Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Paleo Diet

From fueling with fats to avoiding whole grains, here's the scoop on this lifestyle.

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New diet trends surface daily, but the Paleo Diet has had incredible staying power. The Paleo Diet (aka the Caveman diet) book first hit the shelves in the early 2000s. Loren Cordain, PhD wrote the book after being introduced to the concept of Paleolithic diets in the 1980s. The diet advocates for high-fat, protein-rich and veggie-heavy meals because those were the types of foods you would have hunted, scavenged and eaten in the Paleolithic era, hence its name.

On the diet, you can eat lean meats, healthy fats and most fruits and vegetables; no grains, dairy, beans or processed foods, explains Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian with Rose Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

Proponents of this diet claim research suggests that Paleo is gentle on your digestion, helps control glucose and blood pressure levels, decreases inflammation and may even help with weight loss. We’re dissecting the most essential Paleo facts, including whether or not it lives up to the hype, plus what to eat and avoid.

Medically reviewed in September 2019.

Fill up on meats; the leaner the better

2 / 12 Fill up on meats; the leaner the better

The diet of Paleolithic era hunter-gatherers was carnivorous. The official Paleo Diet website says that between 19 and 35 percent of the caveman diet was protein, compared to today where 15 percent of people’s calories come from protein sources. The Paleo Diet claims that increased protein in your diet helps lower blood pressure, improves arterial stiffness and may even boost weight loss.  

This diet endorses eating plenty of lean protein from sources like grass-fed chicken, turkey, beef, eggs and fish. While specific protein needs vary based on age, gender and activity level, as a general rule, the Institute of Medicine recommends adults eat about eight grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. The Paleo Diet encourages followers to eat protein in every meal, but doesn’t specify how much.

Although protein is an excellent energy source, animal proteins like beef, pork and lamb contain saturated fats and cholesterol. Research suggests eating too much animal protein can raise the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood and up your heart disease risk. Believers of the Paleo Diet dispute claims—even those backed in science—that saturated fats can contribute to an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. 

So, how much animal protein is too much? It depends on the amount of saturated fat in the food source—the American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily intake of saturated fats to just about 13 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. On the Paleo Diet, there’s no limit.

Proponents of the diet claim animals in the Paleolithic era had a different, and maybe healthier, body composition. It’s likely this is true, but we can hardly apply ancient principles to a modern diet.    

Another issue with this aspect of the diet: animal protein can be expensive. Cut your grocery costs by buying in bulk and freezing, and opting for cheaper beef cuts like chuck eye or flatiron steaks.

Skip the dairy, but beware deficiencies

3 / 12 Skip the dairy, but beware deficiencies

If you’re looking to make the switch to Paleo-based eating, kiss dairy-rich cheese, yogurt and milk goodbye. Dairy products became popular after farming emerged, and thus, wasn’t a staple in the caveman days. The Paleo Diet also claims that dairy products promote inflammation, triggering conditions like autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. The Paleo Diet also suggests that consumption of dairy triggers inflammation that increases the risk of heart disease. Another con according to the diet: dairy is generally difficult for most people to digest.

In reality, however, dairy products are rich sources of calcium, and fortified products are also rich in vitamin D, a nutrient that’s hard to get from foods. Both nutrients are essential for building and maintaining strong bones, as well as a healthy immune and nervous system. Paleo dieters who skip dairy might be at risk for nutrient deficiencies, especially calcium and vitamin D, Crandall says.

If you do choose to skip dairy, then eat dairy-free sources of calcium and vitamin D like sardines, salmon, eggs and foods fortified with vitamin D, like orange juice and breakfast cereals. Adults should aim to consume about 600 International Units of vitamin D each day, and between 1,000 and 1,200 daily milligrams of calcium. 

Pile veggies high, but avoid corn and potatoes

4 / 12 Pile veggies high, but avoid corn and potatoes

The mandate to eat lots of veggies is one of the healthiest components of this diet. Veggies are low in calories, loaded with nutrients like fiber, folic acid and vitamins A and C, and help fill you up.

The caveat: They have to be Paleo-approved veggies. Luckily, most veggies are OK by Paleo standards, especially non-starchy veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, peppers and mushrooms. Avoid starchy veggies like potatoes, legumes and corn, which is actually a grain.

Despite the Paleo stamp of approval, not all of these veggies existed in the caveman days. Which veggies did? Leafy plants, mushrooms and purple carrots, among others.

Skip carb-packed legumes

5 / 12 Skip carb-packed legumes

One group of vegetables that’s off limits? Legumes. That means no beans, peas, lentils or even peanuts. Legumes weren’t a staple for the cavemen and, according to the Paleo Diet, should be avoided today, too.

Despite being low in fat and cholesterol and high in nutrients, legumes are considered too carb-heavy to be eaten on the Paleo Diet, which is basically a low-carb eating plan. Another reason Paleo followers skip legumes: they claim they’re tough on digestion, and some types in their raw form can be toxic. However, legumes are filled with fiber, protein and potassium; they also promote heart and bone health.

Bottom line: These nutrient-dense veggies aren’t Paleo-friendly, but they are part of a healthy diet. 

Your fruit intake depends on your goal

6 / 12 Your fruit intake depends on your goal

Whether or not you can eat certain fruits on Paleo depends on your diet goal.

If you’re doing Paleo to lose weight, eat low-sugar fruits like berries, grapefruit, honeydew melon and oranges one to three times a day. High-sugar fruits like bananas, cherries and grapes are Paleo-friendly, but aren’t the best options for weight loss. If you want to shed pounds, eat high-sugar fruits sparingly.

