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The Truth About the Paleo Diet

By , Kamal Patel, Director of Examine.com
If you've been in touch with diet trends over the past few years, chances are that you've heard of the Paleo diet. When you Google the word "Paleo" or "Paleo diet," you'll find thousands of blogs, recipes, articles and best-selling nutrition books. But what exactly is Paleo—and is its popularity warranted? Is it all hype and marketing, or is this truly the best diet to adopt for optimal human health? Let's take a look at what the evidence says. 
First, what exactly is the Paleo diet?
This is a tough question, believe it or not. The Paleo diet is more of a concept than a precise, regimented plan; some would even go so far as to say that it is a lifestyle rather than a diet. Furthermore, no one person is responsible for actually developing the Paleo diet (although the term ''The Paleo Diet'' is actually copyrighted by seminal researcher Loren Cordain), and there are many different interpretations of what is and is not Paleo.
With that being said, here is the most basic tenet of Paleo in a nutshell: Throughout the process of evolution, we humans gravitated toward foods that helped us survive, while avoiding harmful foods that were poisonous or ill-suited for our physiology. Through a process of evolutionary trial and error, our ancestors eventually became well-adapted to eating certain foods. The Paleo diet posits that modern-day humans have not yet adapted to the foods that came from the agricultural revolution, like grains, dairy and refined sugars. Paleo supporters claim that by eating the whole, minimally-processed foods of our Paleolithic ancestors, we can lose weight, gain more energy, and even reverse common modern lifestyle diseases.
So, what can you eat on the Paleo diet?
In general, Paleo-eaters advocate a diet heavy in foods that our ancestors would have been able to hunt or forage. This means that vegetables, meat and seafood, eggs, fruits, nuts and seeds are encouraged, while grains, dairy, legumes, soy, added sugar and other processed foods are avoided. The Paleo diet does not recommend counting any calories and/or macronutrients as much as some other diets do; just as our ancestors did, you simply eat until you are satisfied.
No whole grains, dairy products, or beans? But I thought these foods were healthy!
Okay, so the elimination of added sugars and processed foods makes sense; a perpetually-growing body of research has shown that these foods contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But wait! What's wrong with whole grains, dairy and beans? Dietitians and FDA guidelines have been telling us for years that we should eat multiple servings of these foods per day. Are these seemingly wholesome staples of our diet really that unhealthy?
This is where Paleo logic can get a little shaky. Humans are crafty omnivores who can thrive on many different types of foods, so pinpointing exactly what we should eat for optimal health is a difficult task. It's true that food intolerances do exist, but not all post-agricultural foods are harmful for everyone. Although dairy and beans weren’t eaten much in Paleolithic times, these foods haven’t caused many adverse health effects in studies (and have actually shown health benefits). Therefore, although the Paleo diet recommends against post-agricultural foods, many people tailor the diet based on their individual food reactions and personal health goals.
Does the Paleo diet actually work? What do the studies say?
Followers of the Paleo diet claim that eating like a caveman can reverse chronic diseases, improve sleep, clear up skin, increase energy, spur weight loss, and boost the immune system, among other benefits. However, there has not been much research to support these claims, and the evidence is mainly anecdotal. There have only been a handful of direct studies on the effects of the diet. Before summarizing these studies, it’s important to note that publication bias is rampant in diet and nutrition studies. Studies showing positive results get published more often, and study authors often have a vested interest in the nutrient or diet they are studying. Plus, diet studies are often too short to assess long-term effects and diet compliance. Of the published Paleo studies that have been completed, some lasted just a couple weeks and none went over 12 weeks. That being said, the study results we have to work with are very positive so far.
Since we can currently count the number of completed Paleo studies on one hand, let’s quickly review each one. The first, from 2007, showed a Paleo diet to reduce waist circumference and improve glycemic control better than the Mediterranean diet. Another comparative study in 2009 showed that a Paleo diet reduced cardiovascular risk factors in patients with diabetes more effectively than other diet protocols.

The other three studies did not include a comparison group, so the evidence isn’t as strong since improvements can happen just from adopting a new diet. With that said, these study results were all positive, showing that adopting a Paleo diet led to a reduction in blood pressure, fasting blood sugar, and some markers of heart disease.

