It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing someone sing the praises of The Paleolithic (Paleo) diet, also called the “Caveman” or “Stone Age” diet. It centers around the idea that if we eat like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and curb disease. “A quick and pithy definition of the Paleo diet is — if the cavemen didn’t eat it then you shouldn’t either,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Jim White, RDN, ACSM/HFS. This means only foods that can be hunted, fished or gathered: meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, veggies, roots, fruits and berries, are allowed.
So why no grains, dairy, legumes (beans or peas), sugar, or salt? “According to proponents, our bodies are genetically predisposed to eat this way. They blame the agricultural revolution and the addition of grains, legumes and dairy to the human diet for the onset of chronic disease (obesity, heart disease and diabetes),” says White.
Looking on the bright side, this way of eating encourages the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables while cutting out added sugar and sodium — which aligns with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The combination of plant foods with protein while restricting sugar and salt can help control blood sugar, regulate blood pressure, contribute to weight loss and prevent Type 2 diabetes, notes White.
But a typical plan also goes beyond the recommended Dietary Guidelines for daily fat and protein intake and falls short on carbohydrate recommendations, according to a review from U.S. News & World Report. The exclusion of whole grains, legumes and dairy can be dangerous as well. “These foods are nutrient-rich and contain important vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D. Without these foods, supplementation is necessary,” says White. “Eating this way … can be very healthy but the lack of certain foods may result in certain deficiencies.”
Eliminating whole grains and dairy is not necessarily the answer to ending disease and guaranteeing weight loss. Whole grains contain important dietary fiber, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as other health complications. And dairy products provide calcium necessary for bone health. “The crux of the problem, with respect to grains and dairy, stem from over consumption, and, as with anything, excess quantities will become problematic,” explains White.
The Paleo diet might also be hard to maintain for a long period of time. “We live in a society where it is not possible to eat exactly as our ancestors ate. For example, wild game is not readily available as most of the meat we consume has been domesticated. And the plant food we eat has also been processed rather than grown and gathered in the wild,” says White. “While strict conformity is not realistic, it is possible to modify the plan, eating only wild caught fish, grass-fed meat and organic fruits and vegetables.” But White adds that with the lack of variety, increased planning time, and cost, even that can be hard to follow.
Reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN