If our previous articles on the Paleolithic way of eating have you contemplating caveman nutrition, you are not going to want to miss today’s article. We are going to review the dietary restrictions that Paleo typically involves. We shall cover the nutritional implications of these eliminations, and wrap things up by walking you through a well-formulated one-day Paleo meal plan.
Though the cognitive shortcut of “X Diet is good, while Y Diet is bad” may feel most comfortable for many people, there are both healthy and suboptimal ways to construct most dietary patterns. Even the word “diet” itself can have positive or negative connotations depending on how it is being used.
After reading this article, you’ll be better able to recognize what an ideal Paleo pattern looks like. We’ll tackle the following questions:
- What is a “diet”? Is it wrong to be on a diet?
- The Paleo diet eliminates certainly added oils; do we need these to be healthy?
- The Paleo diet (often) restricts dairy products; are there nutrient implications?
- Why does the Paleo diet (typically) cut out all grains and legumes, and are these foods necessary for health?
- Is the Paleo diet appropriate for children and adolescents?
- What does a healthy meal plan for the Paleo diet look like?
What is a “Diet”? Is it Bad to be on a Diet?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides several definitions for “diet” when used as a noun. They are:
- Food and drink regularly consumed or provided
- Habitual nourishment
- The kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a particular reason
- A regimen of drinking and eating sparingly to reduce one’s weight
Dietitians will often use the word “diet” to refer to a prescribed medical nutrition therapy or the overall pattern of foods a person eats. It is generally recommended to avoid thinking of “diet” in terms of the fourth definition above, a temporary state of food restriction to achieve a quick weight loss goal. This way of thinking about diets generally creates an unsustainable eating pattern. It can lead to yo-yo dieting and may not help people to meet their long-term health goals.
Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of the Paleo Diet® movement, encourages Paleo adherents to refrain from thinking of Paleo as a diet, but rather as a way of life to optimize well-being and health. As such, some flexibility is allowed (i.e., consumption of up to 15% of calories from non-Paleo foods) if it ultimately helps the person to move along a long-term and sustainable health trajectory. Moving away from the concept of cheat days and strict “on plan” and “off-plan” definitions of diet is a smart move when thinking about Paleo.
The Paleo Diet Eliminates Certain Added Oils: Do We Need These to Be Healthy?
One should never try to eliminate fat from the diet, as certain fatty acids (linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid) are essential. However, all of the fats that a person needs to be healthy, you can easily derive from whole food sources such as seafood, nuts, seeds, meats, and poultry. Added oils are not generally necessary in the diet at all.
All of the added oils and as well as fats found in your foods are a mixture of saturated fats and unsaturated fats (omega-6, omega-3, and monounsaturated fats). Both the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines recommend choosing foods that are predominately comprised of unsaturated fats to help keep LDL blood cholesterol levels low.
To complicate matters a bit though, most American diets currently provide over ten times the amount of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3s. There is general scientific agreement that this omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be lowered (i.e., include more omega-3 and less omega-6) to promote good health. The Paleo diet can help a person to achieve a better ratio of these fatty acids by restricting many of the added oils that are high in omega-6 fats (e.g., safflower, sunflower, corn, and soy) while encouraging omega-3-rich seafood and oils that are plentiful in monounsaturated fats (e.g., olive and avocado).
One more benefit of skipping the linoleic acid-rich (i.e., omega-6) cooking oils is that when these oils are heated, they are highly susceptible to degradation and to the formation of a compound called 4-HNE. This compound is linked to increased oxidative stress in the body as well as certain chronic diseases. The oils higher in monounsaturated fats are less susceptible to 4-HNE formation when heated.
The Paleo Diet (often) Restricts Dairy Products: Are There Nutrient Implications?
The lack of dairy foods along with calcium-fortified dairy alternatives can be considered the most problematic part of the Paleo diet because it may make it difficult for adherents to get adequate calcium. Adult women in the United States, on average, already do not consume the recommended amount of dairy or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives. Completely eliminating this food group with the Paleo diet amplifies the problem.
It is essential to consume the recommended amount of calcium, whether through dairy products or other foods because inadequate calcium intake can have negative consequences for bone health. The Paleo-friendly meal plan below meets the RDA for calcium for adults. There are also suggestions for the person who is avoiding dairy products due to lactose intolerance.
Why Does the Paleo Diet (typically) Cut Out All Grains and Legumes, and Are These Foods Necessary for Health?
The Paleo diet eliminates cereal grains and legumes from the diet due to the claim that they were not a frequent part of the diet of our Stone Age ancestors. In addition, the argument is made that grains and legumes are not as nutrient-dense as the foods that are included in the Paleo diet, and that grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients that may adversely affect health by inhibiting the absorption of essential nutrients. Is there any truth to these claims?
The truth is that it is difficult to say exactly what our Stone Age ancestors ate, but it would be a fair argument that they were not indulging in all of the refined grain products that Americans (across all stages of the lifecycle) are overindulging in today. Sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, cupcakes, and the like were not available in the Paleolithic era, and are not a necessary dietary component.
