The Paleo Diet: Ancient Wisdom or Stone Age Logic?

If you can't hunt it or gather it, it's not paleoThe Paleo diet (sometimes called the “Caveman Plan” or “Stone Age Diet”) is a hot topic of conversation among those looking to improve their diet and shed pounds.

Paleo refers to the Paleolithic era that occurred roughly 10,000 to two million years ago, prior to farming and agricultural practices. The diet emphasizes eating natural, whole foods that were available during this time.

Those following a Paleo diet eat according to a relatively simple rule: If you can’t hunt it or gather it, you shouldn’t eat it. Doing so is said to help conquer cravings; lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer; accelerate weight loss; boost immune function; and even give you glowing skin. But is a prehistoric diet really the prescription for better health?

“The Paleo diet can be very healthy if you’re meeting all your nutritional needs,” said Leigh Wagner, registered dietitian with The University of Kansas Health System’s integrative medicine program. “I wouldn’t necessarily tell a patient, ‘You need to follow a Paleo diet.’ But a diet like this that includes plenty of whole foods is great.”

At the core of the Paleo diet is a belief that our DNA has changed very little since the Paleolithic era. So our bodies aren’t meant to digest processed foods, refined sugars and dairy products. Consuming these foods, Paleolites argue, invites disease and weight gain.

A normal day on the Paleo diet may look something like this:

Breakfast: Egg scramble with mushrooms, spinach and avocado

Snack: 1 ounce unsalted almonds and an apple

Lunch: Mixed green salad with chicken and olive oil-lemon vinaigrette

Snack: Hardboiled egg and ½ cup blueberries

Dinner: Salmon fillet with steamed broccoli

At first glance, the menu seems sensible: lots of veggies, protein and heart-healthy fats. But the major drawback isn’t necessarily what’s on the menu, it’s what’s not.

“The idea of the Paleo diet is to eat like our ancestors, whatever you can hunt or forage,” Wagner said. “That means you could eat a slab of steak every day and call yourself Paleo.”

A point of contention between Paleo-proponents and some health authorities is the elimination of dairy, grains and legumes. Paleo supporters argue that these foods are nutritional “lightweights” compared to fruits and vegetables and that they lead to gastrointestinal problems. Dietary guidelines established by the U.S. government, on the other hand, recommend that 45–65% of a person’s total caloric intake come from healthy carbohydrates such as whole grains. The Paleo diet’s restriction of grains and legumes makes reaching this goal difficult. And without dairy and fortified cereals, it’s hard to meet the recommended 1,000–1,300 mg of calcium.

“There is some calcium in nuts and seeds, as well as hardy greens,” Wagner says. “Sardines and canned salmon [with bones] provide more calcium than dairy. But if those don’t appeal to you, you could also take a supplement.”

Personal variations to the Paleo plan can also be problematic. With little emphasis on counting calories, some may be very liberal with the amount of fat they consume. Of course, eating too much fat can lead to high cholesterol and heart problems, which would negate any health benefits offered by eating Paleo. And vegetarians would find it impossible to get adequate nutrition from vegetables, nuts and fruit alone.

So who can benefit from the Paleo diet?

“The Paleo diet would be good for someone who wants to incorporate more whole foods and vegetables into their diet,” Wagner states. “We’ve seen patients’ cholesterol levels plummet on diets like this. But if you seriously want to address a chronic disease issue or become healthier, then find someone who can conduct a professional nutritional evaluation to determine what’s most appropriate for your body.”

Is the Paleo diet a fad? “Time will tell,” said Wagner. “If you approach the Paleo diet as a way to eat more whole foods, that’s not a trend that will go away. Whole foods will always be better for you than packaged foods.”

Paleo pros and cons 

 Pros  Cons 
 Satiating  Restricts certain food groups
 No calorie counting  Difficult to maintain
 Clean eating  Can be expensive
 Very low in sodium  Low in calcium
 Probable weight loss  Potential for nutritional imbalance