Despite the excellent results, we cannot reasonably conclude that a Paleo diet was the sole reason for the health improvements in these particular studies. When you adopt a Paleo diet, you tend to lower both your calorie and carb intake while increasing your protein intake. This often happens because there are fewer food options available to you on a Paleo diet. You can’t grab a bag of chips, a cookie, or a sugary drink at Starbucks. Instead, your options are narrowed down to fruits, nuts, raw veggies, or one of a few other options that don’t exactly encourage overeating.
It's possible that any other diet that reduced calories and sugar would have worked just as well as a Paleo diet in these studies, but there is not enough evidence to say just yet. Despite their small scope, the existing Paleo diet studies are a good starting point, and will hopefully spur longer-term studies with a variety of different comparison groups for more robust and definitive results.
What's the bottom line? Should I try eating like a caveman?
When you look past the details to the big picture, the Paleo diet focuses on eating high-quality foods until you are satisfied. One thing you can't argue is that focusing on eating whole, unprocessed foods is a good way to start eating healthier. But this isn't a new concept. People have been eating natural foods for millennia; they just didn't slap a Paleo label on their way of eating. I quickly learned this after explaining the concept of Paleo to a fellow nutrition researcher from Nigeria, who just laughed at silly Americans and their diets while eating her hearty (Paleo?) Nigerian stew.

It’s less important to know whether something is ''Paleo'' than it is to know how it affects your particular body and supports your health goals. If eating a Paleo diet helps you eat more of the good stuff while eliminating excess sugar and processed foods from your diet, then by all means, go for it! Just remember that while it’s important to have a diet rich in nutrients, there are many ways to get to old age, and few foods are absolutely necessary, and even fewer are absolutely going to kill you.
There have been thousands of trials conducted on different nutrients, foods, and ways of eating. You can pick and choose among these studies to support a variety of different diets. But the best diet for one person is not the best diet for everyone. So the next time someone touts Paleo as being a cure-all, take their advice with several grains of salt. While there isn’t much direct evidence for Paleo, the few studies show promise and basing a diet on natural foods is a wise move. Just don’t get caught up in the hype.

Editor's Note: Looking for some paleo recipes? Check out our "Practical Paleo" resources at SparkRecipes.com.
Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Snyder, M., Morris, R.C. Jr., Sebastian, A. "Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet," European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Jonsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahren, B., Branell, U.C., Palsson, G., Hansson, A., Soderstrom, M., Lindeberg, S. "Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study," Cardiovascular Diabetology.
Lindeberg, S., Jonsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Borgstrand, E., Soffman, J., Sjostrom, K., Ahren, B. "A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease," Diabetologia.
Osterdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., Wandell, P.E. "Effects of a short-term intervention with a Paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers," European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Ryberg, M., Sandberg, S., Mellberg, C., Stegle, O., Lindahl, B., Larsson, C., Hauksson, J., Olsson, T. "A Palaeolithic-type diet causes strong tissue-specific effects on ectopic fat deposition in obese postmenopausal women," Journal of Internal Medicine.

About the Author
Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com. He has an MBA and an MPH (Master of Public Health) from Johns Hopkins University, and was pursuing his PhD in nutrition when he opted to go on hiatus to join Examine.com. He is dedicated in making scientific research in nutrition and supplementation accessible to everyone. Both Examine.com and Kamal are on Facebook.

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CECELW 5/27/2021
I've heard of Paleo, but i've never tried that kind of diet Report
WILDKAT781 11/16/2020
interesting article, thanks Report
SHERRYGAYL 9/15/2020
My gallbladder failed a few years ago but wasn't diagnosed until 6 years later. I ended up eliminating so many foods that made me sick during this time that I ended up more or less on a Paleo diet. (Then I got my gallbladder out, could eat anything without getting horribly, painfully sick, gained 50 pounds, and found my way back to SparkPeople, I guess it's all a spiral path after all) Report
Is this the caveman diet before fire or after it? Report
Well written article. Thank you Kamal! Report
😁 Report
Great information. Report
I'm for legumes and cheese and whole grains Report
Thanks Report
thanks Report
Look, we humans evolved to survive on the available food supply, else we didn't survive. As a result, the 'diet' of the Inuit or the Masai was very different from that of the Javanese or the indigenous Australians or the plains Indians. Shepherds ate very differently than fishermen or rice farmers or coconut crackers or you-name-it. Also, IMHO, someday we'll wake up and associate our obesity epidemic with our USDA food pyramid. Report
This was an interesting article which explained basic paleo concepts. I grew up eating tons of meat as my father raised our cattle who were pasture fed in summer & fall, then alfalfa, grain & silage in winter. We also had unpasteurized dairy however I am allergic to those foods. Maybe a little hard cheese or butter now & then but no sour cream, yogurt, milk, kefir at all so I could easily give those up dairy but would miss the non-milk alternatives since they do have some sugars & chemicals. That would be tough but I suppose doable.

