The Paleo Diet: Just what is it?

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So you’ve probably been hearing a lot of buzz about the “Paleo Diet” (aka the “Caveman Diet”) lately. It seems to be all the rage. However, I’ve noticed it often gets boiled down into being a diet that’s basically about eating meat (as you can imagine, it has its share of detractors, as well as supporters). So, I decided to do a little research. It appears that Dr. Loren Cordain is credited as being the expert on the Paleo Diet as well as the leader of the Paleolithic Movement.

Yes, a movement.

Dr. Loren Cordain is not some fly-by-night huckster who is trying to sell snake oil as the remedy for all that ails us, either. He has quite a pedigree — he’s written more than 100 scientific articles and abstracts which have been featured in scientific journals all over the world; he’s been featured on Dateline NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; Cordain has a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, a masters in physical education, and a Ph.D. in Health; he’s been a Health & Exercise Science professor at Colorado State University for more than two decades; and he’s written five books on the Paleo lifestyle, including bestseller The Paleo Diet.

Caveman Diet Paleo Diet

The bottom line of the Paleo Diet, it appears, is that it’s about eating wholesome foods that our “hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago.”

So, what does that mean?

What can you eat on the Paleo Diet (and what can’t you eat)?

  • fresh meats (ideally grass-produced or free-range beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and game meat, if possible)
  • fish
  • seafood
  • fresh fruits
  • vegetables
  • seeds
  • nuts
  • healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut, and flaxseed)

Following the Paleo Diet means excluding any food that was grown after agriculture began, such as:

  • dairy products (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, etc.)
  • cereal grains
  • legumes (beans, peas, etc.)
  • potatoes 
  • refined sugars
  • processed foods

Hmmm. Well, we’ve all heard the horrors of refined sugars and processed foods, so it’s kinda hard to argue that they should be part of our diet. But cut out grains and legumes? And no milk or cheese or yogurt? Eek.

According to Dr. Cordain, adhering to the Paleo Diet plan is a good idea because research shows that hunter-gatherers were free of the illnesses and diseases that plague us today, such as:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Acne
  • Myopia (nearsightedness), macular degeneration, glaucoma
  • Varicose veins, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, gastric reflux
  • Gout

Simple Paleo Compliant Meal Paleo Diet Recipe

By RussellTn [CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Dr. Cordain insists that a diet similar to what our ancestors ate is the best route to good health — a high-protein, high-fruit and veggie diet with moderate to higher amounts of fat, but with increased quantities of healthful omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. Because protein has two to three times the thermic effect of either fats or carbohydrates, it kicks up your metabolism, resulting in an increase in weight loss. Furthermore, protein is much more satisfying than fats and carbohydrates, so it puts the brakes on your appetite. Sounds good, right?

Is the Paleo Diet good for you (and me)?

According to Dr. Cordain, yes. Yes, yes, yes, unequivocally YES. He has been quoted as saying that “Clinical trials have shown that the Paleo Diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance.” He also claims that while we believe that grains and dairy products are good for us, it turns out that our “genome has not really adapted to these foods, which can cause inflammation at the cellular level and promote disease.”

But wait. Isn’t meat discouraged because of its effect on cholesterol and heart health? At least that’s what I thought. But Dr. Cordain has an answer for that as well.

“There is no doubt that the fat quality and quantity in the wild animals our Stone Age ancestors ate was vastly different from the types and quantity of fat found in feedlot-produced meats,” Dr. Cordain writes on his website. So, apparently the meat in the Stone Age wasn’t quite as unhealthy — unhealthy by common standards, that is — as today’s meat. For instance, a 100 gram serving of a T-Bone steak has 23 grams of fat (eek!) and 9 grams of saturated fat, with only a mere 46 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Cavemen might have eaten a 100-gram serving of, oh, roasted buffalo, which has just over 2 grams of fat and 0.9 grams of saturated fat. The buffalo also has 215 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.

