The Paleolithic diet, also known as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet, or hunter–gatherer diet, is based on foods believed to have been available before agriculture began. The Paleolithic era, dating back about 2.5 million years, is when humans first used stone tools and lasted until agriculture emerged around 10,000 years ago. This diet primarily includes foods like lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, eggs, and nuts, sourced from wild animals and uncultivated plants. It avoids grains, legumes, dairy, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils, which weren't available before plant cultivation and animal domestication.1
This diet is attractive because it suggests that since agriculture and animal domestication started only about 10,000 years ago, there hasn't been enough time for significant evolutionary changes in human metabolism and physiology to adapt to these new dietary practices. Proponents of the Paleolithic diet argue that modern humans are better suited to a diet from the Paleolithic era rather than today's more processed diet. Let's explore this further.1
The Standard Paleo Diet
The concept behind the Paleo diet is relatively straightforward: if your ancient ancestors didn’t consume it, then you shouldn’t either.2 Therefore, you’ll find foods high in protein and fiber and devoid of processed items in a Paleo diet.
When embracing a Paleo diet, the focus is on consuming a variety of foods that could have been hunted or gathered in the Paleolithic era. This includes a bounty of lean proteins, a diverse array of vegetables, and a selection of fruits.2 Seeds and nuts are included for their fats, along with certain oils that can be obtained through simple pressing or extraction processes. Foods that are unprocessed and free from additives align with the diet's core philosophy. The emphasis is on quality, aiming for grass-fed, organic, and sustainably harvested options whenever possible. Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated is also a key aspect of the Paleo lifestyle.
Foods to Consume When on a Paleo Diet
When adopting a Paleo diet, it’s paramount to focus on whole foods that are nutritionally dense. Here are some food groups and items that are typically embraced in a Paleo eating plan:
Meat and Poultry3: Grass-fed and free-range meats are emphasized, including beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, and other game meats.
Fish and Seafood3: Preferably wild-caught fish and shellfish are key components of the Paleo diet, including salmon, trout and shrimp.
Vegetables3: Almost all vegetables are encouraged, with a particular emphasis on leafy greens and colorful veggies such as kale, broccoli, peppers, and carrots.
Tubers3: Potatoes, yams, turnips and others, preferably consumed in moderation and in an unprocessed form.
Fruits3: While fruit is allowed, it is typically consumed in moderation due to its sugar content.
Fats and oils3: Avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, and extra-virgin coconut oil provide options for fats with minimal processing.
Eggs3: Particularly from free-range, organic sources.
Herbs and Spices3: Fresh herbs and spices are utilized for added flavor.
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On a Paleo diet, certain categories of foods are generally avoided to align with the diet's principles, which favor foods presumed to have been available to our Paleolithic ancestors. This includes anything that requires modern agriculture or processing, such as grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugars, and artificial additives. Processed and packaged foods are also off-limits due to their often high content of preservatives, artificial ingredients, and added sugars. Additionally, the consumption of vegetable oils and trans fats, which are products of modern industrial processes, is discouraged. Instead, the diet promotes the intake of whole, nutrient-dense foods to support overall health.
Foods To Avoid on The Paleo Diet
- Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup3: soft drinks, fruit juices, table sugar, candy, pastries, ice cream, and many others.
- Grains3: breads, pastas, wheat, cereal, spelt, rye, barley, etc.
- Legumes3: beans, lentils, and many more.
- Dairy3: most dairy, especially low fat dairy (some versions of paleo do include full-fat dairy like grass-fed butter and cheese).
- Some vegetable oils3: soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, and other oils that require more processing than more natural alternatives.
- Artificial sweeteners3: aspartame, sucralose, cyclamates, saccharin, acesulfame potassium (use natural sweeteners instead).
- Highly processed foods3: everything labeled “diet” or “low fat” or that has many additives, including artificial meal replacements.
Some Advantages of the Paleo Diet May Include:
Rich in Potassium4: Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables can increase potassium levels.
Moderate Fats4: The diet includes moderate amounts of unsaturated fats from nuts, avocados, and olive oil.
High Protein Content4: Adequate intake of lean proteins is crucial for the growth and maintenance of muscles.
Elimination of Processed Foods4: Focusing on whole foods, the diet minimizes salt and sugar consumption.
Some Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet May Include:
Excessive Food Portions4: The diet permits food portions that exceed the recommended daily allowances for those foods.
Nutrient Deficiencies4: By eliminating entire food groups, essential nutrients and vitamins may be missing from the diet.
Risk of Inadequate Calcium Intake4: In Western diets, calcium is often sourced from milk, cheese, and yogurt. Those on the paleo diet might face a risk of low bone and tooth density due to inadequate calcium consumption.
Reduced Fiber Intake4: Omitting whole grains from the diet could lead to a decreased intake of fiber, which is important for regular bowel movements.
Exclusion of Legumes4: The diet restricts legume consumption, which are some sources of magnesium, selenium, and manganese.
The bottom line is that as generations have evolved, our diets have evolved with us. History’s eaters, like us, ate according to whatever was available to them. Our bodies have continually adapted to the foods and nutrients that have diversified over the years. One final and the most important point we want to make is that there is no one-size-fits-all Paleo diet. Paleo is just a label given to a dietary framework, which can and should be tailored to your individual needs, goals, body type and sensitivities.
Bear in mind that adopting a new dietary regimen should be approached with consideration for one's unique health requirements. Every individual’s nutritional needs are distinctive, and what works well for one may not be suitable for another, so always consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet, especially if you have underlying health conditions.‡
‡ Do not try the above diets unsupervised at home. Always consult with your healthcare provider prior to modifying your diet.
- Klonoff DC. (2009). The beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on type 2 diabetes and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. J Diabetes Sci Technol, 3(6): 1229-32.
- Cleveland Clinic (2023). Paleo Diet 101: What You Can and Can’t Eat. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/paleo-diet/ Accessed: 28 November 2023
- Gunners, K. and Kelly, E. (2023) Healthline: The Paleo Diet — A Beginner's Guide Plus Meal Plan. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/paleo-diet-meal-plan-and-menu Accessed: 28 November 2023