However, I love legumes especially all kinds of beans.
As for grains, I don't think gluten is a problem altho I prefer pumpernickel bread & love barley or groats so would likely choose to have those maybe in limited amounts if it would help w/ weight loss & reduce my dependence on Metformin for pre-diabetes.

I am already eating more vegetables, raw fruits & nuts since being on SP again. I think I will do some further research as I suspect that having O negative blood would indicate this might be a good plan to try that could get me past my recent plateau.

For maintenance I'd likely eat as I do now via portion control & calorie counting. I am very open to the paleo & primal plans since they seem to hold promising positives for me. My cholesterol is naturally low - 78 total - and would like to see my BP lower again too. With my stress levels, lessened activity & age, it has crept into a higher normal range & I want to help out my heart any way I can.

Thanx for another good read. Report
It seems as if it is just another "fad" diet. I've learned to take away a little from each diet style and to use what works for my body. Report
Great article! Report
Good to know info! Thanks! Report
Very informative article! Report
My husband's cardiologist is a big believer in this diet. However, my husband doesn't like it. He has learned to eat certain foods in moderation.
I tried paleo for a month last year to see if it helped with my CFS. It was really interesting - the first few days showed me that what I thought of as 'hunger' was actually carb cravings. I would be so full of veg and meat that I physically couldn't eat more and my body was still screaming at me that it was starving - so it taught me to be able to ignore that.
I also found it was really fun to try cooking paleo versions of other food - very interesting how to make something that looks like bread made only from nuts and eggs! It was good fun, and meals were incredibly filling, but very expensive. I stopped after a month as I was more tired than before - but unsure whether this was simply because I was spending a lot of energy cooking!! Report
Thanks for the interesting article :) Report
It seems like yet another fad. I've been aware of diet trends since the 1960s. It's just one more. They all work for some people, some time. They all have drawbacks and dangers. Report
Another diet alternative. Looks appealing. Report
I would be hard for me since I'm not a big meat eater. I'm not overly fond of the raw veggies either. Report
I could never follow this diet because I've NEVER liked meat, but DO love whole grains and legumes. On top of that, eating lots of meat DEFINITELY increases body odor. As someone who works with large, skittish, highly reactive prey animals (i.e. horses), the LAST thing I want to do is smell like a meat-eating predator to them. Report
I'm following a plan called Primal that is similar to Paleo. It's just slightly less restrictive. I've found huge differences for me, but again, like the article and comments say, everyone is very different, what works for one won't work for another. I do well with less carbs and being gluten/lactose free. I don't follow it 100%, but do probably about 80%. There are a few things that I enjoy having and/or are just way more convenient that I make exceptions for. I'd say doing this or a Whole 30 (very similar as well) is a good way to find what is bothering your stomach if you have IBS or other issues. Report
Thank you for all of the information you gave us!!! Report
It's simple i say. If I love vegetable, nut, roots, meat then it's easy. Why people doing so much?

You will get tons of article in internet. It's a way of improving health. That's why people are so obsessed with it. The diet may lead to improvements in terms of body composition and metabolic effects as compared to the typical Western diet.

Juicing is a one kind of diet. In that you can go through my journey regarding juicing, recipe and juicer


Hope you guys do well and recover strength. Report
It would be very nice that when Spark chooses to (re)print an article if you would update it with CURRENT research results...perhaps have Becky Hand review it and attach any new references/comments in another paragraph. Reading something that is close to THREE YEARS old doesn't serve your readership with the best information available.

