There’s a good chance you’ve heard about the Paleo diet by this point in time.

Millions of people across the world thrive on this “primal” lifestyle. You can find an innumerable amount of blog posts and even online communities dedicated to everything Paleo.

But what exactly is the Paleo diet?

Where did it come from?

What are the actual benefits according to science?

Is it the same thing as the keto diet?

These are all questions you will get answers to in this comprehensive guide to the Paleo diet. Embrace your primal roots and read on!

What Is the Paleo Diet?

In short,

the Paleo diet is simply eating the same types of foods that our early ancestors of the Paleolithic era ate.

It is suggested that humans during the Paleolithic era (which is estimated to have ended around 12,000 years ago) got all of their foods from hunting, foraging, and fishing.

Humans of the Paleo age had yet to dabble in the domestication of animals or even growing their own plants.

As such…

it is said that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t experience the same diseases and health afflictions that we suffer today.

The angle that many Paleo diet advocates take is that that modern-day food processing and manufacturing changes foods in a manner that is not ideal for our bodies. These processing techniques may include things like:

  • genetic modification
  • fortification
  • use of hormones and antibiotics
  • and more

Moreover,

it is blatant that, as a whole, humanity (especially those in the United States) consume much more sugar, dairy, and grains now than at any other period of history.

While it remains to be elucidated whether or not there is an intrinsic harm in consuming GMOs or foods that are “processed” in general, there are indubitable health consequences from consuming excessive amounts of added sugars and refined carbohydrates.

Therefore,

the Paleo diet places a strong emphasis on consuming foods that are “raw” and “organic”. The idea is that these foods contain the nutrients that our bodies know how to process (with none of the artificial additives found in many modern foods).

Paleo Diet Foods to Eat

Here are some examples of the foods most people consume on the Paleo diet:

  • Veggies, specifically root vegetables and leafy greens
  • Fruits, with an emphasis on berries
  • Meats and Poultry (especially free-range options)
  • Fish and Shellfish (ideally fresh varieties)
  • Nuts/Seeds (except peanuts)
  • Eggs (some people don’t consider eggs to be a Paleo food so this varies)
  • Certain Plant Oils (olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, macadamia nut oil)
  • Fresh-Brewed Tea (herbal, green, red, rooibos, etc.)
  • Plain Black Coffee
  • Salts and Spices (Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, oregano, garlic, etc.)

There are some grey areas with regards to the acceptable foods for the Paleo diet.

For instance,

tubular vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams may or may not be part of some people’s Paleo diet. Technically, root and tubular vegetables are Paleo-friendly in the sense that they are whole and unprocessed (despite being higher in starchy carbs).

In addition, some Paleo dieters use natural sweeteners as part of their diet, like raw sugar. Naturally, artificial sweeteners are a no-go on the Paleo diet.

Foods to Avoid on the Paleo Diet

A simple way to determine if a food is appropriate for the Paleo diet is to consider if it was made in a factory. If that’s the case, avoid it. The point of the Paleo diet is more or less to consume only whole, unprocessed foods.

Here’s a list of ingredients and foods to avoid on the Paleo diet:

  • Foods/Beverages Containing Added Sugars: Soft drinks, fruit juices, energy drinks, candy, dried fruit, fruit snacks, etc.
  • Grains: Oats, bread, pasta, rice, rye, barley, etc.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, etc.
  • Highly Processed Foods: Just about anything that comes in a box or bag, even “diet” and “low cal” packaged foods.
  • Dairy: Most dairy products are not Paleo-friendly, but some Paleo advocates eat butter and aged cheese.
  • Trans Fat: Found in margarine and various processed foods. We’ve written about the health dangers of trans fat here.
  • Some Vegetable Oils: Soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, and others.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), saccharin, acesulfame potassium, etc. Stevia may be considered Paleo-friendly because it is natural and plant-based.
  • Alcohol: There really is no physiological benefit from consuming alcohol, let alone mixed drinks that are loaded with sugar. Steer clear of alcohol if you’re following the Paleo lifestyle.

Sample Paleo Diet Meal Plan

If you’re curious as to what a typical Paleo diet might look like in terms of meal plans, here are a few examples to get you up to speed:

  • BreakfastEgg omelet with steak, side of spinach, bowl of blueberries, herbal tea
  • Lunch—Ground turkey served over a salad made with romaine lettuce, almonds, apple slices and olive oil
  • Dinner—Fresh tuna steak (grilled) with a side of steamed cauliflower and roasted turnips
  • Late-Night Snack—Lean steak with a side of steamed broccoli and fresh blackberries

Of course, if you follow the Paleo diet it doesn’t mean you can neglect portion control. You should still be aware of your total calorie and nutrient intake, and adjust your serving sizes accordingly.

History of the Paleo Diet – Where Does it Come From?

