The Paleo diet has gained explosive popularity over the past year. Enthusiasts praise the diet for its supposed ability to increase energy, support weight loss and improve sleep.
So what does the Paleo diet consist of? Are there any health risks? And how do you know if it’s right for you?
The premise of the Paleo diet is simple: eat like a caveman—supposedly like our ancestors from 10,000 years ago. You focus on organic fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, healthy fats and free-range, grass-fed animal proteins. You avoid processed foods, alcohol, dairy, sugars, sweets, gluten, grains and starchy vegetables.
On the good side, the Paleo diet aligns with the 2010 USDA daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. It also cuts out processed and refined foods—always an excellent health goal.
On the negative side, the diet exceeds the USDA daily recommended amounts for fat and protein, and it lacks substantial fiber and carbohydrate. Also, it needlessly cuts out major food groups that provide good sources of calcium, protein and fiber.
The Low Down—and Some Recommendations
While the Paleo diet may be able to support weight loss and help improve some health concerns, it may not be nutritionally sustainable for long-term health because it eliminates certain food groups. These missing food groups could potentially make a Paleo follower deficient in some micronutrients and minerals. For example, the diet eliminates legumes (beans and lentils) and dairy. Legumes—besides being an easy, economical source of plant-based protein—provide micronutrients such as folate, manganese, magnesium, thiamin and iron. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium; however, people who cannot tolerate dairy foods are able to maintain good health without it. The Paleo diet also recommends reducing your intake of fruits, which provide abundant fiber and antioxidants, as well as much-needed vitamins and minerals.
People on the Paleo diet may also find it challenging from a social aspect. Dining out, often a big part of socializing with friends and coworkers, can be quite tricky on this diet. If you decide to give the Paleo diet a try, be sure to look up restaurant menus ahead of time so that you can figure out what’s acceptable and what substitutions may need to be made.
Here are a few things to consider if you’re thinking about starting the Paleo or a modified Paleo diet:
- Ensure you have the time to prepare all of your meals. It’s a restrictive diet and eliminates processed foods, so you will need to prepare most if not all of your food at home. Will you have the time to do this? Also, will you be able to follow this diet at restaurants? You may need to ensure that the dishes you order are not made with sauces or dressings that are excluded in the diet.
- Understand that the Paleo diet can be expensive. Because it’s based on organic produce and organic, grass-fed meats, the diet can be difficult on the budget.
- Be aware that the more restrictive a diet is, the harder it is to stick to it. Many people will drop a diet after only a few weeks if it is unrealistic. Furthermore, an overly restrictive diet may contribute to nutrient deficiency.
The good news is that certain elements of the Paleo diet are healthy and, as supported by strong evidence, would benefit a majority of people. PacMed recommends that you create a healthy eating plan that may include aspects of the Paleo diet, but without being so restrictive. Consider incorporating these aspects of the Paleo diet into your eating plan:
- Focus on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Dramatically reduce processed foods. These include processed or refined grains (think white flour, white rice, pasta), processed fats/oils and refined sugars/sweeteners.
- When choosing animal products, look for lean cuts of meat and preferably free-range, wild, organic and grass-fed varieties.
The best way to lose weight and keep it off is to identify a healthy eating plan that is sustainable for you. Most successful, long-term eating plans are not extremely restrictive. So opt for a realistic plan that will allow you to eat foods you enjoy while aligning with your overall health goals. If you don’t know where to start, visit a registered dietitian who can help you create an eating plan that’s right for you.