The goal of the paleo diet is to return to a way of eating that’s more like our prehistoric ancestors. Supporters of this diet argue that our genetics and anatomy have changed very little since the stone age, thus we should eat foods available during that time to promote good health. The paleo diet aims to recreate the eating pattern that the hunter gatherers followed during the paleolithic era. The hunter gatherers of the paleolithic era experienced less modern day diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease because of their lean meat and plant food diet along with their high levels of physical activity1. This diet typically includes lean meats, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It avoids processed foods, sugars, dairy products, and grains. However, some versions allow foods like dairy and rice.
How the Paleo Diet Works
The diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables that have a low glycemic index level. The glycemic index (GI) measures how much specific foods increase your blood sugar levels2. Foods are classified as low, medium, or high and ranked on a scale of 0-100. The lower the GI of a specific food, the less it will affect your blood sugar levels. The following are the three GI ratings:
- Low: 55 or less
- Medium: 56-69
- High: 70 or above
Foods high in protein, fat, or fiber typically have a low GI3. However, foods high in refined carbs and sugars digest faster resulting in a higher GI. Foods not assigned a GI have no carbs such as red meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and oils. Foods with a low glycemic index help control type 2 diabetes, improve weight loss, and they have anti-inflammatory benefits4.
What’s In It
There is a debate on the composition of the paleo diet. For example, people question the foods that existed at the time, the variation in the diets depending on regions (tropical vs. Arctic), how modern-day fruits and vegetables vary from their prehistoric versions. These differences result in their being not one true paleo diet. For example, white potatoes were available during the paleolithic era but are avoided in the paleo diet because of their high GI.
Overall, the diet is high in protein, moderate in fat (mainly from unsaturated fats), low-moderate in carbohydrates (specifically ones that are not high on the GI), High in fiber, low in sodium, and low in refined sugars.
- Allowed: lean meats, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, coconut oil, small amounts of honey.
- Not Allowed: Whole grains, cereals, refined grains, sugars, dairy products, white potatoes, legumes (peanuts, beans, lentils), alcohol, coffee, salt, refined vegetable oils like canola, and processed foods.
This diet does not emphasize portion sizes or calorie counting. Some plans allow a few cheat non-paleo meals a week. This is to improve overall compliance with the restrictiveness of the diet.
Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet
Several studies showed that the paleo diet helped individuals lose more weight compared to other diets5. People on the paleo diet consumed 451 fewer calories per day without intentionally restricting calories or portions6. This is because the paleo diet involves foods that are lower in calories and higher in fiber, helping you stay fuller for longer.
Improves Blood Pressure Heart Health
High blood pressure is the measure of how strongly your blood is pushing on the walls of your arteries. The CDC estimates that almost 1/3 of US adults are hypertensive. High blood pressure is a contributing factor to heart disease, kidney disease and strokes. Studies have shown that the paleo diet can lead to a significant reduction in blood pressure6. This is because of the improved insulin control, weight loss, less processed foods, and more fruits and vegetables.
Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
Most of the foods or ingredients in this diet are low in carbohydrates, this reduces your bodies need for insulin. This helps reduce your blood sugar levels, prevents insulin resistance, and reduces the risk of developing heart disease7.
Potential Pitfalls of the Paleo Diet
- This diet relies heavily on fresh foods and a high time commitment to plan, purchase, prepare, and cook the meals. This can make it challenging for busy lifestyles.
- The foods in the paleo diet tend to be more expensive. This is because fresh meats, fish, and produce tend to be pricier than their processed versions that are frozen or canned.
- This diet has a higher risk of deficiencies such as Calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins. This is because of the exclusion of entire categories of commonly eaten foods like whole grains and dairy1.
The paleo diet focuses on nutrient dense fresh foods and avoids processed foods containing added salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. This can provide many health benefits such as weight loss, lower blood pressure, decreases risk of heart disease, and lower blood sugar and insulin levels. However, the restrictive nature of this diet can result in deficiencies in some key nutrients and can make it difficult for people to follow long term.
- Diet Review: Paleo Diet for Weight Loss. The Nutrition Source. Published July 24, 2018. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/paleo-diet/
- Vega-López S, Venn B, Slavin J. Relevance of the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for Body Weight, Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1361. doi:10.3390/nu10101361
- Atkinson FS, Foster-Powell K, Brand-Miller JC. International Tables of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values: 2008. Diabetes Care. 2008;31(12):2281-2283. doi:10.2337/dc08-1239
- Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Long-term effects of low glycemic index/load vs. high glycemic index/load diets on parameters of obesity and obesity-associated risks: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2013;23(8):699-706. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2013.04.008
- Pitt CE. Australian Family Physician – Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet (Asia Collection) – Informit. Australian Family Physician. 2016;45(1/2):35. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=817618908759886;res=IELIAC
- Lindeberg S, Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, et al. A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia. 2007;50(9):1795-1807. doi:10.1007/s00125-007-0716-y
- CDC. Facts About Hypertension. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 8, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/facts.htm
- Andrikopoulos S. The Paleo diet and diabetes. Medical Journal of Australia. 2016;205(4):151-152. doi:10.5694/mja16.00347