Recall from earlier that the term “Paleo” is shorthand for “Paleolithic,” which was an era of human prehistory (between roughly 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago). The Paleolithic era is also referred to as the “Old Stone Age”.

We call the Paleo era prehistoric because there are no written records remaining from people that lived during that time.

As humans of the Paleo era evolved, their lifestyles and methods for survival changed significantly.

Humans during the Paleo era were said to be hunter-gatherers, and upwards of 70% of their total energy intake is postulated to have come from animals, with the rest coming from plants.[1]

Moreover, without the agricultural developments of modern civilizations, it is likely they ate no grains and very few carbohydrate-rich foods, as well as no dairy.

Did the Paleo Diet Stem from the Keto Diet?

Many people attribute the growing movement of the Paleo diet to author and self-proclaimed primal health-enthusiast Robb Wolf (who wrote the best-seller Paleo Solution book).

While Robb did indeed garner a massive following and draw much attention to the Paleo diet, doctors have been researching Paleo-like eating habits for centuries.

In fact…

The keto diet, which is a very-low-carb diet, may well be what the Paleo diet stemmed from.

A doctor in the mid-1800s named William Harvey put a patient of his on a carb-restricted diet (no sugar, no grains, no refined carbs); he noticed that many of the patient’s health complications began to subside, which ultimately pioneered the way for more research into this type of low-carb dieting.

Then, in 1975 a gastroenterologist – Dr. Walter Voegtlin – published a book known as The Stone Age Diet that claimed modern diseases could be cured by dieting habits of the Paleolithic era.

In the decades following Dr. Voegtlin’s work, the Paleo diet saw a steady increase in advocates, with a massive surge coming in the early 2000s (right around the time the Internet became a household utility).

It’s impertinent to try and pinpoint one individual as the pioneer of the Paleo lifestyle, but it is safe to say that Dr. Voegtlin and Dr. Harvey deserve a good amount of the credit for their early works and contributions to the medical community.

Related: Keto vs. Paleo vs. Whole30: Which Diet Is Best?

Benefits of the Paleo Diet: What Research Has to Say

Surprisingly, scientific literature demonstrating that the Paleo diet is more healthy than a traditional modern diet remains rather scarce. The studies that show promising results with regard to the Paleo diet are largely flawed.

The main conundrum is that these studies were simply not designed well; the study subjects often had no guidelines as to the proportions of macronutrients to consume, nor were they limited to a certain calorie intake.

Therefore, we can’t assume the health benefits were derived strictly from Paleo foods.[2,3,4,5]

This is not to say that eating a Paleo diet has no beneficial effects on health. Rather, that the benefits people notice when switching from a traditional Western diet are not necessarily (or inherently) due to the reduced intake of grains, dairy, alcohol, and other non-Paleo foods.

It may quite simply be that the Paleo diet encourages healthier appetite control and less calorie intake.

Indirect Evidence-Based Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet 

While the data directly examining the health benefits of the Paleo diet remains limited (and lacking control), there are studies we can extrapolate from.

Even though the current research is a little suspect, there are certainly some correlations between the Paleo diet and improvements in many aspects of health and longevity.

Moreover, there are undoubted health benefits of cutting out refined carbohydrate intake and added sugars, which is more or less why the keto diet can be so great for weight loss.

As such, the health benefits of the Paleo diet likely come from the decrease in calorie/carb intake when switching from a traditional high-carb diet, not necessarily the fact that the foods are raw and unprocessed.

The Paleo Diet May Improve Insulin Sensitivity 

Comparative research has shown improvements in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity when subjects switched to the Paleo diet vs. a higher-carb diet  [4,5].

However, the main flaw of these studies is that the diets being compared were not isocaloric (nor were they equal in macronutrient composition). As such, we can possibly draw some correlations here, but nothing causative.

The Paleo Diet May Promote Healthy Essential Fatty Acid and Blood Lipid Balance

It is postulated that the Paleo diet provides a healthier balance of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids than the typical Western diet.

In turn, this has been shown to reduce systemic inflammation and encourage healthy blood lipid profiles (i.e. increase HDL cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol) in test subjects [3,7].

Since the Paleo diet cuts out refined vegetable oil intake and advocates for nut and fish consumption, there is a much lower intake of omega-6 EFAs and greater intake of omega-3 EFAs.

The Paleo Diet May Encourage Lower Energy (Calorie) Intake 

Some studies contend that the Paleo diet decreases total calorie intake (and thus body mass) of overweight subjects who switch from a conventional Western diet [2,6].

The lower energy intake could be due to several factors, but it is likely that the increase in healthy fats and vegetables on the Paleo diet promotes satiety and blunts cravings for sugar.

