Is Paleo Healthy? Should We Be Eating Like Cave Men and Women?

is paleo healthy“If it wasn’t on a caveman’s menu, it shouldn’t be on yours.” That’s the basic premise of a Paleo diet. The question remains, as it should for any diet—is Paleo healthy?

Maybe you’ve heard of the Nordic diet, the Mediterranean diet, and more recently, the gluten-free diet, but these are all very different from the primal diet known as Paleo.

But is Paleo healthy?

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In modern terms, what does a Paleo diet look like?

Most books on the Paleo diet give few specifics. It’s more like “eat 20 ounces of meat, poultry, or seafood and 12 cups of vegetables and fruit a day.” But we did find this sample day’s worth of food (2,200 calories) for a young woman in The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf (Victory Bell Publishing, 2010), one of the best-selling Paleo books on amazon.com:

Breakfast

  • Broiled salmon (12 oz.)
  • Cantaloupe (1 ¾ cups)

Lunch

  • Broiled lean pork loin (3 oz.)
  • Salad—lettuce (1 ½ cups), carrots (1/2 cup), cucumbers (3/4 cup), tomatoes (1 1/3 cups), walnuts (5 halves), lemon juice (2 Tbs.)

Dinner

  • Lean sirloin tip roast (8 oz.)
  • Steamed broccoli (3 cups)
  • Salad—mixed greens (3 cups), tomato (3/4 cup), avocado (1/2 cup), almonds (35), onions (1/4 cup), lemon juice (2 Tbs.)
  • Strawberries (1 cup) for dessert

Snacks

  • Orange (1/2)
  • Carrots (3/4 cup)
  • Celery (1 cup)

Assuming this is typical, is Paleo healthy? And if so, how healthy ?

On the plus side, it’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. It also has no refined sugar or white flour and it’s low in sodium (unless you pour on the sea salt).

But the diet has some drawbacks. Red meat—and especially processed meats (like sausage, ham, and bacon)—may raise the risk of colorectal cancer. The red meat (and the coconut oil and butter in some books) are high in saturated fat which raises the risk of coronary heart disease. (Paleo books recommend lean meats, but the meats in their recipes often aren’t.) The diet is also high in cholesterol and low in calcium and vitamin D.

A safer bet:

We recommend the diets used in the OmniHeart study, which tested three variations of a lean meat and poultry, vegetable-and-fruit-rich diet and lowered blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides.

They’re similar to the Paleo diet in that they have far more fruits and vegetables and far fewer grains and sweets than the average American diet. But the OmniHeart diets limit red meats, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

NUMBER OF DAILY SERVINGS*

Paleo in Comparison Table

* We converted Paleo servings into OmniHeart servings for comparison.

Have you tried the Paleo diet? How did it work for you? Let us know in the comments. 

Source: JAMA 294: 2455, 2005

This post was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly.

22 Replies to “Is Paleo Healthy? Should We Be Eating Like Cave Men and Women?”

    1. God, where do I begin ???
      Stephen, you couldn’t be more wrong…
      To Gregory, D’Adamo’s “Eat Right 4 Your Type” diet is crap science, and you absolutely correct, the PALEO/PRIMAL way of eating does not include processed ANYTHING. If it isn’t “naturally occurring”, forget it.
      To IB4, thank you.
      To Bette, why do people not get this ??? It is NOT high protein, it is HIGH SATURATED FATS.
      To Joel, ok…. MS Paleo… lol…
      signed,
      MR PALEO

    2. To me the “Paleo” diet just seems like yet another high meat/low carb fad diet based on lots of false assumptions and junks science. First it was the Adkins Diet, then “The Zone Diet”, “The New Adkins Diet” etc etc. Now it has been cleverly rebranded as the “Paleo” diet. Hmm, “paleo” nice catchy name, lots of ego boosting assumptions like humans as great hunters dominating the planet etc. As humans originally evolved from chimps, it seems the true “ancestral” diet would be what chimps eat, which is plant based. One thing I’ve noticed many recent fad diet books doing lately is lumping whole grain foods in with the bad effects of sugar and refined carbs. I’ve had many patients literally starving their bodies of any carbohydrates who felt much better when I got them to eat things like brown rice, sweet potatoes etc. Another thing I’ve noticed the latest fad diets doing is always referring to “lean meats” which is a nutritional oxymoron. Also, there is not enough land mass on the planet to feed large amounts of grass fed, pasture raised beef to everyone. There is also not enough fresh water and other resources to feed everybody steak daily. What about beans? They are very high in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals as well as phytonutrients etc. Sure beans contain starch, but they are still very low on the glycemic scale. Finally, I find it laughably naive that any thinking person would think “cave men” ate salmon, pork, cow meat, chicken, salad greens and broccoli all day long. That long ago lettuce plants were toxic and broccoli hadn’t been hybridized yet. What “paleo” people ate also depended highly on where they lived and they simply survived on what could be found. I attended a lecture given by a prominent scientist who stated in those times when animal based food was occasionally eaten it was usually rabbits or frogs and the entire animal was consumed including the organs, brain and marrow. Kind of silly to think sitting down to a big steak and a salad is eating like a cave man. Of course that is how fad diet book authors get rich, by using junk science, people’s ignorance and a little tricky psychology.

