Paleo is often referred to as the 'caveman diet', which is a fairly suitable name. Basically, the idea is that you're eating like our ancestors did - at least in terms of the food ingredients that you use.
The underlying motivation is that our ancestors were much healthier than we are today and did not suffer from many of the same diseases. After all, modern diets are filled with processed foods and sugar, a pattern that is responsible for the current obesity crisis and may contribute to many diseases.
The theory also suggests that the paleo diet is strongly aligned with our genetic makeup - much more so than our modern food choices. As such, paleo food should have more positive implications for health and may even reduce the risk of disease.
There are limitations to what we know about our ancestors, along with some debates about specific foods within the paleo community. However, the table below offers a general indication of food choices.
Foods to Eat
- Healthy oils (e.g. coconut, avocado, macadamia nut and olive oils)
- Nuts and seeds
- Red meat (ideally grass-fed)
- Other types of meat (e.g. chicken)
- Fruit and vegetables
- Seasonings and spices
Foods to Avoid
- Grains (this includes corn)
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils (e.g. canola oil)
For many people, the paleo diet is powerful. It offers a chance to move away from heavily processed meals and ingredients, while still letting you enjoy good food.
The approach also ends up being relatively high in fat and protein, with few carbs. That balance of nutrients is powerful for weight loss as you're basically following a low-carb diet.
So then, in practice, a paleo diet will often let people lose weight and improve their health - without the need to actively count calories. Likewise, there are many appealing foods to eat on a paleo diet, including variations of most modern dishes.
The food choices in paleo also means that it overlaps with other diet and health approaches. For example, the paleo diet is both grain-free and gluten-free. The food choices on paleo also mean the diet is typically low-carb. You can even follow a ketosis diet while on paleo, although this does involve extra planning.
Paleo has been incredibly controversial and subject to a large amount of scrutiny from the media. But, this isn't all connected to issues with the food choices themselves . For one thing, there are many other heavily restrictive diets out there that haven't seen nearly as much media attention. Likewise, the food selection with paleo is similar to other diets, like low carb.
So, why the concern about paleo? One key reason is the logic behind the diet.
Most health and lifestyle approaches focus on the simple idea of eating 'good' food and avoiding 'bad' food.
Of course, each idea varies in how they define good and bad, such as the way ketosis cuts down carbs or how diets like the Autoimmune Protocol decrease foods that can cause inflammation.
Paleo is about eating healthy as well but foods are defined as 'good' and 'bad' based on whether our ancestors ate them. This is a simplistic view, especially because there are many different ancestral diets out there and food choices varied based on location, season, group and other factors.
At the same time, relatively little is known about the eating patterns of our ancestors and much of what we do understand is partly guesswork.
Even if we could work out (and follow) exactly what our ancestors ate, there's no guarantee it would be healthier. After all, we don't live the lifestyle of a caveman - and they certainly didn't bake paleo cakes.
The decision to avoid foods our ancestors didn't eat also means that some healthy ingredients get cut out of the diet entirely. For example, following paleo means that you cannot eat dairy, including probiotic dairy options like kefir.
Finally, paleo suggests that our bodies are better adapted to the paleo diet than the modern diet. But, there isn't enough evidence to know whether this is true.
As some researchers point out, our genetic makeup has changed considerably since the caveman days and we have adapted to some modern foods.
Do these issues mean that paleo is bad? No, not really.
The approach is still much healthier than most modern diets, especially as there is a strong focus on whole and healthy ingredients.
Plus, the various restrictions means that there are relatively few food shortcuts you can take - which forces people to prepare their own meals.
At the same time, paleo can be considered a lifestyle change, rather than a diet. As a result, it is something that you could follow in the long-term and many people do.
Even though you're missing out on some food groups with paleo, you're not likely to be deficient in nutrients. Instead, you're relying on nutrient-dense food. The resources that I highlight later on can also be valuable ways to make sure you get everything you need.
Variations on Paleo
The paleo diet is a fairly rigid approach to eating. However, there are variations in the specific decisions people make and the foods that they eat.
For one thing, some people are strict in following paleo, choosing to avoid anything that isn't on the diet - along with foods that are borderline. In contrast, others may be more lenient, considering nutrition along with whether or not a given food is paleo.
There is also a variation called Whole30. This is sometimes considered a 'paleo vegan diet' and is basically a more restrictive version of paleo.
One different type of variation is a paleo-inspired diet. This idea was heavily promoted by Chris Kresser in the book Your Personal Paleo Code, which was later republished as The Paleo Cure (below).
This type of diet isn't strictly paleo but takes inspiration from the idea. More than anything, the emphasis is on using the same general approach to food and tweaking it until you end up with something that works for your body and is also practical.
To me personally, this is a stronger approach. After all, the paleo diet does restrict some healthy foods - especially if you can tolerate dairy. Chris Kresser isn't alone in this idea either. Instead, other bloggers suggest that paleo is best as a template or a guide, such as Authority Nutrition and Dr. Axe.
If you use paleo more as a template and a guide, you do get all of the good aspects of the approach, without any of the issues. Still, this is a personal decision. Some people do enjoy the entirety of paleo - and it's clear that there are weight loss and health benefits. You may also prefer having strict rules about what you can and cannot eat.
Regardless of whether you want to follow paleo strictly or not, there is no shortage of different resources out there. For one thing, there are many different blogs that focus on the paleo diet, typically offering recipes, support, tools and directions. Some of the most powerful ones are listed below:
Aside from these sites, there are also some individual posts worth taking a look at.
Websites are powerful sources of information, especially when you're just beginning a diet. But, having good recipes is just as important.
The key theme of this cookbook is making paleo meals fast and easy.
So, there are 125 recipes and they can all be made in 45 minutes or less. That idea is perfect for busy families.
Although the focus here is avoiding grains - the recipes provided are all paleo as well.
This is another example of a popular cookbook and one that both looks stunning and is easy to follow.
Paleo Books and Guides
Finally, there are also some books out there that make powerful introductions into the paleo diet - and effective eating practices. This type of book is best for learning more about the research and theory behind the paleo diet, rather than acting as a beginner's guide.
This book is an updated version of The Primal Blueprint, which was a best seller.
It is well-written and easy to read, while including a considerable amount of research.
Unlike the other guides, this book is designed to be practical. As such, it provides recipes, plans and information about how to follow paleo.
It is also considered a cookbook, so it acts as a good way to get all the information you need in one place.
You can find out more information about paleo in the posts below.