The Food at Davids Kitchen 182

By David Reber from Kansas City, USA (Paleo Grill at David’s Kitchen Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Cordain asserts that, “Despite its blood cholesterol raising effects (Editor’s note: emphasis added), recent meta analyses (combined, large population studies) show that saturated fats have little adverse effect upon the risk for heart disease…Recent clinical studies have shown that high-protein diets are more effective in improving blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels than are low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. High-protein diets have also been shown to lower blood homocysteine levels, another risk factor for heart disease.”

Hmmm. I’m not sure I understand Dr. Cordain’s reasoning about saturated fats not being a risk factor for heart disease while admitting that saturated fats raise a person’s cholesterol. The link between cholesterol and heart disease couldn’t be put more simply than this: “The higher the cholesterol, the higher the level of heart and blood vessel disease.” At least that’s how Dr. Laurence Sperling boils it down. But he’s just the head of preventive cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. What does he know? (Editor’s note: That’s sarcasm.)

In a feature he wrote for WebMD, Dr. Sperling outlined the risks of high cholesterol — heart attack and stroke. Of course, your body makes cholesterol on its own, but you also get it from eggs and meats (and dairy products, but they’re forbidden on the Paleo Diet). I’m neither a doctor nor an expert, but I can do simple math. And this arithmetic is pretty simple. However, Dr. Cordain claims that the Paleo Diet may be associated with these health benefits:

The carbohydrates (unlimited fruits and veggies) in the Paleo Diet are of a low-glycemic index, meaning that they cause slow and limited rises in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Excessive insulin and blood sugar levels are known to promote a cluster of diseases called the Metabolic Syndrome (obesity, hypertension, undesirable blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels, Type 2 diabetes and gout). The high fiber, protein, and omega-3 fat content of the Paleo Diet will also help to prevent the Metabolic Syndrome.

Because of the unlimited amounts of fruits and veggies permitted on the Paleo Diet, your body will be slightly alkaline – meaning that diseases and disease symptoms of acid/base imbalance (osteoporosis, kidney stones, hypertension, stroke, asthma, insomnia, motion sickness, inner ear ringing, and exercise-induced asthma) will improve.

The high soluble-fiber content of the Paleo Diet will improve most diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, and the high omega-3 fat content will improve most of the “itis” or inflammatory diseases.

Wow. That’s a whole lot of health benefits.

Critics of the Paleo Diet

And, while Dr. Cordain urges individuals to eat unlimited fruits and vegetables as part of the Paleo Diet, he does not encourage a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Or, at least that’s what I get from this:

“The Paleo Diet is based on foods similar to what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era – 2.6 million years to 10,000 years ago. That comprises 99.6 % of our evolutionary history; hence, our genome is perfectly adapted to eat foods similar to what we found during that period of time. This means eating meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) led to a dramatic change in human nutrition. Cereal grains, legumes, dairy, vegetable oils, salt, alcohol, and refined sugars now comprise 72 % of the nutrition in the western society. These recent additions to the human diet maintain nutritional characteristics that promote virtually all known “diseases of civilization.”

Most vegans and vegetarians rely upon legumes (beans, soy, lentils, peas, etc.) and whole grains to meet the majority of their daily caloric intake. Legumes and whole grains contain some of the highest concentrations of antinutrients in any foods. These compounds frequently increase intestinal permeability and cause a condition known as “leaky gut,” a necessary first step in almost all autoimmune diseases. Further, a leaky gut likely underlies chronic, low-grade inflammation, which underlies not only autoimmune diseases, but also heart disease and cancer.

Further vegan and vegetarian diets almost invariably result in numerous vitamin, mineral and nutrient deficiencies such as B12, B6, D, zinc, iron, iodine, taurine and omega-3 fatty acids. So, to answer your question, it is simply impossible to follow a Paleo Diet without animal food (meat, seafood and eggs).”

As you can imagine, the Paleo Diet has its fair share of critics. Some refer to it as the “Caveman Fad Diet.” More than one published scientific article — in publications such as The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Preventive Medicine, and Nutrition Bulletin — has argued against this diet, pointing out that our “caveman ancestors” didn’t suffer from the diseases that the Paleo Diet is supposed to address for other reasons — such as far fewer calories in their diets, much shorter lifespans, and other factors. And, of course, some researchers have also pointed out potential health risks that could be associated with the Paleo Diet.

