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 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
- Nuts and seeds
- Natural herbs and spices
- Fresh lean meat and poultry, preferably grass-fed
- Fresh eggs
- Fresh fish and seafood, preferably wild-caught
- Healthy fats, including flaxseed, avocado, olive oil and coconut oil
- Unsweetened tea and coffee
Read more: 18 Paleo Snacks Under 200 Calories
Foods and ingredients to avoid:
- Legumes (including beans, peas, peanuts, soy)
- Cereal grains (including rice, wheat, quinoa, cereals)
- Refined sugars
- Refined oils, including vegetable oils
- Trans fats
- Artificial sweeteners
- Processed foods
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:
- Scrambled eggs, cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with chopped parsley
- Grapefruit, or any fresh fruit in season
- Herbal tea
- Romaine salad with chicken, dressed with lemon and olive oil
- Mashed sweet potato
- A cup of raspberries, or any fresh fruit in season
- Herbal tea
- Apple slices
- Raw walnuts
- Grilled grass-fed steak
- Vegetables sautéed in avocado oil
- Salad of mixed greens with olive oil and vinegar dressing, topped with sunflower seeds
- Mineral water
Can It Help Me Lose Weight?
The paleo diet has some positive attributes that may help with weight loss. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables as well as high-quality proteins and downplays refined grains, added sugar and processed foods. According to a paper published September 2018 in Healthcare, these dietary choices may help people control their body weight without necessarily counting calories or limiting portion sizes.
But overall, 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 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2014, researchers who tracked 70 postmenopausal women over two years found that a paleo-like diet helped them shed a significant amount of weight, decrease their abdominal fat and also improve their triglyceride levels.
More recently, a study published December 2019 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the paleo diet is effective for weight loss, but it may be hard to stick with long-term. The study allowed 250 people to select from the paleo, Mediterranean or fasting diets and then followed up with them after a year. While all three diets were effective for weight loss, only 35 percent had stuck with the paleo diet while more than half had continued with the other two diets.
While this research is promising, larger studies need to be done before we can draw a firm conclusion about the diet's effectiveness.
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.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Paleo diet still lacks evidence"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: Paleo Diet for Weight Loss"
- Healthcare: "Defining the Optimal Dietary Approach for Safe, Effective and Sustainable Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a two-year randomized trial"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Intermittent fasting, Paleolithic, or Mediterranean diets in the real world: exploratory secondary analyses of a weight-loss trial that included choice of diet and exercise"