Last updated: October 27, 2020

The paleo diet, also known as the hunter-gatherer, caveman, or Stone Age diet is based on the belief that our bodies have not evolved to eat and digest foods produced through modern farming and agriculture.

The diet consists of food that our prehistoric ancestors would have eaten during the Paleolithic era, such as lean meats, fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. The Paleolithic period extended from approximately 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, ending with the arrival of agriculture and foods like dairy, grains, beans, and legumes. (4)

Advocates of the paleo diet believe that the consumption of foods from cultivation and modern agriculture has contributed to the prevalence of many chronic health conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (4)

man and daughter cooking in the kitchen

The paleo diet consists of food that our prehistoric ancestors would have eaten during the Paleolithic era, such as lean meats, fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruit.

Paleo diet benefits

Many studies have been conducted examining the effects and potential benefits of the Paleolithic diet on health. Research has shown that the paleo diet improves several metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors and may, therefore, be an effective therapeutic diet for individuals with type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. (3) One study noted that even a short-term paleo diet resulted in improvements in blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and lipid profile. (1)

Much of the research on the health benefits of the paleo diet compare its effects to those of other diets. A systematic review of randomized, controlled trials examined the impact of the paleo diet on the risk factors for chronic disease and found that the paleo diet showed greater improvements in risk factors for metabolic syndrome compared to guideline-based diets. (5)

In a 2009 report from Cardiovascular Diabetology comparing a paleo diet to a traditional diabetic diet, the paleo diet resulted in greater improvements in glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors, including triglyceride levels, hemoglobin A1c levels, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and weight. (2)

Furthermore, the paleo diet appears to be more effective in improving glucose tolerance when compared to a Mediterranean-type diet. A study compared a paleo diet based on lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables, and fruit with a Mediterranean-style diet comprised of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, oils, margarine, fish, and low-fat dairy products. Results from the study showed a 26% decrease in AUC glucose (glucose area under the curve) in the paleo group compared to a 7% decrease in the Mediterranean diet group. (5)

Similarly, another randomized, controlled study compared the effects of the paleo diet and the Mediterranean diet in patients with ischemic heart disease and glucose intolerance or type 2 diabetes. While improvements in glucose tolerance were observed in individuals following both diets, those following a paleo diet demonstrated significantly greater improvements. (4)

The rules of engagement: tips for a successful paleo diet

The key to following any successful diet is to adhere to a few evidence-based rules of engagement (and a little bit of planning, of course!).

Following a few simple rules of engagement can help you follow a paleo diet successfully and safely.

Rule 1: consume foods that our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten

The Paleo diet encourages consumption of whole, unprocessed foods, including:

  • Eggs
  • Fish and seafood
  • Fruits
  • Healthy fats and oils (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil)
  • Herbs and spices
  • Lean meats and poultry
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables (4)

Rule 2: avoid modern foods that would not have been a part of a hunter-gatherer’s diet

The Paleo diet discourages consumption of the following foods:

  • Added salt
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • All grains, including gluten-free
  • Beans and legumes
  • Dairy products
  • Hydrogenated oils and trans fats
  • Processed foods
  • Refined sugars (4)

Download a guide on the Paleo Diet

person cooking fish in a pan

A paleo diet should include a variety of fresh, local vegetables and fruits to ensure you’re meeting your daily nutrient needs.

Rule 3: choose good-quality, fresh foods when available

To ensure you’re getting the healthiest and most nutrient dense foods, consume a variety of fresh, local, and organic vegetables and fruits. (7) Varying your sources of vegetables and fruits will help ensure you’re meeting your daily nutrient needs. (8) When purchasing animal products, the best quality and nutrient-dense sources come from organic, free-range, pasture-raised, wild-caught, and sustainable options. (9) Processed meats, such as deli meats, should be avoided as they often contain unhealthy preservatives and nitrates. (3)

Rule 4: incorporate plant-based sources of protein

When it comes to the paleo diet, you likely think of a diet rich in animal protein. While beans and legumes are excluded from the diet, there are other plant-based protein sources, including a variety of nuts and seeds, that can be included in a paleo diet. An added bonus, these foods are also rich in unsaturated fat.

Rule 5: choose natural sugars

There are several acceptable natural sweeteners included in a paleo diet. Moderate amounts of raw honey, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, coconut sugar, and stevia can be enjoyed. Avoid refined sugars, which spike your blood sugar, and artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin.

Rule 6: try a modified paleo diet

Making sustainable dietary changes can be difficult, particularly when looking to move away from a high-carbohydrate diet like the standard North American diet to a grain-free paleo diet. A modified paleo diet including gluten-free grains and organic grass-fed butter or ghee can help ease the transition.

Rule 7: support your diet with supplements

While a well-planned paleo diet can provide all the nutrients your body needs to thrive, certain supplements can provide additional support. Be aware of potential calcium deficiency as the paleo diet is typically lower in calcium due to the fact that few people consume bone broth, organ meats, or meat cooked on the bone. Calcium supplementation can prevent deficiencies and associated complications such as bone mineral loss. (3) A broad-spectrum multivitamin can also act as “extra insurance” to fill any nutritional gaps and prevent deficiencies.

The bottom line

Research has demonstrated significant metabolic and cardiovascular benefits associated with the paleo diet. As with any diet, it’s important to ensure that your diet is properly-planned, incorporating a variety of fresh foods to prevent nutrient deficiencies. If you’re a patient, speak to your integrative healthcare practitioner who can help monitor your health, recommend appropriate supplements, and choose the diet best suited to your individual needs.

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  1. Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R.C. Jr., & Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(8), 947-55
  2. Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B., Branell, U.C., Pålsson, G., Hansson, A., … Lindeberg, S. (2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 8, 35.
  3. Karwowska, M., & Kononiuk, A. (2020). Nitrates/Nitrites in Food-Risk for Nitrosative Stress and Benefits. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 9(3), 241.
  4. Klonoff, D.C. (2009). The beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on type 2 diabetes and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 3(6), 1229-1232.
  5. Lindeberg, S., Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Borgstrand, E., Soffman, J., Sjöström, K., & Ahrén, B. (2007). A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia, 50(9), 1795-1807
  6. Manheimer, E.W., van Zuuren, E.J., Fedorowicz, Z., & Pijl, H. (2015). Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(4), 922–932.
  7. Mie, A., Andersen, H. R., Gunnarsson, S., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Rembiałkowska, E., Quaglio, G., & Grandjean, P. (2017). Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental health : a global access science source, 16(1), 111.
  8. Skerrett, P. J., & Willett, W. C. (2010). Essentials of healthy eating: a guide. Journal of midwifery & women’s health, 55(6), 492–501.
  9. Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., Gromadzka-Ostrowska, J., Rembiałkowska, E., Skwarło-Sońta, K., Eyre, M., Cozzi, G., Krogh Larsen, M., Jordon, T., Niggli, U., Sakowski, T., Calder, P. C., Burdge, G. C., Sotiraki, S., Stefanakis, A., Yolcu, H., … Leifert, C. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. The British journal of nutrition, 115(6), 994–1011.