Paleo is one of those diets that has managed to be popular and controversial at the same time.
It is promoted as a healthy diet and there is also a connection between paleo and weight loss, with some people turning to the diet as a way to lose weight.
And… there is some evidence suggesting that the diet can be effective in these areas, which we’re going to look at in this post.
The Paleo diet is a fascinating concept.
As this data from Google Trends shows, interest in the term Paleo peaked in 2014 (or thereabouts), and the diet still remains popular today.
The popularity of the diet does suggest there is, at least, some merit to it – but of course, popularity doesn’t tell the whole story.
Essentially, the Paleo diet is based on the idea that our ancestors were much healthier than us, even though they were genetically similar.
The Paleo diet suggests that the health of our ancestors was strongly based on the foods they ate – or more specifically, the foods that they didn’t eat.
The basic emphasis of the Paleo diet is simple…
We eat what our ancestors ate
Specifically, the diet focuses on what foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate.
And, as you might imagine from the name, the emphasis is on what was eaten during the Paleolithic period.
With the Paleo diet, there is basically a list of foods that you can eat and a list of foods that you can’t (and a few that are a gray area).
The idea is to eat foods that conform to the Paleo diet and avoid those that do not.
In general, this means that you don’t have to calorie count.
But of course, it isn’t quite that simple.
You mightn’t have to count calories under the Paleo diet, but calories do still matter.
In particular, there are some foods that are considered Paleo that are quite high in calories and easy to eat.
That’s especially true of desserts and there are some rich desserts out there that still fall under the Paleo criteria.
So, you do still need to pay attention to what you eat and how much you eat while following a Paleo diet.
But, what does this mean for Paleo and weight loss?
The Research Surrounding Paleo and Weight Loss
One of the biggest criticisms about the Paleo diet is that there isn’t a lot of evidence about its effectiveness.
That is true.
There are a growing number of studies out there on Paleo, especially ones that look at the impact of Paleo-like diets on factors like glucose tolerance (1).
But, there have still been relatively few studies conducted that look at the Paleo diet and weight loss in humans.
For example, one such study looked at the change in weight after 14 students were asked to follow a Paleo diet for a three-week period.
In this study, the participants lost an average of 5 pounds and their blood pressure also decreased (2).
Now, the observed outcome was statistically significant but, unfortunately, the study itself was rather limited.
In particular, it didn’t include a control group and only looked at 14 students.
Not having a control group is a major issue.
In many cases, people tend to lose weight when they start to pay more attention to what they eat, especially in the short-term.
Simply being part of a research study that looked at weight loss would be enough to cause some changes in a person’s eating habits and patterns.
That’s what makes having a control group so important for this type of study.
Without it, we can’t really tell whether the observed effects were the result of the experimental setting or the diet.
A second study also took a similar approach and had no control group.
In this case, 10 women followed a modified version of the Paleo diet for five weeks.
The authors found that the participants lost an average of just under 10 pounds in the study and also experienced a reduction in liver fat (3).
Other benefits were observed as well, such as improvements in cholesterol (total and LDL), triglycerides and fasting blood sugar levels.
Now, one study did look at the effects of a Paleo diet compared to a diabetes diet.
In this study, the authors found that people following the Paleo diet lost around 6.6 pounds more than the people with who followed the diabetes diet.
Additionally, the Paleo diet resulted in better improvements in levels of HDL, triglycerides and HbA1c (a blood sugar measurement) (4).
That outcome suggests that the Paleo diet may be better than a diabetes diet for weight loss and for cardiovascular risk factors.
Finally, one study compared outcomes between a Paleo diet and a Mediterranean-like diet.
This study found that the Paleo group did experience a significant improvement in glucose tolerance, which was one of the key areas that the study was looking at (5).
The authors did also found that the group on the Paleo diet lost 2.2 inches off their waist, compared to an average of 1.1 inches in the other group. That difference was statistically significant.
The Paleo group did also lose 11 pounds compared to 8.4 pounds in the other group, but that difference wasn’t statistically significant.
Overall, these four studies highlight that the Paleo diet may help people to lose weight and may also help improve health in other areas, such as improving cardiovascular risk factors.
However, more research is needed before we really know the implications of the Paleo diet for weight loss and for health.
While there has been some research into the Paleo diet, it’s true that more research would be desirable.
But, Paleo is actually pretty difficult to research directly.
For one thing, there is no single Paleo diet.
Instead, people follow many different variations of the diet.
For example, some people only follow Paleo loosely, choosing to incorporate some elements into their lifestyle and not others.
In contrast, other people might follow the diet much more strictly, refusing to consume anything that isn’t considered Paleo.
But, even among this latter group, there is some variation. For example, some people don’t think that sweet potatoes should be consumed under Paleo while others think that they should be.
Additionally, Paleo is just one of many diets that are popular right now, so it isn’t too surprising that research has been limited.
Nevertheless, we can find some evidence about the Paleo diet by going beyond the research and looking at the components of the diet.
In particular, the Paleo diet emphasizes the following key foods and ingredients:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices
- Healthy fats and oils
It also focuses on avoiding things like processed food and drinks, sugar, artificial sweeteners, grains, dairy and legumes.
Now, avoiding grains, dairy and legumes is admittedly controversial, but what about the things you do eat?
Well, a diet heavy in meat can actually be beneficial for weight loss, because of the protein that it contains (6).
Nuts are also pretty good for health and they’ve been associated with weight loss as well (7).
