Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on May 13, 2021
What Is It?

What Is It?

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You may also hear it called the "caveman" diet. When you follow this plan, you try to mimic what humans ate during the Paleolithic era, which began about 2.6 million years ago. You'll eat the kinds foods that our ancestors might have hunted, fished, and gathered, and avoid foods that weren't common until farming began. You'll also drink plenty of water and try to be active every day.

The Paleo Premise

The Paleo Premise

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The idea behind paleo is that today's highly processed foods aren't a good match for humans and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. There's some evidence that a simpler diet, like early humans used to eat, could be better for your health. 

What to Eat

What to Eat

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What people ate during the Paleolithic era had to do with where they lived, so there's no single detailed meal plan you'll follow. In general, you'll try to stick to local, organic, non-GMO products like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, plus fish and grass-fed beef. This adds up to a diet that's high in protein and fiber, contains an average amount of fat, and is low in carbs.

Paleo-Friendly Foods

Paleo-Friendly Foods

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A paleo diet may be a lot different than how you eat now. For instance, the meat, fish, and produce you eat should be fresh rather than frozen or canned. Some other foods that are OK are eggs, coconut oil, avocado, olives, and a few root vegetables that are high in nutrients, like sweet potatoes. Small amounts of honey are also allowed.

Foods to Avoid

Foods to Avoid

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You need to stay away from dairy products and cereal grains like wheat and oats. But that's not all. You must steer clear of potatoes and legumes like beans, peanuts, and peas. Also off-limits: refined sugar, salt, and highly processed foods.

An Immune System Boost

An Immune System Boost

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A diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables may lower your chances of getting heart disease, including heart attack and stroke. It's can be a good source of fiber, which can help cut your chances of becoming obese or getting type 2 diabetes. You also get more vitamin A, C, and E. These nutrients boost your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- and may help prevent cancer and other diseases.

Weight Loss

Weight Loss

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Go paleo and you may find it easier to drop extra pounds. The types of food you eat will fill you up and make you feel less hungry throughout the day. More studies are needed to see how the paleo diet stacks up against others in the long run.

Help for Your Heart

Help for Your Heart

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Salt is a no-no on the paleo diet. Studies show that cutting back on sodium can lower blood pressure. Plus, when you give up refined carbs, you also help protect your heart in the long run. Eating too many simple carbs, like those you find in sugar, pasta, and white bread, is linked to heart disease.

Blood Sugar Control

Blood Sugar Control

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A paleo diet could help prevent diabetes. If you already have it, the types of foods you'll eat may better control your blood sugar and improve how your body responds to insulin. Some research shows that it helps more than a low-salt, low-fat dairy diet that includes whole grains and legumes. You could see these benefits after as little as 3 months. But always check with your doctor before you make a drastic change to your eating habits.

Too Much Saturated Fat?

Too Much Saturated Fat?

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The paleo diet favors protein, most of which comes from animal products. If you don't stick to lean cuts of meat, you could take in too much saturated fat. That can lead to heart problems. If you have a health issue like kidney disease and need to watch how much protein you have, a paleo diet may not be safe.

Low Energy

Low Energy

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Carbs are your body's main source of fuel. A paleo diet restricts your carbs to around 23% of your total diet, compared to the 45% to 65% that experts suggest. If you lead an active lifestyle, this extreme decrease in carbs may make you tired.

Protect Your Bones

Protect Your Bones

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Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients that can be hard to get on a paleo diet. You need them to prevent conditions like osteoporosis, rickets, and bone fractures. Some research also shows that low-fat dairy products, which you can't eat on the paleo diet, help reduce the amount of inflammation in your body. If you decide to go paleo, talk to your doctor about whether to start supplements.

Challenges of a Paleo Diet

Challenges of a Paleo Diet

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Some people find it hard to stick with it for a long time. Many common foods like birthday cake, pizza, or even a peanut butter sandwich aren't allowed. You may find yourself saying "no thanks" a lot when you're visiting friends. And some foods that are heart-healthy, like whole grains, are off-limits.

Partly Paleo

Partly Paleo

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Like the idea of paleo but don't want to commit to the entire plan? There are ways you can make aspects of this diet part of your daily life. For instance, you can try to have protein and a little fat at every meal or snack. You can also include more colorful veggies and fruits and limit the amount of ready-made foods and snacks you eat.

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SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Paleo Diet: What is It and Why Is It So Popular?" "Vegetarian diet: how to get the best nutrition?"

EatRight.org/Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Should We Eat Like Our Caveman Ancestors?"

UPMC Health Beat: "Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: Paleo Diet for Weight Loss."

Harvard Health Publishing: "The 'Paleo Diet:' -- Back to the Stone Age."

Providence Health & Services/Oregon and SW Washington: "Ask an expert: Paleo pros and cons."

University of California, Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools: "Nutrition and Health Info Sheet: The Paleo Diet."

UC Davis Health: "Is the paleo diet safe for your health?"

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin A," "Vitamin C" and "Vitamin E."

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes."

American Cancer Society: "Good-for-you Carbohydrates."