What is the Paleo Diet?
While there are different interpretations of The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain is sort of known as the father of the rules and diet approach. It is a diet that mimics that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, or what humans were eating until ~10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture.
From www.thepaleodiet.com it includes “copious amounts of nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables and fruits, lean meats and seafood, all the while eliminating inflammatory foods such as grains, dairy, refined sugars, refined oils, and processed foods.” Even foods like the white potato are excluded.
The website outlines 11 core principles for the rationale of the following The Paleo Diet including:
1) Feed Your DNA
2) Improve Nutrient Density
3) Forget macronutrients, focus on healthy foods
4) Stop cravings
5) Reduce dips in energy
6) Eat more natural plant foods
7) Improve key nutrient ratios
8) Eat the right ratios of fatty acids (ie omega6:omega3)
9) Improve your acid-base balance
10) Eliminate anti-nutrients
11) Enjoy a sense of freedom
The Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet
While the 11 core principles appear impressive, most of them are not scientifically valid claims. The podcast episode linked above discusses the weaknesses of claims about eating a diet for your DNA (#1), stopping cravings and dips in energy (#4 and #5), improving key nutrition ratios (#7 and #8), improving your acid base balance (#9) and eliminating anti-nutrients in more detail.
The primary benefit of the Paleo Diet is not related to these claims – but instead is because of #2 and #6. You simply focusing on eating more whole foods than not. In the US, more than 80% of people are not eating enough vegetables, 74% of people are overweight, and we are consuming too many refined grains and added sugars. All of those principles don’t have to been scientifically accurate for the diet to have a positive effect.
The magic of the diet is simply the focus on whole, unprocessed foods. This is very similar to the magic of the #800gChallenge® – the difference there, however, is that the #800gChallenge® doesn’t have to eliminate all processed foods.
And that is one of the biggest cons of the Paleo diet. The strict black-and-white rules force individuals to eliminate all the foods common in a modern food environment. While proponents argue this gives you a sense of freedom (principle #11), it usually is the opposite. You don’t have the freedom to eat the foods you love, yet those foods can be part of a healthy diet (key word being “part”).
Paleo Diet Macros
One of the things that is not well understood is what the paleo diet macros are. Well, the confusion is understandable – because the Paleo Diet encourages followers not to worry about their macronutrient distribution.
The Paleo Diet is all about eating certain types of foods (high quality ones), but not the quantity of them (ie calorie or macronutrient tracking). This means the macronutrient ratios can vary widely between individuals based on their habits and preferences.
The good news is the human body is quite adaptable so there is a wide strike zone of macronutrient ratios for many goals. However, as the individual has more specific body composition and/or performance goals, the more important a macronutrient ratio becomes. (check out the How to Fuel Performance episode for more).
Want more on the science of The Paleo Diet?
Check out the podcast episode linked above for more. Topics include:
- How to eat to “feed your DNA”;
- Whether we need a precise macronutrient distribution;
- The glycemic index and whether this directs cravings and energy levels;
- The problem with targeting “ratios” (e.g., omega-6 to omega-3, sodium to potassium);
- The problem with the acid-base balance diet approach;
- The problem with “anti-nutrient” claims;
- Why what our ancestors ate is not necessarily optimal.
Gaesser et al., 2021. GI as a proxy for “quality.”
Niwano et al., 2009. Low GI foods do not suppress hunger or increase satiety.
Vega-Lopez et al., 2018. Low GI diets do not support weight loss or prevent diabetes or CVD.
Wu et al., 2021. High GI diets do not affect hunger.