The Paleo Diet May Improve Mineral Bioavailability

Since the Paleo diet doesn’t include legumes or grains (wheat especially), intake of gluten and phytates tends to decrease.

This is particularly beneficial for enhancing mineral bioavailability, especially calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, thereby bolstering bone, nervous system, and cardiovascular health.

Related:

Keto vs. Paleo vs. Whole30: Which Diet Is Best?

10 Calcium-Rich Foods to Eat on Keto

10 Magnesium-Rich Foods to Eat on Keto

 

Also, fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin D3, Vitamin K2, and Vitamin A are typically abundant in Paleo-friendly foods, especially nuts and meat.

Is the Paleo Diet Keto-Friendly?

It’s important to note that the keto diet is not necessarily synonymous with the Paleo diet, but they have similar premises and emphasis on whole, low-carb foods.

You could very much follow a Paleo keto diet by simply watching your carb intake (remember, keep it to about 30 grams per day or less for optimal ketosis) and eating Paleo-friendly foods.

The main difference between the keto diet and the Paleo diet is that the latter allows for higher carbohydrate intake so long as they are from things like potatoes, fruits, and other veggies.

Whether you will experience more benefit by following a Paleo keto diet than simply the keto diet is anyone’s guess. There isn’t really any way to extrapolate from the current evidence given the majority of Paleo diet studies had no control groups and were not under isocaloric conditions.

As noted earlier, the studies on the Paleo diet may have found such beneficial health results due to the subjects’ lowering their calorie (and carb) intake.

Nutritional Supplements for the Paleo Diet

Given that the nature of the Paleo diet is that you are to abstain from processed and “man-made” foods, it is a bit contradictory to use nutritional supplements given they often contain artificial ingredients (and are undoubtedly processed to a certain degree).

Surely, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not drinking pre-workout powders before they hit the trails.

One example is that using a whey protein supplement on the Paleo diet would be antithetical to the “no-dairy” rule.

Nevertheless,

you can find an abundance of supplement companies these days that offer “Paleo protein,” which is generally a beef protein isolate powder. (Whether or not this is truly Paleo is your call.)

It just seems a bit counterintuitive to use dietary supplements on the Paleo diet given the whole premise is that you only consume foods that our long-lost ancestors ate. It seems more so that people want to have their cake and eat it too.

Nevertheless, if you choose to use supplements on the Paleo diet, try and find products that contain only natural ingredients. If you see things like ace-K, aspartame, artificial food coloring, and potassium sorbate on the label, don’t use it.

Is the Paleo Diet Better than the Keto Diet?

This question has no straightforward answer as nutrition is a topic with many shades of grey. Ultimately, the Paleo diet can be beneficial for health and longevity in a variety of ways, just like the keto diet can be.

From a scientific standpoint, it’s hard to argue that the Paleo diet is superior to the keto diet as the latter is more or less what gave rise to the former.

The Paleo diet has some decent principles, but remember that it includes starchy carbs from potatoes and other foods, meaning you won’t get the benefits of ketosis like you will on the keto diet.

You could very well follow a Paleo keto diet as touched on earlier, which is sure to be a healthy nutritional regimen assuming you’re monitoring your energy intake.

No matter if you choose the keto diet, the Paleo diet, the Paleo keto diet, or any other diet, energy balance is the primary factor in determining whether it’s healthy or not. Everything after that is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and so on.

References:

  1. Diet and Eating Habits in the Stone-Age. Retrieved Aug 22, 2018.
  2. Aragon, A. The Paleo Diet: Claims Versus Evidence.
  3. Frassetto, L. A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R. C., & Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition,63(8), 947-955.
  4. Lindeberg, S., Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Borgstrand, E., Soffman, J., Sjöström, K., & Ahren, B. (2007). A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.Diabetologia50(9), 1795-1807.
  5. Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B., Branell, U. C., Pålsson, G., Hansson, A., … & Lindeberg, S. (2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol8(35), 1-14.
  6. Österdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A., & Wändell, P. E. (2007). Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European journal of clinical nutrition62(5), 682-685.
  7. Kuipers, R. S., Luxwolda, M. F., Janneke Dijck-Brouwer, D. A., Eaton, S. B., Crawford, M. A., Cordain, L., & Muskiet, F. A. (2010). Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet.British Journal of Nutrition104(11), 1666-1687.
  8. Price, W. A., & Price. (2003). Nutrition and physical degeneration. Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation.
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Elliot received his BS in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and has been a freelance writer specializing in nutritional and health sciences for the past 5 years. He is thoroughly passionate about exercise, nutrition, and dietary supplementation, especially how they play a role in human health, longevity, and performance. In his free time you can most likely find him lifting weights at the gym or out hiking through the mountains of Colorado. He will also host the upcoming BioKeto podcast. You can connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/elliot.reimers) and Instagram (@eazy_ell)

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