Paleo Diet: Beginner’s Guide, Benefits, Meal Plan, and Food List

Diet Paleo

Fad diets come and go relatively quickly. However, it appears that the paleo diet, sometimes referred to as the hunter-gatherer diet or caveman diet, is here to stay. 

What exactly are the principles of the paleo diet, and how do you know if you are ready to take the paleo leap? This article will provide a primer on the paleo lifestyle and discuss the potential benefits of this diet.

What is a Paleo Diet?

Basically, the paleo diet mimics the eating patterns of our stone age ancestors. The concept of the paleo diet revolves around eating foods that were likely available during the Paleolithic era, which dates to 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. 

While it is impossible to know the specific diets of our ancestors, it is believed that ancient humans typically relied on foods that they could hunt or gather. Depending on the geographical location of these hunter-gatherers, this likely included fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. 

In other words, the diets of our ancestors consisted of whole, unprocessed foods. 

This changed during the advent of modern farming practices, which introduced dairy products, legumes, grains, and processed foods to the human diet. 

Why Might You Follow a Paleo Diet?

Some proponents of the paleo diet believe that the human body has not evolved to process “modern” foods such as dairy and grains (1-3). This hypothesis – sometimes referred to as the evolutionary discordance theory- proposes that our genes have not adapted to modern, western lifestyles, resulting in a surge of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. 

While there is limited research to back this claim (4, 5), there is evidence of a relationship between highly processed diets and increased risk of certain health conditions (6). 

Foods to Avoid

Processed foods, grains, dairy, and legumes are off-limits as part of this dietary pattern. Basically, if it wasn’t available during pre-historic times, then you shouldn’t eat it. 

Foods to avoid on the paleo diet include:

  • Grains and gluten: This includes bread, pasta, wheat, barley, rye, and more
  • Legumes: Such as peanuts, beans, lentils, and soy
  • Dairy products: Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Some vegetable oils: Certain vegetable oils are considered more processed and include soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, and safflower oil.
  • Artificial sweeteners and food additives
  • Added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and sweets: This includes sodas, candy, ice cream, and cookies
  • Hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and margarine 

Foods to Include

While this diet has some rules and restrictions, it does incorporate plenty of food options that are rich in vitamins, nutrients, minerals, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids while being lower in calories and carbs. 

The basic building blocks of the Paleo diet include whole, unprocessed foods consisting of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean red meat, poultry, and fish. 

Followers of the paleo way recommend choosing grass-fed, antibiotic-free meats and free-range or cage-free eggs and poultry whenever possible. They also advocate for wild-caught seafood and organic fruits and vegetables because these foods tend to be less processed. 

However, the additional cost of organic foods may make this dietary pattern less affordable for some individuals. If that is the case, experts recommend choosing the least processed option within your budget.

Be sure to stock your fridge and pantry with the following paleo-friendly foods like:

  • Meat: Lean beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, pork, and others
  • Eggs: From free-range chickens, when possible
  • Fish and seafood: Salmon, trout, shellfish, tuna, mackerel, and others
  • Vegetables: Especially leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, and spinach
  • Root vegetables and tubers: Potatoes, turnips, and yams
  • Fruits and dried fruits: Apples, bananas, cantaloupe, raisins, and others
  • Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and others
  • Healthy fats and oils: Including olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, and coconut oil
  • Animal fats: Such as lard and duck fat
  • Non-dairy milk: Including coconut milk and almond milk
  • Herbs and spices: Pepper, turmeric, ginger, rosemary, garlic, sea salt (in small amounts), and others

Beverages and a Paleo Diet

When it comes to drinks and beverages, water is the preferred source of hydration. You should aim for at least 2 liters of water per day. 

The paleo diet recommends eliminating fruit juices because they are frequent sources of added sugars. Instead, opt to consume whole, fresh fruits. You can also try adding a few pieces of fruit to your water to make a refreshing, fruit infusion. 

Beverages such as tea and coffee are not technically paleo, although many people choose to incorporate these drinks into their diet. Both tea and coffee are good sources of antioxidants, which may reduce inflammation and protect against the formation of certain diseases (7). 

