?
You may know the paleo diet by some of its other names: the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, or the caveman diet. This pattern of eating is a modern take on what our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic Era (hence the name), some 2.5 million years ago (1, 2). While there are varying versions of the paleo diet, the main idea behind it all is improving health by replacing modern, processed foods with minimally transformed and/or whole forms of food (2, 3).
While the concept of the modern paleo diet started around the 1970s, it seems to have peaked in popularity around 2014 (2, 4). It's believed that this way of eating gained momentum due to the public's increasing interest in understanding where their food is coming from and how they can eat more healthfully (4).
Just as with the keto diet, there is scientific data that suggests some beneficial short-term effects of the paleo diet. However, we do not have a clear understanding of how eating this way long-term impacts human health. It's also important to note that studying this dietary pattern is still relatively new. That means there is still a lot of conflicting evidence on the potential health benefits of the paleo diet and more in-depth research is needed to paint a clearer picture (2, 4, 5, 6).
What is food intake like?
Just as there was no one specific diet in the Paleolithic Era (food varied by region), there is no single paleo diet today (4). There are commonalities between the different versions though: paleo diets typically exclude processed foods (deli meats, bars, packaged snacks, etc.), added sugar, alcohol, dairy products, all grains, refined vegetable oils, and legumes (1, 3, 4, 5). There are some versions of the paleo diet that even exclude white potatoes, coffee, salt, canned foods, and frozen foods too (4).
So what can you eat if you're following the paleo diet then? Intake is plant-based with an emphasis on a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Honey is commonly used in moderation and protein is mainly from sources like fresh fish, meat, poultry, shellfish, and eggs. Additionally, minimally processed oils like olive and coconut oil are often "allowed" (1, 3, 4).
Another commonality among paleo diets is that calorie counting and portion sizes are not emphasized. Rather, the focus is placed on what foods should be included versus avoided (4).
What are the pros?
· Short-term research has shown that the paleo diet may provide certain health benefits that decrease the risk of chronic diseases, such as weight loss, decreased blood pressure, improved cholesterol, decreased oxidative stress, and increased insulin sensitivity (2, 4, 5, 6).
· A focus is placed on the quality of foods consumed. This, along with the emphasis on fresh foods, can also promote the purchasing of local offerings (4).
· The removal of processed foods and added sugar mean carbohydrates are coming from nutrient-dense food sources that contain a lot of fiber (something that's often lacking in our Standard American Diet) (1, 4).
· Colorful foods rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients are abundant on the paleo diets (1).
What are the cons?
· The long list of foods to avoid makes this diet quite restrictive. It can be difficult to do simple things such as eat out or grab a quick snack on-the-go. Additionally, planning and preparing meals with mostly fresh ingredients is time-consuming and often requires a major lifestyle change. Overall, this leads to poor adherence long-term (4).
· Some high-fiber and nutritious foods are excluded, such as whole grains, lentils, beans, oats, quinoa, and more (1,4)
· Meat can be overemphasized, which can lead to an increase in saturated fat intake (especially with red meat). Increased saturated fat intake has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (1, 4, 7).
· "Cheat meals" are part of some paleo plans in an attempt to compensate for the restrictive nature of this diet. This can quickly foster an unhealthy mindset where certain foods are labeled as "bad" or "off-limits" rather than promoting that some foods are just best in moderation (1,4).
Wrapping it up:
The pros and cons listed above are not an exhaustive list - they're just some of the major highlights of the paleo diet. Following the paleo diet can reduce a person's intake of added sugar, excessive salt, and saturated fat. Overall, this way of eating may provide some health benefits that could reduce the risk of developing certain chronic diseases (2, 4, 5, 6). However, the paleo diet requires a lot of time and work and can be quite restrictive. It's also still relatively new in the world of nutrition so there is much research left to be done to uncover whether or not the paleo diet is truly beneficial for long-term health.
1. Stafford R. A skeptical look at popular diets: The paleo diet isn’t just for cavemen. In: Medicine S, ed. Scope 10K. Vol 2021. Stanford Medicine: Stanford Medicine; 2019.
2. Challa HJ, Bandlamudi M, Uppaluri KR. Paleolithic Diet. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; July 10, 2020.
3. Whalen KA, McCullough ML, Flanders WD, Hartman TJ, Judd S, Bostick RM. Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Balance in Adults. J Nutr. 2016;146(6):1217-1226. doi:10.3945/jn.115.224048
4. Health HSoP. Diet Review: Paleo Diet for Weight Loss. In. The Nutrition Source. Vol 2020: Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
5. de Menezes EVA, Sampaio HAC, Carioca AAF, et al. Influence of Paleolithic diet on anthropometric markers in chronic diseases: systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr J. 2019;18(1):41. Published 2019 Jul 23. doi:10.1186/s12937-019-0457-z
6. Ghaedi E, Mohammadi M, Mohammadi H, et al. Effects of a Paleolithic Diet on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials [published correction appears in Adv Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;11(4):1054]. Adv Nutr. 2019;10(4):634-646. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz007
7. Quintana Pacheco DA, Sookthai D, Wittenbecher C, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases-is increased iron load a possible link?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018;107(1):113-119. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqx014