Is the Paleo Diet Worth Trying?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, you’ve probably heard someone touting the health benefits of the Paleo Diet. After all, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Matthew McConaughey, Megan Fox, and Uma Thurman can’t all be wrong, can they? But before you start eating like a Flintstone, here’s what you need to know about America’s current health craze.

What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleolithic Diet—also known as the paleo or caveman diet—is a meat-centric, low-carbohydrate diet that eschews grains, beans, dairy, and sugar in favor of meat, fruit, and vegetables. It’s based around the concept that we are unable to adapt fast enough to handle some of the foods that have been created since the advent of agriculture, and that we should be eating a diet as close as possible to that of our caveman ancestors. It’s actually been around since the 1970s, when gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin wrote The Stone Age Diet; it gained ground when Loren Cordain wrote his book The Paleo Diet (a term he subsequently trademarked) in 2002. But paleo didn’t become mainstream until the last several years: we first wrote about it building traction in 2011 when a paleo-themed restaurant opened in Germany, an occurrence that’s almost commonplace today.

Why Go Paleo?

Eating like a caveman emphasizes eating whole foods that are absent of gluten and dairy, both of which have been known to trigger allergic reactions. And because the diet provides few carbohydrates, it’s been known to bring on quick weight loss; with drastically fewer carbs, the body winds up burning stored fat instead. But in addition to aiding in weight loss and maintenance, the diet prevents so-called diseases of civilization such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to paleo advocates. In addition, many swear by its ability to reverse autoimmune diseases and diabetes, and even clear up skin.

Still, many studies have been inconclusive as to whether the diet will help you lose weight in the long run, or whether it has proven cardiovascular benefits. It’s also not without its naysayers. Michael Pollan, for one, was quick to say proponents of the diet were “blowing smoke.” Some scientists counter that there’s evidence Paleolithic beings did eat grains, and that they ate varied diets; still other critics cite The China Study, a large study that examined the correlation between animal products and chronic illnesses.

So What’s Not Allowed on the Diet?

Just about all grains, such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, quinoa, and amaranth, are off-limits. So are beans and legumes like lentils and peanuts, since they weren’t part of our ancestral diet. Dairy, alcohol, overly salty foods, and added sugar aren’t allowed. Corn syrup, artificial colorings, preservatives, and flavorings are prohibited because they’re processed; for that reason, so are most vegetable oils.

It should be noted that eating paleo is not the same as eating gluten-free. While this diet is naturally gluten-free, not all gluten-free diets are paleo; gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa are prohibited on the Paleo Diet.

OK, So What Can You Eat?

Well-raised meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are at the heart of this diet. Expect to eat a lot of animal protein; note that this can get expensive, and if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, this diet probably isn’t for you. You’ll also eat lots of non-starchy vegetables, although starchy tubers with lower glycemic levels, like sweet potatoes and yams, are OK to eat. It’s tough to find options while dining out, but there are plenty of make-at-home menu options. Within these limitations, you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Because most vegetable oils are off-limits, animal fats are popular; so are lesser-processed oils like olive oil and coconut oil. For any recipes that might traditionally call for flour, expect substitutions like almond meal or coconut flour.

The Paleo Kitchen

Decided you’re going paleo? Here are a few options that’ll help you get started. Note that a lot of healthy recipes are naturally paleo-friendly.

Wilted Greens with Balsamic Fried Eggs

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Dandelion greens and fried eggs are a protein-rich start to the day. Get our Wilted Greens with Balsamic Fried Eggs recipe.

Roots Juice

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A sweet, earthy pick-me-up of parsnips, carrots, beets, and apple. Get our Roots Juice recipe.

Roasted Spaghetti Squash

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If you’re missing grains, try substituting spaghetti squash for pasta, but eliminate the Parmigiano-Reggiano, which contains dairy. Get our Roasted Spaghetti Squash recipe.

Snapper Ceviche

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Try citrus-cured fish with chiles and herbs, with sweet potato chips for dipping. Get our Snapper Ceviche with Chiles and Herbs recipe.

Seared Salmon Fillet

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A basic salmon fillet would make a nice topper to any green salad. Get our Basic Seared Salmon Fillet recipe.

Broiled Chicken Breasts

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Serve broiled chicken breasts with mashed yams for a hearty dinner. Get our Easy Broiled Chicken Breasts recipe.

Susannah Chen is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. When she's not cooking or writing, she's on the hunt to find the world's best chilaquiles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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