Paleo – The new, old diet
The basis of the Paleo diet
The paleo diet (also nicknamed the caveman diet, primal diet, Stone Age diet, and hunter-gatherer diet) is hugely popular these days, and goes by one simple question: What would a caveman eat? Here, we explain what the paleo diet involves, its pros and cons, and, ultimately, what a modern person needs to know to decide whether or not to take the paleo diet plunge.
The paleo diet runs on the same foods our hunter-gather ancestors supposedly ate: fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and nuts. “By following these nutritional guidelines, we put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genetics, which in turn positively influences health and well being,” says Loren Cordain, PhD, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet. He says the diet lessens the body’s glycemic load, has a healthy ratio of saturated-to-unsaturated fatty acids, increases vitamin and nutrient consumption, and contains an optimal balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Experts don’t agree on its benefits
In fact, the health benefits of the paleo diet are unproven. “Our ancestors ate this way and didn’t have many of the chronic diseases we do, but that doesn’t mean the food they ate is the reason why; drawing that conclusion would be like saying we live three times longer than our Paleolithic ancestors because we eat fast food,” says Christopher Ochner, MD, research associate at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals. Still, a handful of small studies have tried to determine if a paleo diet is a healthier diet. One small study published in the journal Diabetologia found that the diet improved blood sugar over 12 weeks compared to a Mediterranean one that allowed grains, low-fat dairy, and oils, but it’s hard to say whether researchers would come to the same results in a larger study.
What’s on the menu?
Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh meat—the paleo diet is all about eating foods straight from the Earth just as our ancestors did. Those ancestors didn’t have livestock or crops to call their own, so Cordain advises to go with grass-fed and organic varieties whenever possible to limit exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals that didn’t exist back then. Research from Emory University suggests that Paleolithic people obtained about 35% of their calories from fats, 35% from carbohydrates, and 30% from protein.
Going paleo means giving up modern foods
Anything that comes in a box, jar, or bag should be avoided on the paleo diet—as should anything that just wasn’t consumed back then. That means no grains, dairy, added salt, or legumes (including peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans), according to Robb Wolf, a former research biochemist, paleo expert, and author of The Paleo Solution. While potatoes are generally outlawed on the diet, Wolff says they are okay to eat sparingly as long as you earn them through exercise (more on that next). Alcohol and honey are also generally considered paleo no-nos, but red wine tends to be the closest option there is to a paleo drink, and honey is far preferred to table sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Paleo is a lifestyle
“The paleo diet is by no means a temporary diet,” says Cordain. It’s meant to be a lifestyle, just as it was thousands of years ago. You don’t just stop it if and when you start feeling better or reach your goal weight—you stick it out for the long haul.
Paleo isn’t just about food
Exercise is a vital part of the live-by-your-genetic-code equation. Surviving in the Stone Age meant a constant on-the-go lifestyle that probably required 4,000-plus calories a day, according to David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Even most people who hit the gym regularly won’t need to eat that many calories, but the principle of using food as fuel to exercise still stands.