During the Paleolithic era, [e1] several thousands of years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers and would eat the foods they found in the wild. The types of food they ate could vary depending on season and geographical area, but their diet most certainly did not consist of industrially processed food which is so readily available today[e2].
Processed foods[e3], like sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats rich in salt and junk food are linked with obesity[e4], which in turn are risk factors for type 2 diabetes [e5] and cardiovascular problems[e6]. On the contrary, a healthy diet [e7] filled with vegetables, fruits, fish and nuts are associated with health benefits, such as weight maintenance, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to consider how human health would be affected if industrially processed foods were eliminated from the modern day diet and only whole foods, like those from the Paleolithic era, were consumed.
Thus, the Paleolithic diet, shortened to the Paleo diet, has become increasingly popular in recent years and this article aims to explain its concept.
As previously stated, the origin of the Paleo diet derives from the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age, which is why it can sometimes be referred to as the Stone Age diet. Experts have constructed a hypothesis that human evolution stopped at the same time as the Paleolithic era ended, approximately 10 000 years ago, and therefore conclude that human genetics are better suited to the diet relevant at that time, compared to the modern diet of today.
In this day and age, a large part of the foods we consume have been industrially processed, meaning whole foods go through a process by which modern day methods are used to generate food products, often involving the addition of preservatives and artificial sweeteners to make foods tastier, easier to transport and more durable. Unfortunately, the processing of foods, for example items like sausages, bacon, cookies, ice cream, canned foods, soft drinks and junk food often result in lower nutritional value and higher calorie content.
On the flip side, a Paleo diet is optimal for human health. The set-up and macronutrients of the diet can vary, however the most important factor revolves around consuming foods in their natural state.
Foods to include when following a Paleo diet should be unprocessed, such as vegetables and root vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, seafood, meat, olive oil, walnut oil and flaxseed oil, to name a few.
Olive, walnut and flaxseed oil are healthy fat sources, with a high content of unsaturated fats, including omega-3 and omega-6. Vegetables and fruits should be a substantial part of the Paleo diet which provide colorful foods packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Furthermore, fruits and vegetables are complex carbohydrates with high amounts of dietary fiber. Eating a diet rich in fiber lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Complex carbohydrates, in comparison with fast carbohydrates, allow for reduced blood sugar leading to a reduction of insulin release after meals. This helps to keep blood sugar levels stable between meals and is also beneficial for blood lipid levels. Additionally, there is clear evidence to suggest complex carbohydrates make it easier to maintain a healthy body weight.
Another aspect of the Paleo diet is seasonal eating, which means eating foods according to when they are grown in the year. In this case, the distribution of macronutrients of the diet may differ, depending on the season.
During spring, carrot, leek, spinach and asparagus are some of the vegetables suited for the Paleo diet. In the summertime, berries, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes may be included, while broccoli, cabbage, apples, mushroom and pumpkin are better suited for the fall. During winter, coarse vegetables are in season and foods such as cauliflower, kale, onions and citrus, if you live in places like Florida, Texas or Arizona, may also be included.
Additionally, freezing fruits, vegetables and berries when they are in season, allows them to be enjoyed all year round.
Foods to exclude from the Paleo diet are those considered non-existent during the Paleolithic era. This includes dairy products, cereal grains such as, wheat, rye, rice and barley, sugary soft drinks, fruit juices, beans, peanuts, processed meats e.g. bacon and hot dogs, artificial sweeteners and other highly processed foods. Since the Paleo diet is free from lactose and gluten, it is particularly suitable for people with allergies.
Seasoning of Paleo food should be done with natural spices, like herbs, garlic, turmeric, ginger and chili. Processed food items should be avoided, including table salt. If salt is preferred, himalaya salt or sea salt should be used. However, more than 70 countries including the United States, Canada and European countries have salt iodization programs, partly due to poor iodine[e8] concentrations in soils. Therefore, if you live in a country with a generally low iodine intake, it can be beneficial to eat more foods rich in iodine when cutting out table salt. Fish, seafood and eggs are good iodine sources included in a Paleo diet.
Research conducted on the Paleo diet often shows associations with increased satisfaction of feeling full, body weight improvements and waist circumference, better lipid profiles and healthier blood pressure.
Transitioning to a Paleo diet, comprising less processed foods and sugary soft drinks, as well as more fruits and vegetables, will result in the consumption of less saturated fats, salt, calories and more intake of fiber. While the lower number of calories consumed will likely result in weight loss, the higher intake of fiber will enable increased satisfaction of feeling fuller for longer.
Published studies on Paleo are mostly related to following the diet short-term and additional research is required to confirm health effects of maintaining the diet for a longer period of time.
Written by Ellinor Nilsson
Juul F, Hemmingsson E. Trends in consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity in Sweden between 1960 and 2010. Public Health Nutr. 2015 Dec;18(17):3096-107.
Lindeberg S. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of Western disease. Am J Hum Biol. 2012 Mar-Apr;24(2):110-5.
Pitt CE. Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Aust Fam Physician. 2016;45(1):35–8.
Mayo Clinic. Paleo diet: What is it and why is it so popular? [Internet]. Mayo Clinic; 2017. [cited 2019 Dec 9]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/paleo-diet/art-20111182
Nordic Council of Ministers. Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012 [Internet]. Vol. 5. Nordic Council of Ministers; 2014. Available from: http://www.oapen.org/download/?type=document&docid=483279
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2015. Available from: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
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