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BLOG: What’s the Paleo Diet All About?

Author: Elaine Minden
Published: Monday, March 25, 2013

Over the past few months I have been hearing a lot about the Paleo Diet, or in other words, the “Cave Man Diet.” This diet is a controversial topic amongst the dietetics community because of its fad-like nature, promising weight loss, improved athletic performance, elimination of acne, better sleep and reduced disease risk. As future nutrition professionals, it is important to be aware of popular diets that guarantee quick results so that when clients and patients as about them we are prepared to answer. Since I knew very little about the Paleo diet, I did a little research on what exactly it involved. Here is what I found.

Based on the foods that our hunting and gathering ancestors ate during the Paleolithic Era, the Paleo diet consists of fresh meats and poultry, fish and other seafood, vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, seeds and some healthy oils. It excludes dairy, legumes, most grains, refined sugar and any food that is processed because these foods were not eaten 2 million years ago, and they contain nutrients that can contribute to weight gain and chronic disease. The diet is based on the foundation that this is the optimal way of eating because it contains the foods to which we are “genetically adapted.” By eating the way that our ancestors did, the diet claims to help us lose weight, minimize our risk of chronic disease and optimize our health. Here’s a quick run-down on the basics of the Paleo diet:

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns discuss paleo diet
  1. High protein of about 19-35% of total calories, including fresh meat and poultry, preferably grass-fed or free-range, fish and other seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds
  2. Low carbohydrate of about 35-45% and low glycemic index foods. Carbohydrates should come from non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables, not grains
  3. High fiber mostly from non-starchy vegetables
  4. Moderate to high fat primarily from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and exclusion of trans fats and omega-6 fats. Fats should come from healthy oils such as walnut, coconut, and olive oil, and not from refined olis.
  5. High potassium and low sodium, about 5-10 times more potassium than sodium
  6. Balance of dietary alkaline and acid to minimize the load on the kidneys. Acids come from meat, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, and salt, and alkaline foods are fruits and vegetables.
  7. High intake vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, but not from whole grains since the minerals and B vitamins they contain are not well and they do not contain enough vitamin C, A, or B12.
  8. Exclusion of dairy, legumes (including peanuts), potatoes, cereal grains, salt, refined sugar, refined cooking oils, and any processed foods because these foods were not eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors.

After learning more about the Paleo diet, I found that it has both pros and cons. The diet does include components that make for a more healthful eating pattern. It encourages the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which contain several nutrients known to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Cutting out added sugar and consuming carbohydrates from plant foods instead may help to control blood sugar, maintain or lose weight, and reduce the risk of Type II diabetes. Also, limiting salt can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. Other diets low in sodium and high in potassium, such as the DASH diet, have been shown to reduce the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns discuss paleo diet

On the other hand, there are several reasons why the Paleo diet may not be beneficial. First, there is an imbalance in macronutrients. The diet is high in protein and fat, primarily from animal foods, and low in carbohydrate. Although there may be a benefit from consuming fewer carbohydrates to promote weight loss, this may not be a healthy strategy long-term, and it minimizes intake of nutrients found in many grain products and other carbohydrate foods. Whole grains and legumes are high in fiber, minerals and antioxidants, and consumption of those foods may actually play a beneficial role weight loss. Also, consumption of refined grains that have been fortified, such as ready-to-eat cereals, helps prevent micronutrient deficiencies known to cause detrimental health effects. Folate fortification, for example, has been shown to decrease the incidence of neural tube and other birth defects in newborns. Lastly, by excluding dairy, this diet eliminates a major source of calcium, which is essential for bone health. Despite some of the healthy components of the Paleo diet, overall it is lacking several important nutrients that we need for optimal health.

Although the cavemen did not suffer from the same chronic diseases that currently affect the modern world, this may not necessarily been a consequence of their diet. There are several other factors that could account for the differences in health, like the fact that they lived much shorter lifespans or expended more energy on a daily basis or ate fewer calories. We just don’t live the same way that our ancestors did. We have domesticated animals and agricultural farming, and the foods grown require some degree of processing to make it from the field to our tables. It’s just not possible for our modern society to eat exactly the same way as the cave men did.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns discuss paleo diet

What I learned from researching the Paleo diet is that we should be careful of diets that eliminate whole food groups because we may be missing several important nutrients that we need to maintain good health. Just because the cave men ate a certain way does not necessarily mean that we need to eat that way too. Instead of following a diet that promises weight loss, improved sleep, or other quick health fixes, we should aim to consume a balanced diet that includes foods from all the food groups and the right amount of calories to meet our energy needs.

Cordain, L. (2013) The Paleo Diet. Retrieved from
Brand-Miller J, Mann N, Cordain L. Paleolithic nutrition: what did our ancestors eat? In: ISS 2009 Genes to Galaxies. Eds: Selinger A, Green A. The Science Foundation for Physics, University of Sydney. University Publishing Service, University of Sydney, Sydney, 2009; 28-42.

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