Whole, unprocessed foods — including fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats — are staples in the paleo diet, while all grains, most dairy, sugar, beans, and peanut butter are off-limits.
Unless you’ve been living under a (ahem, Paleolithic) rock, you’ve heard about the paleo diet. The diet may lead to weight loss in the short term, as well as lower blood pressure, controlled blood sugar, and other possible benefits. So it’s no surprise that this eating approach has gained popularity since the publication in 2010 of the hit book The Paleo Diet, authored by Loren Cordain, PhD, a professor emeritus at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins and the founder of the paleo diet movement.
The aim of this approach is to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, who didn’t have farms that provided food groups like grains and most dairy, and didn’t have access to the fast foods and packaged snacks many Americans nosh on routinely today. “The paleo diet is all about unprocessed, natural foods: Think vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, natural fat sources, nuts, seeds, and eggs,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a wellness coach with Arivale based in Seattle.
The Basics of the Paleo Diet: How the Plan Works
The paleo diet philosophy involves returning to the way our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors ate more than 12,000 years ago, before agriculture practices were developed — namely, a time when food needs were met solely through hunting and gathering.
While healthy fats, proteins, and fruits and veggies are center stage in this eating approach, processed and packaged foods — as well as all grains, legumes, soy, and dairy — are off-limits in the paleo diet. Proponents of this eating approach argue that modern farming practices and food manufacturing create foods in these categories that are bad for our bodies.
What Does Science Say About What You Can’t Eat in the Paleo Diet?
Those claims aren’t always backed up by scientific evidence.
For instance, promoters of the paleo diet say wheat consumption is linked to chronic digestive and inflammatory illnesses, but there’s no firm evidence that people who have not been diagnosed with the autoimmune condition celiac disease should avoid wheat and other gluten-laden foods.
The paleo diet eliminates dairy because its advocates say many people are lactose intolerant, and because eating dairy has been associated with Crohn’s disease, among other claims. While you wouldn’t want to eat lactose (a sugar found in dairy) if your body can’t tolerate it, there’s no proof that eating dairy causes Crohn’s or worsens symptoms in those who have been diagnosed.
RELATED: The Best Dairy Alternatives for Crohn’s Disease
Similarly, paleo fans eschew legumes (beans and peas), soy, and peanuts because of a compound called phytic acid; but phytic acid may not be as harmful as they believe.
But researchshows that in varied, balanced diets, the effects of phytic acid are not generally worrisome and that our guts can adapt to a diet that’s high in phytic acid. (6) Plus, some of these foods — particularly beans — offer many compounds and are linked to positive health outcomes in research studies.
Other food exclusions mandated in the paleo diet do have a clear and proven health benefit for all individuals. “Another group of foods you’ll cut out are processed vegetable oils and refined sugar, including white and brown sugars, agave, corn syrup, and all artificial sweeteners,” Hultin says. Added sugars have been linked in studies to a host of health problems, such as increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Meanwhile, a meta-analysis has connected artificial sweeteners to weight gain, and they may even cause increased cravings and digestive problems — just some of the reasons they’re nixed from a paleo diet plan.
Grains (including whole grains and those that are gluten-free), dairy, and legumes are banned from the paleo diet. That means no peanut butter or peanuts, because followers of the paleo diet consider peanuts a legume rather than a nut.
With all these foods on the elimination list, you can assume that packaged, processed snacks are no-nos on paleo because they likely contain sugar, gluten, salt, and possibly trans fats, which have been associated with increased chronic disease and obesity.
Beer is made from a trio of paleo offenders — wheat, barley, and hops — so it’s safe to say that’s off the menu. Organic wine is an alcoholic beverage that is considered paleo friendly in some circles, but because it goes through a process of fermenting sugar and starches, it’s not strict paleo if you’re living the way our prehistoric forebears did. Remember: Too much alcohol on a consistent basis has been associated with a higher risk of liver disease, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and brain health issues.
Who Shouldn’t Try the Paleo Diet?
Before you try the paleo diet, be sure to discuss any underlying health issues with your doctor. For example, people at risk for heart disease, those who have kidney damage, and those who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes should avoid the paleo diet.
But if your doctor has given you the green light to try the plan, now’s the time to toss the foods that aren’t allowed — and stock up on the ones that are.
Foods and Drinks to Avoid on the Paleo Diet
Many common foods in the Western diet are not allowed in the paleo diet.
Here are the top foods to avoid:
- Pasta (including whole-wheat and gluten-free)
- Beans, lentils, and peanuts
- Refined vegetable oils
- Refined sugar: white and brown sugars, agave, corn, syrup, artificial sweeteners, candy
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods including frozen or processed dinners, packaged foods and snacks
- Salty foods
- Sweetened beverages
- Drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners
- Peanut butter
What Does Eliminating These Foods Mean for Your Health?
Because of the exclusion of major food groups considered healthy by most standards — dairy, whole grains, beans, and lentils — following the paleo diet long term may lead to nutrient deficiencies, experts warn.
Whole grains are an important source of nutrition — aside from cholesterol-lowering fiber, these complex carbohydrates offer B vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate, and minerals including iron, magnesium, and selenium, Hultin says. “While the paleo diet is based on a high veggie intake with fruits included as well, its followers will be missing out on rich sources of nutrients from whole grains, soy foods, and legumes,” she says.