If the lure of living in simpler, lower-tech times has ever intrigued you, the Paleolithic–or “Paleo” for short– diet may just be for you. This trendy eating pattern focuses on foods that made up the human diet in pre-agricultural times, consumed as close to their natural state as possible. “Going Paleo” is built on the belief that modern day processed foods and artificial additives are incompatible with human biology, making it difficult to properly digest them. Some athletes believe this diet is the secret to optimizing athletic performance, while other proponents claim it eliminates “foreign proteins” that cause modern day ailments such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, cancer, arthritis, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Foods considered to be Paleolithic are meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, root vegetables, fruit, and berries. So-called “Neolithic foods,” or foods that require processing, are not allowed. These foods include grains, dairy, salt, beans/legumes, potatoes, sugar, and refined, factory-made foods. (Interestingly, however, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that archaeological evidence suggests Paleolithic Europeans did indeed eat an early form of bread based on processed root vegetable ‘flour.’)
For someone on a Paleolithic diet, ideal proteins consist of organ meats, wild-caught fish and grass-fed meat. Organic fruits and vegetables are preferred over conventionally-grown ones so as to avoid modern pollutants. Fats are primarily derived from fruits or tree nuts. Water is the only true Paleolithic beverage; however coconut water would also technically fit the bill. For Paleo dieters thirsting for an afternoon cocktail, drinks derived from fermented fruit would be the only acceptable option. Interestingly, coffee does not count as a Paleo-friendly beverage, since coffee is a bean and needs to undergo processing before it can be enjoyed.
From a nutritionist’s standpoint, someone living on a diet high in fast food and refined carbohydrates would certainly benefit from cleaning up their diet by emphasizing more unprocessed and natural foods like those that comprise the Paleo diet. After all, there’s no shortage of research to implicate modern “Western diets” as a key factor in a host of chronic diseases. On the other hand, following the Paleo diet stringently means avoiding many incredibly healthy foods such as legumes, whole grains, and low-fat dairy which provide essential nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, vitamin D, and calcium. People who have committed to going Paleo are well-advised to consult with a registered dietitian to ensure they’re meeting all of their dietary needs within the context of the diet’s parameters.
Another critique of this diet is the time element. Since the focal point of eating Paleo is food in its more natural form, it means giving up convenience foods that cut time and energy out of food preparation. For example, a Paleo eater could not just grab a yogurt, make a sandwich, bake a potato, boil some pasta, or open a can of tomato sauce to ease meal prep– much less eat out at most restaurants. Following this diet would take a lot of foresight, planning, and preparing–particularly to ensure you’re meeting your nutrient needs– which can make it a more challenging way to eat.
If the principles behind going Paleo appeal to you but you’re not willing to commit to the drastic lifestyle change it entails, why not draw inspiration from it rather than going full throttle? You could start by eliminating sources of refined flour and sugar in your diet, like white breads, cereals made from refined grains, cookies, cakes, and sweeteners. Then, you might consider upping your daily quota of fresh fruits and vegetables, choosing organic varieties whenever possible.
Life may have been much less complex for cavemen, but they had a lot more time to devote to hunting and gathering food than most modern working families do.