What is the Paleo Diet? Should I try it?

what is the paleo diet

Are you wondering about the “Paleo Diet,” and why people are recommending it?


Defining Paleo is a bit complicated, but why proponents are recommending it is easier to answer, so let’s start with that.

Another reason I think that’s a good place to start is because the diet itself sounds pretty extreme, so it’s helpful to know up front that it has the potential to do some pretty amazing stuff to your health.

I’ve been interested in the food/health relationship for years. Due to my own hypoglycemia, PMS, and depression, as well as my mom’s Type 2 Diabetes and Alzheimer’s, it’s a topic I’ve logged hundreds if not thousands of hours on, reading pertinent books, medical studies, and blogs. So I’ve read about a lot of different diets over the past 10+ years: low fat, low carb, South Beach, Atkins, AMA, ADA, and more. And most diets will initially cause weight loss, and people feeling better overall, and sometimes (but not always) causing some positive effects on their cholesterol and blood sugar numbers.

When I first looked into the Paleo diet, I thought, This sounds absolutely crazy! Both the assumptions on which it’s based and the restrictions it requires sounded like complete nutty-nutso-nonsense to me. However, because I was trying to avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, and I knew that anything Paleo would be completely free of those things, I often included the word “paleo” when googling for recipes.

And as I read more Paleo blogs, I started noticing something I’d never seen with any other diet before. People were greatly improving — and in some cases actually reversing the symptoms of — diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s (a thyroid disorder), irritable bowel syndrome, and the kingpin disease that drives so many other diseases: Type 2 Diabetes. Some people were reversing lesser issues, too — like adult acne, brain fog, and minor joint pain.

(Note: Everyone’s results may differ! Some people do better on other diets such as AIP, SCD, or FODMAPs.)

So I delved into the subject some more. And although I still think the Paleo premise is shaky at best, it’s undeniable that there’s something about this diet that’s making differences in people’s health like no fad diet in the last half-century.

The definition, in two parts:

1. Why is it called Paleo?

It’s called Paleo because its origins are based on the belief that the human race was far healthier when we were hunter-gatherers, and that as soon as we settled down and became farmers — incorporating grains, beans, dairy, and alcohol into our diet — our health began to decline. And furthermore, that our diet has changed more quickly than our bodies can evolve to keep up with the changes. So the Paleo Diet attempts to recreate, as much as possible in the constraints of our modern world, a diet that mimics that which our “Paleo ancestors” would have eaten.

Not all scientists agree on all those points, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

2. What does the Paleo diet restrict and what does it allow?

no sugar on the Paleo diet

It restricts:

1. All refined sugar and artificial sweeteners. Some people allow honey, some also allow maple syrup. But both only in limited quantities.

2. All legumes: all mature beans — including soybeans — and peanuts, and anything made from those plants. Immature beans like green beans, snow peas, and sugar-snap pea are allowed. So no peanut butter, no hummus, no refried beans.

3. All grains and pseudo-grains. Not only does it disallow wheat, it rules out corn, oats, rye, rice, barley; and pseudo-grains like quinoa and amaranth. And anything made with them. (Goodbye bread of all kinds, crackers, oatmeal, granola, popcorn, pita chips, cookies, pretzels, pasta, muffins, gravy, breading on fried chicken or fish…)

4. All alcohol. Yes, even wine. (Though I think a lot of adherents fudge on this one!)

5. All dairy except for ghee — which is butter that has been clarified, with the milk solids removed. There is one branch of Paleo called “Primal” which allows cheese.

6. Processed meat that’s been modified with modern chemistry such as nitrates, or had sugar added, like most bacon and deli meats.

7. Modern industrial-made vegetable oils, including soybean and canola.

To keep this explanation simple, I’m not going into the reasons behind why these are disallowed. But suffice to say there are two sets of reasons: one that has to do with why our ancestors (probably) didn’t eat these, and one that has to do with how these food substances react with the biology of the human body.

The Paleo diet allows:

Allowed and necessary:

1. Unprocessed meat. If the meat was raised without antibiotics and added hormones, then it doesn’t matter what cut of meat nor how fatty it is. If it’s standard meat (i.e, not marked “organic” or “antibiotic-free”), leaner is better, because the man-made chemicals are more concentrated in the fat. (What about vegetarians?)

2. All vegetables allowed, other than corn (which is really a grain). White potatoes are allowed, but not as fried french fries or chips, and only in reasonable quantity.

