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The Ins And Outs Of The Paleo Diet: Is It A Fad Or Worth Following?

The Ins And Outs Of The Paleo Diet: Is It A Fad Or Worth Following?
Written by Michael Garrico

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.

The Paleo Diet Is Different

This unique diet has been popular for over a decade, and its enthusiastic followers show no sign of slowing down. Many claim that the diet has revolutionized the way that they feel and given them boundless energy and solid muscle tone. For many, 'going Paleo' is the answer to all their concerns about food.

But Does It Live Up To The Hype?

In the opinion of many nutritional professionals, the answer is no. In their eyes the Paleo diet is lacking in scientific evidence and is backed up by unprovable, possibly damaging claims about health.

Though they believe that much of what is recommended through Paleo can help you lose weight, they also believe that in the long run the diet doesn't produce a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

So who is right?

The evidence is confusing, and followers of Paleo are so sure that they have stumbled on nature's perfect lifestyle that they rarely listen to evidence from the other side.

A moderator is needed to look at the evidence from every angle to help you know what to think- and that's what we are here to do. We've scoured the research on the Paleo diet and have come to some conclusions about where it fits in the modern diet. And what we found out just might surprise you.

Are you eager to learn if going Paleo is a smart diet plan to follow or better thrown back into the dust bin of history? Read on to find out.

What Is The Paleo Diet?

Cavemen toy in high grass

The Paleolithic diet is based mainly on foods presumed to have been available to Paleolithic humans.

The Paleo diet (commonly called the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, Primal diet and other similar terms) 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.

On average, early agrarians lost about six inches in height compared to their hunter gather ancestors, and the cause of this change (according to Paleo diet literature) is almost entirely because of their diet.

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 problem is made worse because modern western diets are typically filled with processed foods, piles of grains and tons of trans fats and sugars.

This unhealthy diet has proven toxic for our society 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.

This means cutting out carbs, sweeteners and dairy products from your diet and filling your plate with pasture raised meat (hunting your own is even better) and plenty of vegetables. Even fruit intake is moderated to not fill the body with too much sweetness at once.

Obviously Paleo followers can't follow the diets of our ancestors perfectly (no one is going hunting for woolly mammoth), but they try to mimic the dietary choices with modern equivalents as much as possible.

Below are some of the categories of foods that are allowed and forbidden in Paleo and the reasons behind each decision.

No Go Foods

Foods not in Paleo:

Grains

Composed mainly of carbohydrates, grains turn into glucose in our systems which provide a quick source of energy.

Unfortunately, our bodies haven't adjusted to living in a world where carbs are plentiful enough to satisfy every craving.

Whatever glucose isn't burned through physical activity is stored in the body as fat.

Hands holding glass with grains

Paleo Diet eliminates cereal grains as well.

Sugars

Sugars are hard to come across in the natural world, meaning that it was a rare occurrence in the lives of our hunter gather ancestors. Even honey wouldn't have been eaten more than a few times a year. For this reason, the Paleo diet restricts all types of sugar besides those found in fruit.

Dairy Products

Cheese on a table

Dairy is a Paleo "gray area" food.

Most Paleo followers forgo adding any dairy products to their diets simply because of the lack of access that paleolithic peoples would have had to them.

(It's hard to raise a cow when you live a nomadic lifestyle).

However, some Paleo followers add butter to their diet as a way to get plenty of healthy saturated fats. When dairy is consumed in the Paleo diet, followers are careful to watch where it comes form and to only get it from pasture raised animals allowed to live a natural lifestyle without artificial antibiotics or growth hormones.

Legumes

Beans were only added to the human diet ten thousand years ago, and Paleo followers claim that we aren't evolved to handle them yet.

Many people suffer from bloating and indigestion when they eat lots of beans, so cutting them out of your diet might make a difference for your intestinal health.

Colorful beans in a basket

Why can’t I eat beans?

However, some Paleo followers allow themselves to eat fermented soybeans like tofu or miso because the probiotic activity of the fermentation process means that much of the difficult to digest compounds are predigested, making them easy to handle for our modern systems.

Foods That Are Acceptable

Lean Proteins

There's little doubt that paleolithic people got much of their daily energy from meat that they hunted. This meat would have been extremely lean and helps to support strong muscles and bones as well as an optimized immune system.

Paleo followers try to eat large amounts of lean protein every day to keep them healthy and full between meals.

Fruits And Vegetables

If there was one food group consistently available for our hunter gather ancestors, it was fruits and vegetables. Rich in antioxidants and vitamins, a diet full of fruits and vegetables will keep you healthy and lower your risk of developing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Healthy Fats From Nuts, Seeds And Meat

Despite what outdated medical claims might try to tell you, saturated fats won't add fat to your body and actually keep you healthy and reduce your risk of developing diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart failure and obesity.

We know that paleolithic people got saturated fats from the meat they rate, but their levels of consumption wouldn't have matched the amount of fat found in feedlot cattle today.

To stay healthy, fill your diet with saturated fats that come from animals that got to eat their natural diet. This will ensure that the amount you eat stays similar to hunter gatherer levels.

The Origins Of Paleo

Where did the Paleo diet come from? Most people point to the source of its popularity as Dr. Loren Cordain's book The Paleo Diet, that was published in 2001.

Cavemen people toys hunting elephant

Paleo - the "primal eating" trend...

His book immediately gained traction throughout the health community and spurned many sequels that addressed the ways that Paleo eating could fit specific demographics, including athletes and people that like to eat out.

New books about Paleo have come out in recent years that have kept the conversation going, including The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson.

The movement has continued to grow in recent years and has influenced a number of similar diets that make small tweaks on the Paleo diet's whole food premise.

