The foods we eat have changed quite a bit in the past few centuries! The Paleo Diet is designed to resemble what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago. But, is the paleo diet healthy? This blog is a Paleo diet review with unbiased pros and cons to help answer that question!
Interested in other popular diet reviews? Read my opinion on the ketogenic diet here.
Paleo comes from the word Paleolithic, which basically means the Stone Age – almost 2 million years ago.
The Paleo diet plan was also very low in sugar. Some hunter-gatherers may have had access to very limited amounts of honey, but that was it! Obviously, they had zero access to processed foods as well. Food was not in abundance back then. So, their calorie intake was variable, and they would often fast for longer periods of time (hours to days).
Loren Cordain, the main researcher and founder of the popular “Paleo diet”, argues that humans, as we are now, are still genetically adapted to the environment of our ancestors. According to Dr. Cordain, the environmental changes we’ve experienced due to advances in agriculture, industrial revolution and such occured too quickly for our human genome (the full picture of our genes) to adapt. The mismatch of our ancient biology with the nutritional, cultural, and activity patterns of contemporary life, he argues, creates a perfect storm of chronic disease.
I generally dislike labeling foods as “allowed” or “not-allowed”. But, for the purpose of this Paleo diet review, let’s review which foods are included in the Paleo diet plan as it is known these days!
Is the paleo diet healthy? Well, the Paleo foods seem to be overall healthy foods! All foods on a Paleo diet are generally advised to be organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught – as close to their natural habitat as possible. Root vegetables and honey/maple syrup are allowed, but recommended to eat in limited quantities.
The foods not allowed on the Paleo diet plan include:
The originators of the popular Paleo diet as it is known today have many reasons for the foods not allowed on the Paleo diet plan. The first obvious reason is that they state that these foods were not available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Additionally, they argue that some of these foods have components that may cause GI distress such as beans (lectins, gas), grains, and dairy. They also nix the refined vegetable oils which are relatively high in omega-6 fats. In excess, omega-6 fats can increase inflammation in the body (2). So, we want to balance our ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats as much as possible.
For this paleo diet review, let’s break it down into pros and cons! There are actually a good amount of pros towards the Paleo diet.
The glycemic index is a way of rating foods based on how much they raise your blood sugar. High glycemic foods spike your blood sugar quickly, and relatively high. This is no bueno, because it can lead to chronically elevated blood sugar, which may lead to hormonal imbalances, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Allowed Paleo foods are mostly low-glycemic.
A low glycemic diet may be helpful for conditions like acne (3, 4). This is because high glycemic foods tend to increase our insulin levels (the hormone which brings our blood sugar back to normal). Elevated insulin levels can cause excess sebum oil production in the skin and boom – breakouts. Although dairy foods like cow’s milk and yogurt are relatively low glycemic, research shows that they tend to raise insulin levels as well. Although there isn’t any studies specifically researching the Paleo diet plan for acne, the concepts of this diet would seem to support a clear skin diet.
Low glycemic diets also may be helpful for reducing inflammation, heart disease risk, and supporting weight loss (5).
Although the research is still limited, there are a few studies showing that a Paleo diet plan may improve waist circumference and support weight loss (6, 7, 8). This is likely due to a number of factors. The Paleo diet is low in sugar, which obviously helps to keep blood sugar normal and reduce excess calories. It also supports a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which are higher in fiber and may make you fuller, for longer. Additionally, the higher protein component of a Paleo diet also improves satiety as protein is the most filling nutrient of all the macronutrients. In general, more satiety = less calories overall consumed.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have access to large semi-trucks that could transport food thousands of miles to the nearest grocery store. Instead, they had to rely on foods grown locally, and in-season in their area. Although this aspect isn’t largely advertised in the popular Paleo diet community, it serves as a really important benefit. Eating seasonally can help you save money on groceries, improve the nutrient quality of the foods, and result in fresher tasting produce (less time from farm to table). Read more about why you should eat seasonally here.
The Paleo diet plan can serve as a general, first-line elimination diet. By eliminating the foods that commonly cause issues in people with GI conditions, eating Paleo foods may help identify your symptom triggers. For example, many people with IBS cannot tolerate grains, dairy products, or legumes (9). Since these are all eliminated in a Paleo eating pattern, these people may find some symptom relief as a result.
