Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably have heard of the Paleo, or “caveman,” diet. This way of eating based on the diets of our hunter-gather ancestors from more than 10,000 years ago has been growing significantly in popularity.
People who adhere to the Paleo diet believe that the foods of our agricultural diet including cereal grains, dairy products and processed foods are at the root of modern health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Whether you are familiar with Paleo or not, there are factors to consider when contemplating a healthier eating plan.
While there are variations of the Paleo diet, its mainstay foods include meat, seafood, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds and some fruits, with no or limited beans, dairy, grains, starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes, desserts and processed foods. Although this diet discourages consumption of foods that most of us could live without from a health standpoint, like processed white flours and high-fat dairy products, it also restricts nutrient-dense and beneficial foods like beans and whole grains.
Unfortunately, there have not been many studies on the Paleo diet so its impact on health outcome is pretty much unknown. Some small-scale studies have shown reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar, but these results are not always statistically significant.
The big question many people have about the Paleo diet is whether it results in weight loss. Any eating plan that restricts entire food groups can often lead to weight loss simply from the reduction in overall calories, especially if the restricted foods are ones that had previously been consumed in excess. Portion control, which is an important part of weight management, is not specified on this kind of eating plan.
Paleo is higher in protein and fat and lower in carbohydrates than the typical American diet. This skewed macronutrient profile and heavy reliance on animal protein is a bit controversial, especially among health experts. Proponents of low-carb diets tend to be more supportive of Paleo compared to those who endorse vegetarian diets or even MyPlate-style meal plans. Athletes and those who are physically active should be sure to include enough Paleo-friendly carbs to support their fitness routine.
In reality, due to the evolution of our modern-day food supply, including the crossbreeding of seeds for desirable traits and the strategic methods of raising farm animals, the foods we eat today are so different from the types of foods that would have been available to cavemen and cavewomen. It is probably impossible to truly mimic their diets. Plus, hunter-gathers lived in a time of food uncertainty, which included times of famine, when food was scarce, and times of feasting, when hunters got lucky. While hunter-gathers had to spend significant energy obtaining food, we live in a society where food is relatively easy to acquire at supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores.
The strong points of the Paleo diet are its focus on whole foods and the inclusion of plenty of plant foods, resulting in a move away from processed and packaged items. Although it is not a vegetarian- or vegan-friendly eating plan, it is a high-protein, high-fiber way of eating that is likely filling and satisfying, which may help some people manage their weight. It will be interesting to see if clinical studies prove Paleo may help improve health outcomes affecting heart health and blood sugar control.
LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. She can be reached at [email protected]