Food fad diets come and go, and many don't last more than a year or two before fading back into obscurity. These diets typically revolve around a single premises, like 'juice will cleanse you out' or 'all carbs are bad news'.
Though people might have success with these diets at first, they usually become too confused by the rules and too resentful about giving up their favorite treats to stick with them for long.
For that reason, the fad diets wane in popularity until another, more exciting diet plan can take its place.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet (commonly called the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, and Primal diet) is based on the premise that you need to align the food you eat with your natural genetics, in order to provide yourself with optimal nutrition for your health and well being.
For the vast majority of human history, humans were tribal nomads that ate what they could hunt and forage out of nature.
During these tens of thousands of years, the human body slowly evolved to maximize the foods in this diet and turn them into highly efficient forms of energy.
When the agricultural revolution happened about 10,000 years ago, human history (and the human diet) changed dramatically.
Now carb-filled grains and dairy products were consumed instead of the vast array of wild edibles, and the human genetic system that had been slowly primed for wild food found itself in trouble.
It might be 10,000 years later, but, according to the premise of the Paleo diet, our bodies still haven't caught up with the change of eating a farm based diet.
The modern western diet has proven toxic for our society - filled with processed foods, piles of grains and tons of trans fats and sugars - and has caused an estimated 66% of Americans to go through life feeling sluggish and overweight.
This problem can be solved, Paleo followers claim, by rejecting the foods of the agricultural revolution and returning to the kinds of foods that are ancient ancestors ate instead.
What Not to Eat on Paleo Diet
Foods You Can Eat on the Paleo Diet
Paleo Diet for Weight Loss
The central premise of the plan is that modern life and a western, processed diet is making us sick and fat.
Our bodies haven't adjusted in the short ten thousand years of agrarian history to this form of eating, and it's causing us to suffer from allergies, lethargy and excess weight.
In contrast, the bones that have been discovered of paleolithic peoples almost always look healthier and better formed than their later agriculturally minded descendents.
Eating foods closer to what our earliest ancestors ate, in contrast, will provide the necessary nutrients for us to thrive instead of suffer. However, this doesn't mean you can chow down on hamburgers all day.
A big part of Paleo is finding ways to eat foods that are similar to what is found in the natural world, and there is nothing “natural” about feedlot cattle that are fed a diet of corn and antibiotics their whole life. Rather, Paleo followers eat only pasture raised meats that more similarly match the body composition of wild animals that would have been hunted.
Following this form of diet lowers our body's glycemic load.
Author of The Paleo Diet
In his view, following a Paleo-based eating pattern provides you with a healthy ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats as well as plenty of vitamins and nutrients to keep you running smoothly, all without unnecessarily weighing your body down with excess carbohydrates and sugars.
By fueling your body on fats instead of carbs, you get to take advantage of a slow burning fuel that is more efficient for your body than glucose.
Because the majority of people have little risk of needing to rely on their fat stores for survival, it's unnecessary to store away carbs in our body to fuel it. By eliminating these carbs from your diet, you will retrain your body to run on fats like it is optimally designed to do.
Once you remove the constant stream of carbohydrates from your body, your blood sugar levels will plummet and allow a process of lipolysis will occur, which allows your fat stores to be burned as a form of energy. Not only will this make you a more efficient nutrient processor, it will also help you maintain and obtain a healthy weight.
Paleo Diet Benefits
Though the Paleo diet as a whole hasn't been fully studied yet, there are huge documented benefits to transitioning from a diet filled with processed foods to one focused around whole foods eaten in optimal proportions.
The Controversy Behind This Diet
Everything about the diet makes perfect sense… on paper. Unfortunately, the story from a scientific study stand point is a little different.
In fact, almost every claimed health benefit of Paleo is currently unproven.
According to Christopher Ochner, MD, claiming that their diet is the reason that paleolithic people didn't suffer from modern diseases is making a lot of assumptions.
Our ancestors ate this way and didn't have many of the chronic diseases we do, but that doesn't mean the food they ate is the reason why; drawing that conclusion would be like saying we live three times longer than our Paleolithic ancestors because we eat fast food.
Some studies have tried to show evidence that Paleo is healthier for humanity than other diets. For example, a small study compared blood sugar levels on participants eating a Paleo diet to those on a Mediterranean one and found the advantage was with Paleo, but the study was too small to make the results significant.
