What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo diet is a type of diet our human ancestors ate. The name of the diet references the Paleolithic Era. Scientists pin this period of time to about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. You might also know it as the Stone Age. It was a time when early humans slept in caves and huts.1

The basic idea is that our bodies have changed little in the past 10,000 years. But our food sources have changed a lot. And eating as our ancestors did may lead to better health. It may also protect against disease.1-3

What did Paleolithic people eat?

Paleolithic people ate what they hunted, fished, or gathered. The modern paleo diet recreates the spirit of a Paleolithic menu. The exact foods may be different, but the idea is the same.1,2

Today’s paleo diet promotes eating fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It also promotes lean meats, fish, and eggs for protein. In other words, cooked lean meats and lots of fibrous plant matter.1,2

What did Paleolithic people not eat?

Small-scale farming only started a few thousand years ago. So Paleolithic people did not have access to certain foods we have today. For example, beans, dairy, and grains.1,3

The Paleo diet asks us to eat fewer of these foods. For example, less soy and milk. And less cereals, breads, and pasta. It also asks us to avoid processed foods, added salt, and refined sugar. After all, our cave-dwelling ancestors did not have sliced bread or boxed cereal.1,3

What are some examples of paleo diet foods?

You can find many foods in today’s grocery store that fit a paleo diet. For example:1,2

  • Non-starchy, fibrous, colorful veggies – spinach, kale, chard, carrots, Brussels sprouts, peppers, artichoke hearts, asparagus, zucchini, eggplant, parsley, broccoli, and mushrooms
  • Root vegetables – sweet potato, beets, butternut or acorn squash; eat in moderation
  • Whole, raw fruits – apples, berries, bananas, melons, grapes, citrus, and stone fruits
  • Seeds – chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and pine nuts
  • Whole nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, pecans, and Brazil nuts; look for plain nuts and those without salt, flavor, or sugar coatings
  • Eggs
  • Lean meats – grass-fed beef, chicken, and turkey
  • Fish – look for ones rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as albacore tuna, salmon, and mackerel
  • Shellfish – fresh or unprocessed shrimp, crab, or lobster
  • Oils from fruits and nuts – olive, walnut, macadamia nut, avocado, or coconut

What does the paleo diet rule out?

The paleo diet discourages counting calories. It also discourages people from eating any of the following:1-3

  • Whole grains
  • Refined grains
  • Refined or added sugar
  • Refined oils
  • High-starch vegetables (corn, peas, and white potatoes)
  • Dairy products
  • Cereal
  • Coffee
  • Fruit juices
  • Energy drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Added salt
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Processed foods of any kind

When starting the paleo diet, it might be hard to give up some foods. Take it slow. Add a few Paleo meals throughout the week and build from there. This may help the transition to a new diet.2

Does the paleo diet help with weight management?

The paleo diet focuses on single-ingredient foods. It eliminates processed foods. Many people who follow this diet end up losing weight. If you have obesity, ask your doctor if it may help you lose weight.3

There are many paleo benefits. A few studies show benefits after following the paleo diet for 6 months. This includes:2

  • Weight loss
  • Smaller waist
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cholesterol levels
  • Improved triglyceride levels
  • Improved insulin sensitivity

One study compared the paleo diet to the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations diet. Those following the paleo diet lost more fat after 6 months. But after 2 years, both groups had lost a similar amount of fat.2

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Are there any health concerns about eating this diet?

Yes. Strictly following the paleo diet may lead to some nutritional deficiencies over time. You may need to take vitamins to get enough calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins.2

Some studies have also found health risks from a high-meat diet. These include a higher risk of death, heart disease, and diabetes.2

You also may not get enough fiber with the paleo diet. This is due to the lack of grains and legumes.1,3

Keep in mind that there are no long-term studies on the health effects of the paleo diet.3

How long do people follow the paleo diet?

There are benefits of removing processed foods, sugar, and salt from your diet long-term. But some dietitians say that following a diet with the most variety is best. For this reason, some people choose to use the paleo diet to meet their health goals. But then they add other foods, like legumes or whole grains, back—in moderation.3

Questions to ask your doctor

Always talk to your doctor before making big changes to your diet. You may want to ask your doctor some of the following questions:

  • How might the paleo diet affect me, given my health conditions?
  • Should I talk with a dietitian?
  • Do I need to have any tests done to monitor my health while on the paleo diet?
  • What should I know about following the paleo diet in the long-term?

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