The Paleo Diet: Pros and Cons

Written by Lynn Hetzler
on August 15, 2019

The paleo diet has been gaining traction since its introduction to the public by researcher and gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin in the 1970s. In fact, in the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2018 Food and Health Survey, 7 percent of respondents said they were eating a paleo diet.

But what is the paleo diet? And what are the paleo diet pros and cons?

Paleo Diet Pros and Cons

About the Paleo Diet

The dietary plan focuses on food similar to what humans may have eaten during the Paleolithic era that spanned approximately 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago.

During the Paleolithic Age, early humans probably ate “whole” foods that they were able to hunt and gather from the local landscape and could consume quickly. These foods likely included meat, fruits and nuts, and excluded nearly everything else.

The human diet changed during the Neolithic Age and the First Agricultural Revolution, which occurred between 10,000 BCE and 2000 BCE, when humans learned how to grow cereal grains and domesticate animals. Farming changed what people ate, essentially introducing dairy, grains and legumes into the human diet.

The theory behind the paleo diet is that humans stopped evolving 10,000 years ago but the human diet and lifestyle continued to change, an idea known as the Evolutionary Discordance hypothesis. Medic S. Boyd Eaton and anthropologist Melvin Konner first presented the Evolutionary Discordance hypothesis in 1985. Supporters believe many modern diseases, such as cancer and arthritis, are the result of this discord between our Stone Age genetics and modern lifestyles. In other words, the human diet changed faster than the human body, and this mismatch caused a number of diseases and ailments.

Scientific studies have not verified many of the theories offered by supporters of the Evolutionary Discordance hypothesis and proponents of the paleo diet. Some question the validity of the paleo diet and Evolutionary Discordance hypothesis because modern humans are still evolving and some research suggests that early man may have been more of a vegetarian than a meat-eater.

Still, the paleo diet is helping thousands of people lose weight and lead healthier lives.

Many consumers are on the fence when it comes to “eating like a caveman.” Some may worry about the limited variety of foods the diet offers. Others might be concerned about high cholesterol and other possible implications of a meat-centric diet. Exploring the variety of foods allowed on the paleo diet, and the research behind this dietary approach, can help consumers decide of the paleo diet is right for them.

(Pros) Health Benefits of Paleo

The paleo diet provides a number of health benefits. Fresh cuts of meat, vegetables and healthy sources of fat are rich in important vitamins and minerals, such as protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The protein in meat serves as the building blocks for muscles, bones, skin, cartilage, and blood. Protein also provides the building blocks for the enzymes, hormones, and vitamins the human body makes. B vitamins, such as niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6, help the body release energy, aid in the formation of red blood cells, build tissue, and play a role in how the nervous system functions.

The iron in meat carries oxygen in the blood. Magnesium in the meat included in the paleo diet helps build strong bones and release energy from muscles. Zinc helps the immune system function. The USDA also notes that eating nuts and seeds may reduce the risk of heart disease.

The paleo diet may also provide indirect health benefits, in that it discourages the consumption of unhealthy carbohydrates associated with modern diseases and today’s lifestyle. The human body is meant to move all day on a limited number of calories, but most people now lead sedentary lifestyles and consume high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich diets. In fact, the average American adult now sits more than at any other time in history, according to Healthline. Lack of activity and high intake of sugars and carbohydrates has triggered the spread of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more.

Research suggests that a paleo diet contained fewer calories, caused fewer spikes in blood sugar levels, is more satisfying, and is associated with a smaller waist circumference and lower weight than with a standard diabetic diet. The American Council on Exercisesays that low-carbohydrate diets work just as well as low-fat diets when it comes to losing weight and improving cardiovascular risk factors.

(Cons) Risks of the Paleo Diet

While the paleo diet provides a number of health benefits, it can also present some health risks. The paleo diet restricts which foods a person can eat but does not specify the portion sizes, for example, and this can lead to overeating of certain foods. Over-consumption of some high-calorie foods on the paleo diet, such as nuts, can lead to unexpected weight gain.

The paleo diet excludes dairy and grains, which are important sources of nutrients. The diet also restricts the intake of carbohydrates, which provide energy to the body. This can pose special problems to athletes, as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests athletes get 6-10 g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight (2.7-4.5 g/lb) of carbohydrates each day, which can be difficult on the Paleo diet.

Foods to Eat on the Paleo Diet

Knowing which specific foods are allowed on the paleo diet and which ones are not can be somewhat confusing. Paleolithic humans survived on a variety of foods, depending on what was available at the time and location. Some ate a diet that was low in carbohydrates and high in animal fats, for example, while others consumed a high-carb, plant-based diet. The paleo eating plan is a general guideline that consumers can adapt to their own personal needs and preferences.

