Is the Paleo Diet Healthy? Yes, for These 5 Reasons

The Paleo diet may seem like another fad diet, but it’s technically been around for millions of years. Since the Paleolithic Era, to be specific.

Modern-day interpretations of the Paleo diet differ from what early humans presumably subscribed to. For example, it was much easier for hunter-gatherers to avoid common dietary triggers such as processed foods and dairy products since those didn’t exist.

But is the Paleo diet healthy, let alone sustainable, for today’s humans? In this article, we’ll give an overview of the Paleo eating plan and share the benefits and discuss criticisms of this popular diet.

What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo diet mimics what our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era, which is why it’s also referred to as the “caveman diet” or “Stone Age diet.”

Proponents of the Paleo diet believe humans’ digestive systems have not evolved much since the days of hunter-gatherers. Therefore, many people decide to follow the Paleo diet for improved gut health, optimum health and nutrition, weight loss, and an overall improvement in quality of life.

What Can You Eat on the Paleo Diet?

In modern times, the Paleo diet is a high-protein, lower-carb eating plan that emphasizes whole foods and restricts processed foods. 

A typical Paleo diet plan includes the following whole foods:

  • Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens like kale and spinach 
  • Fresh fruits (in moderation)
  • Animal proteins such as grass-fed lean meats, fresh fish, and eggs
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocados
  • Nuts and seeds

Meanwhile, these foods are not considered Paleo-friendly:

  • Processed foods 
  • Dairy products
  • Artificial sweeteners 
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, legumes, and lentils
  • Most vegetable oils

With any diet plan, it’s best to adhere to the basic guidelines instead of following every detail. It may take time to find a Paleo-inspired eating plan that best fits your needs. 

While you can experiment on your own, you can also work with a nutrition coach to find an effective, healthy solution. 

Is the Paleo Diet Healthy?

Fortunately for proponents of Paleo, there are several studies to back up their claims of the Paleo diet being a safe, healthy eating plan. Here are five reasons to consider the Paleo diet:

1. Controls Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s response to a perceived threat. Studies show chronic inflammation is linked to an astonishing number of chronic health conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and rheumatoid arthritis [1, 2].

The Paleo diet minimizes your exposure to potential inflammatory triggers like gluten, soy, and dairy as well as processed foods laden with sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. 

Generally speaking, the Paleo diet is known to yield lower levels of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress [3], which is why it’s so helpful in resolving many different symptoms and inflammatory conditions.

2. Supports a Balanced Gut Environment

Gut health and inflammation go hand-in-hand. Improving the health of your gut microbiome helps to control inflammation and vice versa [4].

The Paleo diet provides appropriate food sources for the microorganisms in your gut. A couple of cross-sectional studies show a link between the Paleo diet and a positive change in gut microbiome composition [5, 6]. 

Following the Paleo diet changes your intake of prebiotics, the primary food source for your gut bacteria. By reducing your intake of simple carbohydrates and eating more complex carbohydrates (fiber-rich foods), you feed good bacteria more than bad bacteria. In general, for those with an unbalanced gut microbiome, a lower-carb diet like the Paleo diet is beneficial. 

The Paleo diet is a good way to not only help stabilize your gut health but also find out how well you fare on a lower-carb diet.

3. Regulates Blood-Sugar

Your blood sugar levels influence a number of functions in your body including metabolism, energy levels, hormonal health, and sleep quality. Most importantly, a balanced blood-sugar level helps prevent type 2 diabetes.

The Paleo diet is free of processed wheat and flours, refined sugars, and other simple carbohydrates that can cause blood sugar levels to spike. Several studies show the Paleo diet is slightly better at reducing blood sugar in diabetic patients than other diets [7, 8].  

4. Promotes Weight Loss

The Paleo diet is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than the standard American diet. It’s also free of sugars and processed foods, which makes it a great option for weight loss. Plus, it’s an eating plan rich in nutrient-dense whole foods, which can help you feel full and result in fewer calories being consumed overall [9]. 

Short-term studies show the Paleo diet is effective for shedding weight and reducing waist size [10, 11]. Meanwhile, the only long-term study available reveals that post-menopausal women lost more weight on the Paleo diet than other dieters after six months, but results evened out among both groups by 24 months.

5. Reduces Health Problems

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that increases the likelihood of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke [12]. 

A meta-analysis links improvements in metabolic syndrome markers to following a Paleolithic diet [13]. Specifically, the Paleo diet has been shown to reduce triglycerides, improve HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”), and reduce blood pressure. Once again, the bulk of research only measures short-term diet results.

