Paleo Primer: Can the 'Caveman' Diet Help You Lose Weight?

The paleo diet, sometimes referred to as the caveman diet, is a meal plan based around foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors supposedly ate, including mainly whole foods coming from plants and animals.

The paleo diet emphasizes lean meat, vegetables and herbs over processed foods (Image: Lara Hata/iStock/GettyImages)

The diet takes its name from — you guessed it — the Paleolithic era, but it first became popular in the early 21st century, after the 2002 release of Loren Cordain's book, The Paleo Diet. In it, Cordain breaks down his theory that eating like it's the Stone Age can improve our health and longevity by reducing our risk for obesity and other chronic diseases (because, hey, no one ever heard of an overweight caveman).

Here, we'll break down the diet's guidelines, whether it's effective for weight loss and what else you need to know before you start filling your plate like the Flintstones.

What Do You Eat on the Paleo Diet?

In a nutshell, eating paleo means consuming whole foods from plants and animals and avoiding processed foods (think: anything that comes out of a wrapper). However, their are different schools of thought around the exact foods that should be included and excluded, which means there's not one "true" version of the diet, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Here's a look at the basic dos and don'ts, based on Cordain's original directives:

Foods included in the diet:

  • Vegetables and fruits, including juices without added sweetener
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Natural herbs and spices
  • Meat, fish and eggs
  • Flaxseed, avocado, olive and walnut oils
  • Unsweetened tea and coffee
  • Water

Foods and ingredients to avoid:

  • Legumes (including beans, peas, peanuts, soy)
  • Dairy
  • Grains (including rice, wheat, quinoa, cereals)
  • Refined sugars
  • Vegetable oils
  • Trans fats
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Processed foods
  • Alcohol

Warning

Because the paleo diet restricts several food groups — like calcium-rich dairy and fiber-packed whole grains — it’s a good idea to consult with a registered dietitian before adopting it, to make sure your nutritional needs are being met. And because the diet emphasizes protein, those with kidney issues or reduced kidney function should be especially cautious before trying this eating approach.

One-Day Paleo Meal Plan

Here's what a typical day of eating paleo might look like:

Breakfast

  • Scrambled eggs, cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with chopped parsley
  • Grapefruit, or any fresh fruit in season
  • Herbal tea

Snack

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Raspberries, or any fresh fruit in season

Lunch

  • Romaine salad with chicken, dressed with lemon and olive oil
  • Mashed sweet potato
  • Herbal tea

Snack

  • Apple slices
  • Raw walnuts

Dinner

  • Grass-fed steak
  • Vegetables sautéed in avocado oil
  • Salad of mixed greens with olive oil and vinegar dressing
  • Mineral water

Can It Help Me Lose Weight?

Very little scientific research has been done on the paleo diet's effectiveness when it comes to weight loss.

Participants in a few small studies dropped pounds and saw a decrease in blood pressure and improved cholesterol after a few months of eating paleo, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And in one larger study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in July 2013, researchers who tracked 70 postmenopausal women over two years found that a paleo-like diet helped them shed a significant amount of weight and also decrease their triglyceride levels.

The verdict is still out, though. And some critics have concerns about the diet's purported health benefits beyond weight loss.

While some of our ancestors may have had a diet that consisted of animal-based foods and some vegetables, there's also evidence that these ancient people ate the foods restricted on the paleo diet, like grains and legumes, according to a paper published October 2018 in Bioarcheologists Speak Out.

And an article published in September 2016 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that, while components of the paleo diet can promote healthy behaviors, like eating less processed foods and more fruits and vegetables, limiting whole grains, legumes and dairy has not been shown to improve the metabolic risk factors associated with chronic disease in the way the diet claims.

Sure, going paleo might be appealing for those who don't want to track calories, points or macronutrients. But if your goal is to shed fat, you'll need to at least have a general understanding of how many calories you are taking in versus how many you're burning each day, in order to create the appropriate calorie deficit needed to lose weight.

The number of calories you need to maintain your current weight depends on a variety of factors, including your height, weight, gender and age. Since a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, subtracting 500 calories each day from that maintenance number will help you lose about 1 pound per week. For an easy way to calculate your specific calorie goal — and stay on track with your eating — download LIVESTRONG.com's free MyPlate App.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a diet that follows a minimally processed food philosophy, going paleo might be right for you. The diet consists of whole, natural foods from plant and animal sources, including such healthy staples as lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.

The eating plan does restrict whole grains, dairy and legumes, though, which are encouraged as part of a healthy and balanced diet. Liberalizing the diet to include these items can make it more sustainable and satisfying for the long run.

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