In 2011, the U.S. News & World Report, ranked diets based on evaluations by a panel of 22 experts. They ranked the Paleo Diet at the bottom, citing aspects of the diet such as health, weight loss, and ease of adherence. A year later, 25 diets were evaluated; the Paleo Diet tied for the bottom spot. In fact, U.S. News & World Report said the expert panel “took issue with the diet on every measure.”

Caveman Diet Paleo Diet

Further, Dr. Kathleen Zelman wrote a WebMD expert review of the Caveman Diet, and she did not mince words. Zelman says that, because the diet is based on foods that could be hunted, fished, and gathered during the Paleolithic period, “a true paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic because wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated. At best, you can eat a modified version of the original diet that’s gluten-free and includes lean meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. It’s a wide variety of foods.”

Zelman admits that “Eliminating all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and more will most likely lead to weight loss. But it may be tough to follow this plan long-term due to the diet’s strict nature.” However, she also cites some other experts, such as Keith Ayoob, EDd, RD, an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, who asserts, “People who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and there are mountains of research about the health benefits of diets that include, not exclude, these foods.”

Also weighing in on the “Caveman Diet” was Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “This diet has some great aspects, but the limitations make it another diet that people go on but can’t sustain for a number of reasons, including a lack of variety, [cost], and potential nutrient inadequacies,” as a result of the avoidance of certain foods.

So, who is the Paleo Diet for?

Obviously, vegetarians and vegans won’t be trying out this diet. However, those who eat gluten-free will do pretty well. Are you on a low-salt diet? Well then, the Paleo Diet should work for you in that regard. But — if you’re on a low-salt diet due to hypertension or heart issues, then there are other aspects you might need to consider, like the fat and cholesterol effects of eating meat and eggs. A sample Paleo Diet menu indicates that you’d be getting about 39 percent of your calories from fat (that’s, um, a lot…even more than the government’s recommended 35 percent maximum). As far as the “governmental recommendations,” the protein intake on the Paleo Diet is about 38 percent, as compared to the government’s recommended 10-35 percent.

The Paleo Diet, of course, recommends exercise (who doesn’t?), which makes sense…since cavemen were not a sedentary people. Far from it. But will you burn calories at the rate of a caveman? Probably not. Unless you’re constantly on the move. Which, ya know, you’re probably not. (Even if it feels like it.)

Paleo Diet Recipe Healthy Paleo Breakfast Smoothie

But if you want to check out the Paleo Diet — or just get your feet wet with a few Paleo Diet recipes, you could try some of the Paleo Recipes featured at This Flourishing Life (like the Paleo Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars or the Paleo Chili) or this healthy Paleo Breakfast Smoothie at Confessions of an Overworked Mom!

There is no shortage of Paleo Diet recipes out there. They range from Paleo Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps to  Paleo Turkey Veggie Meatballs at The Bewitchin’ Kitchen…

Paleo Diet Recipes Paleo Recipes Paleo Meatballs

Or, if you’re not quite ready to take the full plunge into the Paleo lifestyle, you could try this Almost Paleo Carrot Cookie Recipe from The Horrible Housewife. Maybe baby steps will help you make your decision about Paleo.

Almost Paleo Carrot Cookies Paleo Diet Recipes

You might also be interested to read how The Horrible Housewife is investigating the connection between the Paleo Diet and Multiple Sclerosis — to find out if the Caveman Diet brings about any positive results. I encourage you to see what she has to say…because it presents some very encouraging and motivating information.

I’m curious to find out what people think about the Paleo Diet…have you tried it? Did you like it? What were the results?

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  1. says

    After finding out about several food allergies and sensitives (50+ foods) I decided to try eating Paleo and it’s been great. I think as long as those that follow this diet eat enough veggies and other healthy foods, then there isn’t much to worry about by way of lacking vitamins and minerals that our bodies need.