My only comment on the concept of "paleo" from an anthropology aspect is that its fantasy to think that all peoples' of the world 'ate this way' or 'that way' at any given time period. Or that the creators of this have any way to prove their assertations. As for the 'diet' itself....if you are experiencing food sensitivities, then learn what you are sensitive to, and avoid. it. But don't tell the rest of us that avoiding foods which bother YOU will make our lives any better! Report
I am so pleased that someone has published an article here on SP supporting that anything with the second word being "diet" is a fad! With little true scientific vaildation. Any eating habits you alter to lose weight will end up being a lifetime commitment. The whole mentality of diets is a quick fix. And when it comes to your health, a quick fix is a wrong fix. Unless it happens to be surgery, and everyone wants to prevent that! Report
Thank you, Kamal Patel. Yes, I also think this article 2 b well written & unbiased; which is refreshing indeed!
'Labeling' is not always a good nor reliable practice.
Thank you for your great down 2 earth information Kamal!! Report
I have discovered in recent months that grains are likely gone from my diet. My body has given clear indications grains cannot be tolerated. Interesting thing is my mom and the maternal side of the family were not grain eaters. Since moving to the U.S. and adopting a different diet diabetes is rampant in her family. Diabetes is a disease of carbohydrate metabolism. For me, grains appear not to support my health and have always been troublesome for me as has been dairy. For those that can tolerate grains and dairy, great! Eat them and enjoy them. We are all different. One size does not fit all. Report
"While there isn’t much direct evidence for Paleo..." I would say that hundreds of thousands of years of humankind living off the land and the sea is pretty solid evidence for Paleo being the preferred way to eat. Report
What a load of crap. It's articles like this that make me question Spark overall. Do you seriously think the FDA is our best source of information regarding how to eat??!! Give me a break. Report
First watch Fed Up and That Sugar Movie. What our government and modern science claim as healthy isn't always true. Secondly, Paleo has completely changed how I look at food. Honestly, it isn't restrictive. You just have to cook your own food and change the ingredients. It was a little expensive to switch over, but we slowly changed our pantry staples. At first when the people at work would offer me "treats", I would tell them that I am eating paleo and avoiding excess sugar. In time, they just knew I eat differently and were okay with that. My digestive issues are now gone, I have dropped weight, and I don't suffer from food comas after meals anymore. It really is a game changer. Start with the movies though. It's a lot easier to give up processed crap food after you watch them. Report
The thing that stops people from succeeding with the paleo diet is that most treat it as a temporary solution to losing some weight. It's not designed to be a "weight loss diet" so much that it's meant to be part of a healthy lifestyle.

So is paleo really healthy over the long term? Probably not.

But most of us are turning to paleo to shed a few pounds anyway. If that's your goal there are much faster ways to lose 10 or 20 pounds than with a high fat diet. Shoot, even 100 pounds is realistic.

Take juicing for example. With a short term juice fast you'll lose a lot more weight much more quickly than you would with paleo. This article claims up to three times faster www.thejuicerdirectory.com/juicing-

But I have tried both and my results were better than that. The problem I had is that I gained the weight back after my first fast because I slowly returned to my old eating habits.

I finished up another juice fast earlier this year and have kept that weight off by actually eating moderately paleo since I finished it, with a focus on high omega-3 fats instead of eat ground beef and steak at every meal.

So if you're looking to get things started quickly try a juice fast first and then transition yourself into a better eating lifestyle. If you're like me you'll find the initial weight loss from juicing very motivational and hopefully you can manage to keep it off. Hopefully I can too.

I lost extra pounds using some tips I got from www.paleocomics.com / among other informative websites on Paleo diet. However, Paleo diet seems quite expensive to me. I would really love to continue with this diet. Could anyone please recommend a complete but helpful affordable solution to maintaining my new Paleo lifestyle? Report
It was suggested that I try it because of Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Anxiety, and Arthritis. After looking at the Paleo diet, I am not sure that I could get into it. I would need the yogurt and ice cream for the calcium. I think that if it works well for you then go for it... But I do not think that it would work for me. I have cut out soda for the most part, and I don't eat a lot of bread.
Thank you for the un-bias article. Report
I don't understand why I have to go back to cavemen to find a healthy diet. My grandmother's generation ate healthy, whole, non processed foods including grains and lots of carbs. People have been eating grains and carbs for thousands of years. Obesity began its meteoric rise in the USA in the 1980s. We should look at the changes since then. Report
According to Sally Slocum "Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology" The meat centric ideology of the Paleo diet is not correct. Hunting was not as prevalent and early humans at mostly leaves, sticks and berries along with bugs for protein. This idea that meat is the end all be all is not only harmful and false, but it is destructive to the ecosystem. Just thought I would share that. I agree that cutting out added sugars and chemicals is the best choice and eliminating or restricting wheat is probably a very healthy choice, but to say that our ancestors ate mostly meat is false and dangerous. Report
Too darn restrictive! I'd be frustrated within a matter of days. This sort of diet would seriously make me binge eat. Report
As somebody who has suffered with digestive issues since I was a kid and only getting worse as I got older, Paleo is the only thing working for me. At age 36 I finally found out that I have an autoimmune disease. I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and I am being monitored for possible Hashimoto's Thyroid Disease. I have been following Paleo for a few months now and I no longer have digestive issues. No longer have acid reflux. No longer have painful skin issues. For years doctors have told me there is nothing wrong with me. I took matters into my own hands since I could no longer sleep in a laying down position for fear of choking on my own vomit as I sleep at night (GERD). I went to numerous allergists, as well as a nutritionist. I ordered my own tests after doing my own research about all the issues I was having. Those positive tests lead to more tests for proof that there has always been something wrong with me. To this day I want to go to all those doctors that told me there is nothing wrong with me or that it was all in my head to eff off! So disheartening to hear from the people meant to help you that something is all in your head. Report
I have not tired the paleo diet,,,but I can not understand all the doubt of milk allergies more or less...we all different. i have allergies to many foods including fish. No one is a carbon copy of someone else. I have always drank milk without a problem...now I can not have it in large amounts or at times at all. Report
I tried the paleo way of eating for about a month, and felt so good! I was not following it to the T, cause I like my rice and beans too much. I wouldn't give that up. But then, I also refused to give up pizza, tortillas and a little pasta. LOL! In the end I just focused on cutting back on the sodas and chips. Quit eating desserts. On paleo my meals got a little boring, ? I guess. Cause I don't care much for sweet potatoes. I don't know the diff between a yam and a sweet potato. The orange ones, I got so tired of eating. Orange sweet potatoes and eggs for breakfast. I'm thinking of trying paleo again. I bought a few cookbooks this time. It would be interesting to see how much weight would fall off this time!! I absolutely love eating wild game now, especially buffalo and fish, we fish alot! Report
This discussion about lactose is absurd. Lactose is in breast milk. All mammals have the ability to digest lactose, or they would die very quickly. Some people develop issues with it. Personally, I have trouble digesting fiber. That doesn't make fiber bad.

