The Paleo diet was developed by Dr. Loren Cordain, an expert on the natural diet of our ancestors during the Stone Age. In response to extensive research on the benefits of a Stone Age diet, he published “The Paleo Diet” in 2002, which detailed what he believed to be the optimal diet and lifestyle for health and longevity. The logic behind the Paleo Diet is that we still have the same genetic makeup as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but we are eating a drastically different diet. We evolved eating lean meat, fish, eggs, fruits, non-starchy, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Today, the Western diet consists largely of grains, processed flours, sugar, refined oil, and low-quality protein sources. Overall it’s much lower in fiber, lower in lean high-quality protein, higher in simple carbohydrates, higher in low quality oil, and consists of unnatural preservatives. Dr. Cordain believes that the cause of today’s most common disease (including, but not limited to, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity) is that we are not well adapted to this food environment. Therefore, he believes that in order to achieve optimal health we should consume a diet similar to that which we evolved eating.
According to Cordain, there are seven fundamental characteristics of the Paleolithic diet:
In order to create a diet with all these features, he advocates for increasing one’s intake of lean protein (lean beef, poultry, and fish) and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado oil), while avoiding cereal grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, and salt.
The Paleo Diet, as outlined in his book, consists of three “levels”–each allowing for a different degree of flexibility in the form of what Cordain calls “open meals.” There are meals at which you don’t have to follow the Paleo rules and are free to enjoy any of your favorite foods. The “entry level” allows for three “open meals” each week; the “maintenance level” allows for two; and the “maximal level” allows for just one. Depending on the level, you might be allowed “transitional” condiments as well – for example, low-fat salad dressing, coffee, beer, and wine in moderation. The idea behind allowing these “cheat” meals is that it makes the diet feel less restrictive and more sustainable. The Paleo Diet isn’t supposed to be a short-term alteration of eating habits, but rather a new way of eating for life. Cordain believes that it’s what you do 85% of the time that makes the difference. As long as you are sticking to the Paleo Diet most of the time you will still be able to achieve optimal health.
While there is a large body of research investigating the effectiveness of low carb diets (the Paleo Diet generally tends to be lower carb since all grains, beans, grain-based flours, and sugars–with the exception of sugars found in fresh or dried fruits–are prohibited), there is limited research reviewing the Paleo Diet in particular. Below are two studies, though, that did look at the effects of the Paleo Diet specifically.
In 2015, the Journal of American College of Cardiology published a review of the Paleo Diet, Vegan Diet, Mediterranean Diet, and DASH Diet. Researchers studied the effects of these four diets on weight loss and lipid levels. They found that the Paleo Diet and the Vegan Diet were most effective for both weight loss and improvement in lipid risk factors.
In 2014 the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study comparing the effectiveness of the Paleo Diet and a standard low-fat diet for weight loss in postmenopausal women. Researchers found that those on the Paleo Diet lost an average of 19 pounds after a year, while those on the low-fat diet had lost only 10 pounds.
Because this diet is based on whole foods and encourages completely avoiding anything processed, it will likely lead to weight loss and overall health improvements. By increasing your intake of whole plant foods and lean meat, you will be consuming more fiber and protein–both of which encourage fullness and prevent you from getting hungry soon after meals. Additionally, some studies have demonstrated that the Paleo Diet can decrease markers for metabolic syndrome.
Since the Paleo Diet discourages the consumption of grains, legumes, and dairy, it may be beneficial for those who suffer from digestive discomfort or have autoimmune-type symptoms. These foods tend to exacerbate symptoms, so if you suspect you have food intolerances, then the Paleo Diet might help you achieve your health goals.
And lastly, the Paleo Diet gives you free reign to eat as much meat as you desire–provided that you are consuming high quality protein, such as grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, and wild-caught fish. This makes the Paleo Diet perfect for those who have higher protein requirements or who simply enjoy the taste of meat.
Despite having clearly defined fundamental characteristics, the Paleo Diet provides little guidance about how to make sure you are staying within its guidance. For example, it suggests a lower carbohydrate intake but it doesn’t provide any recommendations about how many carbs to stick to, or tracking tools to help you figure out how many you are consuming. True, because grains and legumes are off limits, your carbohydrate intake will probably be lower. But, without restrictions on the amount of dried fruit and potatoes you can eat, it’s possible to still eat high carb while sticking to Paleo-approved foods.
The diet is also highly restrictive and can be hard to sustain in the long run. Since it doesn’t allow any processed foods (except for during your “open meals”), it may also require a little extra planning to make sure you have Paleo-approved meals and snacks with you throughout the day. It probably isn’t an option to simply pick up a quick snack or dinner on the way home since many pre-prepared meals contain ingredients that are off limits (ie. salt, processed oils, grains, and dairy).
Additionally the Paleo Diet can be quite costly. Grains, beans, and dairy are cheap sources of protein, but all these are off limits on the Paleo Diet. Furthermore, the Paleo Diet stresses the importance of high-quality meat and organic produce. While no one can deny the benefits of eating grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, and local organic produce, these items tend to be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Therefore, some may find that sticking to the Paleo Diet is simply unrealistic.
And finally, the Paleo Diet is extremely challenging if you don’t consume meat. The main vegetarian protein sources (ie. grains and beans) have been removed, meaning that meeting your daily protein requirements will be quite challenging.
The Paleo Diet is incredibly restrictive and costly. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that many of the restricted foods contain health benefits. For example, whole grains and beans are excellent sources of fiber and protein, while dairy is a good source of calcium and vitamin D. Additionally, it can be easy to overindulge in Paleo-approved treats on this diet since there are no restrictions on certain whole food sources of sugar and fats. In fact, many cookbooks highlight Paleo “alternatives” to traditional non-paleo foods such as muffins, brownies, and even paleo snickers bars. Because these foods are made with whole foods such as nut flour, nut butter, and dates, they are undeniably healthier than the traditional versions, but they are still desserts – high in sugar, loaded with fat, and low in fiber. Like with any treat, over-consuming these Paleo alternatives could lead to weight gain and poor health.
The Paleo Diet isn’t specifically designed for weight loss. This is the reason it provides so little guidance in regards to portion sizes, timing of meals, and how many carbs, fats, or protein to consume. This means that if weight loss is your goal, it may be more challenging to construct a diet that yields the results you are looking for.
One of the main goals of the Paleo Diet is to keep blood sugar levels stable by reducing simple carbohydrates (sugar, flour, etc). This might mean that starting the Paleo Diet means kissing all your favorite treats goodbye. But luckily Dr. Cordain also believes in the 85:15 policy (85% of the time, you eat according to the Paleo principles; and 15% of the time, you are allowed to treat yourself to any of your favorite foods). Since MealEnders contain very little sugar, they are a good go-to when you are looking for a little treat . Whether you are eating Paleo or not, reducing your sugar intake it a great place to start if you are looking to lose weight. By enjoying a MealEnder when you crave something sweet, you can have your treat without compromising your health goals.