My health advice for new patients almost always starts with dietary improvements. And while there are lots of good, healthy diets you can follow, I recommend the Paleo diet the most often.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet mimics what our ancestors ate during the stone age or Paleolithic era. During this time, humans were not yet growing agricultural crops.
The basic idea behind the Paleo diet is our digestive systems have not evolved much since Paleolithic times and that a stone-age diet is more biologically appropriate for humans and, therefore, better for our health.
The Paleo diet restricts processed foods and encourages you to eat a wide variety of healthy, whole foods.
The Paleo Diet Checks Off Four Key Diet Principles
There are four important principles when it comes to healthy eating, and the Paleo diet can help with all of them. The four principles are:
Eat to control inflammation.
Eat to control and balance blood sugar.
Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics.
Identify your food allergies and intolerances.
Let’s take a closer look at the Paleo diet’s benefits.
The paleo diet helps to calm inflammation by minimizing your exposure to foods that provoke an immune response. [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source,8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source] These include sugars, unhealthy fats, chemical additives, and common problem foods like dairy, gluten, and soy.
Staying off the blood sugar roller coaster is really important for maintaining a healthy metabolism, keeping your energy steady, reducing stress and sleeping better. And of course, it also prevents type 2 diabetes.
The Paleo Diet May Reduces Carbs and Increase Prebiotics
The amount of dietary carbohydrates you need to fuel your body is highly individual. Some will do better with less, and some will do better with more.
Prebiotics are the fibers that feed gut bacteria. While feeding your gut bugs can be a good idea, this is not true for everyone. Prebiotics feed both good and bad bacteria and may cause symptoms to flare up in people with gut imbalances.
If you currently eat a standard American diet, the Paleo diet will reduce your carb intake and increase your prebiotic intake. This is a great opportunity to find out if you do better on a lower carb, higher prebiotic diet.
The Paleo Diet Eliminates Common Problem Foods
Food allergies and food intolerances are also highly individual. To have a healthy diet, we must each identify our specific problem food issues.
This principle is closely linked to the principle of eating to control inflammation. Identifying and avoiding your own problem foods is an important part of preventing inflammation.
Food allergies, like a peanut allergy, are usually fairly obvious, as the immune response tends to be immediate and strong. Food intolerances can be much trickier to identify because the reaction may be delayed and symptoms can be a bit vague. Examples of symptoms can include brain fog, fatigue, and irritability.
With the Paleo diet, you don’t eat problematic foods like gluten grains, dairy, and soy. You also eliminate the chemicals and preservatives found in processed foods.
Many of my patients experience a significant reduction in symptoms after a few weeks on the Paleo diet. By reducing the burden of symptoms, it becomes much easier to identify your problem foods through a process of trial and error, over time.
What the Research Shows About the Paleo Diet
There’s certainly more anecdotal data about the health benefits of the Paleo diet than research. The few studies conducted were small and mostly focused on patients with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Here’s a quick summary of what the research tells us so far.
However, in the only longer-term study available, post-menopausal women lost more weight than other dieters after six months, but by 24 months, weight loss results were similar for both groups. [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Research suggests that the Paleo diet is effective for controlling the markers of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These conditions increase your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Here’s what we found during our research:
Cholesterol: The Paleo diet was more effective for reducing triglycerides and improving HDL cholesterol compared to other diets. [19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Blood pressure: The Paleo diet was more effective for reducing blood pressure, although the difference here was small. [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Critics of the so-called “caveman diet” suggest that it is too high in saturated fats and too low in calcium and vitamin D.
This may be true if you approach the Paleo diet narrowly. For example, many modern Paleo dieters rely heavily on grass-fed beef as a protein source. But keep in mind there were many different hunter-gatherer cultures worldwide and the hunter-gatherer diet was incredibly diverse.
Hunter-gatherers closest to the equator ate more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods.
Further north, the percentage of animal-based food in the hunter-gatherer diet increases.
However, for most northern hunter-gatherer groups, fish was a more important protein source than game.
