To improve your health, eat like a caveman. This is the philosophy of the Paleo diet, a regimen that its proponents claim can help improve Crohn’s disease, diabetes, obesity and indigestion. It entails returning to the way our ancestors ate—which mainly encompassed meat, fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits—and cutting out processed foods and carbohydrates for health and weight loss.
In 2013, the paleo diet was the most searched weight loss method on Google, but its origins start much earlier—between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, to be precise. Beginning in the 1970s, a number of people tried to revive hunter-gatherer eating. The father of the movement was gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin.
Voegtlin believed that “modern humans could achieve optimal health only if they ate exclusively the same foods their Stone Age progenitors ate,” writes Matt Fitzgerald in his book, “Diet Cults.” He continues, “In contrast, many staples of the modern diet, such as grains and dairy products, were so new to our DNA (on an evolutionary timescale) that the body scarcely knew what to do with them.”
The paleo diet continued to grow in popularity, reaching an apex in the 2000s. One of its earliest and most vocal advocates, scientist Loren Cordain, has authored numerous publications on the topic. He suggests one way to increase your chances of success with the diet is to follow the 85:15 rule: Stick to paleo foods 85 percent of the time and 15 percent of the time you can indulge in what you like. This way you’re more likely to still reap the rewards without feeling restricted.
Many paleo fans suggest looking at the plan not as a diet, but as shifting your daily habits. Making small changes over time can also help make the transition easier. For example, incorporate more fruits, vegetables and lean meat sources into your diet. After you’ve become comfortable with this, then start cutting back on sugar. Once you’ve acclimated to cutting out sugar, then start cutting back on wheat and gluten products. Tweaking your diet in accordance with paleo principles, and seeing how your body responds, will ensure greater long-term success than an abrupt change.
Cordain gives examples of what a typical day might look like on the paleo diet. To start, make an omelet with various vegetables sautéed in olive oil. You can add diced turkey or chicken breast to up your protein intake. For lunch, prepare early in the week by making a very large salad with mixed greens, vegetables, avocadoes and nuts. Grab from this stockpile each day, top with your choice of meat or seafood, and toss with olive oil and lemon juice. For dinner, swap out typical carbohydrates with vegetarian options. Try spaghetti squash rather than pasta, or grill salmon and pair it with steamed broccoli and spinach.
It’s important to note that the paleo diet is not without its limitations. Most studies on the diet are small and more conclusive evidence is needed to determine whether the food plan is as effective as some followers claim. In addition, some critics consider the diet restrictive and short-sighted. By eliminating certain food groups, like dairy and whole grains, you risk overlooking beneficial nutrients.
Ultimately, it is up to you to determine what diet works best for you and your lifestyle. The beauty of the paleo diet is that you can determine how strict you want to be, whether that means adopting the plan completely or incorporating certain rules into your existing routine.
The following represents the basic rules of the paleo diet. A comprehensive “Paleo Diet Food List” can be found online at www.ultimatepaleoguide.com/paleo-diet-food-list.
- Grass-fed meats
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado and coconut)
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils