What’s the Purpose of the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet draws its core principles from our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the premise that they had much lower rates of lifestyle-caused or ‘modern’ diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease (1).
While our ancestors’ diets might have differed based on their location and availability of foods, researchers agree that they ate more nutrient-dense, whole foods and led more active lifestyles (2).
The name ‘Paleo’ may suggest the cavemen era but we don’t need to go that far back to draw inspiration for healthier eating and living.
With the introduction and commercialization of refined, packaged foods and sugar, increased availability of junk food and modern mass-scale farming and agriculture practices, humans started to consume more high-energy foods but with less nutrients; and, compared to our ancestors, we are a lot less active, experience more chronic stress and lack of sleep.
Using ancestral diets as inspiration, together with current nutritional insights, the paleo diet aims to increase our intake of nutrient-dense foods and to reduce the consumption of processed, high-carbohydrate and sugary foods and ingredients that were not as readily available to our descendants.
It is particularly concerned with how more modern food groups like grains, dairy, and sugar affect our metabolism, digestion, insulin sensitivity and systemic inflammation.
Why You Might Follow a Paleo Diet
Improving the overall wellbeing and increasing energy is probably the main goal of most people adopting a paleo diet and lifestyle.
Many people also choose the paleo diet as a tool for weight loss and to help improve their metabolism and blood sugar levels.
For some, it’s a perfect diet because they are sensitive to gluten and dairy, both of which are pretty much eliminated. In fact, the paleo diet is often prescribed as an elimination protocol to figure out certain food sensitivities.
What Results Can You Expect?
While every person is unique and there is no “one-size-fits-all” diet, there are many reported and studied benefits of the paleo diet.
It has also been reported to have favorable effects on cardiovascular disease risk factors, although more trials are still needed, as it’s a relatively new dietary approach (16).
It has been shown that even short-term consumption of a paleo-type diet improved glucose control and lipid profiles in people with type 2 diabetes compared with a conventional diet of low-fat dairy, whole grains, and legumes and that this type of diet may be beneficial to type-2 diabetic patients (17, 18).
Focusing on vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, fruit, nuts, and seeds – all of which are nutrient-dense foods – the Paleo diet provides a lot of essential macronutrients and micronutrients required for optimal body functioning.
Following a paleo-type diet, which is inherently gluten-free, may help to improve digestion and IBS symptoms (19) and the overall gut flora (20), which in turn increases your body’s ability to absorb and utilize the nutrients from the food.
By avoiding grains, grain-fed meat, and vegetable oils and by including more fish, seafood, leafy greens, and pastured eggs, the paleo diet aims for a healthier ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids.
An unpublished survey we did with over 300 people completing a 30-day paleo reset showed consistent reports of weight loss, increased energy, fewer sugar cravings and more stable hunger levels throughout the day, improved digestion, clearer skin, and better mood.
Many participants reported some weight loss and improvements in their overall wellbeing in as little as one week of eating a paleo-type diet.
7 Best Supplements To Take on a Paleo Diet
While the paleo diet is considered to be very nutrient-dense, there are a number of micronutrients that may help to optimize your nutrition even further.
It’s always a good idea to get a regular check-up with your health professional to find out if you have any deficiencies and to make sure it is safe for you to take any further supplements.
One study showed that some people might have a higher risk of developing an iodine deficiency on a paleo diet (22). This is most likely the result of lower consumption of some packaged foods that are usually fortified with iodine.
While it’s possible to get sufficient iodine from the diet, people might benefit from an oral iodine supplement, especially if they don’t eat much seafood, seaweed or other iodine-rich foods.
Consuming more omega-3s through food such as oily fish, leafy greens and pastured, free-range eggs, or taking a supplement such as fish oil, krill oil or a vegan alternative is often recommended on a paleo diet.
Vitamin D promotes the absorption of calcium and phosphate from food and so is essential for healthy bones and teeth. It is also thought that this vitamin has functions in the brain, the nervous system, cellular growth, and immunoregulation (23).
The best dietary sources of vitamin D are cod liver oil, oily fish such as salmon or mackerel, eggs, and fortified foods.
However, diet alone is often not enough to get the optimal amount of vitamin D, especially when the individual doesn’t get enough sun exposure or can’t synthesize it due to skin pigment.
Magnesium & Calcium
Speaking of Vitamin D, I have to also mention its two partners: magnesium and calcium. These minerals work best together and it’s important to eat a variety of foods to meet the daily required amounts.
While you can get calcium from non-dairy foods such as leafy greens, sardines, sesame seeds, dried herbs, and dried fruit to name a few, it’s a good idea to have a good calcium supplement on hand, to take every few days.
The same goes for magnesium, which plays an important role in energy production, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation.
This mineral is present in many foods, yet the research shows that many people have a lower intake of magnesium than the recommended amounts (25).
People with digestive issues and type 2 diabetes are also at risk of magnesium deficiency due to low absorption or low retention of this mineral in the body (25).
