What is the Paleo Diet?
The paleolithic (or paleo) diet is a set of dietary guidelines designed to mimic the eating patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors of centuries gone by. You may have also heard the paleo diet referred to as the “caveman diet” as it the diet is the perceived way cavemen used to eat.
In other words, if the food didn’t exist thousands of years ago, chances are you shouldn’t be eating it according to the guidelines of the paleo diet.
You see, our paleolithic ancestors led very physically active lives as they constantly had to hunt animals and forage plant foods in order to feed themselves and avoid starvation.
As you would expect, there weren’t a whole lot of convenience stores and drive-thrus around for Grok to stop by. If he or she didn’t hunt or gather during the day, then they likely didn’t have much to eat.
In terms of food choices, this means that our cavemen ancestors ate only whole foods.
Evolutionary biologists and paleo diet proponents also believe that this whole food-based diet in combination with a physically active lifestyle resulted in lower rates of lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
And, truth be told, if you lead a physically active life and eat mostly whole foods, you’re doing a lot of things right and should have a relatively low risk of chronic lifestyle-induced diseases.
But, honestly, it’s virtually impossible to know exactly what our human ancestors ate (short of hopping into the Delorean from Back to the Future). Most likely, each culture or tribe ate what plants and animals were in their particular region.
What this means is that different tribes likely ate different foods. So, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific diet that our ancient ancestors ate. More likely they ate what they could find in order to avoid starving to death.
With all that said, let’s see what foods are typically allowed on a paleo diet.
What Foods Can I Eat on the Paleo Diet?
Typically, the paleo diet is viewed as a low-carb diet, especially compared to the way most of modern Western civilization eats these days.
But, as we mentioned above, we have no way of knowing with absolute certainty what our paleolithic ancestors ate. Accordingly, there is no one "right" way to eat for everyone who follows a paleo diet.
Some paleolithic cultures ate higher carb diets, while others ate lower carb. Ultimately, what our paleo predecessors ate largely depended on what was available and where they lived.
That being said, the following list of “approved” paleo foods should be viewed more as a rough guideline, not a set of written-in-stone rules.
Generally speaking, if you follow a paleo diet, you eat only unprocessed foods.
Therefore, the following foods are “OK” in the eyes of most paleo diet advocates:
- Meat (beef, chicken, pork, venison, elk, bison, etc.)
- Organ meats (liver, kidneys, heart, etc.)
- Vegetables (non-starchy ones, preferably)
- Fruits (in small quantities)
- Nuts & nut butters (almond, pistachio, walnut, etc.)
- Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia, flax, etc.)
- Healthy fats (avocados, olive oil, macadamia nut oil, etc.)
As you probably noticed, the paleo diet isn’t afraid of consuming a healthy amount of dietary fat. And, depending on what you’ve been led to believe, you might think that dietary fat is harmful and should be avoided at all costs.
But the truth is that you need a certain amount of dietary fat in order to function normally. Plus, fat tastes good, slows down digestion, and helps you feel fuller. And, most of the thinking that fat causes you to get fat or suffer adverse health consequences has largely been debunked by the scientific community.
Finally, if at all possible, paleo dieters advocate the use of grass-fed and organic products.
What Foods Are Banned on the Paleo Diet?
As stated above, the paleo diet seeks to mimic the way our ancestors from thousands of years ago ate. What this means is that any modern food “inventions” and innovations are off limits to eat (sorry for those of you out there that enjoy the occasional twinkie or pop tart).
With that being said, here is a list of foods that are generally considered to be not congruent with the paleo diet mindset:
- Refined sugar of all kinds and in all forms: high-fructose corn syrup, soft drinks (soda), table sugar, cookies, candy, ice cream, pastries, etc.
- Vegetable oils: Soybean oil, corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, etc.
- Grains: bread, pasta, tortillas, wheat, rye, spelt, barley, etc.
- Legumes: Beans of all types, lentils, peanuts, etc.