3. All unprocessed fats and oils, including olive oil, non-hydrogenated coconut oil, avocado and avocado oil, some nut oils, as well as organic (hormone- and antibiotic-free) animal fat such as lard and duck fat.

Allowed but optional:

1. Fruits in limited quantity. Fruit juices and dried fruits may also be used as sweeteners, but only in limited quantities.

2. Coffee and tea, as long as it doesn’t have sugar, sweetener, or cream added.

What this looks like on the plate:

Because the Paleo approach is sometimes called “the caveman diet,” people often get the impression that it’s a very meat-heavy diet. While there are many different proportions showing up on the plates of various Paleo adherents, it’s actually, in most cases, a very vegetable-prominent diet.

whole30 paleo dinner: pork, sweet potato + cauliflower

Each meal consists of a serving of meat or eggs; a serving size is about the size of the palm of your hand. Each meal should also contain two — or better yet, three or four — different kinds of vegetables; flavor is added with healthy fats, and any seasonings. (And the fats are necessary; not optional.) Add a bit of fruit, if you want, as a condiment or small dessert.

For more visual examples of what a Paleo plate looks like, check out my Instagram feed.

What’s wrong with the Paleo diet; what’s right.

There’s plenty of scientific criticism regarding the historical assumptions of this diet. For example, some scientific critics say,

Even though researchers know enough to make some generalizations about human diets in the Paleolithic [era] with reasonable certainty, the details remain murky. Exactly what proportions of meat and vegetables did different hominid species eat in the Paleolithic? It’s not clear. Just how far back were our ancestors eating grains and dairy? Perhaps far earlier than we initially thought. What we can say for certain is that in the Paleolithic, the human diet varied immensely by geography, season and opportunity. – Scientific American

So if it’s based on such shaky science, why pay attention to it at all?

Because of the results.

The Paleo proponents may have the reasons partially or completely wrong, but mounting evidence suggests that there is something (or some things) about our modern diet and/or lifestyle that’s making us sick in new ways, to greater extremes, and at younger ages than ever before.

I won’t go into details here, but just google “obesity trends,” “diabetes trends,” and “autoimmune disease trends.”

So why does Paleo work?

To get an appreciation for how eating Paleo changes your diet, consider the main differences in food today vs. food 60 years ago:

– We eat more carbs and sugar, and spend far fewer calories in energy burned. Carbs are your body’s fuel and they’re not evil; they’re very important to your health. But they need to match your activity level! My farmer grandparents were literally on their feet from morning to night — other than when they were eating meals, sitting in a tractor, or sitting down to milk a cow. Today, the vast majority of us spend 80% or more of our day sitting in front of a computer or a TV.

– Putting a finer point on it, we eat a lot more corn and sugar. You’d be amazed to learn how many foods have corn hidden in the form of corn syrup and corn starch. Catsup, mayonnaise, soft drinks — both pop and “healthy” fruit juice drinks. Hamburger buns, the coating on french fries, coating on pre-shredded cheese, gravies and sauces… the list is virtually endless. Also, animals raised for industrial use are often fed large amounts of grain, which affects their health in ways that are passed on to us as well. So, when you’re eating corn-fed beef, you’re eating yet more corn, in a way.

– Sixty years ago, most food was made in the home from whole food ingredients. The vast majority of what most Americans eat today is made in factories, whether from restaurant chains or grocery store convenience foods like cereal, granola bars, flavored yogurt, frozen meals, bread, etc. And factories usually strip out the fat and fiber that makes food go bad more quickly, or so they can label it “low fat,” then substitute cheaper, more shelf-stable stand-ins, many of which are themselves produced first in a lab.

– Our food has been modified by manmade chemistry. Whether that’s artificial sweeteners, genetically modified plants, plants sprayed with pesticides, or animals given antibiotics with their feed to fatten them quicker, man has been messing with our food in increasing degrees, and much of what is done to it has not been adequately tested.
I believe that much of what makes the Paleo diet produce results is the fact that it’s so strict, you’re forced to break your reliance on convenience food and return to whole, natural foods. (Although there is, of course, a whole industry springing up to offer convenience Paleo food!)

We are eating food-like products.

Are all convenience foods bad for us? I’m not saying they are: only that the rise in obesity, diabetes, and the diseases it exacerbates — heart disease and Alzheimer’s, for starters — have greatly increased in the last 50 years. Along with infertility, autoimmune diseases, and new diseases no one’s ever heard of. And these have especially ramped up since the 80’s, when the popular media began telling us that dietary fat and cholesterol are bad for us.