A true Paleo diet is very rich in non-starchy vegetables. We know there are tons of health benefits to eating more non-starchy vegetables, but one is that they are very good sources of antioxidants and micronutrients. Most of them are also pretty high in fiber! Eating enough fiber (25 grams per day for women, 38 grams for men), can promote gut health, help with weight loss, and reduce risk of chronic disease, like cancer (10). It’s estimated that our ancestors actually ate over 70 grams of fiber per day (11)! However, because whole grains are eliminated on this diet, you must ensure that you really amp up the non-starchy vegetables and fruit on the Paleo diet to meet your fiber requirements.
Although the Paleo diet does have a lot of good aspects to it, there are some cons to this diet which we will discuss next for the Paleo diet review.
Although eliminating legumes (like beans, peas, and lentils) may be a benefit to people who cannot tolerate them from a GI standpoint, they are still an overall healthy food for the rest of us. One of the major arguments against legumes from the Paleo community is their lectin content. Lectin is a protein that plants produce as a protective mechanism. A few studies report that high intake of lectins may damage the intestinal lining in some individuals (12). However, cooking legumes removes most of the lectin content (and I don’t think any of us eat raw/uncooked beans). Similarly, soaking beans is another way to reduce the lectin content even further and improve digestibility.
Legumes are high in fiber, an adequate source of plant-based protein, and have lots of health benefits. For example, research shows that eating beans can reduce heart disease, lower cholesterol, and even prevent cancer (13, 14, 15, 16). In fact, legumes are one of the universal foods eaten by the healthiest and longest living populations all over the globe!
The Paleo diet promotes eating real, unprocessed, organic produce. They also encourage high quality meats that are grass-fed, pasture-raised or wild caught. While meat from grass-fed cows do have a healthier fat profile with more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, this meat is also more expensive. As is organic produce.
Eliminating most of the affordable plant-based protein sources (like beans/quinoa) also drives up the grocery bill. Now, I can tell you that your health is worth the extra cost and yada-yada-yada. But, I also realize that some families (mine included) simply cannot afford top quality foods ALL of the time. Choose what is most important to you. For example, I usually decide to spend a bit extra money on grass-fed meat and pasture-raised eggs. But, this means that I cannot afford to buy all organic produce. Shop the sales when you can. Eat in season. Organic or not, the most important thing is that you eat fruits and vegetables in the first place.
Like most other diets out there, food marketing has taken hold of Paleo foods. You’ll now go into your nearest hipster coffee shop and find things like Paleo cupcakes or pastries. These are simply the same as a regular cupcake, except made with “Paleo approved foods” like honey, coconut sugar, and almond flour.
First of all, I’m 99.9% sure that our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t making Paleo cupcakes from Pinterest. So, I think this may be a spin-off…While these foods may have lower glycemic ingredients and suit people needing gluten-free options, we still have to be careful about over consuming these dessert items (whether Paleo or not).
Cutting out two major food groups (dairy + grains) may result in some deficiencies in the diet, if proper attention is not paid to these vitamins. Nutrients like calcium are commonly deficient in the Paleo diet plan, due to dairy elimination (1). Fiber and some B vitamins may also be lower due to elimination of whole grains. While these nutrients can definitely be obtained with Paleo foods, you have to ensure you are eating enough non-starchy vegetables and whole fruits throughout the day.
Overall, I think the Paleo diet plan is pretty healthy. It encourages wholesome foods like grass-fed proteins, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and nuts/seeds/oils. By reducing sugar intake and amping up the quality proteins, some people may feel less hungry on this type of diet with less sugar cravings. Many people may find that their GI symptoms also improve while on a Paleo diet plan due to a reduction in dairy and legumes.
However, it does have its drawbacks. For example, lots of research points to the health benefits of legumes and whole grains (not to mention, they are a lot cheaper, too). Plus, you have to consider whether this eating pattern would be sustainable for you. Severe restriction of whole food groups may lead into disordered feelings around food. Your relationship with food is important.
If eating a Paleo-ish diet works for your body and does not make you feel deprived or disordered around food, then I say go for it.
Things to keep in mind:
What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet? Leave a comment below to share!