Paleo Diet 101: The Stone Age Guide To Healthy Weight Loss


Imagine losing weight without counting calories, tracking macros, or starving yourself. Impossible? Not according to proponents of the popular paleolithic diet or paleo diet who believe that sticking as closely as possible to the unprocessed foods our Stone Age ancestors ate can lead to both, weight loss and better health.

But is the paleo diet really healthy? A growing number of studies have found that eating a paleo diet not only triggers sustainable weight loss, it may also reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. (1) One study published in The Journal of Nutrition concluded that eating the paleo way may even help you live a longer, healthier life. (2)

person standing on a white weight scale

The paleo diet has been proven to help with healthy weight loss.

The modern caveman: paleo in the 21st century

The paleo diet—also known as the Stone Age Diet, hunter-gatherer diet, or the caveman diet—isn’t your average low-carb diet. Instead, it’s based on avoiding any foods humans ate after the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. According to Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet, paleo includes all grains, dairy, beans and legumes, refined and processed foods, fast foods, unhealthy fats high in omega-6 fatty acids, and sugar. (3) That’s a radical shift from the modern Western diet, where it’s estimated that at least 70 percent of the calories consumed are processed, refined, and not readily adaptable by the human body. (1)

The basic premise of paleo is that we need to return to the way early humans ate before the advent of agriculture. Known as the discordance hypothesis, Paleo advocates the belief that we are genetically mismatched to the rapid dietary changes that occurred with the introduction of grains, dairy, and other human manipulated foods. (4) Instead, according to the principles of paleo (5):

  • We should eat foods that mimic those our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors ate.
  • We should avoid modern foods that these hunter-gatherers never or rarely ate.
  • Foods should be the freshest and the highest quality available. Vegetables should be in-season and organic when possible. Meats should be organic or pastured. Fish should be wild-caught.
  • While counting macros isn’t necessary, Cordain notes that a typical paleo meal would typically contain approximately 38 percent protein from animal foods, 23 percent carbohydrates (vegetables and some fruit), and 39 percent from fats. (6)
  • Eat until you are full at each meal.

So what can you eat? the paleo food list

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Meat & poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Fats & oils

Foods to avoid: 

  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Refined seed oils
  • Sugar
assortment of food that applies to the paleo diet guidelines

When following the paleo diet, foods like meat & poultry, eggs, and nuts & seeds are essentials to consume.

But is paleo really healthy?

At its core, eating the paleo way isn’t really a weight loss diet, although there is research showing that it can help you shed pounds. In fact, clinical trials report that calorie for calorie, people who ate following the paleo diet felt fuller longer and lost more body fat—especially belly fat—than those eating a typical diet. (7, 8) That’s a happy side effect of adopting a paleo diet. But the true purpose of the paleo diet is to fuel the body for optimal health.

Two studies conducted at the University of California, San Francisco found that a paleo diet, even when eaten on a short-term basis, improved insulin sensitivity, glucose control, blood pressure, and lipid profiles in participants with type 2 diabetes and also among healthy volunteers leading a sedentary lifestyle. (9, 10) Other studies mirror these findings, reporting lower HbA1c values and body mass indices (BMI), a drop in waist circumference, improved blood pressure, a reduction in total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides, and an uptick in HDL (good) cholesterol. (11, 12, 13)

Your gastrointestinal system can also benefit from eating a paleo diet. The standard American diet often referred to as the SAD diet, is typically grain-heavy. Cereal grains like wheat and barley contain gluten and lectins that can trigger chronic inflammation, increase intestinal permeability, and downgrade gastrointestinal immunity. (14) Yet Dutch researchers have found that even adhering to a short-term gluten-free diet like paleo can change the composition of your gut microbiome. (15) This difference in gut bacteria was highlighted in a comparison between a group of Italian city-dwellers and hunter-gatherer members of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania. Those living an urban lifestyle largely ate a traditional mediterranean diet while the diet among the Hadza tribe consisted primarily of plants and game meat. Researchers who conducted the review noted that the microbiota among the tribal members was richer and more diverse than the microbiota in the considerably more modern Italians. (16) Another study comparing paleo with the mediterranean diet found that both diets reduced the risk of developing polyps in the colon—a precursor to colon cancer. (17)

Adopting a paleo diet may also boost brain benefits. Recent studies suggest that people with Alzheimer’s disease have an insensitivity to insulin similar to that seen in people with type 2 diabetes. (18) To test these findings, a group of researchers at Sweden’s Umeå University investigated how a 12-week lifestyle intervention could improve the risk of developing dementia among a group of sedentary people with type 2 diabetes. All the participants were randomized to a paleo diet with or without high-intensity exercise. Along with weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity, MRI’s of both groups showed better functional brain responses in the hippocampus and areas of the right brain. This led the researchers to conclude that a paleo diet—regardless of whether you exercise or not—might improve neuronal plasticity in brain areas linked to cognitive function and reduce the risk of future dementia. (19)

With all of these health and weight loss benefits, you might be wondering if there are any downsides to eating a paleo diet. Aside from being fairly restrictive, especially for someone who is used to eating a typical Western diet, switching to paleo is generally safe. The only issue, according to new findings published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is the potential for an iodine deficiency—something easily remedied by taking a low-dose iodine supplement. (20)

If the new year finds you searching for new ways to lose weight, slay that sugar dragon, and foster good health from head to toe, paleo just might be for you. After all, sometimes the best way to move forward toward your goals is to tap into the wisdom of your ancestors! We recommend you should always consult with your health care provider before making health-related changes to your lifestyle.

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