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.
Here, we'll break down the eating plan's guidelines, how to follow a paleo diet, whether it's effective for weight loss and what else you need to know before you start filling your plate like the Flintstones.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
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 chronic diseases.
But what exactly does a hunter-gatherer diet plan look like? The paleo diet, in a nutshell, means eating whole foods from plants and animals and avoiding processed foods (think: anything that comes out of a wrapper).
However, there are different schools of thought around the exact foods that should be included and excluded: For example, modern fruits aren't the same as their prehistoric counterparts, so there's debate about whether or not they're truly "paleo," according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a result, there's not one "true" version of the diet.
Foods to Eat
So, what do you eat on the paleo diet?
Here's what you can include in a typical paleo eating plan, based on Cordain's original directives:
- Vegetables and fruits
- Nuts and seeds
- Natural herbs and spices
- Fresh lean meat and poultry, preferably grass-fed
- Fresh fish and seafood, preferably wild-caught
- Beneficial fats like flaxseed, avocado, olive oil and coconut oil
Foods to Avoid
On the flip side, here are the foods to skip based on paleo diet theory.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, you should avoid:
- Legumes like beans, peas, peanuts and lentils
- Dairy products
- Whole grains like rice, wheat, quinoa and cereals
- White potatoes
- Refined sugars
- Refined oils like vegetable oils
- Products with trans fats like fried or processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
A typical paleo diet restricts several food groups — like calcium-rich dairy and fiber-packed whole grains — so it’s a good idea to talk to 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.
Sample Meal Plan
Here's what a typical day of eating paleo might look like:
- 3-Ingredient Gluten-Free Paleo Banana Pancakes
- A cup of raspberries, or any fresh fruit in season
- Paleo Chimichurri Chicken
- Mashed sweet potato
- Apple slices
- Raw walnuts
Potential Health Benefits of Going Paleo
Here are the potential benefits of the "caveman" diet for weight loss and beyond:
1. It May Help You Lose Weight
The paleo diet has some positive attributes that may help with weight loss. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables and high-quality proteins while also being low in carbs, refined grains, added sugar and processed foods. According to a September 2018 paper in Healthcare, these dietary choices may help people control their weight without necessarily counting calories or limiting portion sizes.
Another small study tracked 70 people after menopause, and found that eating a paleo-like diet helped them shed weight, decrease their abdominal fat and also improve their triglyceride levels, per March 2014 research in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But while this evidence is promising, there still isn't much research about paleo weight loss, so larger studies need to be done before we can draw a conclusion about the diet's effectiveness.
2. It May Help Manage Your Appetite
The high protein and moderate fat content of the paleo eating plan may help you stay full for longer, meaning you may have a reduced appetite when you follow the diet, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. It May Help Manage Autoimmune Conditions
The paleo plan closely resembles the anti-inflammatory diet (providing you limit red or processed meats). This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, oily fish, unsaturated fats and unrefined whole grains while limiting processed foods, sugar and alcohol, all of which may help protect against or reduce excess inflammation associated with autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease and lupus, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can also help prevent long-term inflammation, which can contribute to developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.
4. It May Help Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol
There is evidence to suggest that eating paleo can decrease your blood pressure and cholesterol. For instance, one review found that people with metabolic syndrome who followed a paleo diet saw lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels compared to those who did not, per October 2015 research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
5. It May Improve Blood Sugar Levels
A small April 2015 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition had similar results: It found that eating paleo was linked to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with type 2 diabetes. The study also found that following a paleo diet was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and better blood sugar regulation.
However, larger studies are needed to better establish the relationship between eating paleo and diabetes control.
If you have an underlying condition like diabetes, talk to your doctor or dietitian before starting any restrictive diet to make sure it's right for you.
Risks and Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet
On the other hand, there are some downsides to keep in mind when you consider eating paleo, including:
1. It Can Be Hard to Stick To
While the paleo diet is effective for weight loss, it may be hard to stick with long-term, according to a December 2019 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The study allowed 250 people to select from the paleo, Mediterranean diet 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.
This may be because the diet is restrictive and requires planning ahead, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After all, it takes time and effort to stock your kitchen with fresh, paleo-friendly foods, especially if you have a busy schedule or don't like to cook at home.
2. It Can Be Expensive
Similarly, the paleo diet can be costly. Buying exclusively fresh produce and high-quality cuts of meat and fish isn't cheap, which is why the financial demand of this eating plan may be a barrier to entry, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. It May Not Provide the Nutrients You Need
While the paleo diet does emphasize nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, it also cuts out beneficial groups like whole grains and dairy, which provide important nutrients like fiber, calcium and vitamins, per the Mayo Clinic.
As a result, you may be at greater risk for nutrient deficiencies like a calcium, vitamin B or vitamin D deficiency, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This may be especially true for people with other dietary restrictions — like those who follow a vegetarian- or vegan-paleo diet — or people who have underlying health conditions like osteoporosis.
4. It May Not Support Heart Health
The paleo diet encourages relatively high protein and fat intake, often in the form of meat. But too much red meat — like beef, pork and sausage — can put you at risk for heart disease, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
It may also put you at higher risk for developing other health conditions like diabetes.
5. It Lacks Evidence
Scientific research is lacking when it comes to the long-term effects of the paleo diet, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a result, it's hard to predict how eating this way will effect you over time and whether or not it's safe for you in the first place.
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 staples like lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.
The eating plan does restrict whole grains, dairy and legumes, though, which are encouraged as part of a balanced diet. Accordingly, this may not be the eating style for you if you have extenuating dietary needs, restrictions or an underlying health condition. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before trying the diet to see if it's safe for you.