The Modified Paleo Diet

In recent decades, the paleo diet has evolved and transformed, resulting in several different versions of this diet. Many of the modified paleo diets have embraced certain modern foods. Some of these recent versions include food items such as grass-fed butter, bacon, red wine, dark chocolate, and gluten-free rice and oats in moderation. 

Many people may find that the modified paleo diet allows for greater flexibility and is a good template for building healthy eating habits. You can always start the paleo diet and add healthy foods, such as gluten-free grains, to your meals to help make this diet fit with your lifestyle. 

1-Day Sample Meal Plan 

Below is a 1-day sample menu to help you get started:

Breakfast

  • Free-range egg omelet with veggies cooked using coconut oil. Black coffee and a side of berries. 

Lunch 

  • Grilled steak and shrimp salad with olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing. Green tea with a lemon wedge

Dinner

  • Baked chicken topped with tomatoes and avocado slices. Side of steamed broccoli, onions, and asparagus. Glass of water with a squeeze of lime. 

Dessert 

  • Fresh strawberries and a handful of raw almonds topped with coconut cream. Herbal mint tea. 

Paleo Diet Snacks

Adding paleo-friendly snacks to your meal plan doesn’t have to be hard. Here is a list of some sensible and straightforward snack ideas:

  • Mixed nuts with raisins and dark chocolate chunks 
  • A piece of fresh fruit
  • Baby carrots and sliced bell peppers with cashew hummus
  • Hard-boiled eggs with sea salt and black pepper 
  • Apple slices with almond butter
  • A green spinach smoothie with avocado

Health Benefits of a Paleo Diet 

Research has shown that the stone age diet may offer health effects, including weight loss and a reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Benefits of the paleo diet may include:

1. Decreased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Preliminary research suggests that the paleo diet may improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.

Type 2 diabetes develops, in part, when the body becomes resistant to the hormone known as insulin. Therefore, improving insulin sensitivity may reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes later in life. Increased insulin sensitivity can also help individuals with diabetes maintain better control over their blood sugar. 

Several small studies have shown that the paleo diet may increase insulin sensitivity and provide better blood sugar control when compared to other, healthy eating patterns (8-11). 

2. Weight Loss

Proponents of the stone age diet claim that the paleo method can help you lose weight and reduce calorie intake without calorie counting. 

One small study consisting of 14 volunteers found that participants experienced an average weight loss of 5 lbs. after following the paleo diet for three weeks (12). Similarly, a 2009 study found that consuming a paleo diet resulted in lower body weight and waist circumference, which is an indicator of body fat, among participants in comparison to the diabetes diet (10). 

A more recent systematic review and meta-analysis looking at the results from 1,088 articles concluded that the paleo diet is associated with reduced weight, BMI, and waist circumference (13). 

It is important to note that in many of these studies, the effects of the paleo diet on weight loss were examined over a short period. One study of 70 postmenopausal women found that following the paleo diet helped participants lose weight after six months (14). However, after two years, there was no longer any difference in weight loss between the participants on the paleo diet compared to those following the reference diet (14). This led the researchers to hypothesize that healthy diets may be equally successful at helping you lose weight in the long term. 

3. Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a risk factor for the development of heart disease. It is sometimes referred to as a “silent killer,” as many people with high blood pressure do not have symptoms. 

Some research indicates that the paleo diet may result in moderate decreases in blood pressure. 

A 2014 study found that participants who followed the paleo diet had decreased blood pressure after two weeks when compared to those who consumed the healthy reference diet. Additionally, participants on the paleo diet also had significant reductions in total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are additional indicators of heart health. (15)

4. Lower Cholesterol

High cholesterol and triglycerides are risk factors for heart disease. There is evidence that the paleo diet may help improve cholesterol levels. 

Several studies have reported that the paleo diet may result in a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and blood triglycerides (9, 10). Additionally, one study also found that this diet may help improve HDL (good) cholesterol levels (10). 

