By now, you’ve likely heard at least something about the Paleo diet. It’s been steadily gaining buzz over the last few years, and it has a loyal – and often very vocal – fan base. At face value, a lot of the Paleo principles would probably seem like no-brainers – eating more fruits, vegetables and proteins, and reducing or eliminating processed foods. These are basic things that most any diet plan would likely recommend. But what about the Paleo diet sets it apart from the numerous other diet trends that exploded in popularity almost overnight and now are virtually non-existent? And what are the potential upsides and downsides if you are considering tackling the Paleo diet yourself?
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says it all starts with you. “If I’ve learned anything from my past 15 years of working in nutrition and weight management, it’s that a diet that is right for one person is not necessarily right for another person. We are all individuals, and there’s no one perfect way to eat that is going to work for each individual,” she said. “The Paleo diet is based upon the idea that humans evolved eating a diet that is very different from the typical modern diet of today. The idea is that our ancient ancestors ate primarily a hunter/gatherer diet, which included meats, vegetables, tubers and berries. In general, our Paleolithic ancestors consumed three times more produce, more fiber, more protein, more omega 3 fats, more vitamins and minerals, and much less sodium than the typical American. They also didn’t eat what unfortunately are the top six calorie sources in the U.S. diet today – grain-based desserts such as cookies and cake, yeast breads, chicken-based dishes, sweetened beverages, pizza, and alcoholic drinks,” she explained. “The basic Paleo diet includes meat, eggs, fish, organ meat, vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts and seeds. It excludes grains, most dairy products, legumes, and artificial or processed foods,” she added.
On the plus side, Tillman says the Paleo diet has several benefits. “Some of the pros of going Paleo are that you’re eating foods that are in their ‘natural state,’ and you’re minimizing or eliminating your intake of processed foods,” she said. “With Paleo, you’re focusing on grass-fed beef and high-quality meats. Fish also plays a big part, as do fruits and vegetables. Separately, those who are on the Paleo diet also focus more on other general healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as getting plenty of rest, exercise and time outdoors. For those reasons, the Paleo diet can definitely be beneficial for people who have certain health or autoimmune conditions,” she explained. “An even stricter version of Paleo called ‘autoimmune protocol’ also may be helpful under certain conditions,” she added.
But Tillman says there also are some potential drawbacks. “There has been some controversy among experts with regard to the benefits of avoiding certain foods that the Paleo diet eliminates, particulary grains, legumes and dairy products,” she said. “There’s also the tendency to ‘Paleo-ify’ sweets such as donuts, cupcakes, pancakes and cookies, and then consume them in excess. Finally, some people in the Paleo community can be a little overzealous in promoting the Paleo diet and lifestyle, which can deter some who might be on the fence about it,” she added.
“There are some key takeaways from analyzing the Paleo lifestyle,” Tillman said. “Certainly, eating real, whole foods in their natural states is beneficial to anyone. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and fats also is a big improvement over the typical American diet. However, I encourage people to be very careful of approaching any diet without consulting their physician or a registered dietitian. Also, you always should be careful not to become overly restrictive with any diet program they choose,’ she explained. “Still, for many people, the Paleo diet can be a healthy way to eat long-term,” she added.