  1. I’ve apparently been eating a diet about halfway between the Omniheart diet and your description of the paleo diet. My sources include the “Eat Right for your Type” diet books and Dr. Mercola which both recommend much less flesh — about 1 gram per pound of body weight per day or about 4 or 5 ounces in my case. I have Type 2 diabetes and have found that the ADA diet is a **disaster** for me as it includes grains and tubers, both of which send my blood sugar levels through the roof. Using the paleo diet — or my version of it, at least — keeps my sugar in the range of about 80 – 120 with my average reading calculated by my meter at 110. That’s about 10% higher than I’d like, but I’m not constantly nauseated as I was while taking glymeperide, and I don’t have to stick myself except for blood draws which using the Walgreen’s TruTest system are very small, about 1/3 the size of the drop needed by the OneTouch system my dr. started me with. (The supplies are also less expensive, especially if you buy them when Walgreens puts them on sale every few months at 20% off.) Brisk walking several times per week is my only other “treatment” and I feel *much* better now that I’m off glymeperide and insulin. I just wish I’d never started insulin since changing my diet removed the need for it almost immediately, and the very first injection of insulin started changing my vision which has been permanently altered even after stopping the use of insulin almost 19 months ago. After my prescription being stable for over 30 years, I’ve now had to buy new glasses because of the change. If you are willing to make dietary changes immediately upon diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I’d urge you to resist the dr’s attempt to put you on insulin. Wait a week or two and you may discover that things are moving in the right direction for you and you may not need to risk permanent changes to your vision.

  2. P. S. None of the paleo diet books I’ve seen suggest the use of processed meats. No caveman ever ate processed meats, so I don’t know why the author suggested that such things are in this diet. All my books encourage organic foods and free-range, grass fed meats. They are more expensive, but my health is worth it. I just think about the drugs I don’t have to buy and the lack of medical expenses I have compared to friends who use the ADA diet and find themselves having to use insulin to keep their sugars in line because they still eat starches in various forms. Eating quality food in moderation is the way to treat Type 2 diabetes, IMHO.

    1. Agree! A higher lean protein and lower carb,aka the white stuff, are a better management plan for diabetes. My thinking, if a carb is a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber then it’s a good choice. However processed grains and corn, think GMO, are not on my good list.

  3. The Paleo diet focuses on eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods. What do grains and sweets (like in the OmniHeart diet) do to the body? I think the Center for Science in the Public Interest should be looking for more research into this approach to eating, not steering people away from it.

  4. My diet of moderation and daily exercise seems to be sufficient for me. Candy, processed meats, sodas, alcohol, and snacks are out. Fish, poultry, some sourdough bread, pizza once a week, salads and fruits are in. 79 years old and healthy except for ailments from toxic chemicals from VN. Looking forward to another day.

  5. What about the Flat Belly diet? My Type 2 diabetes really responded to the NUFAs. I lost weight too, effortlessly. My sugars went down and my A1c went down to 5.7 from 6.3. Then I got careless and the sugars went back up and the A1c went up to 6.5 in 6 months time. The paleo sounds like way too much meat for most people don’t you think? It sounds boring too. I’m back on my MUFAs.

  6. Ever since I was a kid I have preferred meat/fish and vegetables to sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods. Amazing since I worked in a bakery at the time! I never ate the surplus pies, cakes and cookies we had on hand at the end of each day. Just took them home and stored them in our family’s deep freezer for thse who wanted them. Just call me Ms. Paleo.