Also known as the Paleolithic diet, caveman diet, Stone Age diet, or hunter-gatherer diet, the paleo diet generally encourages the consumption of fresh whole foods similar to what early humans may have eaten. The diet includes meat, fish, eggs, certain vegetables, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and oils, herbs and spices.

Meats include whole cuts of beef, chicken, pork, turkey, lamb and others. Fish and seafood, such as salmon, trout, haddock, shrimp and shellfish, should be wild-caught whenever possible. The diet does allow free-range, pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs. The paleo diet encourages the consumption of nuts and seeds, including almonds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts.

Broccoli, kale, peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes and other types of fresh vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber needed for well-balanced nutrition and gut health. Fresh fruits should include apples, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, pears, avocados, oranges, and more.

Water was the only beverage available to early humans, but fortunately, the paleo diet does not limit consumers to plain water. Most paleo diets allow for sparkling water, sparkling mineral water, seltzer, club soda, soda water, and any type of plain carbonated water. Consumers should read the label be sure the beverage does not contain added sugar or other non-paleo ingredients.

The paleo diet allows herbal, caffeine-free teas. Some paleo diets allow for the consumption of coffee. The Paleolithic diet allows coconut water, freshly juiced fruits and vegetables when consumed with their pulp, and drinks sweetened with raw honey, stevia, coconut sap or other natural ingredients.

Cooking and other food preparations should include the use of healthy fats and oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil. The paleo diet allows for the use of salt and spices, including sea salt, garlic, rosemary, turmeric and more, to make food more palatable. Preparing food in a wide variety of ways, and adding different spices to create a range of flavors, can keep the paleo diet interesting.

Foods to Avoid or Consume Sparingly

The paleo eating plan eliminates added sugars and discourages processed foods.

Consumers of the paleo diet should avoid all foods containing sugar or high fructose corn syrup, such as soft drinks, fruit juices, ice cream, candy, pastries, and cookies. Table sugar is not allowed. The paleo diet does not allow artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, cyclamates, or acesulfame potassium. Paleo diet consumers should instead choose natural sweeteners, such as honey.

The diet excludes grains, such as wheat, rye, spelt, barley and others, so those eating a paleo diet must avoid eating breads and pastas. Even whole-grain options are not allowed.

There is considerable discussion among adherents to the paleo diet as to whether potatoes and other starchy tubers should be included in the eating plan. The Ultimate Paleo Guide bans white potatoes but allows sweet potatoes, for example, while the Paleo Foundation concludes that these tubers are paleo. Other paleo organizations fall somewhere in between.

Those following a paleo diet should eliminate certain beverages from their diet. The paleo diet does not allow the consumption of milk or other dairy-based drinks, beer or other drinks containing gluten, and commercial fruit juices. The diet excludes sports drinks, energy drinks, electrolyte beverages, and sodas, colas, diet drinks, sweet teas, and other beverages containing artificial sweeteners. Those on a paleo diet should eliminate all drinks containing artificial sweeteners, flavors, colorings, or preservatives.

The paleo diet eliminates all highly processed foods, foods with additives, and artificial meal replacements. As a rule, the paleo diet excludes all foods prepared in a factory.

FAQs About Paleo

Why is the paleo diet unhealthy or dangerous?

UC Davis Health notes that the paleo diet puts consumers at risk for deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D, which are critical to bone health. The focus on meat can introduce excess saturated fat and protein into the diet, which increases the risk of kidney problems, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.

How does the paleo diet work?

The paleo diet works by eliminating all of the processed foods thought to be associated with modern ailments.

Is paleo diet good for weight loss?

A number of studies show that the paleo diet is good for weight loss. Participants in one study who ate a paleo diet for three weeks lost an average of 5 lbs, decreased their body mass index (BMI) by 0.8, and lost 0.6 inches from their waist.

Is the paleo diet healthy?

The paleo diet can be a healthy way to lose weight, lower blood pressure, and decrease cholesterol levels, which can help reduce the risk of certain diseases.

The paleo diet can be a healthy approach to nutrition as long as the consumer eats a well-balanced diet that provides all the vitamins and minerals essential to health and well-being.

What does paleo diet mean?

The paleo diet means eating like humans did during the Paleolithic Era that occurred 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago — consuming fresh meat, fruits and nuts.

Will the paleo diet lower cholesterol levels?

Research suggests that adhering to the paleo diet can provide short-term improvements in cholesterol, as well as immediate benefits in reducing blood pressure and blood sugar levels. These benefits in cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The paleo diet is not for everyone, but thousands of people benefit from eating natural, whole foods, just as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.


Author: Lynn Hetzler

Published:  August 15, 2019

Lynn Hetzler has been a leading writer in the medical field for 20 years. She specializes in creating informative and engaging medical content for readers of all levels, from patients to researchers and everyone in between.

Written by Lynn Hetzler

Published: August 15, 2019