What is Paleo Diet? 9 Foods to Include in Your Plate

Imagine a journey not just through time but through diet and lifestyle – a voyage back to an era untouched by fast food chains and processed snacks.

The Paleo diet, often called the ‘Caveman Diet,’ is a compelling venture into this primordial past, promoting a lifestyle that embraces foods our pre-agricultural forebears could obtain by hunting and gathering. It’s not just a diet—an exploration into our evolutionary past, providing a unique perspective on nutrition that could be the key to healthier living in today’s modern world.

The Fundamentals of the Paleo Diet

“The paleo diet is based on foods humans ate during that Paleolithic era, which was about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago,” says Julia Zumpano, RD. This diet primarily includes whole, unprocessed foods such as lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, while excluding grains, dairy, legumes, refined or added sugar, added salt, certain high-starch vegetables, and processed foods.

The origin of the Paleo diet traces back to our ancestral roots during the Paleolithic era. This advent of farming around 10,000 years ago introduced foods like grains, legumes, and dairy into the human diet, which the Paleo diet typically excludes. The reason behind this exclusion is the belief that these dietary changes outpaced the human body’s ability to adapt, contributing to contemporary health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Over time, the concept of the Paleo diet has evolved, and it is now considered more of a template than a strict set of dietary rules. “It’s a way of eating that presumedly mimics the dietary habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors,” explains Jen Messer, a nutrition consultant and registered dietitian.

The Paleo community acknowledges several versions of the Paleo diet, some of which permit more modern foods like grass-fed butter and gluten-free grains like rice. This flexibility indicates that many people perceive Paleo as a fundamental guide to base one’s diet on rather than a rigid doctrine to adhere to meticulously. 

Foods Included in the Paleo Diet

The Paleo diet emphasises whole, unprocessed foods that were presumably available to our Paleolithic ancestors. The following types of foods are encouraged on this diet:

  1. Meat

The Paleo diet encourages the consumption of lean meats, including grass-fed beef and game meats. These types of meat are high in protein and other essential nutrients like iron and vitamin B12.

  1. Fish and Seafood

Fish, particularly those high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and tuna, are part of the Paleo diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health and reducing inflammation in the body.

  1. Eggs

Eggs are a good protein source and provide important vitamins and minerals.

  1. Vegetables

Non-starchy vegetables are a key part of the Paleo diet. They provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.

  1. Fruits

Fruits, high in fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants, are also included in the Paleo diet.

  1. Tubers

Tubers like sweet potatoes are part of the Paleo diet. They are a good source of carbohydrates, fibre, and various nutrients.

  1. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds, including chia and flaxseeds, are encouraged on the Paleo diet. They are high in fibre and healthy fats and offer good protein.

  1. Healthy Fats and Oils

Healthy fats and oils, including those from avocados, coconut, and olive oil, are part of the Paleo diet. These fats are important for brain function, absorbing vitamins, and producing hormones.

  1. Salt and Spices

Salt, herbs, and spices are allowed on the Paleo diet to enhance the flavour of foods.

Sensible Indulgences

In the context of the Paleo diet, sensible indulgences refer to food and drink items that may not strictly adhere to the Paleo guidelines but can be enjoyed in moderation without significantly impacting the overall benefits of the diet. 

  • Wine

While alcohol is typically not part of the Paleo diet due to its processing, wine is occasionally allowed as a sensible indulgence. It should be consumed in moderation, preferably red wine, which has more beneficial antioxidants.

  • Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate (with a high cocoa content, typically above 70%) is another sensible indulgence. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and can benefit health when consumed in moderation. Choosing dark chocolate that is low in sugar and free from any dairy or unnecessary additives is important.

Foods Excluded from the Paleo Diet

The Paleo diet discourages the consumption of certain types of foods that were not available to our ancestors during the Paleolithic era. The following foods are excluded or discouraged on the Paleo diet:

  1. Sugar and High-Fructose Corn Syrup

These added sugars are found in numerous processed foods and beverages. They can lead to weight gain, increased risk of heart disease, and other health issues.

  1. Grains

The Paleo diet excludes wheat, barley, and oats. These foods are believed to have been unavailable during the Paleolithic era and can cause inflammation in some people.

  1. Dairy

Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yoghurt, are not part of the Paleo diet. Our ancestors likely didn’t consume dairy, and some people may have difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.

  1. Some Vegetable Oils

The Paleo diet restricts certain vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn, and sunflower. These oils can be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which may contribute to inflammation.

  1. Artificial Sweeteners

The Paleo diet avoids artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. These sweeteners are unnatural and may negatively affect gut health and metabolism.