  2. says

    I’ve tried a few recipes. My SIL has been living the Paleo diet for a few years actually. Before it became big. And she has never looked better. She says she has more energy. She lost a lot of weight. And says she feels amazing. Our family always had issues with dairy so that wasn’t hard to give up for her. But the grains were difficult at first. But after being without them for so long, she is now struggling eating them when she goes off the diet. They now make her sick.

    We have a great book about Paleo diet with some delicious recipes in it. I like to make some of the recipes from time to time. We aren’t pure paleo diet eaters, but I do enjoy to dabble in it because some of the recipes are really good.

    • says

      This is interesting…I have heard good things about how people feel, and how much weight they’ve lost, etc…I just know it would be so hard for me to go without dairy and, say, pasta. Even whole grain bread would be hard to give up. I still don’t know. It’s quite the transition.
      Kristin recently posted..Hello, Kitty!My Profile

  3. Jenna Wood says

    I don’t think I could give up my dairy- I cut out sugar….so I simple couldn’t give up my cheese. But it seems reasonable that this would tend to promote better health overall.

    • says

      Actually, I did Atkins for about a month…and I couldn’t recall precisely what the differences/similarities were, so I looked it up. LOL. I was doing it in the late 90s or so, when the Atkins Diet put no restrictions on the quantities of protein you ate. I was eating eggs and breakfast meats for breakfast, then chicken for lunch, and usually a steak for dinner, with a small salad.

      This is what I found on WebMD:

      Sets few limits on the amount of food you eat but instead severely restricts the kinds of food allowed on your plate: no refined sugar, milk, white rice, or white flour
      Allows you to eat foods traditionally regarded as “rich”: meat, eggs, cheese, and more
      Claims to reduce your appetite in the process

      On the Atkins diet, you’re eating almost pure protein and fat. You can consume red meat, fish (including shellfish), fowl, and regular cheese (not “diet” cheese, cheese spreads, or whey cheeses). You can cook with butter, have mayo with your tuna, and put olive oil on your salads.

      On the other hand, carbs are restricted (about 20 grams of net carbs per day, meaning total carbs minus fiber) in the first two weeks, which translates to three cups of loosely packed salad or two cups of salad with two-thirds cup of certain cooked vegetables each day.

      There are no exceptions to these rules during the first two weeks because low-carb consumption (no fruits and only a few leafy green vegetables) is supposed to jump-start the weight-loss biochemical activity of the diet. You’re not counting calories (in fact, you may be eating more calories than you were before).

      You can read more about it at:

      So, actually, Atkins is even more restrictive than the Paleo Diet. It was very “trendy” when I tried it, and I lasted a month. I ate SO much food (and calories and fat), and after a month, hadn’t gained a pound. I don’t think I lost weight either, though. Maybe a pound or two. It was a huge disappointment. But then I got nervous about cholesterol and heart disease, etc., so I figured it wasn’t worth the risk.
      Kristin recently posted..Dude, chill…My Profile

      • says

        Wow! Thanks for such an in depth response. I tried Atkins once and it wasn’t for me. Since this diet seems much less restrictive, I might like it much more. :)

  4. says

    It is amazing that there are any critics at all. People were not meant to eat processed GMO foods, refined sugars etc… Once upon time people could only eat what they could “hunt and gather.” Modern medicine would not need to work so hard if we ourselves would eat the way we are supposed to! Great post!

    • says

      Thanks, Paula! I think there are critics for a variety of reasons…some on the scientific side, both regarding the logic behind the caveman reasoning (as in, cavemen and people today can hardly be compared, for a host of reasons, like their life expectancy, medicine, drugs/alcohol, technology, exercise (or lack of) and so on) as well as whether this type of diet is truly healthy for everyone, over the long term. But there’s also some who argue that such a restricted diet is not “smart” because it lends itself to not being followed over the long term…and, aren’t there healthy vegetarians/vegans, etc.? It’s a pretty fascinating concept…and I just scratched the surface.

