The Paleo Diet: Is Eating Like a Caveman Healthy or Crazy?

Nutritionists on both sides speak.

By now, you've probably heard all about the paleo diet from your CrossFit buddies, but is it really healthy for you?

The paleo, or paleolithic, diet is based on the idea that we should eat as our cavemen ancestors did. It encourages followers to fill up on produce, fish, lean meat, and nuts, but avoid grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. 

"If it lives, grows, and dies, you can eat it," Amy Kubal tells TakePart. Kubal is a registered dietician and consultant for Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and the website robbwolf.com. She says, "If it lives on your shelf, is packaged, and has an ingredient list longer than your arm, then you probably don’t want to eat it."

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Most health-conscious folks can agree that we would be better off consuming less salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. But the idea that grains, legumes, and dairy products are junk food is a bit harder to swallow.

"Based on the compounds found in these foods and their effects on the body, they can have negative health effects," says Kubal. "Like diabetes, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, metabolic syndrome."

But other nutrition experts argue that grains, legumes, and dairy products are not the enemies on our plates. "These foods are not inherently bad for you in and of themselves," says Jim White, registered dietician and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition. "Some people have digestive trouble with grains (gluten intolerance) and dairy (lactose intolerance), but the majority of people can tolerate them fine."

White says the foods aren't to blame. "These foods don’t usually cause problems unless they are consumed in massive quantities," he says. "Like with most foods these days, the problem is a matter of portion control and overconsumption. More is not always better."

The concern is that by cutting out grains, legumes, and dairy—traditionally thought of as core food groups—nutrition requirements won't be met. "Without dairy, legumes, or grains, you run the risk of deficiencies," says White. "These two groups of foods are nutrient-rich and contain important vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D. Without these foods, supplementation is necessary. The paleo diet is a healthy way to eat, but it doesn’t go far enough. In other words, it is healthy, except not as healthy as it could or should be."

Another concern is that the diet could inflate fat intake, as the diet is meat-heavy and because meats consumed today are not as lean as those eaten by cave people. And increased fat consumption can lead to heart problems.

For these reasons and others, a panel of health experts, organized by U.S. News & World Report, ranked the paleo diet last out of 25 popular diets.

Kubal, on the paleo diet website robbwolf.com, says that all necessary calcium can be acquired from fish and leafy greens. As for the fat issue, Wolf on robbwolf.com specifically emphasizes the lean part of meats: "chicken, lean beef, turkey, pork loin or seafood," and the site recommends a 1:1 balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats for optimal health.

Kubal thinks people should give the paleo diet a try for themselves before they shoot it down. "Any doubters, give it 30 days and if you hate it, you can always go back to what you were doing before, but don’t pass judgement on it before you try it," she says. "My guess is you’ll end up feeling better."

Kubal's favorite paleo-friendly recipe is something she calls curry in a hurry. "Whatever meat you have, chop it up and cook it in coconut oil," she says. "Add whatever veggies you have with some coconut milk and curry paste and call it delicious!"

White says that while there is no one-fits-all approach to eating, it is better for everyone to shoot for a diverse and colorful plate of food. "A general guideline is to make sure you get protein, carbs, and fat at every meal," he says. "Also, eat every color of the rainbow and try to get whole, unprocessed food that is in season. If you shoot for these recommendations, you can’t go wrong."

Do you follow the paleo diet? Would you try it? Do you think trying to eat like a caveman is crazy?

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