A high waist circumference has been linked to heart disease and other cardiovascular issues [14, 15]. We also know that cardiovascular disease is linked to high burdens of chronic inflammation [16]. Since the Paleo diet can help reduce waist size and inflammation, it can potentially reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Other Questions About The Paleo Diet 

The Paleolithic diet has numerous health benefits but it’s not without critics. The following concerns are often brought up regarding the Paleo diet. However, these concerns usually don’t hold up to closer scrutiny, especially since the Paleo diet offers plenty of room for flexibility.  

1. Is the Paleo Diet Too High in Saturated Fat?

If your approach to the Paleo diet is too narrow — in other words, you rely heavily on red meat as your primary protein source — critics suggest you run the risk of elevating your saturated fat levels to an unhealthy degree. 

It’s long been suggested that high saturated fat intake can raise LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease [17]. However, this traditional view grossly oversimplifies dietary fats and the factors that contribute to heart disease [18]

On the other hand, it’s also a misconception that traditional hunter-gatherer diets were mostly meat-based. Research suggests a wide variety in hunter-gatherer diets, with a general trend towards higher consumption of plant foods in warmer climates and higher consumption of fish (not red meat) in colder climates [19].

It’s a good practice to vary your protein intake and ensure adequate sources of healthy fats. Fish and seafood are rich sources of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids [20].  And don’t forget to include lots of plant-based foods in your Paleo diet.

2. Is Paleo Low in Vitamin D and Calcium?

Dairy products are absent from the Paleolithic diet, which subsequently removes an ample source of vitamin D and calcium. These nutrients help build and maintain strong bones [21]. Moreover, vitamin D plays a key role in regulating immune responses [22].

However, early humans were not devoid of either of these key nutrients. Hunter-gatherers got much of their vitamin D through sun exposure due to spending most of their time outdoors. For humans today, moderate sun exposure is a good health practice but not always practical — hence the emphasis on sufficient vitamin D intake via the modern diet.

As mentioned in the previous section, Paleolithic humans were not solely red meat-eaters. Hunter-gatherers in colder climates got their vitamin D and calcium from fish and seafood. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are all excellent protein choices to incorporate into your interpretation of the Paleo diet.

Also consider integrating mushrooms into your diet, as they’re one of the lone plant sources with significant vitamin D [23]. 

Dried seaweed, leafy greens, and bone broth are other Paleo-friendly food sources of calcium.

If necessary, you can take vitamin D and calcium supplements to make up for any deficiencies in your diet.

3. Is Paleo a Carbohydrate-Restricted Diet?

The Paleo diet is a lower-carb diet. However, it is not a carb-restricted diet. 

A typical American diet tends to be too high in carbs, specifically low-quality carbs from refined grains and added sugars that promote inflammation and spike blood sugar [24]. Therefore, many people can benefit from reducing their carb consumption.

Critics point to the health risks of following a carb-restricted eating plan long-term. Some studies link regular carbohydrate restriction to heart arrhythmias, kidney damage, and even cancer [25, 26], although there’s plenty of controversy here.

Fortunately, the Paleo diet is quite flexible and doesn’t need to be carb-restricted. Ideal carb consumption varies a lot between individuals. If you’re losing too much weight, lacking energy, or experiencing other complications due to a lack of carbohydrates, try reintroducing white rice, starchy root vegetables, or high-fat dairy. These are common modifications to the Paleo diet and shouldn’t impact the benefits you experience.

Should You Try the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo diet has several health benefits including weight loss and decreased inflammation. It’s a diet that suits most people. However, it may require extra time spent on food preparation — time well-spent in our opinion!

For those that want to try the Paleo diet, we recommend committing to a 2-3 week trial. Many people experience noticeable, positive changes in this amount of time. If your energy levels increase or your health symptoms improve, you’ll feel motivated to continue.

Is the Paleo diet healthy? The short answer is yes. 

The Paleolithic diet is free of foods that are common triggers of inflammation. With an emphasis on whole foods and lower carbohydrates, the Paleo diet may help promote weight loss, reduce inflammatory responses, regulate metabolism, and balance your gut microbiome.

Improve Your Eating Habits, Improve Your Health

Changing your eating habits is one of the easiest ways to improve your health and it’s something you can mostly do on your own. However, if you continue to have digestive issues, low energy, or other symptoms, even after improving your diet, you’ll want to work with an experienced functional medicine doctor to get to the root of the issue. 

The staff at Austin Functional Medicine provide personalized treatment so you’ll receive care that’s best suited for your unique needs. Schedule an appointment with Austin Functional Medicine today. Dr. Ruscio’s team is currently accepting new patients in-house and via telemedicine.

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