  7. Such an interesting discussion on nutrition and how to eat for health! I am a certified Nutrition Consultant, Herbalist, Holistic Therapist, registered yoga teacher and writer. I have spent many years, in fact decades, studying nutrition, studying nutrition research and articles, digesting an extensive array of diet and nutrition books, exploring ways to eat, and conducting my own experiments with various food and nutrition belief systems. I am a one-woman food experiment.

    Since the 60’s I’ve lived and eaten my way through the Vegan diet and the Omnivore diet, the Zone diet, and the Eat Right Your Blood Type diet, the Macrobiotic diet and the Raw Food diet, the Food Combining diet and the 17 Day diet, the Paleo diet, the Warrior diet, and my Ayurvedic Dosha diet, the Calorie Restriction diet, the Anti-Aging diet, the Anti-Inflammatory diet, the Wheat Belly diet, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten. I’ve gardened, pickled and fermented, preserved, juiced, sprouted and dehydrated along my path of exploring nutrition. I’ve ground my own flours from whole grains and nuts, and made my own yogurt. As a certified herbalist I also make my own herbal and spice capsules, salves, lotions and tinctures.

    One thing I do know with a great deal of certainty is that each of us is a uniquely individual complex system of cells, tissues and fluids collaborating in the amazing processes of anabolism and catabolism, the building and breaking down of our physical bodies, and the fueling of our ongoing cellular development and replacement. Each cell in our body is replaced in a seven year cycle. The amazing anatomical machinery that is “us” is intuitively and chemically involved in the highly organized and complex process of giving us life and our vitality. The foods we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe fuel this vitality. We function at our highest level when we provide our bodies with organic whole foods, the toxin-free unaltered foods that come to us in their natural state, just as nature perfectly designed them to be.

    Each of us as individuals has to determine which foods energize us and which foods diminish our energy. Which foods our digestive system tolerates and readily breaks down and assimilates and which foods it rejects.

    I am happy to see all the posts about changing the way we eat and being physically active before giving in to taking medications that may turn out to have adverse effects.

    A lesson from Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief , teaches that it is our environment, both internal and external that influences the expression of “genetic” traits such as diabetes, high cholesterol etc.

    More good information can be found in Good Calories Bad Calories and in Why We Get Fat

    1. Hey Moira, great comment. I share the same approach as you. We are all individual with different body chemistry, level of activity, guts, etc. and it is up to each of us to decide which type of whole, real foods are best for our bodies. Well articulated and great resources. I believe that Paleo (done in the right way) can benefit many people, but also believe that ethical and grass fed meat production is not sustainable. Plants, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are all good sources of protein and offer fiber with it. I do eat some grass fed meat, but try to limit it to 1-2x per week. This is a good discussion.

  8. The author of the books noted in my last post, 1.Good Calories Bad Calories, and 2. Why We Get Fat is Gary Taubes, my apologies for not citing the author in my post.

  9. Paleo diet? Why would we want to eat like cavemen, anyway? I thought their lives were supposed to have been “nasty, brutish, and short”. If they did indeed eat a lot of meat, it wouldn’t have mattered because they mostly died before the colon cancer had time to develop.

  10. I was referencing this article and the linked OmniHeart article. It seems that there are some inconsistencies between them. Examples:
    Listed in the Paleo article there are 4 servings of 4 oz of meat, but in the OmniHeart article, it just states 1 serving of 4 oz.
    9 servings of f/v in this article; 11 in the OmniHeart.
    1 serving of nuts; 2 in the OmniHeart
    1 serving Oil/Fat; 2 in the OmniHeart

    Was there an adjustment for calories/comparison made that I’m not seeing? Thanks and thank you for the many great and topical articles!

  11. There’s nothing wrong with cholesterol now, though – and even saturated fat seems to be increasingly questioned as a problem.

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: It is not true that cholesterol and saturated fat are no longer considered “problems.” Large intakes of both may increase blood lipids (cholesterol) which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report released last month encourages Americans to eat diets low in saturated fat.

  12. LOL – the Paleo diet is misnamed. We only need to look at tribal diets – which were well documented before wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries – to know that meat (including fish) was a rare treat, The “cavemen” gorged on the fresh (often raw) meat as a group whenever they successfully killed an animal larger than a rat . Fresh meat still has vitamin C and other minerals unlike the old meat in the stores today. No caveman ate meat three times a day, seven days a week – unless there was a large rat colony nearby.

    The “cavewomen”, on the other hand, got a few leftovers scraps of meat and supplemented with plants, nuts , bugs and other forage, which they shared with the cavemen during the long stretches between successful hunts.

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