Anyone looking for a diet plan that focuses on whole foods and rejects the processed foods of our modern culture will find something to like about Paleo.

In fact, the early adapters of Paleo eating came from the sports and fitness community, specifically from Cross fit communities. Because Cross fit relies on explosive movements to create fast twitch muscles, following the diet of ancestors that needed to be speedy hunters to survive is a logical step to take.

The Reasoning Behind Paleo For Weight Loss

The Paleo diet makes a lot of big claims, but do they actually hold up to science? To answer that question lets look at some of the logic behind the theory of the Paleo diet.

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, according to Loren Cordain, 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.

Paleo diet drawing and scheme

To stay healthy, fill your diet with saturated fats that come from animals.

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 a healthy weight.

Paleo Controversy

When you look at the reasoning behind the Paleo diet it's easy to understand why it's gaining so much popularity around the world. Everything about the diet makes perfect sense… on paper. Unfortunately, the story from a scientific study stand point is a little different.

Paleo man holding fast food

Human development?

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. In his words,

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.

Christopher Ochner 
MD

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.

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.

Paleo weight loss plan comic

Another issue is that many nutritionists find the rules of the Paleo diet 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.

Though there isn't much research on the benefits of the Paleo diet, there is plenty of evidence that eating a diet full of diary, grains and legumes is nutritionally sound. It's illogical to cut out these beneficial foods without any proof that our bodies aren't adapted to eating them.

Clearly, more research will need to be done before the Paleo diet is either officially approved or rejected by nutritionists.

Easy Ways To Start Eating Paleo

Paleo dinner

Remove all added sugar from your 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 are interested in trying the Paleo diet for yourself, here are some tips and food category suggestions to help you get started.

  • Eat a diet that is high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates. Don't worry about counting calories or portion control.
  • Fill your diet with saturated fats from a variety of sources, including coconut oil, butter, lard and beef tallow. Olive oil is also good, but only been used raw and not for cooking.
  • ​Eat plenty of animal proteins like red meat, pork, poultry, eggs and organ meats. Wild caught fish (not farmed, as they might contain too much mercury) and shellfish are also great. Shellfish like clams, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops, and shrimp are all smart choices. Don't cut away the fatty parts but instead be sure to eat them.
  • Half your plate for every meal should consist of fresh or frozen vegetables, cooked in fat whenever possible.
  • ​Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams are okay, so long as they aren't eaten in excess. The high glycemic levels in root vegetables make them a perfect post-workout food option.
  • ​Nuts and fruits are great, but be sure to eat low to moderate amounts of them (four ounces or less a day), and be intentional about eating low sugar, high antioxidant fruits like berries. However, if you're trying to lose weight quickly or suffer from digestive problems it's a good idea to out nuts and fruits altogether.
  • ​Cut out cereal grains and legumes like beans from your diet, which includes wheat, oats, brown rice rye, barley, kidney beans, pinto beans corn, soy, peanuts, navy beans and black eyed peas.
  • ​When it comes to drinking, try to stick to water and herbal teas as much as possible. If you feel the need to give yourself an occasion treat, alcohol like beer and wine is fine in moderation (and both were enjoyed by our paleolithic ancestors).
  • Cut out any vegetable oils that you cook with, including margarine, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil. Olive oil is okay to use, so long as you drizzle it on foods instead of cooking with it.
  • ​Remove all added sugar from your diet, which includes any packaged junk food, soft drinks and fruit juices.
  • ​A general rule for grocery shopping Paleo style: if it came from a box, don't eat it.
  • All dairy items should be removed from your diet except butter and heavy cream. There is a possible exception when it comes to raw, full-fat and fermented dairy products if you find you can't live with out them.
  • High heat cooked goods (like anything off a griddle) can be toxic for you, so pull these out of your diet as well as the kinds of cooking oil used to cook them.

Should You Eat Paleo?

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.​

Eggs on a plate for breakfast

Eat a diet that is high in fat!

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.

Tips For Getting Started With Paleo

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.

  • Remove all forms of temptation. If you want to have success on Paleo, you need to trash all non-Paleo foods that are in your house. It will take a few weeks for your body to adjust to burning fat instead of glucose, and you'll be extra susceptible to cravings during this time.
  • Balance your Paleo diet with a new workout regime. The feel-good endorphins will help you make the transition to giving up some food favorites and keep you motivated about the big changes you are making.

Health Benefits Of Paleo

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.

One big benefit of following the Paleo diet is that you will dramatically cut your sodium content down to manageable levels, which reduces your risk of hypertension, heart disease and obesity.

Also, because the Paleo diet calls for foods to be cooked in specific ways, you will find yourself cooking more, which has been shown to have ample health benefits.

In fact, according to a journal in Public Health Nutrition, a study showed that people who cook for themselves at least five times a week are 47% more likely to be alive ten years later, compared to study participants that ate processed foods.

Eating a Paleo diet also seems to have huge advantages for dealing with cardiovascular disease. Today, CDC is the leading cause of death in the United States, but hunter gatherers had almost no cases of heart attacks or strokes.

Whether or not this immunity was caused entirely be their healthy diet remains to be seen, but the evidence is clear that it is a step in the right direction.

Paleo FAQ

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.

Is Going Paleo 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 diet 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.

Is Eating Paleo Hard 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.

Didn't Cavemen Have Shorter Lifespans Than Us?

Yes. 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.

Can Paleo 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.

Sugar, injection and apple on a table

Can paleo diet help prevent or manage diabetes?

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.

Summary

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 the Paleo diet 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)!

Now we want to hear from you. What has your experience with the Paleo diet been like? Have you made any modifications to make it a better fit for you? We would love to hear about your strategies for success so that we can share them with other readers.

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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