  1. Highly Processed Foods

Processed foods often contain added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. The Paleo diet promotes the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods for optimal health.

  1. Legumes

Beans, lentils, and other legumes are not part of the Paleo diet. They contain antinutrients like phytic acid and lectins, which can interfere with nutrient absorption and cause digestive issues in some people.

  1. Added Salt

Although some salt is necessary for proper bodily functions, the Paleo diet recommends limiting added salt, as excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure and other health problems.

  1. Certain Starchy Vegetables

The Paleo diet avoids high-starch vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes. These vegetables can cause blood sugar spikes and may contribute to weight gain.

Pros of the Paleo Diet

The Paleo diet can be highly effective due to its focus on single-ingredient, unprocessed foods, a key aspect of any healthy diet plan. Here are some of the potential benefits:

  • Weight Loss

The Paleo diet can help with weight loss by eliminating processed foods, salty snacks, and high-fat foods that are often calorie-dense and overconsumed. The diet “can be a healthy eating plan as it helps you achieve many nutrient requirements and could even contribute to weight loss and improved blood glucose and lipid profiles,” says Halperin.

  • Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

Research indicates that the Paleo diet may lower blood pressure and cholesterol since it cuts out foods high in fat and sugar. It also seems to improve glucose tolerance and increase insulin sensitivity, which can be beneficial for managing Type 2 diabetes.

  • Heart Health

A study involving young adults found that the Paleo diet was linked to lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease, largely due to the avoidance of highly processed foods and the inclusion of fruits and vegetables.

However, choosing lean meats is crucial to avoid an unintended increase in cholesterol levels.

Cons of the Paleo Diet

While the Paleo diet has its benefits, it also has potential downsides to consider:

  • Exclusion of Certain Foods

The Paleo diet excludes grains, legumes, and dairy, all sources of essential nutrients. This exclusion could lead to nutrient deficiencies over time.

  • Unknown Long-term Effects

The long-term effects of the Paleo diet are not well-known. While diets like the Mediterranean diet are known to be safe to follow lifelong, the same cannot be said for the Paleo diet. Thus, it might be best to consider the Paleo diet for short-term health goals, eventually incorporating other nutrient-rich foods that provide a balanced diet.

Typical Day’s Menu Following a Paleo Diet

Following the Paleo diet means eating many whole, unprocessed foods. It offers a host of filling food options thought to be eaten at that time, “foods one could hunt, fish or gather,” says Caroline Susie, a registered dietician. Here’s what a typical day might look like:

  • Breakfast

Start your day with a meal composed of a lean protein source, fruits, and healthy fats. For instance, scrambled eggs with spinach and avocado on the side could make a hearty, nutrient-dense breakfast.

  • Lunch

A common lunch might include a salad with various vegetables and grilled chicken or fish. You could drizzle the salad with olive oil, lemon juice, or a homemade dressing free of processed sugars and additives.

  • Dinner

A slice of lean meat like grass-fed beef or wild-caught fish served with roasted vegetables or sweet potato would be a good choice.

  • Snacks

Healthy snacks such as fresh fruits, nuts, or raw vegetables can keep hunger at bay between meals.

Paleo Diet Recipes and Snacks

“A paleo eating plan is one that is high in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals and low in simple carbohydrates, sugar, sodium and processed foods,” says Perri Halperin, MS, RD, clinical nutrition coordinator. There are numerous delicious and nutritious Paleo-friendly recipes and snacks you can prepare. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Baked Salmon

This dish is simple to prepare and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. You can season the salmon with lemon juice, garlic, and fresh herbs before baking it in the oven. Serve it with a side of steamed vegetables or a green salad.

  • Chicken Salad

A salad with grilled chicken, fresh vegetables (like lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes), and a homemade vinaigrette can be a satisfying lunch.

  • Paleo Beef Stir-Fry

You can create a nutritious stir-fry using grass-fed beef, various colourful vegetables (such as bell peppers, broccoli, and carrots), and a sauce made from coconut aminos (a soy sauce alternative), ginger, and garlic. Serve it on a bed of cauliflower rice for a complete meal.

  • Roasted Almonds with Rosemary

Almonds are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Toss them in olive oil and rosemary, then roast them in the oven until golden brown.

  • Paleo Smoothie

Blend some spinach, a banana, blueberries, a scoop of unsweetened almond butter, and some unsweetened almond milk. This smoothie is packed with nutrients and is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth while sticking to the Paleo diet.

Reviving Ancient Eating Habits

The Paleo Diet returns to our ancestors’ nutritional roots, emphasising whole foods and excluding processed ones. It undeniably promotes a more mindful approach to eating and could serve as a powerful starting point for those seeking to improve their diet.