And we truly are what we eat. What we eat is broken down and reassembled, like so many Legos, into our body parts and body chemistry. (More about that in my Miraculous Factory post.) So it seems likely that there are one or more things we’re doing to our foods that are at least a factor in modern American health trends.

On a side note, this is personal to me. My dad suffered for decades from Lupus — an autoimmune disease that some people are now improving with the Paleo diet. And he was debilitated and eventually died from side effects of the disease and/or the medication he took for it. While following a low-fat diet, my mom developed Type 2 Diabetes and eventually Alzheimer’s — which caused the whole family great anguish over the last 12 years of her life. (If only we had known!) My husband has suffered from idiopathic angioedema, and saw an improvement in his symptoms after three months of fairly strict Paleo. And he lost several pounds, without trying. (I went Paleo in support of my hubs, and I did NOT lose weight on Paleo, but I was already at a healthy weight when I started. I did, however, lose some brain fog!)

My opinion on Paleo

Where I’ve landed is this: I’m skeptical of the whole “Paleolithic” premise, but what’s clear to me is that, while 100 years ago, people died frequently from infections that are now mostly eradicated by antibiotics and vaccines, the “diseases of civilization” were far less prevalent. Again, I think it’s the industrialization of our food and “food-like” products that are probably to blame.

So I try to eat processed foods as little as possible. I focus on whole meats, vegetables, and fruits, and for the most part, I buy them unprocessed and unflavored. (I add plenty of flavor at home!) I’ve changed my diet slowly, over the span of several years, as I learned about new things. And although it was hard at first, it’s become my new normal. And now not just normal, but preferred. We eat really delicious food! Because of the constraints, I’ve tried foods and food combinations that I never would have explored otherwise. AND I’ve developed a much easier way to cook! (For example, the hash method and the soup method. My no-mayo tuna salad template. And many uses for sweet potato.)

hash with a side of green beans

For those asking, “Should I try Paleo?”

I’m not sure everyone needs to. It depends on your health issues AND your personality type.

If you’re an all-in, love-a-challenge kinda person, or if you have an autoimmune disease, persistent allergies, asthma, or fatigue, you may want to try the Whole30 — 30 days of super-strict Paleo. To thoroughly understand it, I highly recommend the book that started it all: It Starts With Food.*

If you’d like a slower approach but you’re willing to try cutting out sugar and wheat for three weeks — but keeping your dairy, beans, etc. — this book is an excellent guide: The 21-Day Sugar Detox.*

However, if you think an even slower baby-step approach would work better for you (and it did for me), here’s the order I would recommend you attempt:

1. Cut back on and then completely cut out sugar and artificial sweeteners. This includes sugar in all its disguises.

Note: If you’re literally addicted to sugar, this may not be the best first step for you. You might want to check out this book.*

2. Cut back on caffeine. This will improve your mood and sleep, which will help everything else.

3. Add more vegetables to all your meals and snacks. They are important for healing both the physical/mechanical and the chemical parts of your body that drive your health. At the same time, add in more healthy fat. Indisputably healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, salmon and other fatty fish. Eggs and butter are okay for most people, too. Also, if you can afford hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, animal fat is a great source of nutrients, and not the evil it’s been labeled for years!

4. Cut back on grains. You can do this in three smaller baby steps if you like:

A. Cut out all white wheat products and replace with 100% whole wheat products. (Check the label. “Contains whole wheat” or “whole grain” means nothing unless it’s 100% that.) Also try to reduce the amount of grains you put on your plate at any one meal. Fill up the void with veggies and/or meat.

B. Cut out or greatly reduce your dependence on packaged foods such as chips, crackers, pretzels, pasta, or factory-made bread.

C.  Cut out all products that contain gluten: any wheat (even whole wheat), barley, rye, or anything that contains these.

Just taking these steps will get you feeling much better. Once you’ve adapted to this as a new way of life — NOT a temporary diet — and if you still have health issues you’d like to improve, then you could explore other restrictions.

Maybe, like me, you’ll discover new foods to love, lose your craving for sweets and junk food, and start to feel a whole lot healthier!


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*Note: the above post contains links to my Amazon store, but I only recommend items I’ve tried and loved. If you buy there, I get a smidgen of the price, without affecting your total at all!

what is the paleo diet - should I try it - pros + cons


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