So, one tip for the Paleo diet is to include a lot of fish and seafood in your diet. This will lower the saturated fat and increase fatty acids and vitamin D. Also, adding leafy greens like kale, [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source] nuts, and seeds will make up for the lack of dairy in your diet.
Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?
There’s no such thing as one magic diet that works for everyone.
The Paleo diet works because it focuses on healthy, whole foods and reduces the number of problem foods that typically cause inflammation and immune reactions.
The best way to find out if the Paleo diet works for you is to try it for 2-3 weeks. If you feel better after that period of time, you’ll be motivated to keep going. If it makes no difference in how you feel, then there is no need to continue.
What to Eat on the Paleo Diet
Here is a simple overview:
What to eat:
Fresh fruits (in moderation)
Grass-fed, lean meats
Fresh fish and eggs
Healthy fats, like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and avocados
Nuts and seeds
What not to eat:
Beans, legumes, and lentils
Most vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, vegetable oil)
There are a few grey areas regarding the Paleo diet. Some people avoid starchy veggies like sweet potatoes. Others stay away from whole grains but may include a little white rice. Organic is always good, but it’s expensive. Buy what you can afford.
Like any healthful diet, it doesn’t pay to obsess about every morsel. Follow the basic guidelines of the diet plan, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to adhere to a perfect Paleo eating plan.
Keep it simple to start. Develop a simple food list and stick to a basic menu plan. This is not the time to try a lot of new or fancy recipes. Once you are comfortable with your dietary changes and know the diet works for you, find a good cookbook and start to expand your menu options.
Stay close to the Paleo diet guidelines at first, and then adapt slowly to suit your needs. A lot of my patients continue to eat Paleo but may add back rice or some high-fat dairy and still feel fine. If there is a food you really miss, try adding it back and see how you feel.
If You’re Not Getting Enough Carbs
Some people don’t do well on a low-carb diet. If you are losing too much weight or feel weak and fatigued, try adding back more carbs while sticking to the basic paleo template. White rice and starchy vegetables are a good place to start.
The Paleo diet is quite flexible and doesn’t have to follow a high-protein, low-carb formula.
If You Want More Gut Support
A healthy diet is always the first step in improving your gut health and overall health. The next step is taking probiotics. Diet and probiotics are the first two steps in the Great-in-8 plan, as described in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
If You Don’t See Enough Improvement
If you have tried the Paleo diet for a few weeks and don’t see enough symptom improvement, there are a couple of different approaches you can take.
Autoimmune Paleo diet: This is a more restrictive version of the Paleo diet that removes some of the less common food allergens. For some people, this is the missing piece. Remember, fewer allergens equals less inflammation.
Whalen KA, McCullough ML, Flanders WD, Hartman TJ, Judd S, Bostick RM. Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Balance in Adults. J Nutr. 2016;146(6):1217-1226. doi:10.3945/jn.115.224048 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
Nistal E, Caminero A, Herrán AR, et al. Differences of small intestinal bacteria populations in adults and children with/without celiac disease: effect of age, gluten diet, and disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2012;18(4):649-656. doi:10.1002/ibd.21830 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
Hakansson A, Molin G. Gut microbiota and inflammation. Nutrients. 2011;3(6):637-682. doi:10.3390/nu3060637
Lobionda S, Sittipo P, Kwon HY, Lee YK. The Role of Gut Microbiota in Intestinal Inflammation with Respect to Diet and Extrinsic Stressors. Microorganisms. 2019;7(8):271. Published 2019 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/microorganisms7080271
Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahrén B, et al. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009;8:35. Published 2009 Jul 16. doi:10.1186/1475-2840-8-35 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
Zahedi MJ, Behrouz V, Azimi M. Low fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols diet versus general dietary advice in patients with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: A randomized controlled trial. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2018;33(6):1192-1199. doi:10.1111/jgh.14051 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
I care about answering your questions and sharing my knowledge with you. Leave a comment or connect with me on social media asking any health question you may have and I just might incorporate it into our next listener questions podcast episode just for you!
Transform your health
Every product is science-based, validated by real-world use, and personally vetted by Dr. Ruscio, DNM, DC.