The Last Word

The paleo diet mimics the eating patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It emphasizes whole foods, animal proteins, and plants and vegetables while eliminating grains, legumes, dairy, and processed foods. 

There is some evidence that this eating pattern may offer health improvements, including weight loss, changes in waist circumference, lower blood pressure, and greater insulin sensitivity. However, the studies investigating the paleo diet tend to be small, making it difficult to provide a conclusive recommendation or advice concerning this diet. Further research is needed to better understand the extent of the health benefits offered by the paleo diet. 

It is important to note that any diet or fad diet that advocates for the elimination of entire food groups, such as dairy and grains, can pose a risk of nutritional deficiencies. You may consider speaking with a registered dietitian or doctor before going paleo to help ensure your nutrition needs are being met. 

However, in general, the paleo diet appears to be an effective approach to building a healthy eating plan or weight loss program. Furthermore, the modified paleo diet, which can include items such as gluten-free grains, red wine, and dark chocolate, may provide people with greater flexibility in reaching their dietary goals. 

If you are interested in trying a paleo diet, the 1-day meal plan and food guidelines outlined above may be a good place to begin. 

References

  1. Konner, Melvin, and S Boyd Eaton. “Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later.” Nutrition in clinical practice : official publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition vol. 25,6 (2010): 594-602. doi:10.1177/0884533610385702
  2. Eaton, S B, and M Konner. “Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications.” The New England journal of medicine vol. 312,5 (1985): 283-9. doi:10.1056/NEJM198501313120505
  3. O’Keefe, James H Jr, and Loren Cordain. “Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome: how to become a 21st-century hunter-gatherer.” Mayo Clinic proceedings vol. 79,1 (2004): 101-8. doi:10.4065/79.1.101
  4. Turner, Bethany L, and Amanda L Thompson. “Beyond the Paleolithic prescription: incorporating diversity and flexibility in the study of human diet evolution.” Nutrition reviews vol. 71,8 (2013): 501-10. doi:10.1111/nure.12039
  5. Knight, Christine. “”Most people are simply not designed to eat pasta”: evolutionary explanations for obesity in the low-carbohydrate diet movement.” Public understanding of science (Bristol, England) vol. 20,5 (2011): 706-19. doi:10.1177/0963662510391733
  6. Marti, Amelia. “Ultra-Processed Foods Are Not “Real Food” but Really Affect Your Health.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1902. 15 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081902
  7. Carlsen, Monica H et al. “The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide.” Nutrition journal vol. 9 3. 22 Jan. 2010, doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-3
  8. Masharani, U et al. “Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 69,8 (2015): 944-8. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2015.39
  9. Frassetto, L A et al. “Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 63,8 (2009): 947-55. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2009.4
  10. Jönsson, Tommy et al. “Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study.” Cardiovascular diabetology vol. 8 35. 16 Jul. 2009, doi:10.1186/1475-2840-8-35
  11. Lindeberg, S et al. “A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.” Diabetologia vol. 50,9 (2007): 1795-1807. doi:10.1007/s00125-007-0716-y
  12. Osterdahl, M et al. “Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 62,5 (2008): 682-5. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602790
  13. de Menezes, Ehrika Vanessa Almeida et al. “Influence of Paleolithic diet on anthropometric markers in chronic diseases: systematic review and meta-analysis.” Nutrition journal vol. 18,1 41. 23 Jul. 2019, doi:10.1186/s12937-019-0457-z
  14. Mellberg, C et al. “Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 68,3 (2014): 350-7. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.290
  15. Ryberg, M et al. “A Palaeolithic-type diet causes strong tissue-specific effects on ectopic fat deposition in obese postmenopausal women.” Journal of internal medicine vol. 274,1 (2013): 67-76. doi:10.1111/joim.12048
Allison Herries

Allison Herries, MS, RDN, CDN - Contributor

Allison Herries, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian and freelance nutrition writer with more than five years of experience in the nutrition and dietetics field. Her specialties include diet and aging, nutrition for older adults, intuitive eating, nondiet approaches to health, and nutrition research. Allison loves food and nutrition and she loves sharing her nutrition knowledge with the world.

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