In a world where most foods on the grocery store shelf contain ingredients no one can pronounce, going back to the basics can seem very appealing. For those who strive to eat more natural foods and cut out as many chemicals as possible, the Paleolithic diet can seem like the perfect way to eat. But is this truly a revolutionary diet that can change the health of our society, or just another fad?
The Paleo diet: going back to basics
The idea of the Paleo diet, sometimes known as the "Caveman diet," is to eat the same type of foods that our ancestors consumed over 10,000 years ago. The diet is based on food that could be hunted, fished or gathered. This includes meats, fish, nuts, shellfish, vegetables, roots, berries and fruits. Anything that must be processed is out, including dairy products, legumes, grains and refined sugars.
The idea is based on the theory that our bodies are genetically programmed for natural foods that come from the land, without any processing between the source and the plate. It is also based on the idea that many health issues, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, are "illnesses of civilization" -- meaning that our ancestors didn't deal with such issues because they weren't consuming foods made popular after the boom of the agricultural revolution.
Though the diet our ancestors ate included only wild game -- no domesticated beef, pork or other meats -- and plants that grew wild, modern dieters can adhere to a modified version of the diet. Fortunately, the foods available on the Paleo diet cover a wide range of things that many of us love to eat. For instance, a typical meal could include a serving of lean meat, plenty of vegetables, a side of fresh fruit and organic green tea. Most would consider that a healthy, low-carb meal.
A valid diet or a marketing-driven fad?
But there are a few red flags and raised eyebrows when experts talk about eating like cavemen.
Many experts see the Paleo diet as detrimental because it cuts out whole food groups. Dairy is not a part of the Paleo diet, and neither are any grains. Flour and processed sugar, both staples of most modern diets, are off-limits. Even potatoes and processed oils are discouraged. Diets that cut out many tasty options and entire food groups are notoriously hard to follow, as we are reminded by the U.S. News and World Report 2013 review of the Paleo diet (health.usnews.com).
There is also the question of cost. The Paleo diet relies on foods that are fresh and unprocessed, and that means that you will stick to the high cost parts of the store, such as the organic produce section and the fresh meat counter. Those on a budget might find the diet hard to follow. But on the other hand, meals packed with fiber and protein mean that you might get full quicker and stay full longer.
Unfortunately, those filling meats could lead to consequences for those who already suffer from the "illnesses of civilization." For instance, those with high cholesterol might find that the meat-rich Paleo diet offers a great deal of saturated fat, thus sending cholesterol levels even higher. The Huffington Post points out that the very foods shown to help battle high cholesterol, such as whole grain oats and beans, are not allowed for those on a strict Paleo regimen (huffingtonpost.com).
Finally, those who want to follow the Paleo diet stringently might find that the most common guidelines for the diet aren't completely accurate -- and might be downright misleading. For instance, Brussels sprouts are a relatively new food, only appearing a few hundred years ago. Further, ground and cooked grain has been a dietary staple for over 30,000 years, according to a March 2013 Slate article, which goes on to call the Paleo diet a "marketing gimmick" (slate.com).
In the end, the Paleo diet does offer one significant key benefit: The very nature of the diet cuts down on foods laden with chemicals, preservatives and empty calories. Though the jury is out on whether the Paleo diet is a good idea or a fad, there is little doubt that eating more natural foods can be beneficial to anyone.
"Diet Review: The Caveman (Paleo) Diet," WebMD,
"Paleo Diet," U.S. News, 2013,
"Paleo Diet: Health Or A Hoax?," Huffington Post, 2012,
"Paleo Diet is Nonsense Science," Slate, 2013,