Most people would benefit from a little magnesium top-up either in the form of a magnesium supplement or topical spray.
Prebiotics & Probiotics
The final two supplements you might want to consider while eating a paleo diet (or any diet for that matter) are probiotics and prebiotics.
Many people choose the paleo diet to help improve their digestion and gut health. Probiotics are a source of gut-friendly bacteria and have many studied benefits for people with irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol levels, skin issues such as eczema, and other gut health issues caused by infections or antibiotic use (26).
While you can get many strains of probiotics from fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir, a good supplement will provide a much wider range of beneficial bacteria in one capsule, which can be much more practical for people with busy lifestyles.
To keep all those good bacteria happy and thriving in your body, you need to provide them with the right fuel, which in the wellness world is known as prebiotics. A type of complex carbohydrate, this nutrient is usually found in fiber-rich foods and can also be supplemented with if needed.
It is recommended to introduce probiotics (and prebiotics) gradually and to monitor your symptoms. Both can cause some initial discomfort such as gas while the body adjusts to the new gut occupants.
If you suffer from a specific health condition, it is best to consult with your doctor about the best protocol to maintain your gut health (26).
Paleo Diet Guide
It’s important to remember that our ancestors thrived on a variety of diets; some had a low-carb, high-fat diet rich in animal foods while others ate a lot of starchy tubers, fruit, and fish.
As such, there is no single approach and the paleo diet is just a series of guidelines. It can be adapted to suit individual needs and goals.
The framework is based on whole, unprocessed, foods including quality protein from animal and seafood sources, lots of healthy fats and nutrient-dense carbohydrates from vegetables and fruits.
The diet avoids processed foods, sugar and sweet drinks, grains, legumes, artificial sweeteners, most dairy, vegetable, and processed oils and margarine and trans fats.
As grains and legumes are avoided, the carbohydrate intake on a paleo diet is naturally much lower than the standard American diet. However, those foods are simply replaced with more vegetables and extra fruit, which become a more nutritious source of your daily carbohydrate intake.
At first, it might seem that a paleo diet is very restrictive but there are many delicious paleo recipes you can make and you will be surprised by the variety.
What Foods to Eat on Paleo?
Include lots of vegetables: leafy greens, fiber-rich celery, peppers, broccoli and cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, radish, zucchini and starchy tubers like sweet potatoes, parsnips, squash and even some healthfully prepared white potatoes.
Vegetables should make two-thirds of your plate and are generally added to every meal in either raw or cooked form.
Add quality protein from red meat, poultry, game and eggs and choose grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic if possible.
Include fish (especially oily for its high content of omega-3s) and seafood a few times per week and choose wild-caught if you can.
Grass-fed meat, free-range, pastured eggs and wild-caught fish are nutritionally more superior and come from more ethical and sustainable farming practices.
Fats, milks, fruits, herbs & spices
Use healthy fats and oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and ghee and add nuts, seeds, and avocados to your meals.
Coconut milk and nut milks are great alternatives to dairy, although many people add clarified butter or ghee and even regular butter to their paleo diet.
Season your food with quality salt, spices, and herbs.
Enjoy fruit and berries in dishes, as a snack or dessert.
Black coffee, herbal teas and sparkling water (which can be infused with fruit and herbs) are the preferred drink choices on the paleo diet.
When it comes to alcohol, chocolate, and other treats, the choice comes down to the individual and their goals.
Alcohol is usually avoided during a 30-day paleo reset but in a more long-term approach, many people will enjoy some wine or clear spirits.
The same goes for dark chocolate and other grey area foods such as quinoa, buckwheat, and fermented dairy.
What Foods to Avoid on Paleo?
While following a paleo diet, especially during the first 4 weeks, you are recommended to avoid the following foods and ingredients:
Grains: bread, pasta, any wheat or gluten-containing products, rice, spelt, rye, barley, and corn. Replace with vegetable alternatives like cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles.
Legumes: lentils, beans, mature peas. Replace with vegetable alternatives, nuts, and seeds.
Sugar and high-fructose corn-syrup: cookies, pastries, fruit juices, candy, soft drinks, white sugar and so on. Swap with whole fruit and berries and use a few natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup if needed.
Dairy: avoid most dairy, especially low-fat products as they often have added sugar. Replace butter with olive oil and coconut oil and use coconut milk or nut milk alternatives in coffee, cooking and making fermented foods.
It must be pointed out that good quality, full-fat dairy products, especially when fermented, are nutrient-dense foods and have many benefits.
Many people will reintroduce them back in the diet after the initial 4 weeks of avoiding dairy.
Vegetable oils: canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and others. Replace with good quality olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, and coconut oil.
Trans fats: these are harmful fats found in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in foods like margarine and many processed foods.
