Is the Paleo Diet Healthy?

Diets are comparable to any trend in fashion, they come and go and sometimes reappear as a new trend when you least expect it.

Trends catch fire in the media and society. We are sold the idea that the next best thing will be “The Answer” to… happiness, health, self-confidence or whatever you would fill that blank in with.

A more recent popular fad diet you may have heard of is the Paleo Diet. This diet has gained immense popularity in media and diet culture, but does that mean the most popular new diet will be “The Answer” for you?

Where did the Paleo Diet Originate?

The Paleo Diet started to grow interest in 2002 after the book, The Paleo Diet, was first published by Dr. Loren Cordain [1].

The Paleo Diet can also be referred to as the “caveman’s diet,” “Stone Age diet,” “hunter-gatherer diet,” or “primal diet” [1].

The Paleo Diet is based on eating similar to the preagricultural Paleolithic era, returning to a way of eating that existed from 3 million years ago to the end of the Ice Age [1,3].

The Paleo Diet is promoted to align with what was thought to be the original ancestral pattern of hunter-gatherers [1].

What Does the Paleo Diet Entail?

The Paleo Diet follows the trend of clean eating and promotes the elimination of processed foods, even grains due to the belief that the right way of eating was prior to the agricultural boom [1, 3].

Initially researchers estimated that our ancestors’ daily macronutrients intake included 37% protein, 41% carbohydrates, and 22% fat. They estimated at this time those eating a hunter-gatherer diet were also getting about 100g of fiber per day [1].

In 2000, Laura Cordain published a research paper estimating our ancestors’ daily macronutrient intakes as well. The estimates for a day were significantly different including 33% protein, 25% carbohydrates, and 33% fat [1].

These macronutrient estimates or allowances along with a list of allowed foods and foods to be avoided are now what we call the Modern Paleo Diet.

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So, you may be asking what did they hunt and gather in those days and what would you be allowed to eat on the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo Diet allows [3]:

  • Lean animal meats – preferred meats include wild, free range, or grass-fed
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (leaves and tubers)
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut)

Paleo Diet Foods

The Paleo Diet does not allow [3]:

  • all processed foods
  • grains
  • dairy products
  • refined sugar
  • carbohydrates including potatoes
  • salt

Pros vs. Cons:

As with any fad diet exploring the pros and cons will often shed light on whether the diet is truly helpful or harmful.

Pros of the Paleo Diet:

The Paleo Diet is stated to have the following pros:

  • Promotes certain nutritionally dense foods
  • Claims high protein content places people at reduced risk for anemia
  • Claims that higher fat, protein, and fiber support fullness, preventing overeating and keeping you full longer
  • Claims it supports heart health by lowering blood pressure and lipid profiles and overall disease prevention
  • Claims it may lead to weight loss

All of these are claims of the Paleo Diet, and similar to many other fad diets, only the positive aspects are highlighted. With so many pros, what might the cons be?

Cons of the Paleo Diet:

When reading about a fad diet the pros are always in bigger print, because the cons aren’t marketable. Let’s face it, if the cons were in bigger print, we would all probably think twice.

Some cons of the Paleo Diet include [1, 2, 3}:

  • Entire food groups are eliminated or restricted
  • Foods are deemed as good or bad
  • Deprivation of food may lead to disordered eating patterns or eating disorders
  • Inadequate levels of calcium and iodine
  • High levels of fat may impact long-term heart health
  • The Paleo Diet is 10% more expensive than an essential diet meeting the same nutrition
  • Weight loss doesn’t equal health and may place the body at nutritional deficit leading to deficiencies
  • May cause fatigue, brain fog due to the lack of carbohydrates

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends our daily energy needs come from 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat [1].

Carbohydrates are the brain’s primary fuel source and the modern-day Paleo Diet recommends restricting carbohydrates to 25% of your daily needs. This is a red flag and definity not sustainable.

Is the Paleo Diet Harmful or Helpful?

In a society where vanity is often prioritized over mental and physical health, fad diets, such as the Paleo Diet, can be alluring. They sell you the idea that this diet is “The Answer” to what you are looking for.

Happiness isn’t just another diet away. Unfortunately, many looking for change might be searching for it in the wrong place.

Maybe in the case of the Paleo Diet the pros don’t come from the diet itself, but from the foods that can add to your current day-to-day nourishment.

For instance, the Paleo Diet incorporates fruits and vegetables to provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Rather than going on a diet, what if you take a look at what could add vibrance, flavor, texture, and maybe a bit of fiber to your meals and snacks?

Rather than taking away foods that you love, explore how you can have nourishing, desired, and delicious foods. In a way how you can have your cake and eat it too!

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[1] Agoulnik, D., Lalonde, M. P., Ellmore, G. S., & McKeown, N. M. (2021). Part 1. Nutrition Today56(3), 94–104.

[2] Pitt, C. E. (2016). Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Australian Family Physician45(1), 35–38.

[3] Reel, J. J. (2018). Eating Disorders [2 volumes]: Understanding Causes, Controversies, and Treatment (Illustrated ed.). Greenwood.


The opinions of our writers do not necessarily reflect the views of Eating Disorder Hope

Author: Raylene Hungate, RDN,LD/N