What is the Paleo Diet?

Sweet potato mash with raisins in a bowl

Also referred to as the caveman diet, the hunter-gatherer diet and the Stone Age diet, the paleo (short for Paleolithic) diet is an approach to eating modeled after the diets of our ancient ancestors. Simply put – it involves eating like a caveman!  

The paleo diet attracted medical interest as early as the 1890s, but it didn’t become well known until 2002 when Dr. Loren Cordain published his book “The Paleo Diet.” 

Cordain's philosophy outlined a primitive diet that was comprised mainly of meats, fish and seafood, fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetables. Primitive man did not have organized farming, so their diets excluded cereal grains, legumes and dairy. 

What Are the Benefits of the Paleo Diet?

So, why eat like a caveman now? Paleo proponents believe that the modern Western diet largely is to blame for the most common modern Western diseases including heart disease, cancer and obesity. They contend that a return to Paleolithic eating promotes reduced risk of disease, stabilizes blood sugar, supports healthy weight and reduces inflammation in the body. Paleo followers also cite increased energy, clarity and endurance.

Getting Started

A paleo approach to eating includes high-quality, lean animal proteins such as grass-fed meats, organic poultry, wild-caught seafood, fish and organic eggs. Rounding out the diet are fresh or dried, whole, non-processed fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts and seeds. (Note: Strict paleo followers avoid starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn.) 

The paleo diet does allow for one modern-day addition: healthy oils. The theory is that while Paleolithic man consumed optimal levels of fat through organ meats and wild game, modern man doesn't have the appetite for or access to these sources. To fill in gaps, minimally processed olive, flaxseed, walnut, macadamia, coconut and avocado oils are all allowed.

What’s Off Limits on the Paleo Diet?

Foods produced by farming are not permitted. This means no grains, dairy or legumes, including peanuts, beans, peas and lentils. Processed foods such as breakfast cereals, breads, pasta, beer, peanut butter and tofu, also are off limits. Refined sugars, added salt, refined oils (such as vegetable oil) and artificial sweeteners are also not allowed. Some paleo fans make exceptions for very minimally processed foods with paleo-approved ingredients such as canned coconut milk (containing coconut and water only).

Paleo Meal Planning Tips:

Is it hard to cook for a paleo diet? Not at all. Check your local library or online for detailed grocery lists, meal plans and recipe ideas. Paleo pro tip: Grilling is one of the top ways to add flavor to paleo dishes without loading up on salt. In addition, slow cookers or Instant Pot®-style multi-cookers make batch-cooking meats a breeze!

Paleo-friendly snacks: Cut-up fruits and veggies, as well as hard-boiled eggs, nuts and seeds, are easy go-to snacks. You’ll also find a number of prepared paleo-friendly snacks, including grain-free granolas (such as Simple Truth™ Grain Free Original Granola Paleo Friendly), 100% fruit snacks and paleo-approved jerky. Becoming an avid label reader is your best tool in staying paleo strong. Look for foods with short ingredient lists and no added salt, sugar or chemicals. 

Paleo-friendly meals: Try topping cooked, mashed cauliflower or lightly steamed, spiralized zucchini noodles with sliced grilled steak and a hearty portion of grilled onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Add some chopped, fresh herbs or a squeeze of lemon to curb salt cravings. For a light but satisfying meal, toss fresh greens with raw or cooked chopped vegetables and cooked, shredded chicken. Top with a dressing of mashed avocado mixed with olive oil and lime juice to taste plus a hearty sprinkle of chopped, toasted almonds.

Safety Considerations

Is the Paleo diet safe? Some followers view it as an effective short-term weight-loss strategy while others consider it a healthy long-term lifestyle. 

Thoughtful meal planning can provide adequate fiber, B vitamins and iron, which can be easy to miss while excluding whole grains. Followers also should be mindful of meeting calcium requirements since the paleo diet excludes dairy, beans and tofu. 

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to be sure the paleo diet is appropriate for you and that you are getting the nutrients you need.

A Note on Macros 

Unlike some other popular diets, the paleo diet doesn’t dictate strict macro ratios (recommendations for how many grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat a person should eat every day). In general, paleo dieters will consume similar ratios of fat and protein with a lower percentage of carbs. In his book, Cordain recommends a daily intake of 38 percent protein, 39 percent fat and 23 percent carbohydrates. 

Eating a variety of approved foods until full is recommended over calorie counting.