What is the paleo diet?
Also known as the caveman diet, the Paleolithic diet (shortened to Paleo) is influenced by evolutionary history, mimicking how the earliest homo sapiens ate as they roamed the land, hunting and gathering their food from the surrounding environment.
In recent years, it’s become popular with Silicon Valley types, biohackers and health influencers due to its all-natural approach. It’s followed by athletes, those looking to lose weight, and those wanting a significant change in the macronutrient profile of their diet.
The thinking is that by switching your main source of energy from refined sugar and carbs to natural proteins and fats, while upping your veg intake, your metabolism will become more efficient.
Basically, eat like a cave-person. No doughnuts or pizzas. Lots of meat and veg.
What you can eat on the paleo diet
- Oils (olive, coconut, avocado)
What you can’t eat on the paleo diet
- Sugary snacks
The science behind the paleo diet
While it has only been in the mainstream for a few years, it’s hard to dismiss it as ‘just another fad diet’ due to the significant body of research showing optimistic outcomes, both for general nutrition and medicinal purposes.
One study at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine took a sample of healthy participants with no other major ailments and had them switch from their normal diet to a paleo diet for ten days. They were fed lean meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts, and excluded non-paleo foods such as cereal grains, dairy or legumes.
The effects were pretty impressive: “Even short-term consumption of a paleolithic type diet improves BP and glucose tolerance, decreases insulin secretion, increases insulin sensitivity and improves lipid profiles without weight loss in healthy sedentary humans.” In short - good stuff.
These studies are encouraging, but must be viewed with a critical eye - sometimes the sample sizes are pretty small and don’t include a very wide range of demographics. You must consult a qualified medical professional before addressing medical issues with diet - and always remember the difference between a dietician and a nutritionist (in the UK, dieticians must be qualified and registered with a national authority, but there are no regulations around nutritionists).
Arguments against the paleo diet
- It can be expensive. Most proponents of the paleo diet recommend organic, grass-fed meat, to avoid potential contaminants from factory farming, and the higher proportion of that meat in paleo means your wallet could take a hit.
- It’s not vegetarian. Vegetarian and vegan diets are going through a major rise in popularity at the moment, for both health and ethical reasons. Meat-focused paleo eating clearly goes against that (although we do address those issues below). One of the major arguments against it that of sustainability - meat-based agriculture has a whole host of environmental effects that could be avoided through veggie diets.
- Its long-term health effects haven’t been studied. This is inevitable with any relatively new diet, and although there have been studies of low-carb high-fat diets for a while, it’s not really known what effects it might have over a 20-50 year timespan.
Can you eat fermented foods on the paleo diet?
Yes you can! In fact, some say they’re essential.
We’re fermented food fanatics here at Loving Foods and we’re pleased that you can eat our entire range on the paleo diet - kimchi, sauerkraut, krautchi, jun, kombucha, and apple cider vinegar.
Vegetable products like kimchi and sauerkraut are especially useful to achieve your minimum daily intake of plant nutrition - a powerful mix of vitamins, minerals and enzymes - along with probiotics that help your digestion and immune system.
Is there a vegetarian paleo diet?
Yes there is - sort of. Obviously the paleo diet has meat as one of its core elements, and without it, a significant source of protein and fats is removed. The main vegetarian source of Paleo protein is eggs - which means a vegan paleo diet isn’t really feasible. Dairy, like milk and cheese, is a maybe. Some say dairy shouldn’t be included in the paleo diet at all, as it comes from agricultural practices which came after the caveman era.
Those on the fence might benefit from fermented dairy such as kefir - the fermentation process usually reduces the natural sugars, eg lactose, found in milk, and has the probiotic benefits of other fermented foods.
The crossover really comes from the principles behind both diets.
We know it’s possible to eat a vegetarian (or even vegan) junk food diet - surviving on doughnuts, chips and cola is possible, but far from healthy. Paleo emphasises the elimination of processed junk and incorporates nutrient-dense foods, many of which are from vegetables.
There’s an in-depth breakdown of the issue at Paleo Leap. They conclude that:
"What we should be focusing on isn’t “Is x Paleo?” but “will this overall way of eating nourish me as a human being, body and mind?” If Paleo is essentially about making a diet more nutrient-dense and less toxic, it’s much easier to see how a vegetarian can benefit from applying ancestral health principles to their diet, and also how a Paleo dieter can learn from a vegetarian friend or two.”
How can I start the paleo diet?
In the same way the ketogenic diet sometimes provokes ‘keto flu’ in new adherents (a feeling of lethargy and dizziness) while the body gets used to its new food intake, the paleo diet can also take a bit of getting used to. So it’s a good idea to take a few precautions before fully committing, such as supplementing potassium and making sure you’re taking in enough salt (which you won’t be getting from processed foods any more). You could also try a few paleo meals per week before doing it full-time, to see how it works for you.