Other low-carb diets, like Atkins and South Beach, also restrict certain fruits for a period of time, because they’re usually high in carbohydrates. While fruits are typically part of a well-balanced diet, they may not be right for weight loss on a low-carb plan.

Avoid grains, but get enough fiber

7 / 12 Avoid grains, but get enough fiber

The Paleo premise sits firmly upon the idea that fruits and vegetables are healthier sources of fiber than grains like rice, quinoa and barley. However, you don’t need a lot of whole grains to get a good amount of fiber. A cup of cooked quinoa contains five grams of fiber, and the same portion of barley boasts six grams. A cup of cooked mushrooms contains fewer than four grams.  

The American Heart Association recommends someone with a 2,000-calorie diet get about 25 grams of fiber daily. Not everyone agrees. The National Academy of Sciences set the recommended daily value at 25 grams for women, 38 for men. Fiber-packed whole grains help keep you regular, lower cholesterol levels, aid in weight loss and keep you fuller, longer.  

Supporters of the Paleo Diet disagree on whether or not to eat some grains. According to the diet’s official site, our Stone Age ancestors may have consumed grains, but only in times of starvation. Those against eating even some grains say that they’re high in carbohydrates, which may contribute to inflammation. Secondly, the diet argues that grains are nutrient-poor compared to other fiber sources like produce.

Nosh some nuts and seeds

8 / 12 Nosh some nuts and seeds

Heart-healthy nuts like cashews and almonds, and seeds are a go for anyone on the Paleo Diet. Peanuts, part of the legume family, however, are off limits.

Although nuts are rich in healthy fats, fiber and protein, they’re also calorie dense, so be mindful not to overdo it. Same goes for seeds. A one-ounce serving of your favorites a few times each week is all you need.

Try sprinkling crushed walnuts into your lunchtime salad, or, when afternoon hunger strikes, pair a handful of almonds with an apple. Opt for raw and unsalted snacks like walnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds and macadamia nuts.

Fuel up on (some) fats

9 / 12 Fuel up on (some) fats

This diet is reliant on fats, and luckily, so are our bodies. Fats help keep you satiated and help regulate blood sugar levels. There’s more: Healthy fats combined with protein and fresh veggies can actually help you lose weight. But not all fats were created equal.  

Eating animal products like beef and pork is OK on this diet. But those products—along with butter, also Paleo-approved—are full of saturated fat. Most experts recommend eating saturated fats sparingly because they may increase your cholesterol levels and raise your heart disease risk.

Another type of fat that’s Paleo-friendly is unsaturated fat, which is found in olive oil and avocados. These good fats can help lower bad cholesterol levels and decrease heart disease and stroke risk.

Other fats and oils that aren’t Paleo-friendly include: margarine, canola, corn and soybean oils, as well as any other man-made oil products. 

Can you get everything your body needs?

10 / 12 Can you get everything your body needs?

According to Crandall, following a restrictive diet or elimination diet will typically result in weight loss. But can you still be healthy while following Paleo?

If you don’t eat calcium-rich dairy products and fiber-filled whole grains, you could increase your chance of nutritional deficiencies. Paleo dieters in particular may be missing out on essential vitamins and nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and fiber. Too little calcium and vitamin D could eventually lead to osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones. Lack of fiber could contribute to elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels, constipation and obesity. If you’re going Paleo follow these daily nutrient recommendations: 

  • Calcium: Most adults should get about 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams
  • Vitamin D: Most adults should get between 600 and 800 IUs
  • Fiber: Women should get between 21 and 25 grams of fiber; men should get between 30 and 38 grams

Before you start the diet, talk with your doctor or nutritionist about your specific dietary needs. “Meeting with a registered dietitian can be really helpful in assessing whether you're getting the nutrition that your body needs to thrive,” Crandall says. 

A word of caution

11 / 12 A word of caution

Although there’s no specific amount of saturated fat that Paleo dieters should strive to eat every day, the diet is still high in animal protein (a known saturated fat source). Eating excess amounts of foods high in saturated fat like animal proteins has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease—the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. Medical and scientific guidelines from well-known organizations like the American Heart Association recommend limiting your saturated fat consumption to between 5 and 6 percent of your total daily calories. For example, a person on a 2,000-calorie diet should consume about 13 grams of saturated fats.

Gorging yourself with protein may not be healthy either. Our bodies need about eight grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight, and much more than that may put a strain on your body. The types of protein also make a difference, and lean sources like chicken, beans and fish are almost always preferable to red meats, high in saturated fat. A long-term diet that’s high in proteins, like red meat, could possibly increase your risk for kidney and liver disease, heart disease, and even cancer. 

Paleo-friendly tips for success

12 / 12 Paleo-friendly tips for success

Eating the Paleo way requires a balance: three to nine ounces of protein, half to one pound of veggies and a drizzle of your favorite fat in every meal. And depending on your specific calorie goals, your serving of fat will vary.

If you’re eating on-the-go, Crandall suggests Paleo-friendly snacks like low-sodium turkey jerky and a piece of fruit or a mix of nuts, seeds and fresh berries.

Other tips for successful Paleo-based eating:

  • Weekly meal prep to avoid missteps and make eating easy
  • Frequent trips to the grocery store for fresh produce and protein
  • Supplementing what your diet isn’t giving you

The Paleo Diet may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy meals with fresh vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats, then this diet may be worth a try.

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