Avoid any highly processed foods that have many additives and preservatives, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and anything else that has a label of ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Basic Shopping List for a Paleo Diet
- Meat: grass-fed beef or lamb, free-range pork, additive-free bacon
- Poultry: free-range chicken, turkey or duck.
- Fish: salmon (raw or frozen), shrimp (raw or frozen), tinned tuna or sardines.
- Dairy: ghee (or clarified butter), some fermented full-fat dairy and cheese once you decide to reintroduce dairy back into your modified paleo diet.
- Fresh vegetables: spinach, kale and other leafy greens, salad vegetables such as celery, cucumber, and radish, onions, garlic, cauliflower, zucchini, broccoli, peppers, sweet potatoes, fresh herbs.
- Frozen vegetables: broccoli, young green beans, carrots, and cauliflower.
- Fruits: avocados, tomatoes, lemons, apples, melon or whatever is in season.
- Berries: whatever is in season or choose frozen berries of choice
- Nuts: almonds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts
- Condiments: apple cider vinegar, mustard, hot sauce, coconut aminos, fish sauce, paleo mayonnaise (check which oils it’s made with), olives, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes.
- For the pantry: coconut milk, almond milk, sea salt, dried herbs and spices, coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut flour, almond meal and cassava flour for baking needs.
Simple Snacks for a Paleo Diet
One of the benefits of the paleo diet is that the main meals consumed through the day are usually satiating enough that you won’t need to snack in between.
However, if you do need something to get you through to dinnertime or after a workout, here are a few snack options:
- Apple slices with almond or cashew butter
- Beef jerky or biltong
- Boiled egg & fruit
- Celery and carrot sticks with guacamole or another dip
- Olives and nuts
- Quick smoothie with paleo-friendly protein powder
Paleo Diet FAQ
What about red meat and saturated fat? Aren’t they bad for me?
While it’s a popular belief that the paleo diet is centered on red meat, it’s not actually true. Almost 70 percent of the paleo diet is actually plant-based with lots of vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit and healthy fats from avocados, coconut, and olives.
The diet encourages a variety of protein sources, including lots of eggs, fish, and seafood. Any red meat consumed is ideally from grass-fed cows and pasture-raised animals.
On average, people on the paleo diet might consume a little more red meat than usual but it really comes down to quality over quantity.
And while animal foods and eggs contain saturated fat, science now that there is no significant evidence that the dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or heart disease (27).
Will I consume enough fiber without grains and legumes?
Dietary fiber is important for our health. It helps in the digestive process, keeps us full for longer and is essential for maintaining healthy gut flora.
Whole grains and legumes are indeed high in dietary fiber, and this is one of the reasons they are seen as healthy foods. However, fruits and vegetables are equally high in dietary (29), plus they contain more nutrients and antioxidants.
Given that you are consuming a lot of and a variety of fruit and vegetables (some in raw form), as well as nuts and seeds, you should be getting enough daily fiber.
Can I modify a paleo diet?
The Paleo diet has evolved quite a bit since it became popular about 10 years ago and there are a number of approaches based on individual needs, weight loss or gain goals, sensitivities, and lifestyles.
Some people may benefit from a very low-carb, keto-type, paleo diet where net carbohydrates are restricted to under 50 grams per day.
Athletes, active people, women, and especially pregnant women and growing children tend to do better with higher intake of carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, fruit and even some gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa.
Based on your sensitivities, you may choose to add back some grass-fed butter and fermented yogurt or goat’s milk cheese.
People with autoimmune conditions often follow an even more restricted paleo-type diet in which eggs, seeds, and nightshades are eliminated.
It’s best to think of the paleo diet as a template rather than a strict set of rules.
Inspired by our ancestors, the paleo diet is focused on whole, unprocessed foods and nutrient-density. It includes plenty of vegetables, healthy fats, good quality protein from animal and seafood sources, fruit, nuts and seeds.
It’s not about re-enacting the Palaeolithic era and is instead about learning from the past and applying the latest research and insights to understand what makes us thrive.
As with any other diet, paleo is not a one-size-fits-all approach. ‘Paleo’ is just a label given to a dietary framework, which can and should be tailored to your individual needs, goals, body type and sensitivities.
It’s a diet that will teach you how you feel when you include and exclude certain foods, and in such, it can be a valuable tool in finding out food allergies and sensitivities.
While this diet is not as widely studied as other eating frameworks, there are enough studies and reported health benefits to suggest that a paleo-type diet is worth trying and can be a good starting point for anyone looking to improve their health and nutrition.
It is recommended that you follow a paleo diet for 30 days to get the full benefits. As always, check with your health professional before changing your diet.
If you’d like help to get started, you can try this nutritionist-approved free paleo diet plan complete with weekly meal plans, shopping lists, recipes and supporting reading material.
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Contents of this Article
- What’s the Purpose of the Paleo Diet?
- 7 Best Supplements To Take on a Paleo Diet
- Paleo Diet Guide
- Paleo Diet FAQ
- Bottom Line