- Dairy: This is a bit of a “gray area” food group amongst the paleo community. By and large most paleo dieters avoid dairy, especially low-fat varieties. However, some paleo variations do allow for raw and/or full-fat dairy like butter and cheese
- Trans fats: listed as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils which are typically found in processed foods like baked goods, cereals, chips, etc.
- Processed foods: Anything labeled low-fat, diet, sugar-free is off limits as well as just about anything found in a box or bag. While some packaged foods are “paleo certified”, if we’re being honest, Grok wasn’t eating any type of packaged food whatsoever. So even those “paleo approved” cookies are a no-go if you want to go by the spirit of the “paleo law”
- Artificial sweeteners: Sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (ace-K) and cyclomates are banned. Instead, paleo dieters should use natural sweeteners (like honey), sparingly.
What Can I Drink on the Paleo Diet?
Most likely, the only thing our paleo ancestors drank was water when they could find it from a fresh source, that means those sugar and cream-laden Starbucks triple venti mocha-frappa-lattes are off limits.
Some paleo diets allow for the consumption of unsweetened tea and black coffee as well. This is most likely due to the fact that both tea and coffee are rich sources of antioxidants, which can help combat oxidative stress brought on by free radicals.[1,2]
The Truth About the Paleo Diet
The paleo diet does a few things right and a few things not so right.
For starters, telling individuals to focus on consuming whole, minimally processed foods and limiting the intake of processed foods is fantastic. A lot of the disease and dysfunction that we see these days could be abated if people ate less crap and moved around a lot more.
However, the paleo diet isn’t without faults.
Among the chief complaints against the paleo diet is that we honestly don’t know what our paleolithic ancestors actually ate. We know that they didn’t eat twinkies and chicken nuggets, but precisely what whole foods they did eat is a guess at best. Plus, the diet of our ancestors varied based on the season and region of the globe in which they lived.
Therefore, it’s impossible to outline one specific list of foods that our ancestors ate.
Second, most paleo dieters have an abject (and unfounded) fear of gluten (a protein found in wheat) as well as “anti-nutrients.” while both of those words sounds scary, the truth is that the average person is not intolerant to gluten nor should they be concerned with anti-nutrients. The vast majority of anti-nutrients found in foods (such as oxalates and phytic acid) are neutralized when said food is cooked.
Third, the complete abolishment of processed foods is not warranted and could potentially lead to an unhealthy relationship with food as you start viewing foods in a binary view as either “good” or “bad.”
Truth be told, a single food cannot unilaterally be labeled as “good” or “bad” without knowing the context in which it is being consumed.
Are pop tarts (or any other processed food) the best choice for your diet?
Probably not, but if you’re consuming an otherwise healthy, well-rounded, whole food-centric diet, the occasional indulgence will have virtually no impact whatsoever on your health or physique.
The Bottom Line on the Paleo Diet
The paleo diet surfaced in the early 2000s and has maintained its place amongst the most popular fad diets of all time.
It seeks to mimic the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived and ate.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what our ancestors ate, we do know how they ate -- they ate whole, unprocessed foods and didn’t have access to processed foods or foods with a ton of added sugar.
Foods that are allowed on the paleo diet include meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and healthy fats. Foods that are not allowed on the paleo diet include all manner of processed foods, refined sugar, grains, and dairy.
In defense of the paleo diet, we should all try to include as many whole foods in our diet as possible. However, there is no reason to ban dairy, legumes, grains, or the occasional bite of processed food.
- Khan N, Mukhtar H. Tea and health: studies in humans. Curr Pharm Des. 2013;19(34):6141–6147. doi:10.2174/1381612811319340008
- Yashin A, Yashin Y, Wang JY, Nemzer B. Antioxidant and Antiradical Activity of Coffee. Antioxidants (Basel). 2013;2(4):230–245. Published 2013 Oct 15. doi:10.3390/antiox2040230
- Stark M, Lukaszuk J, Prawitz A, Salacinski A. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):54. Published 2012 Dec 14. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-54
- Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2008;5:8. Published 2008 Mar 27. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8