The caveman craze: Pros & cons of choosing a Paleo diet


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It’s hard not to be curious about the Paleo Diet — one that encourages us to eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did 10,000 years ago — after seeing spliced-together photos of converts shedding more than 30, 50 or 80 pounds. For others, it’s less about losing weight and more about eating healthier in a culture that bombards us with fast-food options.

Still, like many other nutrition fads, the Paleo Diet is a polarized concept with very vocal supporters and detractors. Let’s break down the facts so that you can decide if hunting and gathering is your style.


The history

The Paleo Diet, named after the fresh, unprocessed foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed during the Paleolithic Era, is a concept 2.6 million years in the making. Agricultural innovations 10,000 years ago ended it, bringing about a diet that included grains.

The Paleo Diet became a popular nutritional concept in the mid-1970s, but re-emerged within the last several years with very vocal champions and critics.


The guidelines

Also known as the hunter-gatherer and Stone Age diet, the Paleo Diet includes consumption of fresh, grass-fed or free-ranging meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils like olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed. 

A true Paleolithic Era diet is impossible to mimic because of the lack of wild game readily available, so don’t give up your jeans for a loin cloth just yet. It excludes consumption of dairy products, cereal grains, legumes, refined sugars, processed foods and — gasp! — alcohol, which makes sense because there wasn’t Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust pizza during the Stone Age (sad for them).

This makes it a diet that is heavy in unprocessed meat consumption. So vegetarians, this is not the diet for you.


The nutritional profile

Those that believe in the Paleo Diet cite weight loss and disease prevention as reasons to jump onboard. 

The diet is ideal for combatting disease and ailments, says Loren Cordain, a Colorado State University professor, author of ”The Paleo Diet” and the go-to man on its benefits. Cordain’s claim is that our ancestors didn’t have problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis and other less serious ailments, such as eye sight issues and acne.

Critics of this diet argue that it is too restrictive and scoff at the whole concept that our bodies are built the same way as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Plus, they add, our caveman ancestors didn’t live too long, did they? 

Others say that heart problems, which the diet claims to combat, are just as likely by choosing a meat-heavy diet if those proteins aren’t lean. Still more criticize eliminating legumes, whole-grains and low-fat dairy — foods that also protect against osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.


Weight loss

Some Paleo converts — like Reddit user Amanda, who was made Internet famous by taking photos of her 88-pound transformation and splicing them together in quick succession, which she documented on the site during the last year — do find that a Paleo diet helps with weight loss.

However, Amanda admitted that she took some liberties in her diet, combining Paleo and Keto concepts, the latter being high-fat and low-carbohydrate, something tried-and-true supporters of both find unusual or incorrect. 


The bottom line

You can, of course, make the call based on your own interpretation of the available research and findings, but we personally find U.S. News & World Report’s comprehensive diet assessments to be the most reliable predictors of what you can expect from different weight-loss plans.

In its 2011 assessment — which was developed by a panel of health experts who rated 29 diets in seven categories, including short- and long-term weight loss, ease of compliance, safety and nutrition — Paleo ranked last in most categories, falling in:

  • No. 28 for Best Diets Overall;

  • No. 29 in Best Weight-Loss Diets;

  • No. 28 in Best Heart-healthy Diets;

  • No. 26 in Best Diets for Healthy Eating;

  • No. 28 in Best Diabetes Diets; and 

  • No. 24 in Easiest Diets to Follow. 


Why did it fall so far to the bottom of these rankings? The experts sided with critics of the diet, finding fault with the lack of dairy and grains, which puts dieters at risk of nutrient deficiencies. They also cited the potential risks to heart health due to the high meat intake, and the fact that sample Paleo menus contain more calories from fat and significantly fewer carbs than the government recommends. On top of all of this, they claimed there’s not enough research to know if it promotes weight loss, and it tends to be tough on the wallet. 

If you’re looking for a diet to help you lose weight and you want something a little more balanced, check out U.S. News’ list of Best Diets Overall and Best Diets for Weight Loss.