Like someone else commented, cavemen died young. Why would eating like them be healthy? We have no idea what the long term effects of their diet would be, because they died in the short term. Report
My sister recently saw a married couple whom she had not seen in awhile. She observed that they had lost a lot of weight! The couple told her that they were on the Paleo plan. This made us look more into the plan. I just don't like the eating restrictions. Report
Thanks for such a great article! I appreciate the balanced perspective. I have been considering going in a more Paleo direction, and think I'm going to give it a go (without placing all my eggs in the Paleo basket). I'm hopeful I will find a balance that will work for me! Report
I'm just interested in what works for me. I met a lady at a crossfit competition I was in who recommended it and I tried the paleo way. I last 7% body fat in the first six weeks and increased my energy level. I also reduced my need for breathing medicine. In the second month almost full elimination of meds and allergies. I was told that it needs to be personally tailored. Obviously different energy levels and sports require different nutritional intake. It worked for me Report
There are so many comments about this it's hard to begin.
1. Most African Americans ( whose ancestors were slaves in America) are lactose intolerant. It is not the same milk from cows in Africa.
2. The Paleo diet can be used for weight loss, but it is another way of eating foods. Just imagine no mac and cheese, tv dinners, luncheon meats, hot dogs, sausages. Now imagine a plate of various veggies from fresh or frozen (no sauces) cooked with herbs (fresh, frozen or dried) in olive oil. A protein, fish or meat (not from a can, nor box nor frozen with added ingredients) topped with an fresh herb.
Just imagine...A food without added stuff you can't pronounce. Have you seen the ingredients in liquid eggs? Did you know chicken/fish is in a salt soultion?

My testimony is: lost inches, got firmer, no more GERD, indigestion, phosphrous is way down. CDK4 is now a CDK2 (kidney-renal disease). Glucose level is now a 4, from 7. I sneak in 5 ingredients ice cream. This is just a start. Happy eating.
I use it for natural bodybuilding! I love the Paleo Diet, because it's about eating whole foods, avoiding junk and processed foods of all types. Low glycemic index foods that slow your body down. I look and feel 10 years younger. I'm 53 now and most people think I'm about 40! Read how to use it for your workouts here: thepaleodiet.biz/the-paleo-diet-for
-athletes/ Report
Speaking as an R.N. who worked as a supervisor, head nurse, med-surg nurse, coronary nurse, ICU nurse, dialysis nurse, and diet counselor I can say without reservation that diets like Paleo and Primal are some of the best diets, especially for people with certain medical conditions. It's ridiculous to accuse a diet that is focusing on whole foods while avoiding highly processed ones, junk food, and sugar to be a fad diet. I don't agree with these diets 100% but then I don't agree with any diet 100% because they all have restrictions or allowances that I don't agree with completely. Diets like this can easily be tweaked to fit most needs. Report
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