      I, of course, would agree that processed foods and refined sugars shouldn’t be a part (at the very least not a significant part) of anyone’s diet, regardless of what they’re trying to do/attain. But I’m no expert. I just play one on my blog. (OK, and sometimes in real life, too. LOL)

  5. says

    This is an amazing article. A friend of mine is just about to start eating a more paleo diet. Honestly I couldn’t give up the carbs and the dairy. I am trying to eat more whole foods all the way around. We have started spending more on groceries to make sure they are as fresh and preservative free as possible.
    Ashley S recently posted..Getting Your Chocolate Fix While on a BudgetMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks so much, Ashley. As you can tell, I am quite intrigued by this diet…and I’m curious to find out if eating (almost) paleo will show health benefits, as Dr. Cordain claims. That would seal the deal for me! But, you’re absolutely correct…not only is it hard and more expensive to eat right, it is REALLY expensive to eat organic and free-range and so on. It’s really cost-prohibitive, in fact. And there are only two of us in the house. If I was buying groceries for a family of 4+…I don’t think I could afford to buy those groceries for everyone. Which is quite sad. This is a whole other topic for another time, but…it doesn’t help with the health/obesity issues in this country one bit. There are other factors, for sure, but you can’t ignore the systemic factors that make it a lot cheaper (and easier in some areas) to feed your family food that is nutritionally bankrupt than it is to feed them healthy food. And, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a whole lot of coupons for tofu or flaxseed or quinoa…but I can’t count all the coupons I skip past for fruit snacks and kids’ cereal and boxed meals.

      OK, let me step off my soapbox. LOL.
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      • says

        Girl, TELL me about it! We just moved to an area with a Whole Foods store and I LOVE it, but there are very few coupons out there! My youngest daughter has really severe allergies so it’s easier for us to keep her healthy when I can read all the ingredients or make it from scratch. Our food budget for a family of five has already doubled :(
        Ashley S recently posted..Getting Your Chocolate Fix While on a BudgetMy Profile

  6. Jenn Voss says

    Hey Kristin! Love your blog post and well researched! I’m a runner and have been following the paleo lifestyle for over 9mos! I dove into it at the end of a detox program & my main goal was to continue cutting processed foods on my diet. I’ve come to a point now that my body actually retaliates if I eat dairy/grains which I sometimes crave! I am beginning to train for more endurance & longer races, my first marathon will be in October!! I literally just yesterday shared my favorite cookbooks for paleo, would welcome u & others here to go check it out! As with everything, I think modeeatikn is key & according to Cordain, even if you follow a paleo lifestyle 80% of the time you will still reap the benefits! Thanks again for a terrific post! Ill be sharing!!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Jenn! I am doing my research to see what will work best for me, my health issues, and what I can realistically stick with, which is important. I will definitely check out those Paleo cookbooks so I can see what kind of recipes I can work with! Thanks again. (And, yes, I think I would be one of the 80%-ers…but we’ll see!)
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  7. says

    I started a few years ago now and have lost 22 kilos and no longer have asthma! I definitely think it’s worth trying it for 30 days to see if it helps.

  8. Jessica says

    Kristin great article! The paleo diet has been shown to be a sound way for many people to enjoy optimal health.

  9. says

    Some of the Paleo stuff instinctively makes sense to me. But I am not sure I could follow a strict paleo diet. Intermittent fasting is working well for me right at the moment – 5:2 diet. If I ever give up on that I may try a part Paleo diet simply because the basic principle of avoiding processed food sounds good to me

  10. Rosie says

    I would think if a person is going to try the Paleo diet, it would be wise to get their meat and fish from a store like Whole Foods, and also check in with their nutritionist, who can give some helpful hints and ideas. I don’t follow any certain diet, I try to eat healthy – that’s hard enough for me!

  11. says

    Honestly, I don’t understand why so many people are against it. If we sit for a minute, it all makes sense. Eat like nature intended. Eat what nature provides: Meat, fish, chix, and veggies. Ever since I started this diet, I feel much better ( I even lost weight). Combine That with a little exercise and you are all set. Thanks for the great post.

  12. says

    Great article, I love that there are so many new recipes out there now with the popularity of this way of eating. I struggle to eat strictly paleo but my diet is based around avoiding too many processed foods which to me just makes sense. Am totally going to try those carrot cookies.

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