The Paleo Diet: Should You Try It?

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on November 3, 2011

The Paleo Diet, named for its similarity to the diet eaten by our paleolithic, hunter-gatherer ancestors, calls for lean meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts, and nixes dairy, grains, beans, added sugars and processed foods. It may be all the rage in weight loss and health circles, but is it all that? We talked to registered dietitian Andrea N. Giancoli, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, about the good, the bad, and the bottom line when it comes to the increasingly popular "caveman diet."

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The Good

It’s fruit- and veggie-filled. “A pro of The Paleo Diet is it essentially calls for unlimited fruits and vegetables,” Giancoli says. Vegetables and fruits are rich in fiber, water, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, are completely off limits, however, an unnecessary restriction according to Giancoli.

Lean meat and fish are staples. You won't have to worry about getting enough protein on this diet. Paleo encourages regular consumption of grass-fed meat or wild game, which is typically leaner than many grain-raised options. Fish is an excellent source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3s.

You can go nuts. All seeds and nuts (not peanuts, though, since they are legumes) are accepted foods for Paleo followers and are a good source of healthful fats, protein and important nutrients like calcium, iron and vitamin E. But watch your portions. "Nuts are high in calories, so eating too many can result in weight gain," Giancoli reminds.

Processed foods are forbidden."I like that it restricts sugary drinks, candy and salty processed food," Giancoli says. Paleo encourages water, herbal tea, coconut water or freshly juiced fruits to drink, and fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts for snacks instead.

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The Bad

Grains are a no-go. All grains are off limits on this diet, since they weren't available during the Paleolithic era. "There’s a wealth of research that suggests whole grains are very healthful to us," Giancoli says. And while cutting carbs may result in initial weight loss, it's not necessarily healthy. Without carbs, the body breaks down protein instead, which releases toxins. If you aren't consuming enough protein, the body will break down its own lean protein, essentially feasting on itself.

Beans don’t make the cut. Like grains, beans–or legumes–are not included in the Paleo Diet. "Beans and legumes are such a great source of fiber, plant protein and other nutrients like calcium, and it's just not necessary to eliminate them," Giancoli says. Beans are also satiating, keeping you full and possibly preventing unwanted snacking.

Dairy is out of the picture. "You don't have to eat dairy to obtain all the nutrients you need, but omitting it requires a bit more careful planning," Giancoli says. "You'd have to eat a lot of leafy greens and nuts, like almonds, to get enough calcium." A calcium and vitamin D supplement may be the best option for Paleo followers.

Meat is overdone. "I'd like to see less emphasis on meat in this diet," Giancoli says. "Many people will end up eating grain- or corn-fed protein, because it's less expensive and more available."


The Bottom Line

"I don’t care for diets that restrict whole food groups, especially healthful ones, like whole grains and beans," Giancoli says. “It also comes down to the fact that we do not live in a similar environment to that of our Paleolithic ancestors, so it's not fair to compare our lifestyles or our diets.” If you choose this diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, aim for lean meat, and don’t be super-strict, Giancoli says. Incorporate whole grains and beans and monitor your diet to make sure you're getting enough calcium, vitamin D and other essential nutrients.