Overall, the Paleo diet essentially promotes a high-fat and low-carb diet.
That type of diet does go against conventional advice, but we’re beginning to learn that low-carb diets can actually be good for health and for weight loss.
For example, research has shown that low-carb diets help to reduce appetite and make it easier to decrease your calorie intake (8,9).
Likewise, low-carb diets promote higher amounts of weight loss (10,11).
In general, low-carb diets do make a lot of sense.
Essentially, you’re taking in the bulk of your calories from fat instead of from carbohydrates.
By doing this, you also tend to consume more protein, which helps you to feel full.
That can make a low-carb diet easier to follow and means that people naturally consume less when they are on one.
So, as a low-carb approach, it’s easy to see the relationship between Paleo and weight loss.
Realistically, the low-carb aspect of the diet alone suggests that it would be quite good at promoting weight loss, especially in people who struggle with following a conventional low-fat diet.
Is Paleo Healthy?
As I mentioned before, Paleo is popular and controversial.
There certainly are some good sides to the diet, but there are some questionable elements as well.
Many people that follow the diet absolutely swear by it and say that it revolutionized their health.
That may well be true.
For many people, the Paleo would be a healthy option because it involves switching away from heavily processed foods, artificial additives and many other potentially harmful items.
Instead, the Paleo diet has a strong focus on healthy and whole foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. There are plenty of amazing recipes to try out too.
Without a doubt, that focus is great for health, especially for people who previously relied strongly on processed food.
Despite that, there are some things about the Paleo diet that are a little questionable.
Personally, I have some issues with the general premise of the diet and I’m certainly not the only one.
Yes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were probably healthier than us (although they didn’t live as long). But, they did also have very different lifestyles than we have today.
Those lifestyles included a lot more activity than we currently engage in.
Additionally, most people following the Paleo diet cut out specific food groups because our ancestors didn’t eat them, such as legumes and dairy.
This means that the diet ends up cutting out some food groups that we know are healthy.
Realistically, you can’t argue that our ancestors only ate healthy food, or that all of the changes to our diet since that point have been bad for us.
After all, some of the foods we eat now simply weren’t available to our ancestors, but that doesn’t necessarily make those foods unhealthy.
There are other arguments against the concept of the Paleo diet too, like the fact that we aren’t genetically the same as our ancestors or that there were many different diets in the Paleolithic era (12,13).
In fact, some people argue that people in the Paleolithic era ate a diet that looks nothing at all like the Paleo diet promoted today (14).
There’s even a TED talk on the topic if you want to know more about the science (15).
It also seems foolish to assume that a diet that was healthy for our ancestors is going to protect us against modern diseases (many of which didn’t even exist in the Paleolithic era).
Finally, the diet is also very challenging for the average person to follow and is quite labor-intensive (16).
If nothing else, you really need the time to shop around for the right ingredients and the time in your kitchen to create Paleo meals that taste good. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that much time available, which is another strike against the diet.
Nevertheless, it is important to mention that many people are passionate about the Paleo diet and it has some staunch advocates. Perhaps the most significant example of this is Robb Wolf, who feels that Paleo is the healthiest possible way to eat.
What does all this mean?
Well, for one thing, this discussion does mean that the Paleo diet can be a great starting point if you’re trying to eat a healthier diet or lose weight.
As I’ve said, a lot of the logic within the Paleo diet doesn’t make sense, but even then, some of the decisions are going to help you improve your health.
In fact, any shift towards fresh, whole and unprocessed foods is going to help with health and with weight loss.
However, I would personally argue towards using the Paleo diet as a starting point, rather than a be-all-end-all guide.
After all, it makes sense to choose foods that make sense in terms of health, rather than ones that fit into a specific set of guidelines.
That’s especially true in the case of the Paleo diet, as honestly, some of the Paleo guidelines are pretty arbitrary.
I’m not the only one to think this, and there is a growing interest in moving away from a strict Paleo diet and towards a rough Paleo template (e.g. 17,18,19). For example, a post at The Kittchen talks about using a modified Paleo diet.
Realistically, that move makes a lot of sense.
Using the Paleo diet as a starting point could let you create a diet that is suitable for your own set of needs and circumstances.
I mean, the truth is that what works well for one person may not help another person at all.
There are some major differences in the way that people respond to the same foods and the same diets, and this makes it essential to tweak diets to meet your own needs.
Plus, making modifications to the diet approach could help you create something you can actually follow.
In the long-term, if you want to successfully lose weight, you need to have a diet that can become your lifestyle.
For most people, Paleo is far too restrictive to ever meet that need. Additionally, cutting out foods like dairy, whole grains and black beans entirely isn’t necessarily doing your health any favors at all.
Thankfully, there are many other diets and strategies that can promote weight loss. The site Be Healthy offers an excellent guide about many of the different diet types out there, along with their strengths and limitations. The approaches considered include keto, ornish, the South Beach Diet and the DASH diet.
At the end of the day, the simple answer is yes, Paleo and weight loss are connected.
This means that following the Paleo diet may well help you lose weight.
However, that may not be true for everyone in every situation and you may find yourself needing to tailor the diet to meet your own needs.
In fact, the Paleo diet is too challenging or too unrealistic for many people and a number of its restrictions seem unnecessary.
Starting with the principles of Paleo and moving on from there may well be a key way to improve your health, without torturing yourself in the process.
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What do you think about the Paleo diet? Are you an advocate or a skeptic?