Issue 1 - Part of the issue of verifying the health of the Paleo diet is that it's actually impossible to follow. No matter how hard we try, living the modern world means that it's simply not feasible to feast on the wild elk and mastodon that paleolithic hunters would have depended on.
Eating pasture raised cows and chickens is better than getting meat from a feedlot, but it's certainly not equivalent to hunting wild game. Modern meat options simply can't match the levels of omega 3 fatty acids that were in game that paleolithic hunters depended on.
Issue 2 - many nutritionists find that paleo diet rules tend to be arbitrary. Just because our ancestors didn't eat grains and dairy doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't either.
It goes without saying that nomadic paleolithic hunters lusted after the security that grain crops and dairy products provided for their lives- why else would they have switched to agriculture in the first place?
The Paleo diet often makes it too easy to attribute scarcity of a food source in the ancient world to mean that it is unhealthy, when many foods like dairy, carbs and legumes have been proven perfectly fine to eat in moderate levels. It's illogical to cut out these beneficial foods without any proof that our bodies aren't adapted to eating them.
Should You Try This Diet?
Whether or not to eat Paleo is a tricky decision for some people.
While many swear that it's the best way to live, others feel like it makes their lives far more complicated than they need to be.
It makes it difficult to eat food with other people, as you can forget about finding pasture raised meat cooked without vegetable oils in most restaurants.
An easy way to answer the Paleo question is to look at how satisfied you are with your current lifestyle.
If you are at a healthy weight and eating a diet filled with whole foods, there isn't any reason for you to try going Paleo.
However, if you have a few stubborn pounds to lose or are stuck in a rut of TV dinners and need some structure to make a big change, going Paleo might be the best thing that you can do for yourself.
How to Start a Paleo Diet
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, thousands of people simply feel better eating a Paleo diet, and that's more than enough evidence for them to keep at it.
If you're ready to take a risk on yourself and give the Paleo diet a try, here are some tips to help you make the transition smoothly so that you are more likely to stick with it for the long term.
When you first start Paleo, just commit to the diet for 80% of the time.
This means that you follow the diet perfectly for most of the week, but give yourself a “cheat day” every weekend where you can eat non-Paleo favorites like pizza and ice cream.
This will help you get the dairy and carb cravings out of your system so that you can fully commit to the diet for the rest of the time.
Other tips include:
When you first start following the Paleo diet you are sure to have a few questions about best practices. We've anticipated some of your top questions and answered them the best we can below.
1. Is It Going Expensive?
In most cases, eating Paleo is going to cost you more than a diet filled with factory farmed animal products and processed food.
Many people believe that their health is worth the cost of buying organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed beef, but with a little research you can find easy ways to make a Paleo affordable.
Buy local, buy in bulk and freeze what you can't use immediately in order to take advantage of seasonal bounties where you live.
2. Is It Hard to Do In Public?
Admittedly, yes. When you go Paleo your restaurant selection options go down dramatically.
For this reason, many Paleo followers allow themselves a “cheat day” where they can eat forbidden foods like carbs and dairy when they go out or eat with friends.
For many people, this level of compromise is worthwhile for the long term health benefits.
3. Didn't Cavemen Have Shorter Lifespans Than Us?
There were a lot more danger and potential for accidents and preventable disease in the life a prehistoric hunter.
It's unknown how long a hunter gatherer would survive in today's society with access to modern medicine.
4. Can this Diet Work For Diabetics?
Because Paleo requires that you get rid of all sugars from your diet, insulin-dependent diabetics see the diet as a dangerous lifestyle for them to take on.
Though there is evidence that following a Paleo diet can reverse some of the complications that come from diabetes, more research needs to be done to see what the long term effects of the diet are for diabetics.
In any case, adding minimal levels of sugar into your diet if you are a diabetic will likely be essential, even on the Paleo diet.
Paleolithic Diet: The Bottom Line
The Paleo diet is both praised and scorned by scientists and nutritionists around the world, but there is little doubt that this diet is a far healthier way to live than the average American diet.
If you feel like you need a change in your lifestyle and want to incorporate some more whole foods into your diet, then Paleo is a smart eating plan to try out.
The scientific rational to eat like our ancestors is sketchy at best, but every food recommended by the Paleo diet will work to keep you healthy and even lose some weight.
If you're ambitious enough to commit to it, we fully recommend it. (But don't be afraid of an occasion carb and dairy splurge)!