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Is It Paleo? Demystifying One of the World’s Most Popular Diets

Paleo Diet Demystified

It seems that a new fad diet seems to come out every week. Some of these diets are based on scientific principles. Others… not so much. Some of these diets are helpful for pretty much everyone. Others are more targeted at people with specific body types who want specific results. Enter the Paleo diet.

What Is Paleo?

If you have been researching diets for very long at all, you have probably heard of the paleo diet.

But what is the paleo diet?

Short for Paleolithic – and also called the “caveman diet” or “stone-age diet” – this diet that seeks to optimize human health and well-being by focusing on the eating of the foods that our bodies actually evolved to eat. That is, the diet prescribes foods that were commonly eaten by humans in the Paleolithic Era.

Paleo Diet Diagram

Why Go Paleo?

The main goal of the paleo diet is not necessarily to drastically reduce fat or increase muscle mass like many other diets do. Rather, its intent is to sensibly improve overall health by giving your body foods that contain the nutrients it needs and none of the other stuff that it does not need.

Proponents of the paleo diet contend that many aspects of the common modern diet have arisen not based on what is good for us or what we can digest, but simply based on what can be produced easily and what tastes good. They say that, by eating foods that our bodies did not evolve to eat, we are doing great harm to our bodies.

Many studies have been done to ascertain the effectiveness of the paleo diet in improving human health. One study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded the following:

Even short-term consumption of a paleolithic type diet improves BP and glucose tolerance, decreases insulin secretion, increases insulin sensitivity and improves lipid profiles without weight loss in healthy sedentary humans.

So, scientific studies have clearly concluded that the benefits of the paleo diet are evident.

How to Go Paleo

To adopt the paleo diet means to focus on eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, eggs, roots, and lean meats. Also – and perhaps more importantly – you will need to avoid legumes, grains, starches, and other sources of gluten and lectin.

Additionally, paleo purists tend to avoid all dairy, though many paleo folks do consume some dairy here and there. You should also avoid added sugar, added salt, preservatives, and other additives – which basically means no packaged or processed food at all. Many people actually go a step farther and say that the fruits and vegetables you eat should be “heirloom” – meaning that they do not result from modern husbandry and genetic manipulation.

Differences from Other Diets

As one might expect, the paleo diet has numerous similarities with other popular diets. However, it has differences as well.

Paleo vs. Atkins

The Atkins diet is a common diet for people trying to lose weight. Unlike many other weight loss diets, the Atkins diet actually recommends various fatty and oily foods. The key principle of the Atkins diet is the removal of carbohydrates from one’s diet, because carbohydrates are the main contributing factor to unwanted weight. In this way, it is similar to the paleo diet, as both advise against refined sugars and most grains.

These two diets are different, however. The main difference is that the paleo diet discourages consumption of dairy, while the Atkins diet encourages it. The Atkins diet also allows legumes, and it allows dieters to consume some grains based on their personal carbohydrate tolerance, which is something that dieters figure out as they continue with the program.

Paleo vs. Vegan

More than just a diet, veganism is an entire ideology based on the moral principle that humans should not kill or enslave animals in any way. Vegans therefore do not eat meat. Not only that, but vegans do not eat dairy either – or any other food sourced from animals, such as eggs or honey.

One point on which paleolithic diet advocates and vegans agree is that a lot of the supermarket meat that is readily available to us today is not good for the body. While vegans reject all meat categorically, paleo advocates feel that meats that are raised organically and naturally, such as free-range chicken, are very good for the body, and even essential in order to maintain health. As one prominent paleo advocate has said:

Any meat from an animal fed foods unnatural to it (i.e., grains and other substances commonly used as filler), shot full of hormones and antibiotics, and forced into crowded, cruel and stressful conditions is not healthy food. This is a point upon which most Paleo followers, vegans and vegetarians can commonly agree.

In this way, there are many similarities between the paleo diet and veganism, though the paleo diet of course includes a lot of meat and eggs.


As one might expect, not everyone is 100% on board with the paleolithic diet. Not only do they dislike the idea of going without goodies like pastries and cookies, but they feel that there are some identifiable problems associated with rigidly following it.

No True Paleo Foods

The first concern is that the paleo diet is doomed from the start because it is impossible to actually do as the diet prescribes. The whole idea of the diet is to eat as our Paleolithic ancestors ate, but the thing is that the foods they ate basically do not exist anymore.

Even if we can eat 100% organic, non-GMO foods, the reality is that pretty much everything available to us for food is something that thousands of years of husbandry produced. The beef, pork, chicken, and even fish that we eat has all passed through human modification. In some cases, these modifications made the food source more palatable and nutritious. In others, the modifications just made the food source easier to grow.

Too Much Hate for Legumes and Grains

Another concern is that the paleo diet makes some unsubstantiated assumptions about certain common food items. One assumption it makes is that our ancestors did not widely eat legumes or grains until the advent of agriculture a few thousand years ago. However, studies have shown that our ancestors did commonly eat both legumes and grains before they even evolved into modern humans. Not only that, but most dietitians agree that legumes in particular are actually very good for you.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Another problem that some experts see with the paleo diet is the fact that the human body simply cannot get everything it needs from such a diet. In particular, the paleo diet does not provide sufficient sources for Vitamin D and calcium. Such deficiencies can lead to severe long-term problems such as osteoporosis.

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