It’s taken CrossFit gyms, nutrition blogs and possibly even your friend circle by storm. The paleo diet, or eating the way people did in the Stone Age, is now one of the most popular nutrition lifestyles around. But what exactly does “going paleo” mean? While this diet claims to be so easy a caveman could do it, it turns out it’s not so simple. Plus, with bloggers and dieters tweaking the diet to make it their own, it can be hard to decipher which foods are acceptable — and which aren’t allowed. Are potatoes OK? What about a cup of coffee (or a Bulletproof blend)? We’re breaking down the dos and don’ts of this meal plan.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
While this ancient nutrition style has been around for (literally) ages, it wasn’t until 2002 that Loren Cordain, PhD, popularized the caveman plan when he published his book, The Paleo Diet. “It really isn’t a diet, but rather a lifetime program of eating to improve health and well-being and minimize the risk of chronic diseases that plague the Western world,” explains Dr. Cordain. According to a recent nationwide analysis of U.S. grocery purchases, processed foods make up more than 60 percent of the calories in food we buy. By replacing packaged goods with nutrient-rich, whole, fresh foods, Dr. Cordain, his mentors and other Paleo followers believe a person’s health will improve.
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Back in the day, cavemen stuck to a fairly basic menu — after all, they could only eat what they could catch. “Evolution through natural selection formed the organizing template not only for all of biology but also for nutrition,” says Cordain. Paleo-era humans consumed a diet high in protein and fiber but devoid of refined sugar and highly processed foods. “We can’t fully mimic the exact foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, but we don’t have to in order to make improvements in our general health and well-being,” says Dr. Cordain. He explains that contemporary paleo diets emulate the fare of our pre-agricultural predecessors — using everyday food available at supermarkets today.
Your Paleo Diet Food List
While there’s no need to bust out your hunting spear, it’s important to stick to the basic tenets of the caveman diet whenever you can. “They ate exclusively the wild plant and animal foods they could hunt, gather, forage or fish in their native environment,” says Dr. Cordain.
When cavemen roamed the Earth, there were no processed foods or refined sugars and grains. “Fatty meats such as sausage, bacon and pepperoni and starchy vegetables like white potatoes and corn as well as beans such as black, kidney, or pinto are not allowed,” says Leslie Bonci, MHP, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center, Center for Sports Medicine.
Then there are certain products like walnut oil and extra virgin olive oil, which weren’t available to cavemen, but because they closely emulate the oils our ancestors received from animal carcasses and plants, they’re considered acceptable. Below, you’ll find lists of paleo-approved and non-paleo foods.
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Potential Health Benefits of Paleo
Cordain and other followers of the paleo diet believe that by eliminating processed foods and replacing them with whole, clean foods, people will experience numerous health benefits. “When I first wrote The Paleo Diet in 2002, my primary intent was to improve health and well-being for my fellow humans,” says Cordain. Since then however, his book has been promoted as “a weight loss diet.” “Calories are usually lower,” states Bonci. “So it may help promote weight loss and control blood glucose levels.”
The strict food plan is often combined with high-intensity exercise that mimics the body’s natural movements, following a similar “do as you were designed to do” approach. While the guidelines — which Cordain discusses in his follow up book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes — are broad and open to interpretation, workout styles like CrossFit — which involves constantly varying functional movements — have frequently been paired with the diet to maximize weight loss, strength and health benefits.
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The Downside of Paleo
It takes discipline to follow the paleo diet — and this eating plan doesn’t come without criticism. Cordain admits that fresh foods can sometimes be pricier than processed foods. But there has been other backlash as well. Bonci points out that the paleo plan can have some negative consequences for your health. “With paleo there’s a shortfall on nutrients, high food costs, and a focus on what one will not eat,” she says. “The intake of calcium and vitamin D is also low.” In fact, last year in the U.S. News & World Report’s Bests Diet of 2014, paleo came in last place, largely because it advocates consuming higher amounts of fat and protein than recommended by the FDA.
There isn’t much grey area when it comes to going paleo — the guidelines are straightforward so you don’t have to make many choices. However, Cordain did build an 85:15 rule into the plan, which may be the origin of much paleo controversy, as it allows room for cheating. “Most people experience significant improvements in health and well-being when they are 85 percent compliant with this lifelong way of eating. If an occasional ‘cheat’ helps them to remain mainly compliant with the diet, then that is a good thing,” says Cordain. So while the occasional cup of coffee had no place in the Stone Age, it may be consumed under the allotted cheat portion of the diet if it’s what you need to stay the course.
To learn more about The Paleo Diet, visit Cordain’s website, thepaleodiet.com.