Do you ever want to get back to nature? Do you dream about making fire with sticks and stalking deer with a bow and arrow? You’re in luck! In recent years, the Paleolithic diet, better known as paleo, has got foodies nixing dairy and cereal grains and replacing them with berries, nuts, veggies and other foods our Flintstonian ancestors (may have) chowed down on. But is this prehistoric meal plan as healthy as it’s cracked up to be?
First, some history – or rather, prehistory. The Paleolithic era that inspired this diet was a time when humans were thought to have been hunter-gatherers, about 50,000 years ago. That was long before farming was all the rage.
The logic behind the paleo diet is that our bodies evolved to digest and eat meat, nuts, berries, leafy greens and other things they could find or catch in the wild, not new-fangled wheat, oats, milk, processed oils and other agricultural products. Paleo supporters say that eating this way puts our metabolisms at peak efficiency and that it’s the best way to lose body fat, build muscle, cleans toxins and generally make us lean, mean, mastodon-hunting machines.
These are some foods the paleo diet calls for:
- Poultry and other lean meats
- Fruits and vegetables, raw or cooked in lean oil
- Nuts and berries
- Tubers like potatoes, yams, turnips and so on
And some foods the paleo diet forbids:
- Cereal grains like corn, oats and wheat
- Cheese, milk and other dairy products
- Vegetable oil
(If you want to try it out, Healthline has a great starter meal plan for paleo beginners.)
But would-be cave men beware: Some experts claim that the paleo diet assumes that a) our bodies haven’t really changed much in the last aeon or so, and that b) we can’t really be sure of what, exactly, our early ancestors are. At least, not with the precision to decide what to put in your workout smoothie.
To unravel the ongoing debate, here is a list of pros and cons of the paleo diet:
Pro: Paleo is all-natural
Although paleo controversially cuts out seemingly healthy foods like milk and oats, it also cuts out processed foods like sugar, saturated fat and alcohol. Basically all nutritionists agree that our hunger instincts are not equipped to handle the super-refined, super-delicious nutrients that modern technology has put at our fingertips in the form of fast-food hamburgers and chocolate bars, and paleo avoids these like a sabre-toothed tiger.
Con: Paleo assumes our bodies have not changed, but they have
Firstly, new evidence suggests that even the earliest humans may have been making bread. But even if not, the time since that era has been long enough for our bodies to change. In fact, humans are especially nutritionally adaptable, argues Marlene Zuk in her book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. Over the past tens of thousands of years, humans have spread around the world, and have adapted to the foods available. Ann Gibbons, writing for National Geographic, points out that the Gwi people of Southern Africa consume vastly more agricultural foods than the Alaskan Nunamiut, who rely on hunting. Likewise, the Gwi are genetically better at digesting starchy foods.
Pro: Paleo aligns with other popular diets
Paleo is a low-stakes diet because most of the time you will find yourself picking the same sorts of menu options as your friends on keto, Atkins and other restrictive diets. This is because it targets carbohydrates (including processed sugar), oils, salts and other commonly accepted nutritional no-nos.
Con: The research is still iffy
At this point, paleo is mostly theoretical. Some studies have shown that people on the paleo diet lose weight faster than national diet recommendations of several countries, however, these studies were short and involved relatively few participants. And they didn’t prove that the paleo diet actually works because it avoids modern foods, or because it simply causes people to eat fewer calories.
Pro: But the research does show weight loss
As the saying goes: If it’s stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid.
Con: Paleo could be harmful in other ways
There has not been enough research conducted to show whether or not paleo can have harmful effects – for example, by depriving the body of certain micronutrients, like calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins that we usually get from foods that paleo forbids.