Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve probably heard someone touting the health benefits of the paleo diet. (Maybe it was one of the many celebrities who have given it props, like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Matthew McConaughey, Megan Fox, and Uma Thurman?) But before you start eating like a Flintstone, here’s what you need to know about the enduring caveman-inspired health craze.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleolithic Diet–also known as the paleo or caveman diet–is a meat-centric, low-carbohydrate diet that eschews grains, beans, dairy, and sugar in favor of meat, fruit, and vegetables. It’s based around the concept that we are unable to adapt fast enough to handle some of the foods that have been created since the advent of agriculture, and that we should be eating a diet as close as possible to that of our caveman ancestors.
While it seems like a pretty modern phenomenon, it’s actually been around since the 1970s, when gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin wrote “The Stone Age Diet” (which was self-published, and so is pretty difficult to find these days); it gained ground when Loren Cordain wrote his book “The Paleo Diet” (a term he subsequently trademarked) in 2002. But paleo didn’t become mainstream until the last several years: we first wrote about it building traction in 2011 when a paleo-themed restaurant opened in Germany. Since then, paleo’s only gotten more popular–take the success of Nom Nom Paleo (created by Michelle Tam, who we interviewed in 2017) for just one prominent example.
Why Go Paleo?
Eating like a caveman emphasizes eating whole foods that are absent of gluten and dairy, both of which have been known to trigger allergic reactions. And because the diet provides few carbohydrates, it’s been known to bring on quick weight loss; with drastically fewer carbs, the body winds up burning stored fat instead. But in addition to aiding in weight loss and maintenance, according to paleo advocates, the diet prevents so-called diseases of civilization such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In addition, many swear by its ability to reverse autoimmune diseases and diabetes, and even clear up skin.
Still, many studies have been inconclusive as to whether the diet will help you lose weight in the long run, or whether it has proven cardiovascular benefits. It’s also not without its naysayers. Michael Pollan, for one, was quick to say proponents of the diet were “blowing smoke.” Some scientists counter that there’s evidence Paleolithic beings did eat grains, and that they ate varied diets; still other critics cite The China Study, a large study that examined the correlation between animal products and chronic illnesses.
So What’s Not Allowed on the Diet?
Just about all grains, such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, quinoa, and amaranth, are off-limits. So are beans and legumes like lentils and peanuts, since they weren’t part of our ancestral diet. Dairy, alcohol, overly salty foods, and added sugar aren’t allowed. Corn syrup, artificial colorings, preservatives, and flavorings are prohibited because they’re processed; for that reason, so are most vegetable oils. Say bye-bye to packaged snacks and convenience foods too–or as PaleoLeap puts it, “As a rule of thumb, if it’s in a box, don’t eat it.”
It should be noted that eating paleo is not the same as eating gluten-free (although it does have much in common with the Whole30). While this diet is naturally gluten-free, not all gluten-free diets are paleo; gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa are prohibited on the paleo diet.
OK, So What Can You Eat?
Well-raised meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are at the heart of this diet. Expect to eat a lot of animal protein; note that this can get expensive, and if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, this diet probably isn’t for you. You’ll also eat lots of non-starchy vegetables, although starchy tubers with lower glycemic levels, like sweet potatoes and yams, are OK to eat. It’s tough to find options while dining out, but there are plenty of make-at-home menu options. Within these limitations, you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Because most vegetable oils are off-limits, animal fats are popular; so are lesser-processed oils like olive oil and coconut oil. For any recipes that might traditionally call for flour, expect substitutions like almond meal or coconut flour.
The Paleo Kitchen
Decided you’re going paleo? A lot of healthy recipes are naturally paleo-friendly, but here are a few options that’ll help you get started.
Dandelion greens and fried eggs are a protein-rich start to the day. Get our Wilted Greens with Balsamic Fried Eggs recipe.
A sweet, earthy pick-me-up of parsnips, carrots, beets, and apple. Get our Roots Juice recipe.
If you’re missing grains, try substituting spaghetti squash for pasta, but eliminate the Parmigiano-Reggiano, which contains dairy. Get our Roasted Spaghetti Squash recipe.
A basic salmon fillet would make a nice topper to any green salad. Get our Basic Seared Salmon Fillet recipe.
Serve broiled chicken breasts with mashed yams for a hearty dinner. Get our Easy Broiled Chicken Breasts recipe.
Slow cook pork to fork-shredding perfection and serve it over baked sweet potatoes or cauliflower rice, for starters. Get the Paleo Crock-Pot Carnitas recipe.
Eggs, coconut flour, and sweet potatoes make for satisfying waffles you can eat for dinner or brunch. Get the Paleo Sweet Potato Waffles recipe.
Egg roll wrappers aren’t allowed, but this quick and easy stir-fry replicates the filling and is packed with lean meat and veggies. To make it paleo, be sure to swap in coconut aminos for the soy sauce. Get the Paleo Egg Roll in a Bowl recipe.
You’re not really meant to eat much in the way of dessert on paleo, but you also shouldn’t deny yourself completely. These small-batch paleo brownies are made with almond flour, coconut sugar (and coconut oil), and fresh raspberries. Get the Small Batch Almond Flour Paleo Brownies with Raspberries recipe.
Note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2015 and was updated with new text, images, and links on January 3, 2019.
Related Video: How to Make Instant Pot Paleo Pancakes
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