What the Heck Is Paleo?!

Is eating paleo—a diet inspired by cavemen—good for you?

Various Paleo diet products on wooden tablePhoto: Shutterstock / MaraZe
Photo: Shutterstock / MaraZe

It can be overwhelming to keep up with constantly changing diet fads, so why not go back to the way humans ate in prehistoric times? Reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists can be confusing as it is, but knowing what to look out for or avoid with all those different diets can be even more mind-boggling, so we’re breaking down the increasingly popular paleo diet.

What Is a Paleo Diet?

The paleo diet follows a set of dietary guidelines inspired by the foods hunter-gatherers ate during the Paleolithic era, about 2.5 million years ago. Paleo foods include only what was available during this time, meaning nothing processed or grown by agriculture.

The paleo approach means “we put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genetics” says Loren Cordain, PhD, professor at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet. The goal is to positively influence health and wellness.

This hunter-gatherer diet stems from the idea that because humans weren’t eating certain foods back then, chiefly because they didn’t exist, we shouldn’t be eating them today but should turn to the earlier Stone Age foods instead. The roots of the argument for this diet date back to the 1890s, but the paleo notions have been re-popularized as a weight loss and lifestyle option over the past several years.

What Can You Eat?

A paleo diet emphasizes eating a variety of lean and heart-healthy foods that have not been processed, as well as ethically produced proteins, including:

  • Grass-fed meat
  • Wild-caught fish and seafood
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens)
  • Farm-fresh eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Healthy oils (olive, avocado, coconut, macadamia, flaxseed, walnut)

Finding fresh fruits and veggies and other paleo snacks to satisfy your cravings will likely be fairly easy, but other items—especially animal products—may be a little trickier. Try shopping local and at farmers markets for sustainably sourced meat, seafood and egg options.

What Can’t You Eat?

The list of no-no’s includes obviously processed items like chips and bread, plus a few others you may not have thought of that came into our kitchens after the time of cavedwellers.

  • Processed foods and refined sugars (sugary, savory and everything in between, including anything made from grains like wheat, oats or corn)
  • Soda
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Grains
  • Soy (tofu, soy milk)
  • Legumes (peanuts, peas, beans, lentils, edamame)
  • Dairy

The Reality

The idea of cutting down on processed foods and refined sugars while opting for more wholesome foods is consistent with most diets, so in that respect, paleo is not unique.

But most dietitians agree that whole grains are beneficial when eaten in moderation, as are legumes—a large source of protein in many diets, especially vegetarian and vegan ones. However, because foods that came into use with agriculture weren’t around during the Paleolithic era, they are off the list of approved foods.

There are more than a few blurred lines when it comes to what a paleo diet means, and what can and cannot be eaten. After all, there is no official paleo authority. Some gray-area foods are coffee, bacon, ghee (clarified butter), alcohol, salt and dark chocolate.

What You Should Take Away

Diets like this can be tough, and it can be even harder to give up your favorites cold-turkey. If you’re interested in giving a paleo diet a try, start at home with simple and seasonal recipes, then work your way toward full paleo. Eating out, whether at a friend’s home or at a restaurant can be hard when you have dietary restrictions, so make sure to do your advance research.

Jacqueline Weiss
Jacqueline is a blogger and writer, passionate about sharing the latest in helpful tips and trends in food and cooking. In her spare time, you’ll find her trying new restaurants and experimenting in the kitchen.