Digging into Diets: The Paleo Diet

By on January 8, 2020

Reviewed By: Casey Seiden MS, RD, CDN, CDE

From the outside, the Paleo diet is an attractive one. In a life and culture that seems jam-packed with complexity and juggling the right things, something simple and easy can feel like a comfort. After all, if our ancestors didn’t have to manage paying bills, keeping appointments, and sending birthday cards but lived just fine on a diet of whole, natural foods, then how could it be bad? However, as with any diet, it’s important to know the ins and outs so that you can learn from it and make the right choices for your body. Here’s what to know about the pros and cons of the Paleo diet and how it can help.

What is the Paleo Diet?

There are a lot of names for this diet— the caveman diet, the stone-age diet, and the Paleo diet (short for paleolithic) are just a few. It’s based on foods that were common to our ancestors before farming became commonplace about 10,000 years ago. This means it’s chock-full of lean meats, fish, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds, which would have been obtained by hunting and gathering. The method behind this specific group of foods is that our cultures have historically developed more quickly than the human body can adapt, giving rise to a prevalence in conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In short, the modern diet and rapid changes brought on by farming is to blame so the Paleo diet seeks to return your diet to a pre-farming state.

What does the Paleo Diet do right?

While we may not hunt and forage for food on a daily basis, there are some good takeaways from the Paleo Diet. One big benefit of following this eating method is that it encourages you to eat more whole, natural foods that are not processed and loaded with added sugars and trans fats. Considering that most Americans don’t meet the recommended 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, an eating pattern that encourages more plants is a step in the right direction. By incorporating more nuts, seeds, and healthy oils like walnut, olive, and avocado oil, you’re also helping to decrease inflammation in the body, which can be a hallmark of chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, the high fat content (along with substantial protein intake) helps you feel fuller longer, which is a good thing if you find yourself at the mercy of the afternoon pastry snack or diving into a large pasta dinner.

What does the Paleo Diet do wrong?

While the Paleo Diet certainly has a lot going for it, any diet that eliminates entire food groups (which in the case of Paleo would be grains, legumes, and dairy) puts you at risk for nutritional deficiencies and food boredom, or obsessive thoughts about “off-limit” foods. Omitting healthy grains like barley, oats, quinoa, and farro, as well as legumes like lentils and chickpeas, can result in a lower-fiber diet that can negatively impact your gut health and cause “carb cravings” that may ultimately lead you to abandon the diet and end in a binge of sugary, carb-y foods. Also, Greek yogurt and aged cheeses contain calcium, vitamin D, and probiotics that are incredibly supportive of the gut microbiome. So, following the Paleo Diet too strictly can mean that you miss out on important nutrients that can be easily found in certain food groups.

How can I apply this to my eating habits?

Choosing to follow some of the principles of the Paleo diet would be a good idea for most Americans. Opting for whole, fresh foods to replace refined or processed ones will have positive effects for anyone. If you currently don’t eat 3 servings of vegetables per day, start by incorporating more into at least 2 meals per day. If you notice that your go-to snack is a candy bar, try swapping it out for a cup of berries. However, don’t be shy to use those berries as a topping for Greek yogurt or balance out your green salad with a cup of lentil barley soup. These are still nutritious additions, even if they’re part of a modern diet and our cavemen ancestors didn’t consume them.

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