What is the Paleo Diet?

The increasingly popular Paleo Diet is built on a pretty interesting idea: Humanity should eat the way our ancestors ate. Generally, that means lots of minimally-processed meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and meats.


But, there is quite a bit more to this diet than that.


What is the Paleo Diet?


Among the many buzzwords that get passed around the fitness community these days, paleo is one of the most common. The Paleo Diet (short for Paleolithic Diet) has rapidly gained a pretty massive following over the past few years, particularly within the CrossFit community.


But what, exactly, is the Paleo Diet? What should you know about this eating pattern?


The History and the Basics


As its name suggests, the Paleo Diet is intended to mimic – as closely as possible – the diet of humanity's paleolithic ancestors, who were roaming the land and feeding themselves long before the invention of agriculture. Advocacy for a return to this sort of ancestral eating has been around for a long time, with a few little-known figures touting it in the early 1900s.


Paleo friendly foods on a table


Generally, however, a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Paleolithic Nutrition — A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications, is seen as the real starting point for the modern Paleo movement. From there, a host of articles and books and blogs and podcasts have been unleashed on the world, all backing some variation of the Paleo Diet.


Up to this point, however, we haven't been very clear on what it means to eat like a paleolithic human. As mentioned, this would return your palate to a time before agriculture and heavy food processing practices.


Essentially, then, a paleolithic diet would consist of whole, minimally-processed foods like meats, fish, eggs, veggies, fruits and nuts – excluding anything that was domesticated later like grains.


Some Concerns


Typically, at this point in our discussion, we would get in to the science surrounding the Paleo Diet. Before we can do that, though, it's important to understand some of the complications at work here.


From there, the literature on the subject will make a little more sense. The primary problem is that there is no real agreement about what a paleolithic diet would have actually looked like. There is a strong chance, though, that it would have included at least a little bit of cannibalism. But don't do that.


According to anthropologists, paleolithic humans probably didn't really eat a defined, specialized diet – making it very difficult to replicate now. Plus, many of the foods that they would have come across no longer exist but have been turned into entirely new varieties through centuries of human intervention.


And this ambiguity carries over into the modern paleo community, with many different versions of the diet arguing for or against specific foods.


Tomatoes on a vine


The Science


But why does any of that matter? Because that disagreement makes it very hard to study whether the Palaeolithic diet can do all the things that its supporters claim – namely, that it can ward of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even certain forms of cancer.


Really, though, these claims make sense. After all, the Paleo Diet is a nutrient-rich, high-protein, whole foods eating pattern which means that it can absolutely improve your body composition and general health. Despite the difficulties when it comes to research, there is some evidence that going paleo can help to control diabetes and improve cardiovascular health in as little as three weeks, even if no weight is lost.


Summing It Up


Even though there are some issues with the theory behind the paleo diet, the truth is that any high-protein diet that gets you away from processed foods and helps you eat more vegetables is going to serve you well.


Be aware, though, that going full-on paleo can be a little challenging and does represent a pretty significant shift from the standard American eating style. You may even have to learn to appreciate and cook with entirely new foods. Oh, yeah, and you'll be cooking more than you might be used to.


Once you get comfortable with it and find what works for you, however, the paleo diet is not hard to maintain.