It is true that cereal grains and legumes do contain anti-nutrients that may negatively impact the absorption of certain essential minerals. For example, grains contain phytates that can inhibit iron absorption. However, these same anti-nutrients are also linked to health benefits (such as lower cholesterol and improved digestion), so trying to remove them completely from the diet is not recommended.
Since nuts, seeds, and certain vegetables also contain a significant amount of anti-nutrients (sometimes in amounts higher than what is present in grains and legumes), the Paleo diet does not eliminate anti-nutrients. Consuming a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods daily is one of the best ways to offset the small mineral absorption losses associated with these foods.
The protein, fiber, B vitamins, and other nutrients provided by grains and legumes can be adequately covered by other foods, as demonstrated in the meal plan below. However, the more foods that are removed from the diet, the more difficult it can be to meet essential micronutrient needs. Thus, it is particularly important for those following the Paleo pattern to consume a wide variety of meats, poultry, seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Is the Paleo Diet Appropriate for Children and Adolescents?
The Paleo diet is not a prescribed medical nutrition therapy and should not be used with children or teens without the guidance of a physician or registered dietitian. Unfortunately, there have been many cases in the literature of children who have been harmed by severe nutrient deficiencies when their picky eating behaviors were combined with medically unnecessary parent-imposed diet restrictions. Encouraging children to eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all food groups is one of the simplest ways to help ensure that they are getting all of the nutrients they need for optimal growth and development.
What Does a Healthy Meal Plan for the Paleo Diet look like?
A well-planned Paleo meal plan will meet your needs for all of the essential vitamins and minerals (the micronutrients), the essential amino acids and fatty acids, and also provide plenty of non-essential but beneficial components (such as fiber, various phytochemicals, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA). There are many different dietary patterns that can help a person to reach this goal. Below is a one-day meal plan showing what an optimal Paleo diet might look like.
This 2,000 calorie Paleo-friendly meal plan was analyzed using NutriBase software. Keep in mind that this 2,000-calorie plan may or may not provide adequate energy to meet your individual needs. It offers the following nutritional attributes:
- The macronutrient breakdown is 25% calories from protein, 21% calories from carbohydrate, and 54% calories from fat, making it moderately low in carbohydrates and moderately high in fat.
- The plan provides adequate fiber (30 grams).
- It offers at least 100% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for the following essential micronutrients: vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, iron, manganese, selenium, and zinc.
- There are few natural food sources of vitamin D. It means that the person may need to supplement with this nutrient if they live in an environment where they receive low sun exposure. This is true regardless of the way of eating a person chooses; it is not exclusive to Paleo.
Breakfast (641 calories)
- Two eggs scrambled with ¼ cup of cooked Swiss chard and ¼ cup of onion
- 3 ounces of cooked pork sausage (made with fresh ground pork and mixed with herbs and spices)
- Fruit salad made with 1 cup of raspberries, 1 small banana (sliced), and 1 orange (chopped)
Lunch (442 calories)
- Salad made with 3 ounces of salmon (canned with the bones), 0.5 cup of sliced red pepper, 1 ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds, and 2 cups of spinach
- Dressing of 1 T of olive oil and 1 T of balsamic vinegar
Afternoon Snack (252 calories)
- Trail mix made of 1 ounce of almonds and 1 ounce of raisins
Dinner (510 calories)
- 4 ounces of beef top sirloin steak, grilled
- 1 cup of sweet potatoes, roasted with ½ T of avocado oil
- 1 cup of kale, wilted on the stovetop with ½ T of avocado oil
Evening Snack (161 calories)
- 0.5 cup of sardines in oil (canned with the bones) mashed and served in wraps of collard green leaves
Water is the optimal beverage to accompany the above meal plan. Calcium is one of the most difficult nutrients to cover with this way of eating. It is highly recommended to include a calcium-fortified juice or dairy alternative if fish canned with the bones is not a regular part of the diet. Homemade non-dairy milk alternatives often contain very little calcium. The calcium found in the greens that are most common in the United States, tend to be less bioavailable than those found in animal-derived products.
Those following a “primal” diet plan should consider adding plain dairy yogurt daily. If a person is lactose intolerant, they may still be able to digest yogurt, kefir, aged hard cheese, and lactose-free dairy milk comfortably.
Final Thoughts On Paleo Diet Review
In summary, a well-constructed Paleo diet can provide for all of your essential nutrient needs. It also takes care of other dietary components that are not essential but thought to be beneficial. Besides, the elimination of ultra-processed foods and focus on whole and minimally processed foods can lead to an eating pattern that offers high dietary quality and promotes healthy weight management.
If you are having trouble formulating a well-planned Paleo diet, consider consulting with a registered dietitian to help you get the most from this eating pattern. A dietitian can help you to explore your reasons for adopting this way of eating and strategize the best ways to meet your needs and health goals.
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.